See & Hear

The Aspen Music Festival Aims for a Resounding Season

After an unprecedented hiatus last summer, one of town’s most beloved institutions welcomes audiences in person with innovative programming.

By Courtney Holden July 5, 2021 Published in the Summer/Fall 2021 issue of Aspen Sojourner

Conductor Roderick Cox will appear at AMFS this summer.

To say that the Aspen Music Festival and School (AMFS) is excited about its professional and student musicians returning to the stage this summer, and about music lovers returning to the audience (albeit in limited numbers), would be an understatement. “It’s overwhelming to even think about,” says Alan Fletcher, AMFS president and CEO.

This summer, AMFS recreates the themes originally slated for last year: Beethoven’s Revolution (an ode to the legend’s 250th birthday) and Uncommon Women of Note, a nod to the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. The festival opens July 1 and will include nearly 150 in-person events over the course of 52 days.

Honoring Beethoven’s birthday last year was expected—“practically every classical organization on the planet was doing something,” Fletcher says with a laugh—but while most other groups serialized his work, AMFS has selected a collection of highlights, among them Symphonies Nos. 4, 5, 6, and 8; Piano Concertos Nos. 1, 3, and 5; violin and cello sonatas; and the Diabelli Variations. The works will be performed by smaller-than-normal groups due to on-stage social distancing requirements, but that allows the pieces to be performed “exactly as Beethoven would have wished,” Fletcher says, given that the music was primarily written for smaller orchestras.

As a foil to the Beethoven theme, Uncommon Women of Note explores ambition, desire, and identity through the female lens. Look for Maria Schneider’s “Winter Morning Walks,” Libby Larsen’s Jazz Variations, Galina Ustvolskaya’s Piano Sonata No. 4, and others on programs throughout the summer. “Celebrating the role of women over the past 100 years seemed like a really good counterpart to say, ‘And [Beethoven’s] not all there is,’’’ Fletcher says. “All of these women have been working, and they’re heroes, too.”

Celebrating Philanthropist Joan Harris and Other Women

“An Uncommon Feast for Uncommon Women,” as this year’s annual fundraising event is themed, will showcase a collection of female composers and performers while also honoring Joan Harris, a longtime AMFS supporter and former member of the AMFS board of trustees, who remains an honorary trustee today. Harris, along with her late husband, Irving, provided funding for the Harris Concert Hall and the Benedict Music Tent, two of the festival’s primary performance spaces. A gift from the couple in 1996 established a scholarship fund for minority students, and another in 2001 helped to endow the AMFS mentoring program. Clearly, Harris has lived by her credo that “in the world of philanthropy, the most fun you can have is giving and, in that giving, make a difference.” August 16, Hotel Jerome

In a similar vein, the 2021 season will be the first to intentionally emphasize works by composers who identify as AMELIA: African American, Middle Eastern, Latin, Indigenous, and Asian. Though Fletcher notes the decision was not motivated by current events (the musical lineup is the result of three years of research), the past year has underscored the importance of taking a stand on inclusivity. “If all you focus on is the historic achievements of dead, white men, the whole art form becomes a museum,” says Fletcher. “We want to emphasize what is living and vital and for the future.”

Asadour Santourian, AMFS vice president for artistic administration and artistic advisor, notes that 75 percent of this summer’s programming will encompass AMELIA, either by virtue of work and/or performers. “People will be so surprised to hear some works and will ask, ‘Why haven’t we heard this before?’ and it’s because it’s been unjustly or unjustifiably neglected,” he says. No more. “[AMELIA] is here to stay. It is important that this effort, this thinking, continues forward.”

Soprano Julia Bullock

That expansive cultural thinking also extends to some of the performers making their AMFS debuts, as well as to the teaching programs. Take 19-year-old jazz and classical piano prodigy Matthew Whitaker, who will bring his improvisational genius to the stage in the first concert of the season. Or classical singer Julia Bullock, whose highly curated repertoire communicates a deeply personal perspective. And there’s cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who won the BBC Young Musician award in 2016 and was launched to fame after playing at the 2018 royal wedding. (He told the Guardian that Bob Marley is a staple on his playlist when he’s not listening to classical music.) Meanwhile, a reimagined opera program run by Renée Fleming and Patrick Summers will include nonmusical elements, like mindfulness and financial counseling, as well as the more expected training on staged performances and vocal technique.

In one of the more creative performance twists, AMFS also debuts Music on the Go, a series of three dozen free, short concerts in parks and other outdoor locations from Aspen to Glenwood Springs; musicians play from a truck that opens up into a mini-stage, lights and all.

Though mostly planned pre-pandemic, these outside-the-box innovations seem especially fitting for 2021, as something approaching “normal” life, and AMFS along with it, resurfaces once more. At the Benedict Music Tent, it’s sure to be an emotional homecoming. “[With live performances,] it’s not just about you, and it’s also not just about the brilliant performers,” Fletcher says. “It’s about what happens together.”

Listen Up!

As wonderful as it is to welcome back live AMFS performances, concertgoers may encounter some differences this summer to minimize Covid risks. We highlight a few key ones here that were in place as we went to press in early June; for a complete update of safety protocols, which will change as the season progresses, go to

  • Mask requirements inside the Benedict Music Tent and other venues will follow the public health guidance at the time and will be communicated before events.
  • Seating on the lawn outside the Music Tent is limited to socially distant pods.
  • Concert venues will have separate vaccinated and socially distanced seating areas. Vaccinated guests (who may need to provide a one-time proof of vaccination for the season) may also choose to sit in the socially distant section.
  • All concerts will run 60 to 90 minutes, with no intermission.
  • The Music Tent’s louvred walls will be open continuously, no matter what the weather, so bring sweaters and jackets.
  • Food and drink will not be sold outside the Music Tent.
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