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Checking out new Northrop's acoustics; History Theatre plans 4 premieres in 2014-15

Photo by John Whiting
A big part of the newly revitalized Northrop is the state-of-the-art acoustics. Here the Minnesota Orchestra is augmented by members of the U of M marching band and a combined chorus for the "1812" overture.

When the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra took the stage at Northrop on Friday for “Echoes of History,” the crowd went wild. When freshly reinstated Music Director Osmo Vänskä followed shortly after, walking briskly to the podium, the applause would have gone on and on, except Vänskä wouldn’t allow it. After a big smile and a brief bow, he turned, raised his baton, and went to work.

Past, present and future met in a glorious concert in a splendid new space. The program was the same as the then-Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra played when Cyrus Northrop Memorial Auditorium first opened in 1929: Wagner’s Prelude to “Die Meistersinger,” the Largo from Dvorák’s “New World” symphony, Liszt’s “Les Preludes,” Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1, Tchaikovsky’s “1812” Overture. All warhorses now, but still mighty, and well suited to an event conceived in desperate circumstances. When “Echoes of History” was announced last November, the musicians were locked out, Vänskä had resigned in frustration, and the musicians were producing their own concerts. With the lockout over and Vänskä officially returned as of May 1, most of the drama was back where it belongs: in the music, not behind the scenes. There’s still a lot to be done and not much time before the current contracts end (the musicians’ in Feb. 2017, Vänskä’s in May 2016), but there is reason to hope that the orchestra can rebuild and the audience can grow.

A big part of the newly revitalized Northrop is the state-of-the-art acoustics. So, how did the concert sound? We were especially taken by the quietest parts of the Dvorák – moments of radiant, limpid beauty, hushed and quivering – and the (digital) cannon booms in the Tchaikovsky. And the U of M choirs and marching band. And the fact that we could hear all the sections of the orchestra, and single notes from William Wolfram’s piano during the Liszt piano concerto, even when there were a lot of notes pouring out of it (this was Liszt, after all). To our ears, it sounded great. But what do we know? We turned to the real expert behind the Northrop’s sound, acoustician Joshua Cushner of Arup, the global company behind the Sydney Opera House, the Beijing Olympics, the Concert for Diana and concert halls around the world. 

Cushner has been involved with the Northrop redo since 2008, through design and construction. “We provided the acoustics, all the performance sound, video, and communication systems, and some of the architectural lighting design as well,” he explained when we spoke on Saturday. Plus theater consulting, which involves “everything from planning layouts to designing the room form itself for sightlines and technical.”

MinnPost: Where were you sitting on Friday, and how did it sound?

Joshua Cushner: I was sitting in the President’s Box. First balcony, side box on house left. Those seats, as in any hall when you’re in a side box, are cool seats but never acoustically the best seats. I like to be more toward the center. 

I thought the sound was great. You could hear the orchestra over the course of the night getting a sense of the hall. They rehearsed without an audience. A micro-adjustment happens once the hall fills with people. As the show went on, [the musicians] got more and more feel for the room. 

MP: What would you say are the best seats in the new Northrop? 

JC: Some of the acoustically best seats are more toward the center. The orchestra level, the lowest level, is great. Any of the balconies in the center are fantastic. I personally think the best for a performance like this is probably the second balcony. It’s sort of a sweet spot in the room between getting the blended sound from the orchestra and what the room is acoustically producing. If you’re going to pick seats for their acoustics, those would be the premium seats in my book. But different people like different flavors of steak. 

MP: What were you listening for?

JC: One of the key things I listen for is the togetherness of the entire orchestra, that you’re not hearing anything disparate, but the sound as the full organism. After that, you’re looking for some sense of envelopment, the sound that’s surrounding you. That’s the characteristic of a good hall. But you can have too much envelopment, where you lose clarity and it gets too reverberant. That’s definitely not a characteristic of Northrop.

What we tried to do is strike a balance between having an enveloping hall and still having clarity. A lot of feedback we’ve gotten so far is that people have really enjoyed the clarity of being able to hear all the instruments, all the melodies while still getting that enveloping sound. That’s one of the reasons to put down your iPod and phone and come to a live show. You feel the three-dimensional character of the sound, as well as some intimacy with the folks performing.

MP: What can we expect at other performances, with other kinds of music?

JC: The most transformative part of the audience chamber is there’s two fundamental modes of the room. One is for natural acoustics. That’s when the orchestra shell is in place. Then there’s the amplified mode of the room, for amplified music and spoken word. Rock bands don’t want to play into a lot of reverb. So there the shell goes away, and we have acoustic banners that run down the side walls. They’re hidden in the ceiling. If you look at the side walls of the seating area, there are pilasters – columns – and recesses in the walls. The banners fill those recesses and look like part of the architecture of the room. Anytime there’s an amplified show, the banners will come down.

There’s nothing you can’t do [in the new Northrop]. We’ve tried to make it the best multi-purpose venue. That’s a pejorative term in a lot of people’s minds, but it doesn’t have to be. I think in many ways it’s the best venue you can do almost anything in.

Note: You’ll have a chance to check out the rock side of Northrop when the Moody Blues perform there on Aug. 26. FMI and tickets ($55-$125).

***

Photo by Craig VanDerSchaegen
Nicholas Freeman as Buddy Holly in
Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story

Four of the five plays in History Theatre’s 2014-15 season, announced today, are world premieres, including Garrison Keillor’s first full-length play, “Radio Man.” Celebrating the 40th anniversary of  “A Prairie Home Companion,” drawing on Keillor’s personal memories of the show, it will feature singing groups, the private eye Guy Noir, the cowboys Dusty and Lefty, and residents of Lake Wobegon. Pearce Bunting (“Boardwalk Empire”) has been cast as the host. Starts Sept. 27. In February 2015, we’ll see the new play by Presbyterian pastor and former Star Tribune op-ed contributor Kristine Holmgren, “God Girl,” about women who broke through the stained-glass ceiling within the Protestant church. March brings “The Debutante’s Ball” by Eric “Pogi” Sumangil, a look into Minnesota’s annual Filipino-American celebration and a co-production with Mu Performing Arts. In May, Joe Minjares’ “River Road Boogie: The Augie Garcia Story” tells the tale of the Mexican-American quintet that opened for Elvis Presley at the St. Paul Auditorium in 1956. The only non-world-premiere on the roster is a bring-back in November of History Theatre’s popular “Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story” written by Alan Janes. Season passes go on sale today.

Twin Cities author William Kent Krueger has won the Edgar Award for “Ordinary Grace,” a stand-alone novel (not part of his hugely popular Cork O’Connor series) set in a small town in the Minnesota River Valley in 1961. Krueger told MPR’s Kathy Wurzer that the Edgar is “kind of the Oscar of our business.” And that “it looks like … a ceramic bust of Edgar Allan Poe.” The New York Times best-selling author is currently visiting libraries in greater Minnesota. Here’s his schedule if you want to go meet him. (He’s in Ortonville tonight, Benson and Appleton on Wednesday.) Last month, Krueger won his fifth Minnesota Book Award. Cork O’Connor fans, no worries; you can expect a new one in August.

After a terrific close to its 2013-14 season – an April 26 concert featuring Puerto Rican musician and composer Miguel Zenon, one of the world’s great alto saxophonists – JazzMN Orchestra has announced a strong 2014-15 season, its 15th as Minnesota’s premiere big band. On October 11, drummer Dave Weckl will be JazzMN’s guest. November 22 is a program of music by little big bands – larger than a combo but smaller than a big band. On March 14, 2015, JazzMN will welcome bebop tenor saxophonist Pete Christlieb, formerly of the Tonight Show Band led by Doc Severinsen. And on April 25, Yellowjacket Bob Mintzer will join the band. Season tickets go on sale June 1, singles later this summer.

Closes May 11: Jim Hodges: Give More Than You Take” at the Walker. Closes May 18: Matisse: Masterworks from the Baltimore Museum of Art.” MIA will extend viewing hours starting May 9. Now at the Museum of Russian Art: “The Art of Collecting,” with 55 paintings from the Raymond and Susan Johnson collection of 20th-century Russian art – the largest, most comprehensive such collection outside of Russia. Opens June 6 at the Weinstein: “Robert Mapplethorpe.” The first dedicated show of Mapplethorpe’s work in Minneapolis in four years.

***

In Gallery 306 on the third floor of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, there’s a portrait of a lady who looks like a dude. Painted around 1763, John Singleton Copley’s “Portrait of Sarah Allen, née Sargent (1729-1791)” was the unlikely inspiration for Freshwater Theatre’s new play, “Mrs. Charles.” Playwright Ruth Virkus imagined that Allen really was a man living as a woman, then delivered a sensitive, touching and beautifully written LGBT historical romance set in Minneapolis in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Rising young executive Walter (Nathan Tylutki) and schoolteacher Charlie (Neil Schneider) are lovers in Philadelphia who see each other clandestinely. When Walter is offered a job managing a mill in Minneapolis, Charlie comes up with an outrageous plan: he’ll join him there – as his wife. He’ll live a lie in crinolines and corsets in order to tell the truth.

Although there are funny moments throughout the play – particularly in the characters of overly enthusiastic Quaker activist Margery (Katie Starks) and socially inept Clyde (Matthew Cawley) – “Mrs. Charles” is neither comedy nor joke. Imaginatively staged, rich in historical references and mannerisms, it’s a powerful love story with a strong thread of suspense: Will Walter and Charlie be outed? Schneider is brilliant in the title role, going from slender, attractive young man to proper Victorian lady and maintaining that illusion for almost three hours.

See this play if you can. Then be glad we live in different times. Through May 18 at Nimbus Theatre. FMI and tickets ($15/$13). 

Our picks for the week

Wednesday at Once Upon a Crime: John Sandford. The New York Times best-selling author talks about his latest, “Field of Prey,” answers questions, and signs books. 7 p.m., free and open to the public. (On Thursday at noon, he’ll do a signing at the Barnes & Noble on Nicollet Mall.)

Wednesday at the Dakota: Julian Lage and Chris Eldridge. Two important young guitarists share the Dakota stage. Lage has been touring with Gary Burton; he also recorded an album with Fred Hersch. Eldridge is a member of the Grammy-nominated Punch Brothers with mandolinist Chris Thile. So one is mostly jazz, the other is mostly bluegrass, but fewer and fewer people (including many musicians) seem to care about such distinctions anymore. 7 p.m. FMI and tickets ($25).

Wednesday at Northrop’s Best Buy Theater: Sacabuche! Playing music for voices, sackbuts and violins, the early music ensemble shows how Italian music of the late 16th and early 17th centuries spread throughout the courts and musical life of Europe, especially Poland. If this sounds a bit brainiac, get used to it; this concert is being presented by the U’s Institute for Advanced Study, who will (let’s hope) bring us more smarty-pants events. 7:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($35 general admission, $10 U of M student).

Thursday through Saturday at the Lab Theater: “Some Assembly Required.” Part of Theater Latté Da’s “Next: New Musicals in the Making” series, this improvised musical will work with audience suggestions to create a brand-new musical in real time. Come for one evening to be entertained, or all three to watch a new show take shape. With artists from Comedy Sportz and Huge Improv and musical direction by Todd Price. 7:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($30 three-show passes, $12 single tickets).

Courtesy of Bob Briscoe and the Minnesota Potters
Covered jar by Bob Briscoe, part of the 22nd Annual St. Croix Valley Pottery Tour

Friday-Sunday: The 22nd Annual St. Croix Valley Pottery Tour. This is the big one, the tour pottery fans and collectors look forward to each year – and people fly in from other states to see. Seven potters who live and work in the St. Croix valley open their studios and invite guests from near and far; this year’s tour features 51 potters from Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Oregon, Montana, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Ohio, Missouri, Iowa, New York, and other states. Buy a mug, buy a plate, mix-and-match a set of dinnerware, or just look around and learn. Friday, 10-6; Saturday, 10-6; Sunday, 10-5. Free, with refreshments along the way. FMI. P.S. Accordion guy Dan Turpening will be making music at Connee Mayeron’s studio in Shafer.

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Comments (2)

Northrop

The hall will not truly be complete until the organ is re-installed. It's kinda shameful that this is (at least) the second large symphonic organ that's in storage in Minneapolis (the other being the old Convention Hall organ). Re-installation of the organ would put Northrup ahead of Orchestra Hall in this respect.

Northrop organ

The new hall has left space for the organ and the pipes, and a way to bring it all in. So now all Northrop needs to do is raise the $millions to refurbish it. Kickstarter, anyone? :) I agree - let's bring the organ back!