Size Matters Part 4

Welcome back for part four, the final installment in this study of how an orchestra accomplishes the monumental task of building a new concert hall.  Today,  we’ll hear from musicians in each of the orchestras as well as the executive directors.

Player Comments

It’s the musicians that make an orchestra.  So how they feel about where they perform is directly related to the quality of the performance itself. To exclude the requirements of the players is a certain foil to future success.  Players were given the option to offer their comments anonymously so that they could speak freely.

Dayton Philharmonic

I’m not sure if musician amenities were considered a high priority in the hall design.  We were given a locker room, with lockers big enough for basses and cellos, which we were thrilled about, but it’s not as useful as we thought since it’s unisex.  There is no drinking fountain backstage on the hall level, but management has brought in the big water bottles for us.  The dressing rooms are definitely more oriented toward Broadway type shows and there are no practice rooms.  I feel the hall has definitely helped promote our artistic growth and is large enough for us to perform large scale works like Mahler. – Mary Davis Fetherston, cellist

The acoustics in the old hall were very dead and very dry, it did not favor the low instruments at all.  Every one was in agreement, management and musicians alike, that we needed a new hall with better acoustical properties and with better reverberation. While we did not vote on any issues, we did have input and management keep us informed on the plans.  Management told the players that amenities would be provided, but I think our attitude was “we’ll believe it when we see it.” However, we have a locker room in which everyone has a locker for the clothes, etc. as well as an instrument locker. We also have a large musicians’ lounge with nice furniture and a kitchen area.  The hall has already promoted artistic growth and the orchestra immediately sounds better.  In the case of the brass, it is an easy hall to play in. – Steve Winteregg, Principal Tuba

To be honest, I think that the new hall serves our needs for performing larger works, but we have actually been having trouble fitting on the stage adequately. Apparently, it is more advantageous acoustically for us to be closer together, though.  As musicians our backstage facility needs were absolutely a high priority because our previous hall’s facilities were so inadequate. – Jennifer Speck, Principal Bassoon

Richmond Symphony

I don’t think the new hall meets any of our needs, onstage or backstage.  We were never given any surveys asking us what we wanted in a new facility and even though two players were allowed to sit in on some planning sessions, we were never allowed to have a direct vote on any issues.   I think the hall size is far too small to accommodate a full 80 piece orchestra and it will restrict our artistic growth quite a bit.  It’s like they want us to be a chamber orchestra, but I remember 15 years ago someone tried to start a chamber orchestra [in Richmond] and it failed.    a member of the Richmond Symphony

This orchestra really needs a home.  Not just a place to rehearse, but a place to have a cup of coffee, get something to eat, socialize with other musicians, meet students, and practice.  I want a place that I feel welcomed and comfortable and right now I have no evidence if the new hall is going to be any of those things or not.   a member of the Richmond Symphony

Things have never been made very clear to us about the design aspects of the new hall.  Management has never sent us any surveys and they seem to have a second rate mentality when it comes to what we need to perform our best.  I’m not happy about the architect’s they’ve selected or the fact that we’re just renters.  This all makes me very concerned whether or not we’ll actually have any long term benefits.    a member of the Richmond Symphony

Kansas City Symphony

This acoustician, Toyota, clearly knows what he is doing; the folks in LA Philharmonic seem very happy with Disney and he designed that hall. I’d be happy to play more concerts, and in particular more programs, if it means the entire orchestra begins playing together more than we currently do.  One subtle issue: this is a generous town, but there is only so much money to go around. Some folks predisposed to donate to the arts now have the choice of donating to the hall or to a performing ensemble like the orchestra. That choice may result in making the development task for the KCS all the more difficult.    a member of the Kansas City Symphony

I don’t recall the players having any direct vote on any issues regarding the new hall.  To me, the stage appears to have a very small footprint, but it seems we’re not going to get a bigger hall so we’ll have to make it work.  Not having the symphony offices in the same building will be a real obstacle to work around; I’ll miss having the ability to just walk across the street to talk to someone in the office about something.  In the end we’re just going to have to trust that our management will work with the acoustician and architects to ensure that the new hall will fit into our strategic plan and help us grow our audience.   Janelle O’Brien, section violinist

Nashville Symphony

Everyone is extremely excited about the new hall and the quality of its acoustics have driven nearly every aspect and discussion between the musicians and management.  I’ve been very pleased that management has provided every back stage amenity the musicians have asked for.  An important indication of how important our input was to the design of the hall was that there is no secondary large rehearsal space.  This is important because it shows that management will not displace the orchestra to the secondary hall if they have an offer from a renter to use the space.  Having management intentionally remove that temptation of quick cash at the inconvenience of the players builds trust.   Bill Wiggins, principal timpanist (Bill assures me that is the correct spelling for timpanist).

I remember that there were always numerous surveys the musicians were encouraged to fill out regarding issues for the new hall.  I think the new hall will be a big factor in retaining good players and bring national visibility to the symphony and the artistic progress we’re making here.    Christopher Farrell, violist

Executive Director Responses

Dayton Philharmonic

Many people in the orchestra world believe that a multi-purpose hall is an inherently bad idea.  I think our experience here says otherwise.  The acoustics in our hall are exceptionally good.  It’s almost always busy, which obviously helps to subsidize operating costs, and yet we can still schedule the vast majority of our rehearsals on stage.  I believe that, if we had insisted on building a dedicated concert hall, we would still be fundraising and waiting to break ground.

As to whether we should be managing the hall or not, I guess that only time will tell.  The hall was built with the explicit mission of helping the orchestra (and other primary tenants) grow and succeed.  Its current management and board buy into that mission, and we have a written scheduling policy that seems to be workable for the primary tenants.  As long as this remains the case, I don’t see any reason for us to take on the challenges (both financial and otherwise) of operating a facility. – Curt Long, Executive Director

Richmond Symphony

What is essential to understand about the decision in Richmond to build a 1,100-seat concert hall is the context. Firstly, the overview of existing provision: 3,500-seat Landmark Theatre, 2,050-seat Carpenter Center and various venues of 500-600 seats. Secondly, the consensus reached that new venues being built must complement existing provision. Thirdly, the real limits on space available within the Thalhimers’ block to build a concert hall. Fourthly, the limit on the perceived funds available within the community towards the project; $150M was considered the maximum deliverable. Fifthly, the overwhelming momentum behind the city’s leadership to deliver a City Center Regeneration Masterplan which includes the Virginia Performing Arts Center: for the Symphony to have tried to act alone to raise the funds to build its own hall, outside the Masterplan, was simply not a viable option.

The solution instead of a new 1,100-seat hall and the acoustic upgrading of our existing 2,050-seat venue – within the same new arts complex – is a great outcome for this Symphony, that places us at the heart of a revitalized city center, leaves us immeasurably better off   musically and strategically – than ever before, and positions us well for future artistic and organizational growth.   David Fisk, Executive Director

Nashville Symphony

First, I wish to thank you, Drew, for the kind comments about our plans – the degree of success we are able to achieve as a result of these plans remains to be seen when the building is completed, and we know we must remain vigilant in the pursuit of our goals between now and then. In the meantime, however, we all have a very high degree of confidence in the likelihood we will succeed. In fact, we are absolutely convinced that the strength of our planning process   from the creation of a shared vision down to the last details of our financial and design plans   were vital to our success thus far, and have helped to insulate us from recent economic conditions.

I believe our next big challenge will be ensuring that our artistic and organizational successes are understood by the entire industry   an industry with an inherent prejudice that somehow a world-class orchestral institution cannot exist in a place like Nashville. Already we have enjoyed tremendous acclaim for the success of our artistic growth: our recording projects are garnering rave reviews around the globe (including a Grammy nomination this year), we have appeared on national television on numerous occasions (including replacing the Boston Pops on A&E this past July 4th), and we have toured to critical acclaim, including a rave review from the New York Times for our Carnegie Hall debut. Despite all of that, we still see that prejudice in our dealings with artist managers and others in the industry. Pulling ourselves up into that top 10% of American orchestras will also require a Herculean public relations and education effort. It is a challenge we are prepared to meet. – Alan D. Valentine, Executive Director

So what are your opinions?  Do you think the size and design of a concert hall has much impact on the success of an orchestra?  What are your observations about the concert hall in your community?  How does if effect your concert experience?  Write an email and send it in. I think hearing from a broad range of readers will shed some unique insight to how the venue helps to shape the ensembles that use them.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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