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Musical Metamorphosis

It wouldn’t be summer in Aspen without the world-renowned Aspen Music Festival and School. The esteemed nonprofit helps students by combining classroom experience and concert performances with famous musicians. Now, with its campus makeover, it enters a new era.

The acoustic panels on the wall of Scanlan Hall—the dark material is absorbent,  the flat material reflective and the curved material diffusive—combine to create a space that can accommodate the sound of a large orchestra (nearly 140 instruments) rehearsing, while allowing the different parts of the orchestra to hear one other.

Harry Teague and Alan Fletcher

Original sketches of the Pond Studio with glazing details

Stefan Edlis and Gael Neeson Hall is reflected in the windows of the Pond Studio.

A corner of the Stefan Edlis and Gael Neeson Hall, showing the geologic layers from the original conceptual sketches—the materials are (from top) Kalwall insulated translucent panels, stained Minerit cementitious rain screen and corrugated painted metal siding.

For years, the talented students attending the Aspen Music Festival and School in summer have had an especially painful task of forgoing the pristine environment and outdoor activities for days of lessons, rehearsals and practice. If that isn’t bad enough, they’ve had to do so in buildings that would be marked morendo—slowly dying away—if they were notes in a music score.

“Aspen has a renowned tradition of excellence in music performance and has long been considered one of the premier orchestral training programs in the world,” says Edward P. Sweeney, executive director of
Music@Menlo in the San Francisco Bay Area and onetime general manager at AMFS. “Unfortunately, the physical facilities have not kept pace with the human component. What was once considered quaint and rustic was, in truth, merely dilapidated.”

Alan Fletcher, president and CEO of AMFS, says it more frankly: “The [buildings] were dirty, small, cold in the mornings and not even remotely soundproof.” And the rest of the campus? “We had a couple of modular buildings cut up into teaching studios,” he continues. “Our cafeteria was a basement that looked like a place [where] trolls would live, and our offices were cramped and scattered over the site in various buildings.”

There’s still no word on whether or not there were trolls under the main bridge (and the new design will have three bridges instead of one), but it was clear that it was finally time to get the students better digs. Aspen Country Day School, the prestigious private school that shares a majority of the facilities when the summer festival concludes, seconded that decision. Both institutions have committed $30 million to the project, the first phase of which included the construction of several buildings; the rest will come next year. “At long last, Aspen will have teaching facilities that are at the level of the teaching that takes place within them,” Sweeney says.

For Fletcher, the choice of an architect was an easy one: Harry Teague. He had designed the festival’s main concert halls: the 500-seat Harris Concert Hall (1993) and the 2,050-seat Benedict Music Tent (2000). Architects often blend buildings with their environment; here, the architect himself is matched with it.

“Aspen is a special case,” says Teague. “Our climate and landscape, and other things that create a unique environment, require someone who knows it.” He also had already successfully reconciled his own design with that of the legendary architect who had designed the AMFS’ structures: Fritz Benedict, who built several campus rehearsal and practice buildings, and Herbert Bayer, who designed a replacement for famed Finnish architect Eero Saarinen’s original concert hall tent. It didn’t hurt that Teague studied with Benedict.

Teague’s plan is to remind students of their surroundings at all times. “The landscape is impossible to ignore,” he says. “It is in your face, and that has been a part of the festival from the beginning. You want to take advantage of that for the halls and the practice spaces. They must be completely engaged in the environment, and the musicians must be aware of where they are.”

To optimize his intentions, Teague designed every structure—including 72 practice rooms, 32 new classrooms, an electronic media studio, three large rehearsal halls (one to come next year), a percussion center and social spaces—to have multiple windows and high ceilings to connect the students to the environs, even when deep into practice. The coup de grace is the exterior deck of the music studio that uses a cantilever to stretch strikingly over the ponds, seeming to float above it.

But the environment in Aspen can sometimes get too engaged. Take, for instance, one spring day in 1996. “During a particularly heavy spring runoff, a portion of Aspen Mountain high above the campus started sliding downhill in what the excited geologists referred to as a debris flow,” says Sweeney. “This massive mudslide roared down into campus, filling the parking lot with about 8 feet of mud, rocks and trees. The side doors of the venerable Music Hall could not hold back the weight and gave way, filling our main rehearsal hall with a sea of muck.”

As if that wasn’t enough to worry about happening again, the site was full of other construction challenges: “elk migration corridors, floodplains in Castle Creek, protected riparian vegetation zones, protected trees, avalanche hazards, rockfall hazards and rights-of-way for recreational use of Aspen Mountain,” lists Fletcher.

Oh, and there’s a double whammy from the Newman Mine that was active a century ago on the site. While the City of Aspen Historic Preservation Commission gave protected status to its remaining buildings, health regulations required cleaning up the metal and toxic chemicals. “A lot of money went into this stage,” says Teague. “A lot of effort is invisible.”

However, these buildings visibly enhance the character of the campus. The old social hall for the miners is one of the oldest buildings in the county still in use, says Fletcher, whose office used to be the mine foreman’s dwelling.
As Teague began planning the new campus, which will triple in area from 50,000 to 105,500 square feet, Teague became concerned that the larger buildings would overwhelm the space. He found inspiration for a solution below ground: The buildings actually connect with the geology that built the mountains. The sides of the rehearsal halls and other buildings look like cross sections of mountains, with strata represented by different building materials. “The sweeping diagonals of rooflines and the ‘skins’ of the major halls are derived from Harry’s sketching on-site, so they echo the landforms surrounding each building,” says Fletcher.

San Francisco-based acousticians Charles Salter Associates provided the acoustic treatment of the rooms. “Our new practice rooms have almost two stories of space and oblique angles for the sound to develop,” says Fletcher. Plus, teachers and students will spend several hours a day in these rooms, and, Fletcher adds, “They [won’t] feel like rats in a cage.”

While the revamped campus is rightfully the center of attention, Fletcher and the board have committed to another important improvement. They have tied the campus construction to a capital campaign with a goal of raising nearly another $40 million for its endowment.

The entire $75 million campaign included an extraordinary $25 million gift from Matthew and Carolyn Bucksbaum. Both have served as board chairs for AMFS, with Robert J. Hurst currently in the position. “It is not only the largest [gift] in our history, and the largest they have ever given, but also the largest ever given in Aspen,” says Fletcher, who has bestowed the campus with the rightful name—the Matthew and Carolyn Bucksbaum Campus.

That’s not too shabby in a climate where funding for the arts has become difficult nationwide. And, because of this major redevelopment, nothing will be shabby anymore at the school. “It looked like a bad summer camp,” says Fletcher with a chuckle. “Now people will say this is what is expected of a world-class organization.”