US music school to revive French ties

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Aspen Music Fest devotes its season to Paris

ASPEN, United States, July 22, (AFP): The music teachers spending the summer in the mountain air of Aspen can tell you all about that most famous instructor of them all, Nadia Boulanger, the Parisian whose roster of pupils reads like a historical list of 20th-century composers.

But while the Aspen Music Festival and School, long a premier training ground for US classical musicians, now draws artists through tie-ups with conservatories around the world, it has little relationship with Paris. And the French repertoire, while still loved by many, has taken a back-seat for the young generation in the United States.

Aspen is on a mission to change that. The festival — which brings 600 students each summer to the posh ski resort in the Colorado Rockies to study and hobnob with top musicians — has devoted its season to Paris, hoping to highlight the musical contributions of the City of Lights but also to revive its influence on US classical music.

“We realized, looking at Paris, how many cities would there be where you have that richness through so many periods?” said composer Alan Fletcher, who is president and CEO of the festival.

“Even Vienna is primarily important in two places. But Paris has been important to the world of music for centuries,” Fletcher said in his office above a crystal-clear stream some 2,400 meters (8,000 feet) above sea level.

As for music in Paris today, “I don’t see there being any decline — there is, though, a decline in the way American musical life responds to Paris.”

The eight-week season takes a broad look at the musical legacy of Paris. Under a wind-swept giant tent, the Aspen Chamber Symphony performed Mozart’s Symphony No. 31, a witty revision of established conventions written by the onetime child prodigy when he returned to Paris in 1778 in a frustrating search for employment.

Aspen musicians are also putting on a range of works by French composers from Ravel’s “La Valse,” his fierce take on waltz form interjected with echoes of World War I’s devastation, to a swath of pieces by Debussy that examine parallels with the Impressionist movement in painting.

Fletcher said that while US audiences are familiar with celebrated works such as Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique,” which will close the festival on Aug 19, more contemporary composers draw blank stares.

If one asked audience members “how much Dutilleux do you know, they would say I have no idea who this person is,” Fletcher said.

“To me as a composer, Dutilleux is absolutely one of the greatest composers of the 20th century and early 21st centuries, and all we need is to show that music to people.”


The festival is also throwing a spotlight on composers who studied under Boulanger, one of history’s most consequential piano instructors.

Students in “La Boulangerie,” as her school came to be known in a pun on the French word for bakery, ranged from Aaron Copland, who popularized an American vernacular style in symphonic music, to leading living US composer Philip Glass to Quincy Jones, the peerless pop producer who worked on some of Michael Jackson’s greatest hits.

Boulanger, who died in 1979, was perhaps best known for her years of detailed advice to Stravinsky. She brought his works around the world as a conductor, often becoming the first woman whom audiences saw with the baton.

Before Boulanger, US musicians looked largely to Germany whose exacting teachers would rigorously enforce the rules of music.

“They adopted the German symphonic sound. The difference with Nadia is that she was much more interested in the individualistic voice of the person rather than their ability to imitate a school,” said Asadour Santourian, the Aspen festival’s vice-president for artistic administration who selected the season’s works.

Santourian said that Paris remained the city that produced “art for art’s sake.”

“In London, of course, there are brilliant composers. But my sense is that in London, or in Berlin, there is new music because someone wants something new — it’s tailored to someone — whereas in Paris they just create it, and it gets performed.”

The fate of Paris in US classical music is tied inextricably to geopolitics. Americans flocked to Boulanger at a time that the world wars made Germany unattractive.

But after the fall of the Third Reich, plenty of German as well as Eastern bloc musicians — many of whom were Jewish — stayed in the United States, where they enjoyed major roles in teaching and the growing field of Hollywood film music.

Boulanger, who had fled to the United States during the German occupation of Paris, returned home. While leading 20th-century French composers Boulez and Messiaen spent time in the United States, French penetration faded in American musical life where, for many orchestras, Mahler towers above all other modern composers with his highly structured symphonies.

Fletcher hoped that the focus on Paris would help shape the mindset of students at Aspen, which has generated an overwhelming number of young conductors rising the ranks of US orchestras.

“For the French, there is much more about mood and color and texture,” he said. “I think it is completely plausible that young American composers will say, we care more about the French way.”

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