Cultural (And Jewish) High Notes
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Cultural (And Jewish) High Notes

There was a time when Aspen meant two things: classical music in summer, skiing in winter.

Both pursuits are going strong — but if you haven’t been to Aspen in awhile, it’s worth going back to enjoy a resort that has come of age. As elsewhere in Colorado, a steady influx of year-round residents, many of them Jewish, has brought a new sophistication and a burgeoning array of Jewish and arts institutions to this mountain town.

Remember when Robert Spano was conducting the Brooklyn Philharmonic? Now he’s music director at the Aspen Music Festival, which is essentially Tanglewood West and the event that put this ski town on the artistic map. From June 30 to Aug. 21, the world’s top performers and their fans will converge at the Benedict Music Tent for a season whose theme is “Invitation to Dance,” highlighting the use of dance elements in music that runs the gamut from Bach to Piazolla.

The Aspen Festival has a storied Jewish history, hosting resident composer Aaron Copland and a young conductor named James Levine; this summer’s calendar is dotted with Jewish performers, from the Shahams (Orli and Gil) to Pinchas Zukerman. But the biggest news this summer is the dedication of the stunning new Matthew and Carolyn Bucksbaum Campus, an $80 million lakeside complex named for its Chicago Jewish benefactors. The campus — to be used largely for teaching and rehearsal — will be formally dedicated in July, but visitors can join free tours of its soaring, architecturally distinguished buildings on the former site of a silver mine.

The local Jewish scene grew considerably with the 2014 inauguration of the Chabad-affiliated Aspen Jewish Community Center; legions of locals, Jewish and not, turned out for the August grand opening. The JCC’s much-lauded structure has huge windows, allowing worshippers to gaze out at the snowy mountains and sunlit forests during prayer. That’s not typical of synagogues, but it’s very much in keeping with the ethos of many Colorado Jews I have met; outdoor, mountain-top, and ski-lift minyans are hosted all over the state (I once interviewed a couple whose rabbi had married them on a Denver mountaintop, in full ski garb).

The JCC’s art gallery, in particular, is a draw for its thoughtful rotating exhibitions of painting, photography and mixed-media Jewish art. Also noteworthy: a Chabad program called Golshim L’Chaim – Ski To Live, an all-volunteer effort that brings disabled veteran IDF soldiers to Aspen for a therapeutic week of healing and relaxation.

Another newer addition to the Aspen Jewish scene is the Neshama Center Aspen, a nonprofit organization that hosts Jewish holiday and life-cycle events. But Aspen’s longtime congregation is the 43-year-old Aspen Jewish Congregation, which refers to itself jokingly as the “Chai Altitude Minyan” (Colorado Jews have endless altitude-related puns involving the word “chai,” now more than ever…whoops, there goes my resolution not to reference marijuana in a Colorado article). The Reform shul is active year-round, hosting an annual summer concert in August and “Mountain Minyans” during ski season, with Shabbat services and lunch held slopeside.

Summer is the time to catch Aspen Santa Fe Ballet in its Colorado home — the Aspen season runs from July 8 to Aug. 27 — as the company celebrates 20 years, which in the West makes it an institution. Aspen Santa Fe is truly one of America’s most exciting dance companies, and it is unique for its hybrid status, with home bases in the two Western seasonal arts meccas. The summer lineup also includes appearances by the Paul Taylor Dance Company and a flamenco troupe, among others.

With its creative spirit, Aspen has long nurtured a community of visual artists and craftspeople — but the formal art scene has been seriously overshadowed by music and dance offerings. Two years ago, the Aspen Art Museum made a serious bid to change that when it unveiled a bold new building designed by the architect Shigeru Ban, who just happened to be that year’s recipient of the Pritzker Prize for Architecture.

The Aspen Art Museum is what’s known as a non-collecting museum, which I used to think was an excuse to hire a fancy architect …but which I have come to believe is best for the legions of municipalities eager to raise their arts’ profile, yet reluctant to commit to halls full of second-rate art in perpetuity. With 33,000 total square feet devoted to contemporary works, there’s always something new to see in the six galleries — and if you don’t like the art, head up to the spectacular roof garden, from which you can contemplate the greatest masterpiece of all: Aspen scenery.

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