Last spring, a friend of mine joked I would welcome the incredible density of performances here at Aspen because, without them, I may get bored. In my first week here George Tsontakis quipped, “composers never have a day on”, and – yet – I find myself too busy to keep up with what the Aspen Music Festival has on tap. Because all the playing – student, faculty, guest regardless – is at such a high level, I’m pained to skip out on even the most middle-of-the-road program, but composing is why I’m here. Nevertheless, I’ve been able to skip around and see the recitals and concerts that, above the rest, showcase living composers and other dynamic programs, and here are the highlights of what I’ve heard since my last post.

In the last week, the most noteworthy of these events was Gabriel Kahane’s recital on August 3. As I am sure most of you know, Mr. Kahane was mentioned on New York-based radio station WQXR’s notorious/heavily-discussed “Favorite under 40” list of young composers, and the resultant name-recognition is what drove me to this concert. Honestly, I didn’t have much else to go on because the promotional calendar distributed by the festival only provided a vague description of what the evening would entail. Once onstage, Mr. Kahane even remarked, sarcastically, that the audience was brave because, based on the advertising, he, “could have been a serial killer”. The most prominent posters called him a, “songwriter/entertainer”, and that turned out to be a pretty accurate assessment of what he brought to the stage.

The program began with a series of pop songs from his upcoming CD Where Are the Arms, and then moved in a different direction in the second half with his Craiglist-Lieder and a one-man performance of Robert Schumann’s legendary Dichterliebe. The first group of pop songs was very solid, if not exceptional. I am no expert on the current trends in Indie/Pop music, but, to my ears, his harmonic language seemed uncommonly adventurous and his lyrics were compelling and appropriate to the style…I think. Admittedly, I struggle to delve into these pieces because when I’m not rocking out to contemporary/classical tracks I am head-banging to Megadeth, Slayer and their heavy metal brothers-in-arms. Yet, it was clear to me that Gabriel Kahane is extremely comfortable and capable in his arena of pop/rock both as a performer and songwriter.

Besides the fact that Mr. Kahane’s performance centered more on his performing than composing, my only issue with the evening’s music was the haphazard progression of tone from piece-to-piece. The opening set of pop songs were generally somber and reflective, which would have paired well with the Schumann. Unfortunately, the interdicting Craigslist-Lieder were so raucous and hilarious, they made the Dichterliebe seem lost in the program, particularly as the closing number. The Craiglist-Lieder are  short songs based on advertisements and notices Mr. Kahane found on Craigslist, much akin to the humorous settings of Kanye West’s tweets Josh Groban put together for the Jimmy Kimmel show in January, yet more musically interesting and funnier. I imagine this collection is like the 21st Century version of the over-the-top cabaret music Erik Satie was notorious for at the end of the 1800s, and they were delivered to enormous success. Now, I didn’t mind the following performance of Dichterliebe at all, it was just hard for me to step back and bathe in the genius of those songs after spending 20 minutes carousing with Mr. Kahane through his brilliant and light-hearted ballads on ass-less chaps and neurotic roommates.

It took me five days – this last Monday, for those keeping score – to get to another concert with contemporary music on it, this time a chamber recital with works by Luciano Berio and the Aspen Music Festival President and CEO, Alan Fletcher. Mr. Fletcher came and spoke to the composition students here and I found him extremely endearing and intriguing because he made no apologies for his conservative, neo-Romantic style. I’ve come across other composers who write similar music and insist, “sometimes a composer must be forgiven for wanting to write something beautiful” or – as George Tsontakis pointed out –declare their musical style rebels against an ineffable, evil force in contemporary music, one which George doesn’t believe exists…anymore. To this end, Mr. Fletcher’s perspective on compositional style was very refreshing, and the piece he shared with us – his Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra – was an extremely skillful and impressive showcase of an instrument that can easily struggle in a concerto setting.

The piece of his featured on Monday’s recital, the 2004 work Study: Woman Holding a Balance for violin and piano, didn’t come off as successfully to my ears. Where the flaw lay notwithstanding, I wasn’t grabbed by the violin lines and couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed after experiencing Mr. Fletcher so ably and compellingly handle the challenge of a bassoon concerto. Joining Study: Woman Holding a Balance Monday evening were 10 excerpts from Luciano Berio’s 34 Duets (1979-1983), and pieces by Nino Rota and Beethoven. Just prior to the performance, Violinist Espen Lilleslåtter compared Duets to a similar set by Bela Bartok, and explained that Berio wrote the pieces to play with his violin students. Given their pedagogical tone, I think a more apt musical analogue is the Mikrokosmos, and the Duets correspondingly came short of representing the flashy drama I love in Berio’s other concert works.

I would be remiss to document the last 10 days of concert going without mentioning the transformative experience I had thanks to the Jupiter Quartet who put on a stunning cycle of the complete Beethoven String Quartets. I know this isn’t typical Sequenza21 fare, but I couldn’t go without mentioning the exceptional job the group did in the face of an enormous challenge. Perhaps because many of us had been to the series’ previous concerts and we knew this journey was coming to an end, but there was a particular energy in the room throughout the performance of String Quartet in B-flat Major, op. 130, which exploded brilliantly in the frenetic first third of the closing Grosse Fuge. If you haven’t seen this piece live, I commend doing so to you because the complexity and boldness of the work comes through much more strongly when accompanied by the bobbing heads and other gesticulations of a living, breathing quartet.

If you are interested in reading more about my time as a composition student at the Aspen Music Festival, check out the observations page on my website.