It’s the planet’s `best-sounding tent’ |

It’s the planet’s `best-sounding tent’

Tim Mutrie

A gigantic convex spider web of painted white metal is hovering some 60 feet above the ground on four slender steel and concrete stilts in Aspen’s West End.

And what might easily be misconstrued as a Y2K escape pod, as the Aspen Music Festival’s executive director, Robert Harth, joked yesterday, is actually a 110-foot-diameter overhead “disc.” It is designed to help resonate classical chords for Music Festival performers and audiences in the decades to come, aside from its structural functions.

The new Benedict Music Tent – which replaces 1964 Bayer-Benedict Music Tent – is perhaps the upper Roaring Fork Valley’s most ambitious combination of structural engineering, architecture and construction, and it’s about half complete and ahead of schedule.

Work crews some 50 to 60 backs strong broke ground on the project Aug. 23, the day after the annual summer festival ended. Festival officials hope – make that depend – on its completion by the end of May, in time for the 2000 season.

“It’s going to be the best-sounding tent on the planet,” said Harth during an on-site tour Tuesday. “We’ve looked at the life of a note at various renowned concert halls around the world, and in our model testing, compared those results with how the same note would sound in the tent. We compared quite favorably.”

Directly beneath the overhead disc sits an old, upright music stand, guarded by a half-dozen orange cones arranged in circular fashion. Project superintendent Tim White of Shaw Construction explained the stand is “sitting on what we call the center of the world.”

“It’s our center point, and it’s actually two-and-three-quarter inches from the center of the old tent,” White said. “It’s critical that we get everything aligned in the right spot.”

The center point of the tent is vital, because when the overhead disc is completed shortly, wires and cables as thick as Coke cans will be strung from more than a hundred fins protruding from the outer rim of the disk to nearly a dozen anchors cemented around the perimeter of the tent complex.

Once the cable is in place, a teflon-coated fiberglass tent material (similar to material used at Denver International Airport) will be fitted over the disc and its supporting wires. The material has already been delivered.

“We’re probably the happiest people in the whole town with this lack of snow,” said local architect Harry Teague, whose design team has been working on the project since May 1998. “And we want the tent to go up soon, so then other things can start happening underneath it.” Those other things include construction of a two-level stage, a vast improvement over the cramped orchestral confines of the old tent.

Unlike past music tents, the new tent will remain in place during the winter. “And because it’s a tensile structure, the load, presumably snow and wind, will be distributed equally,” Teague said.

“Tensile structures are a new thing essentially,” Teague said. “The difference here is that you have several other elements to balance beyond function – acoustics especially – not to mention a challenging deadline.”

In the event of foul summer weather, pianos and other delicate musical equipment can be transported to the tent via a 60-foot underground tunnel that has been built, connecting the tent’s stage area with nearby Harris Concert Hall.

“I think it’s going to be an amazing place for our community,” Harth said. “We’ll be the envy of music festivals everywhere.”

But the world-class tent won’t lose the feel of the old tent festivalgoers remember so fondly, vows Teague.

“We’re working within the geometry of the old tent and that potentially makes for problematic sound, but we’ve been able to preserve the sense of communal gathering that the old tent had – people looking at each other and in the same room as the orchestra,” Teague said.

Total construction costs for the tent are projected at $15.7 million, Harth said.

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