Many of us think of classical musicians as somehow more than human, touched by some otherworldly force and descending upon concert halls riding clouds of genius and briefly deigning to let us hear them touch their instruments.
If you want to disabuse yourself of that notion — and, of course, you should — then go sit in on the open dress rehearsals in the Benedict Music Tent this summer. Every Friday and Sunday morning at 9:30 a.m., the Aspen Chamber Symphony and the Aspen Festival Orchestra work their way through their entire evening concert program. At $20 a ticket, it’s less than one-fourth the price of the prime-time concerts with the same music and musicians and none of the formalities.
I’ve made a habit of going and it might be the best habit I’ve got.
Without the crowds, without the gowns and tuxedos and dinner jackets, with none of the pomp and circumstance, it’s an extraordinary experience to witness these musicians at work.
The orchestras — a mix of Aspen Music Festival and School faculty and students — are attired in everything from barbecue casual to pajama informal. There are Tevas and flip-flops. It’s Beethoven in blue jeans.
The sartorial scene reminds me of the children’s book “The Philharmonic Gets Dressed” — a title I’ve gotten to know well over the last year with my baby daughter — and has a similar effect of humanizing these musicians. The book tracks the 105 members of the New York Phil through pre-concert bathing and clothing routines. It’s great because, well, it’s funny to imagine the masters of the New York Phil in their underwear. These Aspen dress rehearsals also are great because they underscore the fact that these are mere mortals of exceptional talent making beautiful music.
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The eminent pianist Conrad Tao recently took the stage in shorts, Pumas and a T-shirt to gorgeously perform a Schumann piano concerto with the Chamber Symphony. The jarring and unfamiliar sight of the dressed-down soloist — and the beautiful sound of his performance — reminded me that he’s just a guy. A kid, really. Tao is 24.
The superstar violinist Ray Chen last Friday took the stage, swung his arms around in circles and stretched his upper body before digging into a Mozart concerto with the orchestra. In the formal constraints of a standard concert, I’d never seen that and I’d never thought about how a violinist, of course, must stretch out before playing.
After each piece at the rehearsal, also, you get to see the conductor make adjustments with the musicians — flipping through the score, reviewing the thornier passages with different sections of the orchestra, calling out mistakes, nailing down last-minute details. And sometimes, raising more practical concerns: Last week conductor Nicholas McGegan helped the violins space out their chairs and make some extra room between one another — fearing they might poke one another with their bows during Mozart’s “Paris” Symphony.
Seeing these little quirks and human cracks exposed has helped expand my appreciation for the talents of these orchestras and their ability — despite being mere mortals — to bring a Beethoven or Bizet symphony to stirring life.