Hearing Great Classical Music Free in Aspen, Colorado

Aspen Music Festival's Tent and Lawn. Photo: Alex Irvin

Aspen Music Festival’s Tent and Lawn. Photo: Alex Irvin

There’s nothing more glorious than sitting on the grass on beautiful evenings at summer classical music festivals, listening to Brahms or Stravinsky. But from Tanglewood to Hollywood, from Wolf Trap to Ravinia, only one top festival offers lawn admission without charge: the Aspen Music Festival.

Aspen’s is one of the country’s oldest and most extensive summer festivals. It began in 1949 and runs for eight weeks presenting over 300 events from late June to mid-August. The main venue is a tent sheltering 2,050 seats, with flaps on all sides and the entrance surrounded by a large, shaded lawn.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • Aspen is as gorgeous a Colorado town in summer as it is in winter.
  • Classical music never sounds better than in the Rockies.
  • Aspen music lawn has no admission charge.
  • Good for music lovers and mountain lovers.

The majestic Rockies form the backdrop for the grounds. There are concerts, recitals, and master classes every day of the week, with the Sunday 4 p.m. orchestra concert typically the biggest draw.

Folding Chairs, Blankets, Food, Wine on the Lawn

Lawn listeners usually begin gathering about an hour or more before the start time, setting up picnics both elaborate (tablecloths, glasses for wine) and casual. Bring low-slung beach chairs, sit as close as possible to the moat of pebbles surrounding the tent, and you can hear quite well. The only downside is the threat (or thrill, depending on your point of view) of thunderstorms, which often announce themselves with a percussive rumble in the valleys of Colorado in the afternoon. They tend to be brief.

Picnic on Aspen festival's David Karetsky Lawn. Photo: Alex Irvin

Picnic on Aspen festival’s David Karetsky Lawn. Photo: Alex Irvin

The lawn exists without an admission charge thanks to an endowment made by Aspen resident Gerri Karetsky in memory of her late husband David, who loved the informality of the picnics when he was not inside the tent. A highlight each summer is the free “ice cream social” held on the lawn sponsored by Mrs. Karetsky.

World-famous classical stars make regular appearances at the Aspen Festival – including pianists Emmanuel Ax, Yefim Bronfman and Jeremy Denk, violinist Gil Shaham, and conductors like David Robertson and Leonard Slatkin. So do ensembles like the Emerson String Quartet. But the most thrilling concerts sometimes are the ones that introduce a new talent.

I’ll never forget hearing a teenager in jeans with a luscious violin tone at a rehearsal one morning years ago. That evening, she appeared on stage in a red-carpet-ready strapless gown. Her name was Sarah Chang. She had made her debut as an eight-year-old prodigy at the Aspen summer music school, which supplies the festival with many of its younger players – but not typically that young. Now, this international music queen returns to the festival regularly.

Robert Spano, the dynamic maestro who is Aspen’s music director, says the themes chosen for each season must serve both the school’s 600+ students who are learning the repertory as well as the audiences who wish to be entertained. He feels they pick categories broad enough (“Made in America” for his inaugural season in 2012, “Conscience and Beauty” for 2013) to “explore contemporary themes and also to make sure the students and audience are getting a healthy and mixed diet.”

Beyond the Festival Grounds – Master Classes, Lectures, Opera, Mountaintop Concerts

Spano is delighted that there is a free component to the music and implores summer visitors “to stay long enough to hear the infinite variety” of works and settings – not just warhorse symphonies and legendary soloists at the tent or iconic chamber music in the underground jewelbox Harris Hall (the festival’s smaller venue right next to the tent).

Try attending a master class, a lecture, recitals by student competition winners who perform at the music school campus nearby, or an opera staged at the restored 19th century Aspen Opera House. You can even hear ensembles play on top of Aspen Mountain, weather permitting, on Saturday afternoons.

Inside Aspen Music Festival's Benedict Tent. Photo: Alex Irvin

Inside Aspen Music Festival’s Benedict Tent. Photo: Alex Irvin

“There’s so much going on musically” each summer that Spano hopes visitors stay for at least a week. That’s enough time to hear both canonical composers (Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms) as well as twentieth and twenty-first century masters (Britten, Adams, Messiaen)… to hear more than one of the four different orchestras that play each summer… as well as to hear individual virtuosos. “Just listen to as much as you can. He adds that “it’s OK if don’t like a piece. Somebody else does.”

 Practicalities

  • Aspen music festival’s website has details on all concerts and tickets.
  • The Aspen Music Festival and School sells full and partial season passes.
  • Travel packages are available through the official travel agent, Aspen Music Tours.
  • Various tour companies and nonprofits such as Road Scholar create comprehensive tours at discounted prices.

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