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Artist of Note

For the world’s best young classical musicians, Robert Spano helps the Aspen Music Festival and School deliver the consummate education.

For his debut concert as music director in 2012, Robert Spano conducted an evening of music by George Gershwin. Young pianist Conrad Tao performed Gershwin’s “Second Rhapsody.”

As Robert Spano conducts his third season in the role of music director, and Alan Fletcher takes care of business in his ninth year as CEO, the Aspen Music Festival and School is thriving, with turmoil over personnel and the need to rehab shabby school buildings no longer a concern.

At its heart, the festival, the town’s summer centerpiece, features classical music concerts in the Benedict Music Tent and at Harris Concert Hall, and opera at the Wheeler Opera House. Yet they are only a part of the multimillion-dollar sonic environment that the “and School” phrase reflects.

Musically, the festival reflects the sunny yet determined disposition of Maestro Spano, an unabashed supporter of the music of living composers who is also the musical director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Alongside Fletcher, he has steered a course of programming adventurous contemporary music with plenty of Beethoven/Brahms/Stravinsky repertory staples for ballast. Loyal concertgoers seem willing to follow in their wake.

Fletcher says Aspen is “fortunate” to have “a wonderful audience” for classical music. Ticket sales are brisk, and “fundraising is way ahead—so we’re fully past the recession in terms of our financial picture.”

Since the 1950s, the experience of studying and playing in Aspen has helped to mold some of the greatest musicians of their generation, including such superstars as violinists Joshua Bell and Sarah Chang, both of whom are on the 2014 schedule. The list is topped by James Levine, the revered conductor of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, who is scheduled to return this summer to be the guest of honor at the July 21 benefit dinner.

When asked to assign a letter grade to his first two full seasons as music director, Spano says, “For 2013, A-plus,” citing the opening last July of the lovely new Matthew and Carolyn Bucksbaum Campus for the Aspen Music School on 38 acres off of Castle Creek Road. The new buildings “are wonderful, but they’re also symbolic, and they’re also highly comfortable,” he says. “What we were able to accomplish in those new rehearsal spaces was markedly improved.”

As for the concert season, he jokes about the mixed reaction last summer to some 25 separate Benjamin Britten pieces programmed in honor of the composer’s centenary year. Some Aspenites were threatening “to wear T-shirts saying ‘I survived Britten,’ so I don’t think they would give us an A-plus for that,” Spano chuckles.

The 2014 theme of The New Romantics should please most listeners. However, Spano says it is important to continually assess what the festival must do and to realize how different it is from leading a resident professional orchestra year-round. Instead, Aspen has several orchestras in which student players, conductors and performers are trained alongside visiting pros from orchestras around the United States. This “whole pedagogical aspect” is, as Spano sees it, “a huge and important consideration” that does not exist in Atlanta.

Unlike previous music directors, Spano works with all the orchestras, from the Sunday band featuring faculty members from the world’s greatest orchestras, to the Friday group with professionals side by side with students, to the Wednesday one made up entirely of students. Beyond orchestra work, his educational role covers piano students, a composition program, chamber music, private lessons, recitals and opera. With Fletcher’s wholehearted approval, Spano has revamped the school’s composition program and its American Academy of Conducting.

“He is a born teacher,” says Fletcher. “We already felt that the school is the heart of the organization. With Robert Spano that has grown exponentially. We are very focused on having the most exciting young talent come from all over the world and then giving them a really great experience.”

One such talent is Conrad Tao, a 20-year-old pianist who will give a recital in Harris Hall Aug. 16. A Music Festival student when he was younger, Tao last year was a featured performer on the festival’s opening night. “Working with Robert Spano was great,” says Tao. “He’s a generous and extremely intelligent musician. It was really exciting for me because I had grown up hearing his various world-premiere recordings with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and I always love working with people committed to commissioning and showcasing new work.”

Since Spano himself is a composer, the new composition program, now in its second summer, is close to the music director’s heart. It offers students a chance “outside of their normal academic experience,” he says, to hear their music played professionally. Pulitzer Prize-winner Steven Stucky is one of those in charge of the composition program, which, Spano says, is in a sense “more of a big master class.” Now fewer students are accepted to the program, so that each one gets more attention. Plus, there are more visits by top-flight composers. “Already last summer we had a wonderful list of composers who came to work with the students,” Spano notes. This summer should be equally exciting, as Stucky is joined by Brett Dean, Sydney Hodkinson, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Christopher Theofanidis and George Tsontakis.

Spano has created a unique plan for student conductors as well. His personal involvement can be seen each week when he focuses intently from a perch in the upper tent seats while the dozen or so young people from eight countries take the podium during the free Tuesday tent concerts.

Each year Spano chooses them after watching some 200 digital videos submitted by hopefuls from all over the world. And that’s only the start, he says, because “video lies.” He really takes their measure “when we get to be in the same room. That’s always an exciting moment, and it’s also a little scary too,” he adds, giggling. “It’s not entirely that sort of competitive lens, but more of ‘who’s right to benefit from the opportunity we provide,’ which is pretty spectacular.”

The essence of the conducting program? “They just really get to conduct a lot,” says Spano. He is especially pleased that the student conductors develop a camaraderie and push one another to excel.

As for opera, this summer features The Picture of Dorian Gray (July 24 and 26) by Lowell Liebermann, a composer of some of the most frequently performed contemporary vocal pieces (and a classmate of Fletcher’s at Juilliard).

Already on the bill for 2015: The Classical Style, the highly anticipated comic opera with music by Stucky and libretto by pianist Jeremy Denk. Spano, who conducted the world premiere in June in California, bubbles with enthusiasm about it: “We open in heaven, where Beethoven and Mozart are playing Scrabble,” he says, grinning at the prospect of a great show.

The new opera is perfect for students, says Spano, which means it’s perfect for Aspen. “Young people onstage are what really matter,” says Fletcher. “They’re the future of music.”

The Aspen Music Festival and School offers dozens of events from now to the end of its season. A few of our selects:

July 21: The Great Flood. A quartet led by jazz guitarist and composer Bill Frisell accompanies multimedia artist Bill Morrison’s elegiac silent documentary about the devastation of the 1927 Mississippi River flood. Presented with Aspen Film. 8PM, $40, Harris Concert Hall

July 24: The Best of Rufus Wainwright. The singer-songwriter-composer performs an array of favorites, including duets with Metropolitan Opera soprano Deborah Voigt. 8PM, $50, Harris Concert Hall

Aug. 3: Aspen Festival Orchestra. The program features Roberto Sierra’s “Fandangos,” Chopin’s “Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor” and Richard Strauss’ “Alpine Symphony,” with conductor Leonard Slatkin and pianist Garrick Ohlsson. 4PM, $78, Benedict Music Tent

Aug. 12: Opera Gala. The benefit evening begins with cocktails and dinner at the Caribou Club, then a performance of Carmen at the Wheeler Opera House. 5PM, $100 to $1,000

Aug. 17: Aspen Festival Orchestra. The season closes with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, with four vocalists, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra Chorus and Robert Spano conducting. It’s sure to be a rousing performance. 4PM, $85, Benedict Music Tent

For tickets and venue locations, –Cindy Hirschfeld