Once the snow melts on Aspen’s slopes, the hills come alive with music. The city’s bars, restaurants, parks and nightclubs all fill with high notes. Students give impromptu concerts; outdoor performances lure locals and visitors to Snowmass; and bluegrass bands greet gondola riders at the top of Aspen Mountain. Combined with the Aspen Music Festival and School’s eight-week season and Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ two festivals—both of which attract large crowds—this melodic tapestry of live performances provide the perfect soundtrack for summer.
Aspen Music Festival and School
A cornerstone of the musical season is the Aspen Music Festival and School (AMFS), which began in 1949 as a celebration of 18th century German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe with music performances and intellectual forums. Summer after summer, musicians returned to the area and brought their students. Now in its 67th year and running through Aug. 23, the festival features more than 300 classical music events, lectures and a new recital series at the Aspen Art Museum. AMFS hosts 630 young adult student musicians, typically hailing from more than 30 countries, who play in orchestras and chamber groups, sing, conduct, compose and study with 130 artist-faculty members. Additionally, 75 guest artists will perform this season, which follows a Dreams of Travel theme, exploring influences from a variety of cultures.
“Our theme opens up ideas rather than [dictating] programming,” says Alan Fletcher, president and CEO of the festival. “A lot of times, we have programming that won’t have anything to do with the theme at all. You can do so many things, whether it’s Bach writing French suites [or] Tchaikovsky composing about his visits.”
Fletcher, who is also a composer, debuted his piece “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler,” inspired by Italo Calvino’s book and paired with a film on July 10.
Many of the artists are noted alumni, including pianist Conrad Tao and violinists Joshua Bell, Sarah Chang and Robert McDuffie. AMFS also seeks to make connections with new artists of worldwide importance; a handful of which will make their Aspen debut this summer, including pianists Vijay Iyer and Yundi.
Other highlights of the season include a semi-staged presentation of Verdi’s opera “Aida” on Aug. 7 and Bell’s local debut conducting the Aspen Chamber Symphony and his performance as a soloist on Aug. 14. AMFS also co-commissioned “The Classical Style,” a comic operetta by Steven Stucky and Jeremy Denk, with the premiere of its staged version to be presented July 30 and Aug. 1.
These performances are set primarily in the 2,050-seat Benedict Music Tent, while an adjacent lawn area allows anyone to listen to the music for free.
If you go: One of Aspen’s best off-the-beaten-path restaurants is Plato’s at the Aspen Meadows Resort on the Aspen Institute campus, not far from the Benedict Music Tent. Perched above Castle Creek, diners enjoy sweeping views of the Roaring Fork Valley. The menu features an extensive wine list to pair with sustainably sourced, Colorado-inspired cuisine. (845 Meadows Rd.; 970-544-7814; platosaspen.com)
Jazz Aspen Snowmass
During the late 1980s, Jazz Aspen Snowmass CEO and President Jim Horowitz fell in love with a music festival in Marciac, France, and immediately thought to do the same in Aspen. In June 1991, he brought an iteration of that festival to the Benedict Music Tent (before it gained that moniker); it lasted a couple of days, with performances by Sandman Sims, Ramsey Lewis, Herb Ellis and others. “It was to be one weekend at the beginning of the summer on the music festival grounds,” Horowitz says. “That was as far as I could see or dream at that point.”
Now in its 25th season, Jazz Aspen Snowmass (JAS) has expanded to year-round programming, including an underground jazz cafe at The Little Nell hotel, and it also has raised more than $6 million for local music education initiatives in the schools. Through its growth, its foundation remains the same: a summer festival that focuses on jazz—now two bookend weekends—and a Labor Day experience.
The series kicked off on June 26, with performances by the Count Basie Orchestra with Kurt Elling and Roberta Gambarini, followed by Maceo Parker. For the first night, most tickets cost $35, the same price as the inaugural year.
Opening weekend at the Benedict Music Tent culminated with American classic rock band Chicago, Naturally 7 and guitar virtuosos Rodrigo y Gabriela. While visitors may not have a chance to catch the June program before it ends with a collaboration between JAS and AMFS on July 6, presenting the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, they still have another opportunity at the end of summer.
Over Labor Day weekend, Sept. 4-6, some of the biggest names in pop music come to Snowmass Town Park to celebrate the festival’s milestone. The lineup features Fitz and the Tantrums followed by Hozier (Sept. 4), Jimmy Cliff and No Doubt (Sept. 5), and The Fray and Lenny Kravitz (Sept. 6).
Beyond these two weekend festivals, JAS Café inside The Little Nell offers more musical entertainment. In 2010, JAS introduced the intimate jazz performances in the hotel’s basement, bringing nationally touring acts to a casual, yet refined setting. “Those first ones were small, probably not more than 30 or 40 people, and the tables were the wrong shape, but there was something like, ‘I feel like this is an interesting spot,’ ” Horowitz says. “ … Three years ago, it didn’t have momentum, but now it does.”
Performances at The Little Nell this summer started July 8. This season’s schedule still includes Ann Hampton Callaway, who will be performing July 22-23. The series has also expanded to the Aspen Art Museum, with performances by Lizz Wright (Aug. 7-8) and the Pacific Mambo Orchestra (Aug. 13) taking place upstairs.
If you go: Visitors who go to the JAS Café at The Little Nell hotel can also enjoy the resort’s two on-site restaurants, both inspired by locally grown ingredients. Take in dinner at Ajax Tavern and watch the sun set at the base of Aspen Mountain. Alternately, head to Element 47, whose name is a tribute to silver, the precious metal that brought attention to Aspen in its early days. Element 47 boasts a creative menu along with thousands of wines. (675 E. Durant Ave.; 970-920-4600; thelittlenell.com)
Aspen Snowmass Concerts
To take your music experience to a higher level, both Aspen Mountain and Snowmass host music weekly during the summer, enticing concert-goers to pull up an Adirondack chair and soak up some rays. Weekends are filled with tunes at Aspen Mountain; on Saturdays in July and August, AMFS students perform classical pieces of their own choosing at Richmond Ridge at 1 p.m. Those who purchase a gondola ticket receive free admission to these concerts set in a picturesque meadow overlooking Mount Hayden. Then, every Sunday, families riding the gondola and hikers finishing the 3,267-foot climb are greeted by the sounds of bluegrass from noon to 3 p.m. on the Sundeck patio. An obstacle course, Frisbee golf and lawn games keep the kids entertained while parents enjoy a cold brew and the free music.
On Thursday nights—plus a few Fridays and Saturdays—Snowmass dominates the concert calendar. Thousands flock to Fanny Hill for the music series, which brings funk, soul, jazz, hip-hop, rock and country to the picturesque slopes above the Brush Creek Valley (shows occur through Aug. 6). Pop-up bars serve drinks for adults on the hill while a kid’s zone entertains the little ones with games and face painting. There’s no admission charge and everyone is invited to enjoy the sunset concerts.
But if you’re searching for late-night entertainment, head underground to Belly Up. Some of the biggest names in the business—B.B. King, Jane’s Addiction and Snoop Dogg—have graced the stage at the 450-person venue. This summer, old favorites along with up-and-coming talent return. Already on the calendar are Keb’ Mo’ (July 21) and The Spazmatics (July 25).
Of course, it’s not necessary to go underground or to the top of a mountain to hear live music. A consistent source of pride for this part of the Rocky Mountains, local musicians can be found on outdoor patios and in restaurants around Aspen, Snowmass Village and Basalt. Expect happy hour rock ’n’ roll that goes right past sunset at regular hot spots including the Red Onion, Hotel Jerome, The St. Regis Aspen Resort and Limelight Hotel.
If you go: When headed uphill to enjoy the live music, take a ride in the Silver Queen Gondola to the top of Aspen Mountain—the gondola runs from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily through Sept. 7—and enjoy the spectacular summer scenery. In addition to concerts, yoga classes, naturalist-led walks and a disc golf course await visitors at the top. Then stop for lunch at the Sundeck, a summit restaurant operated by The Little Nell hotel. The eatery’s made-to-order stir-fry dishes, soup, pizza, sandwiches and salads are equally impressive as the surrounding 14,000-foot peaks. (1 Ajax Ave.; 970-544-9345; aspensnowmass.com)
—Written by Christine Benedetti