The Ordway’s new Concert Hall: ‘It will be transformational’

MinnPost photo by John Whiting
The musicians of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in their first rehearsal at the new Ordway Concert Hall in January.

Asked what the impact will be of the new 1,100-seat, $42 million Ordway Concert Hall, which officially opens Thursday night with a gala concert by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the orchestra President Bruce Coppock took a deep breath and said, “It will be transformational.”

“For the first time in its history the SPCO will play in a concert hall that was designed for it and that is the right size for a chamber orchestra,” he said. “It’s like having the right instrument to play on. I keep pinching myself because we worked on this for so long – 15 years – and here it is.”

For 30 years the SPCO has played its main series, about half of its concerts each season, at the 1,900-seat Ordway Music Theater, an exuberant, festive venue that its designer, Benjamin Thompson, modeled on the Italian Opera House in Paris. With its eye-filling copper-and-glass exterior, sweeping spiral staircase and spacious promenade areas, the Ordway was described when it opened as a jewel plopped down into the center of downtown St. Paul, a city not known at the time for either its cultural pursuits or its nightlife.

The hall was an immediate success with the public. It continues to draw some 400,000 visitors a year, whether for touring Broadway shows, dance concerts or presentations by Minnesota Opera, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Schubert Club. Theatrical offerings, by and large, were well served at the Ordway – and still are – along with just about any kind of amplified music. Orchestras or chamber music, on the other hand, tended, at least to some ears, to sound dim and unrealized. At fault, it seemed, was the age-old problem of the multipurpose hall. Is it a theater or is it a concert hall?

Neville Marriner, then music director of the Minnesota Orchestra, which started an Ordway series in the second year, made no secret of his disenchantment conducting the orchestra there. In 1986, summing up his years in the Twin Cities, he said, “I’m worried that unless the Ordway develops more desirable characteristics – in other words, unless the acoustics improve – that gradually, as the newness wears off, people will veer away from it, and then they will have to turn it into a different sort of auditorium, maybe for conventioneers.”

‘It is what it is’

Audiences kept coming, nonetheless, and the Minnesota Orchestra didn’t jump ship until the Osmo Vänskä era. But the SPCO stayed on. “I’m not going to berate the Music Theater,” said Coppock. “It is what it is. But the SPCO never sounded good there. It’s too big. It’s a proscenium hall, and it’s impossible for any orchestral sound to get off a proscenium stage and out into the house. The reason Orchestra Hall’s great is that it’s all one room, whereas proscenium theaters are, by definition, two rooms – the stage room and the house. The new Concert Hall is one room, and that makes a huge difference. The reality is that the Music Theater needs to be for music theater and opera, and the chamber orchestra and the Schubert Club need an acoustically superior concert hall.”

SPCO president Bruce Coppock
MinnPost photo by John Whiting
SPCO president Bruce Coppock

Coppock began making his case to individual board members in 2000. Either the Music Theater needed to be fixed or some other solution put in place. In 2002 and 2003, he took a few board members to Europe to hear what a small orchestra could sound like in a good hall. When they heard the famous Chamber Orchestra of Europe play Bach in the Tonhalle in Zurich, they said, according to Coppock, “Now I understand. I had no idea.”

But the project was stop and start. By 2005, a frustrated Coppock announced publicly that there was no future for the chamber orchestra at the Ordway. In response, two experienced funders, Carleen Rhodes, president and CEO of the St. Paul Foundation, and Bob Sankler, chairman of the Securian Financial Group, launched a campaign to keep the SPCO at the Ordway, and by 2007 a solution was agreed upon: replacing the adjacent 315-seat McKnight Theater with an 1,100-seat concert hall. As it happened, this was Thompson’s original design idea until the money ran out.

The plan, as Coppock and the board saw it, would not only give the chamber orchestra a better space in which to perform. It would also solve the persistent problem of competing schedules among the four users, an issue that over the years had become acrimonious. “We used to say there were four people competing for three bedrooms,” said Coppock. “The solution was to build another bedroom.”

Shared governance in Arts Partnership

About that time the Ordway and its principal tenants entered into an agreement for the shared governance of the scheduling of the facility. The participants say that this new entity, which they call the Arts Partnership, eliminates competition for dates in the theater and, according to Coppock, eradicates the landlord-tenant relationship that led to trouble not just at the Ordway but has done so at many arts venues around the country.

Regarding funding the Concert Hall, “the community responded fantastically,” Coppock said. In 2008 Tim Carl of Hammel, Green and Abrahamson, Inc., was engaged as architect, and Paul Scarbrough was hired as acoustician. By the time of ground-breaking in June of 2013, some $83 million had been raised, of which meant $41 million could be set aside as an endowment.

The ultimate test of a concert hall’s sound quality can come only in performances with an audience present, as bodies tend to absorb resonance. And any new hall will be subject to tunings and adjustments in the months after opening. Even so, it was immediately clear to anyone sitting in on orchestra rehearsals in recent weeks – especially anyone familiar with the sound of the SPCO in the Music Theater —  that the new hall will provide a fresh new listening experience and a new sound for the orchestra, clearer, more resonant.

MinnPost photo by John Whiting
Looking down from the choral loft behind the stage.

By last week the musicians had already been rehearsing in the hall for nearly two months. Scarbrough negotiated with the construction crew to make that possible. “We wanted to give the musicians the opportunity to learn about the acoustics of the room,” he said.

“Part of the tuning process is about the musicians changing the way they play once they get used to the room,” said construction project manager Andy Luft. “For example, the orchestra’s percussionist came in the first day, hit his timpani and smiled from ear to ear because he knew right away he didn’t have to play so hard. Same with the violins, who are used to just sawing away. In here they don’t have to do that.”

A science and an art

Acoustics is usually thought of as a mix of science and art, though in recent years science seems to have taken the lead.

“There’s no question that we understand more today than we used to,” Scarbrough said. “We’re able to measure more accurately and create our models with computers in a way we couldn’t just 10 or 20 years ago. But there’s still a fundamentally creative aspect to what we do. Acoustics is about creating balances between transparency and blend or transparency and resonance. It’s like a seesaw. The more reverberant a space gets the less clear it tends to be. You want the clarity so you can hear the inner lines in a Bach fugue while having this wonderful sense of blend that’s created by a reverberant environment.”

The look of the hall is sensual and musical. The ceiling is covered with wavy panels of mahogany-shaped dowels. The walls are adorned with alabaster-colored cylindrical shapes made up of 1,100 glass fiber reinforced gypsum panels – what Scarbrough calls high-tech plaster. The shapes are designed to diffuse sound coming from the stage and send it around the room.

“Everything we do architecturally has to work acoustically,” said Carl.

When the chamber orchestra isn’t playing in the hall, the space will be used by other performing groups, from chamber music to rock acts, and dance troupes as well. And, with the SPCO moving out of the Music Theater the public will soon see changes in programming there, too.

Minnesota Opera, for instance, will now have three weeks for each of its productions instead of two, which gives the company more time to install its sets, allowing performances to be spread out and perhaps diminishing the need for double-casting of principal roles.

For its part, the Schubert Club, for the first time ever, will present in the new hall pairs of concerts rather than single events for some of the performers in its International Artists Series, joining an evening concert with a matinee. “These matinees are going to be especially good for us,” said Schubert Club President Barry Kempton. “We have many audience members who don’t want to drive at night. The thinking behind this is that the new hall will be far superior to the music theater for recitals.”

Changes for Music Theater

In addition, the Music Theater’s own presentations are likely to expand. “We can do more dance performances, and we can commission more works,” said Ordway President Patricia Mitchell. In recent years the Ordway has commissioned works from local dance companies such as Ballet of the Dolls and the Katha Dance Theater, as well as groups outside the Twin Cities like the Ronald K. Brown Evidence based in New York City.

Mitchell anticipates more theater productions and more world music concerts as well, some of which might be given in the new hall. And the Ordway will continue as a venue for touring musicals and plays and, as it has in the past, will produce its own theatrical endeavors. Playing in June will be “Damn Yankees,” the classic Broadway musical, in a production sponsored by the Minnesota Twins. (The Twins, as it happens, are the former Washington Senators, the baseball team featured in “Damn Yankees.”)

Courtesy of the Ordway
With its eye-filling copper-and-glass exterior, sweeping spiral staircase and spacious promenade areas, the Ordway was described when it opened as a jewel plopped down into the center of downtown St. Paul.

Mitchell quoted the late Sally Ordway Irvine, who initiated the drive for the Ordway in the early ’80s and, in conjunction with family members, donated more than $14 million toward the project’s cost of $45 million.  “She said she wanted the Ordway to be full of lots of music – no, lots of everything for everybody. Now, we’re more able to deliver on that than we ever were.”

The Ordway’s mission back in 1985 had several elements: giving its principal users a stronger public identity; energizing nightlife in downtown St. Paul; and boosting the city’s own cultural identity. A report card 30 years later would surely note an increased public image for both the SPCO and Minnesota Opera, if not so much for the Schubert Club, whose identity as a significant century-old presenter of recital performers was already well established.

Effects on St. Paul

St. Paul’s cultural status has surely risen as well. On the other hand, the city’s nightlife, in the reckoning of many, could still use a boost, though the restaurants that have sprung up in the neighborhood look to be busy on nights when the Ordway has a show on. And then there are the big facilities that have sprung up nearby: RiverCentre, the Science Museum, the Xcel Energy Center and others. Are they there because of the Ordway? Perhaps.

An experienced voice on the subject is that of George Latimer, who was mayor of St. Paul from 1976 to 1990. “I’m skeptical about the precise economic benefits that are attributable to artistic venues or even athletic facilities,” Latimer said, speaking by phone from his home. “But I’m not skeptical about the role the Ordway played in shaping our downtown. Ben Thompson created this jewel that looks out on one of the most splendid little urban parks in America, Rice Park.

“And from an economic standpoint, the St. Paul Hotel has flourished. The truth is it was boarded up when the Ordway opened. Bob Short held it and had filed bankruptcy on it. So, yes, you can point to some obvious economic ripples. But most of all, I think the arts are an end in themselves, and I really believe that the Ordway – and I said it at the time – feels like a celebration every time you enter the hall. That’s artistry.”

St. Paul Chamber Orchestra: Opening concerts of the Ordway Concert Hall, 345 Washington St. 7:30 p.m., Thurs., 8 p.m. Fri. $55-$70. 651-291-1144.     

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