In addition to musical impressions at the ASO concert last week (see comments here), I had some unwelcome reminders of another aspect of the uphill battle to prove "art matters" here in ATL. I had not been "out front" in Symphony Hall for several months, and unfortunately, the overall impression made by the hall only continues to deteriorate. We – the frequent users and visitors – have become accustomed to it, but try to imagine how it seems to someone coming in for the first time, eagerly looking forward to attending "the Symphony", and having spent quite a bit of money to do so. I can only imagine the disappointment at entering such a utilitarian and unremarkable space, with its institutional-yellow (if that's the right word) walls; the color-coordinated, decrepit shell; the squeaky seats; and an industrial lighting scheme in the house that varies from drab to dank.
Symphony Hall stands in stark contrast to the Cobb Center, which is admittedly a shiny new product of 2000’s design philosophy. But it doesn't necessarily have to be that way. As a structure, our 1960’s Symphony Hall is actually not bad. It was built to last, in an era when long service life was a standard design criterion. If the WAC is going to squander money, such as paying a non-existent company $1.4M on the installment plan, it might consider putting several million (or whatever budget is deemed viable) into upgrading this space with a new shell; or installing imitation wood-veneer over all or part of the pre-formed concrete interior (it could probably even be done so as to help the acoustic!); or some new seating, with - I know this is radical – re-configured aisles so that you could actually exit quickly enough to make it out to the restroom and back during intermission.
The immediate reaction to some of these suggestions will be – it’s almost the cost of a new hall! And depending on the choices made, a renovation project certainly could grow into the cost of a new building. Or it could, through realistic design objectives, an appropriate trade-off study, and budgetary commitment provide a visually- and acoustically-enhanced space that not only creates an inviting atmosphere to perform and experience art, but also demonstrates that our organization can effectively plan and manage a project to completion, on time and on budget. That kind of demonstration would be exceedingly useful in convincing external money (individual, corporate, local, state, federal) to support the “new hall” and everything connected with it.
If there is a short-term investment that would provide some immediate audience-building return, this is it. The environmental experience for the average Symphony Hall concert-goer is not pleasant. It does not say "this is an occasion and this is a special place to which I will want to return". It does not say "this is the home of a world-class institution". It does not say "this is an art form that has a future that you can believe in". And in no way does it complement the aesthetic experience of the concert itself. Acoustically, the hall stymies the growth of the orchestra (and chorus) because you can only get to a certain point musically and then the hall puts its immovable obstacle in your way. To cite one typical instance: during Sibelius No. 6 last week, the strings were playing with a wonderfully unified sonority and attempting to create the diaphanous effect the composer was seeking, but their efforts were undone by the muddying of the sound.
Are the hall and the acoustics really so terrible? Well, no, it can always be worse. The problem is, it needs to be better, and it can be better if the organization accepts that there won't magically be a new hall any time soon, (regardless of certain recent optimistic and strategically-disseminated PR), and in any case a "new hall" exists independently in time, space, and finance from the "old hall".
Upgrading Symphony Hall is not an admission of failure to build the “new hall”. It's simply appropriate upkeep and maintenance of an asset that is already in place. Even if there was an alternative performing space on the horizon, the type of improvements that need to be made to Symphony Hall would only increase its value as a subsidiary concert and event venue (i.e. revenue stream) once a new hall was built. However, like so much else, it appears we collectively have lost the will and the ability to envision this type of progress, let alone make it happen successfully. So the physical plant will continue to become ever more dilapidated and first-time concert-goers will continue to enter the doors and think "this is what going to the Symphony is like? I'd rather just sit at home, listen to a recording and save $70".
Ancient management saying: If you’re not part of the solution, you must be part of the problem. This is the type of potential project that begs for brain-storming – for creative and constructive ideas to seed the fallow land that currently supports only one withered shrub vaguely reminiscent of a wilting feather.
So ... what do you think?