As the Aspen Music Festival and School unveiled its 2020 summer season Wednesday, festival-goers undertook the annual ritual of studying the 400-event feast of a schedule, strategizing attendance, parsing themes, Googling new artists and curating new playlists from the program.
On Thursday, as the festival begins its three-concert winter recital series, an Aspen audience will get a taste of what’s to come during the “Beethoven’s Revolution”-themed summer season.
The recital brings two of music’s brightest young stars — violinist and Aspen alum William Hagen with pianist Albert Cano Smit — to Harris Concert Hall for the first of dozens of Beethoven to come in 2020 as the music world celebrates the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth. The pair will open the program with Beethoven’s uplifting “Spring” violin sonata.
Hagen, 27, has a refreshingly nontraditional approach to performing Beethoven.
“It’s easy to overthink it,” he said recently from his home in Salt Lake City. “He writes a lot of dynamics and a lot of direction, so it can easily turn into an academic endeavor. That’s the last thing I want to sound like. So my approach to Beethoven is like my approach to karaoke.”
Hagen strives to connect with the humanity of Beethoven, not the intimidating figure that some believe young musicians must mature into understanding. Hagen plays Beethoven from his gut reaction to a piece like the violin sonata.
“It’s been freeing to me to leave that music school idea that Beethoven is pure and untouchable,” Hagen said. “I’m like, ‘He was a human being — an unbelievably talented human being — but what made him so great is his ability to express human emotion.’ The best way for me to interpret him is to just take my first reaction to it and build on that, to not overthink things.”
(An Aspen audience will hear another interpretation of the “Spring” sonata in August, as violinist James Ehnes finishes his complete Beethoven sonata cycle with pianist Andrew Armstrong.)
Hagen and Cano Smit, 23, met as classmates at the Coburn School in Los Angeles. They regularly perform and tour together, work out musical ideas together, while leaning one another as these young concert musicians rise in the ranks on the global stage.
Hagen recalled first seeing Cano Smit in a Coburn student series called “Performance Forum.”
“He played and I thought, ‘Who is this guy?’” he recalled. “It’s so rare to have somebody on an instrument like piano where they really have a style to them. And Albert really has a style — he will interpret a piece in a way that is just a little bit different from anyone else. He has a personal touch.”
Along with the Beethoven “Spring” sonata, they will perform Stravinsky’s Divertimento — “crazy and extroverted,” in Hagen’s words — and Schumann’s Violin Sonata No. 2 (Hagen calls it “as deep and intimate a piece of music as exists in the violin sonata repertoire”).
Hagen also will play one solo piece, the violinist and contemporary composer Jessie Montgomery’s Rhapsody No. 1, which also offers a preview of things to come in summer 2020, when the Aspen Music Festival has a robust “Uncommon Women of Note” theme planned that will spotlight female composers like Montgomery.
Thursday will mark Hagen’s first time playing it in concert. He selected it, he said, as a way to “clear the air” in the program’s second half as a bridge between the Stravinsky and Schumann pieces.
“It is a much more introverted piece,” Hagen said. “I’m excited to give it some of the attention it rightly deserves.”
The winter music series will continue with pianist Joyce Yang on Feb. 13 and cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han on Feb. 20.