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Aspen and San Francisco

By Patrick Summers
HGO Artistic and Music Director

AspenSummer is the time for learning, for growth, for assimilating the opportunities presented by the three more productive seasons. Summer reflects light that has shone from elsewhere. In late summer, the light shifts. We see things differently. The late summer is the author of so many memories.

I spent a week in Aspen teaching conducting to a set of five gifted youngsters, introducing them to opera and its challenges: Singing. What is singing? It is surely our response to nature. In Aspen, as with everywhere, nature asserts itself with such a powerful beauty that we relate to it as art: “this sunset looks like a painting.”

And in truth, music feels most itself in nature’s embrace. In the tiny window of life we have inhabited since deep time, it is nature that taught us music. Reeds became flutes; the cords of the musculature of deceased turtles became drums. Gradually we needed music to communicate across distant hills; dancing joined along, as it could be seen from afar. Inward emotions were gradually made outwardly visible and audible. One feels the connection strongly wherever nature is most in evidence; Brahms and Chopin seem written for Aspen, yet neither man could possibly have heard of the place.

Playing the first Chopin concerto on our concert together, Nikolai Lubansky reminded me of what great pianism sounds like, particularly in a world obsessed with what great pianism looks like. It was like accompanying a great singer—not an ordinary singer, but one of deep expressive intent, who lives and breathes the text as a character, not as a singer. Nikolai did that from the piano.

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Sweeney ToddsNature asserts itself differently on the mighty West Coast; I am in San Francisco to rehearse Sweeney Todd for its September opening. This is my 29th San Francisco Opera season, if one includes my years as a student. Everyone who knows and loves San Francisco has their own version of it, “their” San Francisco. While I’m never immune to the wonders of the Golden Gate Bridge or the delicate vulnerability one feels when looking at the hilly city from any one of its numberless vista-points, “my” San Francisco is olfactory: it is Chinese food of unending variety, the unmistakable scent of the fog, and most especially, the indelible smell of eucalyptus, pine, and redwood trees.

 

RedwoodThe redwood supposedly has no scent, yet it dominates California. An offshoot of the sequoia tree, the redwood existed long before any human being on the West Coast, yet 95% of the original trees have been chopped down during the last 150 years. Redwoods are among the oldest and largest living things on the planet we all share and, like other delicacies, need to be treasured.

Don’t we stand to learn an enormous amount from trees? They are beings of incredible complexity. They prove the vastness of time. They possess an innate knowledge of the sky. Trees have witnessed the long history of the world and communicate what they can about deep time. They depend upon their roots. They show us the cycle of life: they grow, change, seemingly die only to resurrect, and they give life back to the very things that made them strong. They are fully alive even when they appear to have no visible life to offer: rather like music, it seems to me in this late summer.