The Aspen Music Festival and School are together a prestigious summer music program that trace their roots to the music offerings at Aspen’s Goethe Bicentennial celebration in 1949. The festival puts on a variety of concerts throughout the summer, and the school offers courses in orchestra, brass, chamber music, classical guitar, piano, opera, choral, conducting, and composing. The program’s many distinguished alumni include violinists Joshua Bell and Gil Shaham, conductors Marin Alsop and James Levine, composer Philip Glass, and singers Renée Fleming and Tamara Wilson. The organization’s current facilities were all designed by local architect Harry Teague: Harris Concert Hall (1993) and Benedict Music Tent (2000) at Aspen Meadows, as well as a residential campus along Castle Creek (2016).
The Aspen Music Festival and School (AMFS) grew out of the Goethe Bicentennial Convocation and Music Festival held in Aspen in 1949. Bicentennial planner and Aspen redeveloper Walter Paepcke made sure to include music in the program because he was already thinking about starting a summer music festival in town. For the Goethe Bicentennial, he hired the Minneapolis Symphony as well as individual performers such as violinist Nathan Milstein and pianist Arthur Rubinstein. The festival featured a violin recital on opening night, followed by eight major concerts featuring mostly German composers. The musical portion of the program proved so successful that by the time it ended on July 16, the musicians were already volunteering to return the following year.
Musicians flocked back for the summer of 1950, including many from the Denver Symphony Orchestra. At the time, Tanglewood in Massachusetts was the only serious summer music festival in the United States, so musicians embraced Aspen for providing them with another place to perform during the off-season. They started with a week of Richard Wagner concerts before focusing on the music of Johann Sebastian Bach in honor of the 200th anniversary of his death. In addition, Russian composer Igor Stravinsky conducted two concerts, including a performance of his own Firebird. Concerts were held at the Saarinen Tent in Aspen Meadows and cost $1.00 or $1.50 to attend. Nearly three dozen students followed their teachers to Aspen for the summer, and at the end of the regular program they put on a concert of their own.
The teaching arrangement was formalized in 1951, turning the burgeoning Aspen Music Festival into a school as well. In the school’s first official year, 183 students paid $280 in tuition for an eight-week program. In the early years, when few permanent facilities had been built and accommodations were hard to come by, AMFS had a strikingly informal atmosphere. Students stayed in hotels, dormitories, private houses, and even campgrounds. Lessons took place all over town, including at the Wheeler Opera House and outside in local parks. Musicians attending AMFS and executives at Aspen Institute seminars often mingled together around the Hotel Jerome swimming pool.
Initially AMFS fell under the umbrella of Paepcke’s Aspen enterprises. Soon, however, musicians butted heads with Paepcke. Paepcke envisioned an elite chamber-music festival under his tight oversight; he didn’t want to give the musicians much say and didn’t know what to make of their students. After some tension and many meetings, the musicians decided in 1954 to form their own organization, Music Associates of Aspen, which Paepcke wouldn’t fund but would allow to continue using the Saarinen Tent.
With the musicians in charge of the festival’s character and future, AMFS focused even more on the student experience. Students gave solo concerts and became orchestra members alongside their teachers. Early musicians involved with AMFS included baritone Mac Harrell and violinist Roman Totenberg (father of longtime NPR correspondent Nina Totenberg). The festival and school grew steadily under the administration of Norman Singer.
AMFS came of age in the 1960s, acquiring both new leadership and new facilities, including a permanent campus. In 1962 Gordon Hardy arrived as assistant dean of the music school and was soon promoted to dean when Singer suddenly retired. Hardy stayed in that position until 1990, and after 1977 he was director of the music festival as well. Throughout his long tenure, he emphasized that students were the core of the program. The music festival soon added a chamber symphony made up of players younger than thirty to showcase emerging talent.
Hardy also oversaw the start of the school’s first campus in 1965. In its early years, the organization had purposefully avoided owning property. By the mid-1960s, however, administrators wanted a permanent place for students—who then numbered about 350—to live and practice. They got it in the form of a piece of land along Castle Creek, about a mile west of Aspen, where they hired local architect Fritz Benedict to design a classroom building, music hall, and practice rooms. Over at Aspen Meadows, where the festival conducted its concerts, the Saarinen Tent from the Goethe Bicentennial was replaced in 1965 by a new Herbert Bayer design.
With stable leadership and a new campus, AMFS flourished. In 1965 Duke Ellington played a concert at the festival, and in 1975 AMFS invited Aaron Copland to be composer-in-residence to mark his seventy-fifth birthday. By that time the school had grown to 750 students, who could choose from an array of programs and ensembles. Legendary violin teacher Dorothy DeLay was becoming one of the school’s most popular attractions.
Stability and success curtailed the freewheeling, improvisatory character that marked the program’s early years. The school became a serious step in the career progression of many young musicians. The festival became bigger and more tightly scheduled, with more popular programming to draw in crowds and dollars. As AMFS began to reflect the increasingly glitzy look of Aspen itself, the old days of practicing in a pasture and taking time off to hike around town were starting to fade.
AMFS went through a period of organizational and financial turmoil in the early 1980s. Having long prided itself on a family atmosphere where finances and ticket sales didn’t matter, AMFS had to confront the problem of a $700,000 deficit after the chair of its board resigned over the issue in 1982. The board pushed for more polished, professional performances headed by big-name conductors to bring in money, while AMFS president Gordon Hardy and the faculty remained committed to what they saw as the festival’s spirit of communal adventurousness and experimentation. By 1984 the board was starting to take matters into its own hands by removing some of Hardy’s administrative and fundraising responsibilities. But with the backing of the faculty, Hardy reasserted his authority in 1985, causing the board’s leadership to resign.
At the same time, AMFS learned that its land at Aspen Meadows was in danger. The Bayer Tent land was on loan from the Aspen Institute, but in 1980 the institute considered a move and sold its Aspen Meadows property to a developer. The property then changed hands several times over the next decade. The Aspen Meadows nonprofits—the Aspen Institute, whose leaders had decided to maintain a presence there, as well as AMFS and the Aspen Center for Physics—worried that they might be evicted or that their serene surroundings would become a busy development. But the city council was in an antigrowth mood and the developer was sympathetic to the nonprofits, so eventually he gave the nonprofits clear title to their land in 1992 while getting the right to build a handful of houses.
With its Aspen Meadows land secure, AMFS immediately set out to upgrade its facilities. After the 1992 festival, work began on a new indoor concert hall next to the Bayer Tent. Designed by local architect Harry Teague, the $7 million hall was built mostly underground so that its roofline wouldn’t compete with the iconic tent. The 500-seat Joan and Irving Harris Concert Hall opened in the summer of 1993 to rave reviews from musicians and audiences alike. The new hall was AMFS’s first permanent, year-round performance and rehearsal facility.
At the end of the decade, AMFS decided to replace the aging Bayer Tent with a new design by Teague, which had a lower profile to improve acoustics by blocking more sound from outside. Opened in 2000, the Benedict Music Tent used the same Teflon-coated fiberglass material found at Denver International Airport and included an underground tunnel to the adjacent Harris Concert Hall. By that time, AMFS had more than 200 faculty members teaching nearly 900 students, and their concerts attracted some 30,000 attendees per year.
New Turmoil, New Campus
After some faculty were cut in the wake of the Great Recession, tensions between faculty and the board burst into the open in 2009–10 in a reprisal of the organization’s mid-1980s conflict. This time the president and CEO was fired and then rehired before receiving a symbolic vote of no confidence; the music director resigned; and the board chair was voted out. Legal fees mounted, and faculty described uncomfortable walks across campus amid the warring camps. Tensions gradually melted away after new board leadership renewed the president’s contract and promoted peace.
With that turmoil out of the way, AMFS focused on redeveloping its ramshackle campus. Built in the 1960s, the Castle Creek facilities had plenty of nostalgic charm but were hopelessly out of date. As with its new buildings at Aspen Meadows, AMFS hired Harry Teague to plan its updated campus. When it was completed in 2016, the Matthew and Carolyn Bucksbaum Campus boasted 105,000 square feet across a 38-acre site, including three rehearsal halls, administrative offices, a cafeteria, and a variety of teaching studios and practice rooms. AMFS shares the campus with the Aspen Country Day School, which uses it during the academic year and contributed a bit less than half of the $75 million cost.
Today AMFS continues to be regarded as one of the top summer music festivals in the United States and a central part of Aspen’s cultural offerings. Running for eight weeks in July and August, the program typically features more than 400 concerts, classes, lectures, and other events, which attract some 100,000 attendees. The school hosts about 650 students of all ages, from children to adults, with an average age of twenty-two.