Aspen Music Festival And School


Scroll down for full text of Mr. Fletcher's  remarks.

Convocation Speakers
The Aspen Music Festival and School Convocation on Monday, June 27 marked the official beginning of the 2022 season for the 470 music students and 101 artist-faculty in residence this summer.
Alan Fletcher President and CEO
Robert Spano Music Director
Mike Klein AMFS Board Chair
Jennifer White Vice President for School and Festival Operations


Remarks from Alan Fletcher

Good morning and welcome to a summer of beauty and meaning in Aspen.

We are in the ancestral summer home of the Uncompahgre Tribe of the Ute Nation, the Nuche. We honor the stewardship the Nuche have shown for the land, waters, and air in which we have the privilege to live. We strive to learn from the Ute tradition of living in harmony with nature. 

This acknowledgment of our land’s history links for me to our season’s theme: what we talk about when we talk about ourselves. John McPhee wrote a wonderful book about the basketball star, and later U.S. Senator, Bill Bradley. Bradley, as a young player, was famous for astounding accuracy from anywhere on the court. He was sort of the Hilary Hahn of basketball players. While interviewing him, McPhee arranged for them to meet at a local gym sometimes used for professional practice. He asked Bradley to take a position on the court, facing away from the basket, and turn and shoot. Bradley missed. They tried again in a different spot. Again, he missed. After a third time, Bradley muttered, “Something’s not right here.” Later they found that the basket had been lowered a few inches for a different level of competition. Bradley said, “You always need a sense of where you are.”

I think “A sense of where you are” could be an equally good summer theme for us. In his brilliant memoir, “Every Good Boy Does Fine,” Jeremy Denk remembers a summer he spent in Aspen. He tells some great (and some harrowing) musical stories, but the most memorable is about a night when a friend asked him to stand still for a minute and just look up at the stars. Decades later, the moment is still vivid for him. He had been trying so frenetically to succeed and to impress, and then for a minute he just experienced pure beauty, a beauty that is still part of where we are in Aspen.

In her novel “Persuasion,” Jane Austen writes one of my favorite lines: “We do not love a place the less for having suffered in it, unless it has been all suffering, nothing but suffering.” I actually wrote this on a piece of paper and kept it in my pocket all the years I was at Juilliard. There was a lot of suffering. But, indeed, I loved those years, and I love Juilliard, despite much suffering, because it was not all suffering.

It would be a fair question to ask why the process of becoming a musician should involve suffering at all. In Aspen, and I think I can speak for the faculty on stage with me, we aim to support and encourage. And inspire. We don’t want there to be suffering, but sometimes we can’t prevent it. In Ingmar Bergman’s miraculous film “Smiles of a Summer’s Night,” the infinitely wise mother of the protagonist Desiree Armfeldt says this: “One can never protect a single human being from any kind of suffering. That’s what makes one so tremendously weary.”

Returning to Jeremy Denk’s book, it chronicles that a musician engaged in the lifelong process of learning and teaching needs different things from teachers at different times. Almost everyone has an early phase with a wonderful, generous, kind teacher who is deeply encouraging about what one is accomplishing. And, almost always, that teacher brings the student to a point where it’s time to move on, almost always to someone much more demanding and critical. And then, after a period of technique building that might take years, there is often yet another teacher needed, now one who brings this great cycle of learning to a close with an encounter primarily about music itself and not about technique. In a memorable lesson, my Juilliard piano teacher, Jacob Lateiner, practically shouted at me, “I’m not here to teach you how to play the piano!”

Jeremy Denk, who had, and still has, extraordinary gifts, also had many run-ins with teachers who (usually correctly) told him that he wasn’t asking enough of himself, or wasn’t bringing enough to the ineluctable requirements of performance. There were many moments, and even years, of suffering. At some point, most of us internalize this, so we have less of a need for intense criticism – precisely because we provide it to ourselves. When I teach composition classes, I like to tell a story from my work with my doctoral teacher, Roger Sessions. Mr. Sessions would look at whatever I brought in, in a long and terrifying silence, sometimes for twenty or so minutes. In my first year or so, I would just about explode with anxiety, waiting for his always very dry comments finally to begin. But at a certain point, I wasn’t waiting any more. I was also looking at the score, imagining as precisely as possible what he was seeing, rather than what I hoped was there. So, sometimes, after an endless and complete silence, I would simply pull the score off the desk and say, “Yes, I’ll fix that.”

Switching gears for a moment, I learned an important lesson from one of my sisters. She studied music very seriously, and then she went into a career in international politics and economics. Once we were talking about careers, and she said, “You know, sometimes early on a door opens for you, and you walk through it. Then it turns out there was a sort of movement sensor, and another door opens. So, you walk through that other door. And so on, until one day, you say, “How did I get here?” She and I call it the electric door syndrome, and it signifies letting someone else make choices for you. One hope I have for everyone who comes to Aspen is that they make choices for themselves, not made by anyone else, even a teacher, and certainly not choices made by the chances of the profession and the marketplace.

We have the fundamental right to make choices for ourselves.

On the subject of choice, I have a complex, two-part story, so bear with me. The first part is about Shakespeare. When I was in college, some friends and I went into New York to see a production of “Romeo and Juliet” with a well-known company. For some reason I no longer remember, we all thought it was dreadful, and most of us wanted to leave early and get to dinner. But one friend, who was and is one of the most well-read people I know, said, “But we need to stay to see how it comes out!”

Second part of this: Going back to Jeremy Denk (can you tell I truly loved his book?), he has a number of stories about the Franck Sonata. For me, the most wonderful performance of Franck I ever heard, among many, many performances of it I have heard, was given by Jeremy, with Joshua Bell, here in Aspen in Harris Hall. They chose to take the first three movements, and especially the third, to a tremendously dark place. So much so, that at the end of the third movement, I actually thought the music couldn’t continue. As many times as I had heard this piece, I couldn’t envision what was next, and it seemed like nothing could be next. They took a much longer than usual pause, as if acknowledging what a terrible point they had brought us to. Then the last movement began, and the same musical ideas and motifs from before became a hymn of reassurance, of solace, of dedication and beauty. I think I never felt such gratitude for music in my whole life. As I listened to the dazzling finale, I was just saying, “Thank you, thank you” in my soul.

So, back to suffering, and a sense of place, a sense of who you are, and a sense of agency in choosing how you want things to be. In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses, speaking to his people at the end of their forty years in the wilderness, says this: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you may live.”

In the music you make, and in the lives you lead, may you walk through the doors that lead to fulfilment and happiness, and always choose blessing, always choose life.

Robert Spano, Music Director

Alan Fletcher, President and CEO