When Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke first planned a grand international gathering in Aspen, in a quiet summer in the late 1940s, they were inspired to ask renowned modernist Eero Saarinen to design a tent to be pitched in the vast open meadows near the Victorian West End. Saarinen came up with an ingenious, whimsical design that was the site of the first concerts and conventions of what would become the Aspen Music Festival and School and The Aspen Institute.
Seventy years later, the current Benedict Music Tent is the third iteration of a venue built on-site, succeeding Herbert Bayer’s tent (1965 to 1999) and the original Saarinen creation. Saarinen’s was genuinely a tent, and its canvas was wrangled up and down each summer. Bayer’s was much more permanent but still had to be erected seasonally and had leaks—and fur-covered friends nesting in
When it was time to replace Bayer’s creation, the city required that the new tent sit on the same footprint. Architect Harry Teague designed a larger, more robust, more acoustically effective structure that had an underground connection to the neighboring Harris Hall, which he had also designed.
The new tent, which opened 20 years ago this season and is named in honor of Teague’s mentor, Fritz Benedict, who had also been chair of the AMFS, achieves its greater size and excellence of sound by being dug significantly deeper into the ground than the earlier tents. This gives it the quality of classical Greek amphitheaters, in which the actors’ voices had to project unamplified with perfect clarity.
The roof, of Teflon-coated fiberglass, daylights the hall with a soft light and lets it glow gently at night. The result is a feeling of closeness between performers and audience that is one of its great features. Though 2,055 people can be seated, the view from the stage is remarkably intimate. Whereas in conventional halls the audience sits in darkness and the stage is brilliantly illuminated, in the Benedict Tent, there is constant interaction, including with magpies, crows and visiting dogs.
The quality of the sound surprises first-time visitors, considering that the surfaces are mostly concrete and Kevlar. The brilliant blue seating provides continuity with Bayer’s Bauhaus legacy.
The final concert of the season, Aug. 18, will commemorate the structure’s 20th anniversary, reprising Mahler’s great Symphony No. 2, a choral work nicknamed “Resurrection,” which was the same piece that opened the tent in June 2000. 4pm, $90, Benedict Music Tent
Photography by: charles abbott