Monday, June 14, 2010

Fortune says, build Portland a great little concert hall

By Barry Johnson

Suppose that Fortune suddenly picked me out and said, "Arts Dispatch, you may build any new arts facility you want, just so long as it doesn't cost more than $40 million or so."  One arts venue, a one-shot deal. Well, I might just take that cash and build a medium-sized, high performance, acoustically wonderful concert hall, 500 seats or so with maybe a little gem of a recital hall tucked alongside. Just because our ears and our acoustic musicians deserve a place dedicated to them and them alone.

Although the Webb arts facilities report we talked about yesterday made the case for lots of new concert halls, centers, theaters, incubators and office spaces, it didn't include a justification for an acoustically adept hall for music that requires serious listening. Arts consultant George Thorn was the first one to point out this omission to me, and I think he might be right. Portland doesn't have that one public facility dedicated to acoustic music -- chamber music, jazz, bluegrass or acoustic pop -- a hall that supports great sound-making by non-amplified instruments. 

Potential users would be everyone from Portland Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Music Northwest to the Portland Jazz Festival or the Freak Mountain Ramblers. Anyone, really, for whom great sound is the object. It would NOT be multi-use. It wouldn't solve the venue problems of dancers, theater companies or  performance art folks. This is music (and spoken word) only. In general I take the lesson of the 1970s-era sports stadiums to heart: If you build a field for both football and baseball, it likely won't be great for either.
Don't hold me, dear Fortune, to that $40 million price tag. When I asked Pat Harrington, a principal at BOORA architects and a previous manage of the Portland Center for the Performing Arts, how much what I had in mind would cost, I could almost hear him shaking his head over the phone: Too many variables to give a reasonable cost estimate to my fantasy project. Basically, I generated $40 million by halving the cost of the much larger Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts in Davis, Calif., with its praised 1800-seat Jackson Hall, and then adding $10 million, because I want it to be... nice.

So, that's the idea. We decided to run it by some of the potential users, specifically in the classical music world, to see if it made a lick of sense to them. Did they need it? Did they want it?  How badly? Most of them responded to my email blast in the affirmative. Of course! This is what they dream of -- a place where no excuses about the hall are possible, a place where their best sound can be made and heard, a hall that's an inspiration all by itself.

For my simple little idea, I generated a simple little questionnaire:

1) Would your group be likely to use such a hall?

2) What would be the optimal size for your purposes? 

3) How many dates would use such a hall, do you think? 

4) Would you ever want to record anything in the hall?

5) What would be a fair rental?

6) Basically, is this a good idea or not?

Within the general "yes" vote to question Number Six, it was also clear that this simple idea might be TOO simple. When you talk to experts, like Harrington and the various people who run our mid-sized music groups, things start to become complex.

The first problem is location or context. Although I didn't stipulate a location for my imaginary hall -- in the clouds! -- everyone assumed I was talking about a downtown or near-downtown site. And Ron Blessinger, the artistic director of Third Angle New Music Ensemble, immediately saw the possibilities: "I think the Armory is a great success, a spur for activity in the Pearl, and a wonderful, elegant venue," he wrote. "I think one could easily imagine a similar scenario with a concert hall in a well conceived location functioning the same way." So, yes, the hall needs to fit into an overall urban plan, leveraging the activity it brings  to  lift surrounding businesses, helping to create a sense of place and the increased social cohesion that goes along with it. The Armory, the home of Portland Center Stage, is an excellent comparable.

The second issue was suggested by Mark Powell, who is the executive director of Cappella Romana AND marketing director of Portland Baroque Orchestra, which puts him in a position to understand that those two organizations weren't quite so compatible in my imaginary hall as I might have thought.  Cappella Romana, for example, specializes in music originally written for the sonorous ancient cathedrals of Europe and Byzantium. Portland Baroque Orchestra has its roots in the intimate chambers of the Great Houses of the European nobility. So, Powell turned to the technical acoustic challenge: "If the people doing acoustic music could settle on an adjustable acoustical environment, that would make itmore flexible and attractive to a variety of groups (see the best hall in Washington State: Lagerquist at Pacific Lutheran University -- which can gain up to a second or so in reverby by adjusting curtains). Cappella Romana and its audiences like the 'cathedral' sound, so I would be dreaming if such a space could be built with that in mind and still satisfy the 'dryer is better' crowd (orchestra, chamber music, etc.)." Because I'd really like choral music in this hall, we're going to call out the nation's great acousticians to consider the wet versus dry problem. Dear Fortuna, this might start to get expensive.

Powell's remarks are good place to talk about the church problem. Music fans know that area churches are frequently the sites for performances in the city. They usually have decent acoustics and a reasonable number of seats. But as Powell pointed out, they aren't great for audiences services (restrooms, coatrooms, intermission areas), often have accessibility issues, raise technical hurdles and some people just don't want to go to a church, period. I would add that pews are not the best seats for longer performances -- say more than 15 minutes.  All of this is why I suggested the idea to Fortuna in the first place.

Powell is a yes vote, though, and he counts double (and his executive director at PBO, Tom Cirillo, re-affirmed that vote)! Linda Magee, the executive director of Chamber Music Northwest, should also count double, I suppose, given the importance of CMNW in the local music ecology. By the time my questionnaire had reached her, Magee had already sent a note to the Regional Arts and Culture Council about the Webb report. She sent me an excerpt: "As a 40-year quality chamber music organization, we find it unfortunate and frustrating that there is not a top-caliber performance space of appropriate size (500-700) in Portland’s core downtown area, with excellent acoustics suited to classical music," she wrote. And then: "The other art forms – theater, dance, orchestra, opera – for the most part have halls identified with them that serve them and their audiences.  It would be our dream to have an outstanding small concert hall available to CMNW and other groups, that suits our art form specifically and has excellent acoustics appropriate to music performance." 

So, we know where Magee stands. And, getting to Blessinger's point above, she also has an idea about where such a hall might go -- the old Guild Theater, which faces the new Director Park between Southwest Salmon and Taylor streets. I have my doubts about that space, but I take the point. I might consider the South Waterfront district, begun right before the great Credit Crash and presently languishing. It's not exactly downtown, but it's close, connected by streetcar, and frankly, saving that particular investment in civic treasure ought to be a high priority, whatever we might have thought about the idea originally.

Magee is nothing if not practical. (Just how practical we'll get into a later date when we consider CMNW's new Protege series.) She wrote, "Looking at one of the charts in the report, showing Multnomah County arts groups using 300-600 seat facilities, I see that of 23 in the list, only 4 are in the category of needing/wanting a more specialized acoustic for classical music.  There are more than 4 who should be in that list, but even so, I don’t see a lot of political weight behind our little 'niche need.'" Which is exactly why we needed Fortuna for this purpose, Linda! And she mentioned the problem with multi-use: "The predominant viewpoint in performing arts facilities discussions/planning/building is usually around the good 'old multi-purpose hall,' which of course works better for some “purposes” and nearly not at all for others."  Exactly.

I also corresponded with Pat Zagelow, the executive director of Friends of Chamber Music, and Patricia Price at Portland Piano International. Friends of Chamber Music is happy that PSU's Lincoln Hall is ready to re-open, Zagelow said, but scheduling is always a problem there, and she would embrace a new hall: "ARE YOU KIDDING? DEFINITELY!!"  Price and PPI are happy with the Newmark Theatre in the Portland Center for the Performing Arts (one of the positive by-products of the Armory development was the number of dates that opened in the Newmark after Center Stage left). Still, Price takes the longer view. "We are not likely to use such a venue frequently," she wrote, "but more performance space options are signs of a thriving arts community. More options for places to perform could only be a good thing!"

Back to the specific questions. Several of my correspondents said that the recording aspect isn't that important and that insulating the hall from outside noise sufficiently might prove prohibitively expensive, if its possible at all. The number of dates they reserved would be in the neighborhood of 80, depending on how many Chamber Music Northwest claimed and what rehearsal fees were. The rental they could afford seemed to hover around $1,000 per night, though being able to manage the house themselves is important in keeping their costs down.

Just to remind myself: This was just a survey of a slice of the classical music community. An important slice, but a slice nonetheless. And the idea is broader than simply classical music -- jazz, bluegrass, singer-songwriters, acoustic groups of all sorts, types and proclivities should find it useful -- though adding new forms in might add to the complexity of the program for the hall. OK, WOULD add to the complexity. 

As Magee pointed out, the practical politics of getting this hall built are daunting. Harrington said a public-private partnership would be needed and that a major donor (the Mondavi family gave $10 million or more to the center in Davis) is likely crucial. And as I wrote yesterday, the idea of finding public money for arts facilities right now is at best far-fetched.  Nonetheless, I like the undercurrent of aspiration in the responses from the arts groups. To aspire so often is to inspire.

Some useful links:

Yesterday's post on the Webb arts facilities report

The arts facilities report itself

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