Aspen Festival CEO Alan Fletcher on “Being American”

By Laurence Vittes

The Aspen Music Festival and School’s eight-week, 400-event summer season for 2019 is exploring questions of American identity by including 28 orchestral works and concertos, 27 chamber-music works, and two operas related to America. The festival’s theme this year is “Being American.”

String players will be excited to hear that Nicola Benedetti will play Wynton Marsalis’ Violin Concerto, Alisa Weilerstein will play Barber’s Cello Concerto, and Darrett Adkins will play Stephen Hartke’s Da pacem, described as “a serene and reflective cello concerto grappling with modern America.” 

Chamber-music offerings include performances by the American Quartet (Dvorak, Franck, and Vivian Fung); the Pacifica (Shostakovich, Beethoven, and Pulitzer-Prize winner George Walker); the Escher (Mozart, Ives, and Schubert D. 887). The Emerson Quartet and Renée Fleming will perform André Previn’s last work, a 40-minute monodrama about Homer’s Penelope, a week after its world premiere at Tanglewood. Jay Campbell will play solo cello music by Matthias Pintscher, Carter, Liza Lim, Pauline Oliveros, Tristan Perich and a guy named Bach.

Aspen’s president and CEO Alan Fletcher is a composer himself; his 40-minute long If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, based upon a novel by Italo Calvino, will be sandwiched between Beethoven and Brahms on the Aspen Chamber Symphony’s August 16 concert. I asked him about theme and identity.

How did you settle on “Being American” as a theme? 

As we approached our 70th-anniversary season, we hoped to celebrate the role the Aspen Music Festival and School has played in developing classical-music culture in America. It meant exploring a question asked throughout the history of music in America: What makes, or should make, or could make, music sound American? When we asked our faculty and guest artists and conductors to contribute their thoughts, the result was an avalanche of proposals and ideas. The enthusiasm was unsurpassed. Thus, the theme “Being American” introduces an inquiry into all the ways music might sound American. 

Where did you take your musical leads?

We were inspired by Dvorak who, during and after his brief but consequential experiment into “being American,” advised that the music of Native American and African-American people should be a cornerstone. His own American Quartet, and New World Symphony exemplify the approach he thought we should follow, and both works are on the season.


We have programed composers from the early years of the festival including Copland, Stravinsky, Milhaud, Messiaen, and Elliott Carter. Wynton Marsalis’ violin concerto and works of Ellington. And from the wave of immigration from Eastern Europe and Russia around the turn of the 20th—including the families of Copland, Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Leonard Bernstein, and many other major American musical figures—a merger of klezmer with existing American forms like ragtime which led to Tin Pan Alley and, eventually, the Great American Songbook

As the Tin Pan Alley tradition also flowed into the music of Broadway, it became a different, truly American genre. We have Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, an evening of cabaret song, and other instances of this tradition.

There’s also a strong representation of political refugees.

A different wave brought musicians fleeing from Fascism and other totalitarian regimes. Among them were some of the greatest figures of the 20th century: Kurt Weill, Bartok, Hindemith, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Rachmaninoff, and figures destined to revolutionize the role of music in world culture like Bernard Herrmann, Max Steiner, and Erich Korngold. While one doesn’t think of many of these as “American”—their musical importance and styles were well established and understood before their emigration—they certainly contributed immeasurably to the culture of music here, and they influenced future generations of Americans.

Composers from the Boulangerie?

When Copland embarked on his enduring endeavor to create an American sound, he was encouraged by the incomparable pedagogue Nadia Boulanger. We have his Symphony No. 3, Rodeo, Appalachian Spring, Piano Variations, the Emily Dickinson Songs, El Salón México, selections from The Tender Land, and Fanfare for the Common Man.

Alongside Copland were composers like Roy Harris, David Diamond, Gian Carlo Menotti, and Samuel Barber, some of them also Boulanger students, all writing in a generalized classical style that they believed was American. We will have all three Barber concertos, for violin, cello, and piano.


And what about the American mavericks?

We will have some of these, too. It’s interesting, when I travel around the world and speak with composer colleagues about American music, I find a preferential interest in the composers who wished to create music unlike anything already existing. Lou Harrison, Harry Partch, Henry Cowell, Ruth Crawford, Pauline Oliveros, Meredith Monk, and, perhaps above all, Charles Ives and John Cage are examples of this anti-traditional tradition.

Is there some unifying “American” identification to this diversity?

A theme running through all of the above is the importance of immigrants in the creation and definition of American music culture. Scotch and Irish immigrants in Appalachia create The Sacred Harp, which becomes a part of the spiritual and gospel tradition. African Americans are at the center of spirituals, ragtime, jazz, gospel, rhythm and blues, and hip-hop. German and Scandinavian immigrants taking part in the first expansion into the Midwest and Upper Midwest founded cities with the motto, “A church, a brewery, and an orchestra!” The civic symphonies of Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, Toledo, Chicago, St. Louis, Minneapolis, and many other places are the result.

We’ve already seen the role of Eastern European and Russian people, many of them Jewish, who brought tremendous creativity and inspired devotion to music. More recently, the importance of classical-music culture in Asia, and to people coming to America from Asia, has revitalized and transformed American musical culture.


And today, young American classical composers celebrate influences literally from every world music culture.

What do you expect your audiences to experience through this theme of “Being American”? 

There is a debate in the United States at the moment around what being American means, in terms of both values and identity. It is a debate that never goes away but it has never been louder than now. Do we as a nation have a definitive answer? I’m not sure we even all agree on the question. But it is exactly in these times that music can provide a space for reflection, for bringing us all together. 

Dvorak clearly had his notions of what being American meant, Barber had his. Edgar Meyer, whose new piece for orchestra we shall present, has spent his whole musical life suffused in indigenous American musics, while younger composers like Gabriela Lena Frank and Korean-born Nicky Sohn have their own ideas about what it means to be American. 

Music is not prescriptive—it will tell nobody what to feel about being American, but it might show us, remind us, how to feel.