Ask an average classical music connoisseur what they know about the scene in Colorado and they will likely come up with two prominent things: the Aspen Music Festival and School and the Boulder-based Takács Quartet.
The summer Music Festival season opened Thursday night and runs through Aug. 18, which includes more than 300 concerts and events. Among its early highlights are two performances by Takács.
Formed in Hungary in 1975, Takács made its North American debut in 1982 and later settled in Boulder. The acclaimed quartet was awarded the Hungary’s Order of Merit of the Knight’s Cross in 2001. Fifteen years ago, Takács recorded all six of the legendary Hungarian composer Bela Bartok’s quartet compositions. They will play all of them this year at the Music Festival.
Music Festival CEO Alan Fletcher compares the highly anticipated Takács performances to the presentation two years ago, when the festival hosted performances of all of Beethoven’s quartets.
“People who made the commitment to see them all found it was really worth it,” says Fletcher.
Written between 1908 and 1939, the Bartok quartets offer a survey of the influential composer’s career, and the evolution of modern classical music.
“Playing all six quartets, we get to see how he developed,” says Takács violist Geraldine Walther. “We hope to give a snapshot of this man’s psyche and the mysterious workings of his mind. We’re really excited to present these pieces.”
The Bartok recitals highlight this summer’s festival focus on how composers are influenced by their societies. Bartok is often credited as the first ethnomusicologist. He scoured his homeland collecting folk music styles and traditions throughout the early 20th century, then integrated them into his work.
“He synthesizes the modern with the folk song,” says Fletcher.
Beginning with the 3rd quartet, Bartok began infusing his compositions with those folk sounds — a groundbreaking project.
“It’s very angular,” Walther said of the 3rd. “It’s like looking at a Picasso. It’s very abstract. Then all of a sudden you’ll hear this beautiful folk melody running through that just ties everything together.”
The Bartok performances are July 2 and 9.
In the 1970s, Takács worked with violist and New Hungarian Quartet member Denes Koromzay, who had worked with Bartok himself before his death in 1945. Their collaboration offered a passing-of-the-torch moment for Bartok interpretation.
“It’s in their blood,” says Walther, an American who joined Takács in 2005.
In between performances, Takács will be working with Music Festival students and attending master classes, says Walther. As frequent Music Festival performers and adopted Coloradoans, Aspen is a second home for the acclaimed Takács.
“We feel like we’re the home quartet here,” says Walther.
The 2013 season theme, “Conscience and Beauty,” is focused on the idea that classical music is shaped by the age in which it is created, the politics of its composer’s home and a litany of societal factors. Fletcher says he and his team began looking at the role of a composer in society as they discussed how to commemorate the 100th birthday of the English composer and pianist Benjamin Britten.
Britten’s work is a centerpiece of the summer lineup. In all, 25 Britten works are on the docket this summer. Among the most anticipated is the opera “Peter Grimes,” to be staged in the Benedict Music Tent on July 27 with Robert Spano conducting and a Metropolitan Opera cast.
“If you said, ‘I can only go to one Benjamin Britten thing,’ that’s what I would pick,” says Fletcher.
Britten was awarded the Aspen Award in Humanities in 1964, and used the occasion of his acceptance to argue that classical music cannot exist in a vacuum — a sentiment that resonates through this summer’s themed concerts.
“Almost every piece I have ever written has been composed with a certain occasion in mind,” Britten said at the Aspen ceremony. “And usually for definite performers, and certainly always human ones.”
The theme is highlighted in performances of pieces by Shostakovich, Mahler, Debussy, Bernstein, Beethoven and Bartok.
The summer also will include helpings of orchestral performances of Berlioz, Dvorak, Mendelssohn, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Schubert, Schumann, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky and other audience favorites.
This Sunday’s opening concert by the Aspen Festival Orchestra includes Britten’s “Four Seas Interludes,” Esa-Pekka Salonen’s violin concerto and Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony. It begins at 4 p.m. Sunday in the Benedict Music Tent.
Clear your Sunday afternoons to take in the symphony in the tent — or on the lawn, picnic-style — for the next eight weeks.
Additional highlights this summer include American operatic mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, performing July 23.
“She is going to be one of the most important American singers in the next decade,” says Fletcher.
The festival just announced that two-time Grammy Award winner and regional Emmy Award winner Sylvia McNair will give an American cabaret performance on Aug. 5, covering Gershwin, Sondheim and more.
On Aug. 13, celebrating the 20th anniversary of Harris Hall, the festival is staging a re-creation of the opening 1993 concert there, led by violinist Robert McDuffie.
Also making his Aspen debut is Daniil Trifonov, a 22-year-old Russian pianist who has won multiple international prizes, and plays with the Aspen Chamber Symphony in the Benedict Music Tent on Aug. 16.
“We think he is going to be one of the greatest pianists in the next generation and people should come out and see him now,” says Fletcher.
The Aspen Opera Theater Center lineup of operas includes Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” (July 11, 13, 15), Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi” (Aug. 1, 3 5) and Monteverdi’s “L’incoronazione di Poppea” (Aug. 15, 17).
Other high points include: a collaboration with Jazz Aspen Snowmass, bringing Pink Martini to the tent on July 6; Gil Shaham returning to perform all of Bach’s solo Sonatas and Partitas in one show on July 24; and a Wagner and Verdi bicentennial celebration featuring Grammy-winning bass-baritone Eric Owens and soprano Heidi Melton on Aug. 18.
Read Fletcher’s weekly column, “The Score,” in Time Out for festival tips all summer and this week on page 9.
The full schedule is online at www.aspenmusicfestival.com