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MUSIC : Musical Peaks : The Aspen Music Festival's 44th season features tributes to composer Darius Milhaud and teacher Dorothy DeLay as well as the U.S. premiere of an anti-nuclear opera

June 28, 1992|JOHN HENKEN | John Henken is a Times staff writer.

The snow may have melted, but Aspen is one ski town that doesn't drowse the summer away. Instead, the hills are alive with musicians and fans--the Aspen Music Festival and School serves nearly 1,000 students with more than 200 faculty and guests, drawing an estimated 100,000 visitors to the Colorado town.

The 44th festival season, which began Friday, celebrates its own traditions with special programs and premieres honoring composer Darius Milhaud in his centennial year and the 75th birthday of master violin teacher Dorothy DeLay. The festival isn't ignoring the Columbus quincentenary either, or "The Year of Indigenous Peoples."

For the long term, recent real estate moves may prove as important as repertory this summer. Approval of a complicated land-use agreement and development plan finds the festival ensconced on property it owns, with extensive improvements projected for its signature Music Tent amphitheater, and a new, indoor rehearsal-performance hall expected to be up and ready for opening by next summer.

The Aspen Music Festival began in 1949 as part of celebrations of the Goethe Bicentennial Convocation and Music Festival, with concerts and lectures from such luminaries as Artur Rubinstein, Gregor Piatigorsky, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Albert Schweitzer and Thornton Wilder.

Two years later, Milhaud arrived and founded the Aspen Conference on Contemporary Music. He continued his association with the festival and school until 1968.

"I remember Milhaud, who was still here, in a wheelchair, when I was a kid," recalls Robert Harth, president and chief executive officer of Music Associates of Aspen, the parent organization of the festival and school. "He had a profound effect on the festival, which has a reputation now for more adventurous programming than most summer festivals. We owe a lot of that to Milhaud, who was a real champion of contemporary music."

The festival's tribute to Milhaud, who died in 1974, began Saturday with the composer's "Aspen Serenade" and features 11 other works, including the one-act operas "Le pauvre matelot" and "Les malheurs d'Orphee." The operas have been staged by Edward Berkeley and will be conducted by Bruno Ferrandis on July 11 and 13 in the historic Wheeler Opera House.

Milhaud's music anchors a strong French component to the festival this year. Repertory reaches back to Faure and Franck and extends forward to young composers of the current generation, such as Louis Dunoyer de Segonzac, whose "Christopher Columbus" shares an evening of music theater Aug. 4 with Hugh Aitken's "Fables."

Programming such a long and busy festival, not surprisingly, is a long and busy affair.

"I don't think even a hippopotamus has a longer gestation period," says Lawrence Foster, Aspen music director. "It's a complicated process. . . . The basic thing is that the facilities and talent are such that you can let your imagination run wild."

"One of our articulated purposes is to support contemporary music, through a regular commissioning program and performances," Harth says. The interface of this heritage from Milhaud with the 75th birthday of DeLay, whose elite legion of students has followed her from Juilliard to Aspen every summer since 1971, is a series of new violin works.

The commissioning project has paired five American composers with Aspen students of DeLay. Robert McDuffie will give the premiere of Stephen Paulus' Concerto on Friday, with Foster conducting the Aspen Chamber Symphony, and Cho-Liang Lin will play the first performance of Christopher Rouse's Concerto on July 12, accompanied by Leonard Slatkin and the Aspen Festival Orchestra.

Jostling the violin concertos, French repertory and a string of Beethoven performances--including all nine symphonies, culminating in a Beethoven Bash closing the festival Aug. 21-23--are works inspired by world musics. Although it is 1993 that has been designated "The Year of Indigenous Peoples" by the United Nations, the city of Aspen was invited by the U.N. Environment Program to serve as co-host of a festival this year. It is running parallel to the Aspen Music Festival, which has included some complementary repertory, most significantly the U.S. premiere of Marc Neikrug's "Los Alamos" on July 24.

The opera is a political, anti-nuclear statement told from the point of view of Pueblo Indians, a saga of opposing civilizations ranging from 11th-Century Anasazi culture through the 1940s atomic bomb tests to the distant future. It had its premiere in 1988 courtesy of Deutsche Oper Berlin, and its performance here, though relevant to the UNEP project, was planned well before.

The performance will be conducted by Foster, with soprano Carole Farley, baritone Peter Lightfoot and actor John Turturro, star of last year's "Barton Fink," in a non-singing role.

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