Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Does the Road to a New Symphony Hall Run Through the Old Hall?

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?

Laurie Cronin

1 comment:

  1. Laurie, I totally agree. I do think the whole experience is important. If you have paid for what should be a lovely evening at the symphony and the musicians are dressed in tails and the chorus in long black dresses then that says this is an elegant affair.
    I understand they have relaxed the dress code for the audience as they do not think people will come if they "have" to dress up but I disagree. I think the musicians are the "hosts" and if they are dressed nicely then the audience should as well.
    Now addressing the building. It has NOT changed other than recovering the seats since the 60's. My first question would be since the ASO is renting the space... how does this work as WAC isn't exactly supportive of the symphony. Even if it logically would bring in more money not only for symphony concerts but also for rentals. Having a real working sound shell wouldn't be that difficult of a fix nor would some decent paint rather than industrial cafeteria color and lose the flags which make it look like an elementary school auditorium. I am certainly as patriotic as anyone else but it just isn't the right venue. Why not support the other arts as in local artists. One could even "feature" a local artist with a silent auction for the piece. People might be interested in coming to help support local artists and would be fun to see what artist is featured next. And would be lovely to look at in the corner with a small unobtrusive light.
    Speaking of lighting. From other productions, obviously there is the capability to do lighting. Well... I know it is hard for the musicians and the stand lights but perhaps invest in some better ones so that real lighting can be applied and at least might hide some of the awful building.
    Then just paint... There are even sound shells that can be covered with non-sound absorbing fabric which could soften the cement sided without losing the acoustics.
    Thankfully the conductor finally has a stand rather than a plywood box but surely they would at least dress the other platforms with some skirting and or stain.... The floor and the vanilla shell and ceiling are all the same color - how about a nice stained floor and platforms ... then a way to at least lower the house lights and give some ambiance on stage. And I would adore to have someone tell soloists not to stand in shadows. That really bugs me. I used to work in theatre and actors always could find their light. Well, I'm thinking it is the permanent mics hanging down which the soloists can't tell they are in shadow. I would have thought someone in the audience would make sure they knew where to stand but it happens often. So would be lovely if the mics could be removed until they were recording,it can't be that difficult to move. Seems lazy to me.
    Ok, I'll stop for now.But I would gather since it is a rental space they are under WAC's decision. Which is why it would be so great to get away from WAC.