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Pleasing Opening for Aspen's Concert Hall : Music: Some 500 concert-goers descend 40 feet underground to hear Beethoven and Barber in a bright, high-ceilinged room that is an acoustic marvel.

August 24, 1993|MARC SHULGOLD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES, Shulgold is the music writer for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver

ASPEN, Colo. — Whether parading about on the ski slopes in winter or strolling on the mall in search of pricey art in the summer, the elite of Aspen are constantly--and happily--on public view here.

Thus, it was an odd sight to watch 500 glittering Aspenites grudgingly descend 40 feet underground for the final cultural wingding of the summer Friday night. The occasion was the long-awaited opening of the Joan and Irving Harris Concert Hall, the first facility built from scratch in the nearly half-century history of the Aspen Music Festival--and the first on the festival grounds to be accessible year-round.

On the surface, there's not much to the building: Only a single story tall, the white-roofed, $5.7-million structure was carefully designed to live in harmony both with west Aspen's strict height requirements and with the dominant facility of the festival, the 1,700-seat tent, located within shouting distance. The outside is plain, the lobby is Spartan and the single set of stairs leading below merely functional.

But, down below, things suddenly get interesting. The hall is an unexpectedly bright, high-ceilinged room lined with gracefully arranged panels of cherry and white maple. The movable rear stage wall is dominated by angled cherry wood strips that provide a pleasant visual backdrop for the large stage (whose dimensions reportedly match Symphony Hall in Boston).

Best of all, the room is an acoustic marvel, as became apparent during a packed weekend of concerts that included appearances by such celebrities as Pinchas Zukerman, Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun and newsman Daniel Schorr (the latter two serving as narrators). A design team headed by architect Harry Teague and acoustician Elizabeth Cohen has triumphed brilliantly in the face of a tight budget, an 11-month construction time frame and a relentless winter that deposited more than 240 inches of snow on the Aspen Meadows. But the marvel is not how the hall was built (although that's a tale worth telling), but how wonderfully it turned out.

Friday's high-society opener began with a commissioned fanfare by Joan Tower, who conducted, and ended with festival music director Lawrence Foster leading the Aspen Chamber Symphony in Beethoven's Symphony No. 8. In between came Barber's dreamy "Knoxville: Summer of 1915," sung by Renee Fleming, and a parade of multiple violin concertos featuring Zukerman and a gaggle of youthful Aspen Music School standouts.

Effortlessly, the hall passed every musical test. The acoustic is lush without being overly boomy or reverberant, clear without being dry or uninvolving.

*

Two pairs of trumpeters sounded bright and focused in the fanfare, Fleming's exquisitely warm soprano never strained to be heard in the Barber and the balance of instrumental voices in the Vivaldi and Beethoven never went askew.

Musically, the evening did not disappoint, even though the decision to perform a set of four Vivaldi concertos was questionable. This quartet of Baroque trifles did dispel the myth that Vivaldi wrote one concerto 500 times--in fact, he wrote two concertos 500 times.

The Chamber Symphony, consisting of high-ranking music school students and a sprinkling of professional ringers, played with energy and precision, responding well to the exuberance of the Beethoven and the subtlety of the Barber.

After the concert, the black-tie crowd gathered in a huge tent for the traditional hobnobbing and conspicuous consumption. For music lovers, however, the true pleasures of the night remained buried beneath the Aspen Meadows.

A postscript: Weeks before its opening, the hall (named in honor of Chicago/Aspen-based cultural philanthropists Joan and Irving Harris) provided a delicious contribution to the venerable music festival's folklore. The Emerson Quartet walked onstage before a small but excited gathering consisting of the design team and some donors and board members. Dramatically, the players raised their bows to produce the first music in the hall's history. Nothing. Silence. For one brief, agonizing moment, onlookers stared at each other in disbelief and terror. Then, everyone realized that the fun-loving Emersonians had intentionally vamped that first chord--and the room resounded with its first explosion of laughter.

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