Aspen Times Weekly: New school — Aspen music school gets a major upgrade |

Aspen Times Weekly: New school — Aspen music school gets a major upgrade

by Stewart Oksenhorn

the mythology of the Aspen Music Festival, built up over 64 years of concerts and classes, is that the institution has absorbed two opposing elements critical to music-making. There is Aspen itself — informal, relaxed, infused with natural beauty. And there are the finest resources of the classical-music world who gather here to devote themselves to art — exceptional conductors, dazzling soloists, cosmopolitan audiences.

In one corner of the Aspen Music Festival, though, the balance between the rustic and the sophisticated had come to be glaringly skewed. Alan Fletcher, the president of the organization, tells of an encounter he had with a student in Fletcher’s first year here, seven years ago. The student had toured the Music Festival facilities, beginning with the performance campus in Aspen’s West End, and was wowed by the Benedict Music Tent, the 2,100-seat venue that manages to allow nature to become part of the concert experience, and Harris Hall, a 500-seat theater that has been described as “the Carnegie Hall of the Rockies.”

The tour ended along Castle Creek, the center of life for the 600-plus students who come to learn classical music each summer. There, amid the ancient buildings — some actually crumbling — an awkwardly placed parking lot and a handsome mountainside that occasionally slid down onto the campus, the impression of a first-class facility faded. As Fletcher recalls, the student’s words were: “You’ve got to be kidding.”

A tour of the Castle Creek campus, now known as the Bucksbaum Campus, is still likely to elicit incredulous reactions. A massive renovation, with a price tag of $60 million to $65 million, has drastically transformed the facility where the music students practice their Shostakovich, Schumann and Schoenberg each summer. (And where a different set of students learn their reading, writing and arithmetic the rest of the year: The campus is also the longtime home of the Aspen Country Day School.) Vanished altogether is the old Music Hall, the building at the center of the grounds that had gotten so dangerously run-down that the Music Festival condemned it three years ago. (Demolition was hardly an issue: “We brought in a bulldozer, pushed it, and it just fell down,” Fletcher said.) Even in top condition, Music Hall was inadequate; it was only big enough to fit rehearsals by the smallest of the Music Festival’s five orchestras. Also gone are the flimsy rehearsal studios that had been scattered about haphazardly and were hardly marvels of acoustic precision even in their prime.

In their place is a string of striking new buildings along the Great Pond. The centerpiece is Edlis-Neeson Hall, where, on a recent morning, a visitor could watch from a viewing platform above as Robert Spano, music director of the Music Festival, oversaw an orchestra rehearsal of Brahms’ Third Symphony. Next door is the Pond Studio, a space for conferences and chamber-music rehearsals that juts out over the pond. A few steps over is Scanlan Hall, another rehearsal space. Nearby is the campus’s first permanent library; previously, the archive of sheet music had to be relocated at the end of each summer season, which damaged the documents.

The campus renovation, which was launched with a $25 million gift from Matthew and Kay Bucksbaum, both former chairs of the festival’s board of trustees, is 60 percent complete. Still to be built are a third rehearsal hall, a cafeteria and a new administration hall that will be connected to the old administration building by a breezeway.

Where the old campus offered a dismaying contrast to the Benedict Music Tent and Harris Hall, the new buildings are seamlessly aligned with those performance venues. The Bucksbaum Campus, like the tent and Harris Hall, was designed by Basalt-based Harry Teague Architects.

The Music Festival will hold a community event, with tours and a short dedication ceremony, to show off the new campus July 8 at 10:15 a.m. Attendees are asked not to drive because the new design discourages car traffic.

Teague is quick to spread credit around for the new campus. He mentions Suzanne Richman Design Workshop, which handled the extensive landscaping; Shaw Construction; and Mark Mahoney, the project manager for Teague Architects. But when it comes to long-range perspective on the campus, perhaps no one is better positioned than Teague, who has been involved in the campus nearly from the start.

The Castle Creek property was a gift from Robert O. Anderson, a former president of the Aspen Institute who bought the land from Walter Paepcke, the patriarch of modern Aspen. Paepcke had in mind a resort on the site; there was also talk of using it as a retreat for institute attendees. But in 1966, Anderson gave the land to the Aspen Music Festival, which had held its classes in churches and houses around Aspen. The Music Festival hired the prominent architect Fritz Benedict to design a few new buildings and bring in some older structures to create a campus for the school. Among the interns to work on the project in 1967 was Teague. Teague was in the earliest stages of what would become a prominent career; at the time, he was a Dartmouth grad looking forward to beginning graduate school in architecture at Yale. But the idea of using someone with little experience fit well with the overall approach to building the new campus.

“They just took over the place and did what they could,” Teague recalled.

In 1967, Teague’s major assignment was helping design the practice studios. In a nice bit of symmetry, the new practice rooms are one of the highlights of the renovated campus. Among the many issues of the site that needed to be addressed were the avalanche and rock-slide zones sitting right above the campus. (In 1994, in my earliest days at The Aspen Times, I was sent to photograph the Keno Gulch mudslide at the campus, on the thinking that since I was covering music, I was the one who should shoot the incident. I arrived to find cars in the parking lot buried in mud up to their windows.)

Building retaining walls for the new campus would have consumed precious space. So Teague conceived of practice studios that doubled as retaining walls. The 68 studios that ring the campus are made of concrete walls and struts, and they have reverse-sloping roofs to handle any debris that might come down the hillsides.

Sliding snow, mud and rock were just some of the challenges of the site. The property is home to an elk-migration corridor and a public easement. It is on a protected floodplain and riparian zone. Some of the ponds had to be protected; others needed significant attention, especially the removal of toxic soil. (Teague noted that more than 500 people needed to have training in hazardous-waste operations for the project.) Historical preservation was a concern; two of the existing buildings, including a mining building that dates back to 1885, had to be left standing.

Teague, whose past projects include educational facilities like the Carbondale Community School, had to keep safety in mind. So a second bridge was installed, and now one road rings around the outside of the campus, making the site nearly car-free. On top of everything, Teague was serving two clients and two purposes; the campus had to fit the needs of both the Music School and Aspen Country Day School. (Teague notes that 85 percent of the built space is shared by the two institutions.)

The design team also saw the need to preserve the idea that the outdoors — the mountains, ponds and trees — were essential to the Aspen idea of music-making.

“The old campus was quaint and lovely and rustic — a lot of things people loved,” Teague said. “You cannot ignore the environment and the beauty of the place. I hope the buildings add to that, that they’re inspiring, that they’re not just rehearsal halls. The tent works that way — there’s a connection between what you’re seeing and what you’re playing. That’s what my design is. The orchestras can see through the screens to the outdoors. They see the ponds.”

And there is the sophisticated side. The cooling unit for Edlis-Neeson Hall is located in a separate building to eliminate noise that would interfere with the music. The practice studios are built so that some sound can escape to the outdoors — you want to get some sense that there’s music being played — but inside, they are perfectly quiet. In possibly the most significant upgrade, the rehearsal halls are now on par acoustically with the Benedict Tent and Harris Hall.

“Robert Spano said that with the old building, the orchestras never knew what they sounded like till they got in the tent,” Fletcher said. “Now, it’s fantastic from the start.”

While maintaining the rustic feel of the campus, Teague didn’t want to lean too far toward the traditional. Spano, who is in his third year directing the festival, has a reputation for embracing new music, and the design of the building is intended to reflect some movement toward the future.

“The buildings are youthful, not retro,” said Teague, who took some inspiration from Cranbrook, an educational facility near Detroit. “They’re of our time, for musicians playing in our time. They’re youthful, spirited, energetic.”

“We’re not a museum,” Fletcher added. “We stand for new music.”

Fletcher said that the new campus has gone from being a bit of an embarrassment to a point of pride. Prospective students can see that the Aspen Music Festival stands for quality from its performance facilities all the way over the Roaring Fork River and up Castle Creek to the Bucksbaum Campus.

“Now students are saying, ‘Of course. Why wouldn’t it look like this?’” Fletcher said.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Aspen and Snowmass Village make the Aspen Times’ work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.