Concert Hall follow Up Richmond (VA) Symphony

Continuing with the series of concert hall follow up articles, I recently touched base with administrators and members of the Richmond Symphony Orchestra.

I asked David Fisk, the Richmond Symphony’s executive director, what sort of progress they’ve made and what they’ve done to include the musicians in the building process since last November. Regarding the orchestra’s involvement in the design process of their new venue,

David said, “We are represented by me in the discussions of the operations subcommittee of the Design & Construction Committee, and one of our Board members also sits on that larger Committee. We have membership on the Programming & Marketing Committee and on the Fundraising Committee, and another of our Board sits on the Facilities & Operations Committee, so that we feel fully plugged into both formal and informal planning discussions.
The six members that comprise the Artistic Advisory Committee (ACC) of the orchestra continues to act as the formal means of liaison to channel our musicians’ input. The Music Director and that Committee have been made privy to the plans as they unfold, and have been in communication with the architects and acousticians with Virginia Performing Arts Foundation’s help.

AAC questions have been addressed as they arise, and their thoughts have influenced certain detailed aspects of internal design. I also give presentations to the orchestra on a regular basis, most recently last month, and we have solicited specific input from individual musicians as seems advisable, for example from the Principal Percussionist and Timpanist regarding requirements for studio and storage space.”

I contacted Cliff Hardison, the Richmond Symphony Orchestra’s principal percussionist, and asked him about the process. 

“I was approached by members of our management at one point to talk about a percussion storage room, but I told them that our stage manager was better suited to make those decisions.” Cliff added, “I didn’t want a practice room and told management that we have two problems which should be larger priorities; 1) we don’t have enough of the quality percussion equipment we need and 2) we don’t have enough funding to hire the players we need to cover all of the percussion parts due to artistic budget cuts.  So until those problems are fixed, I don’t see the need for spending any effort or money on a practice room”

I followed up by asking Cliff how well management has done to keep the players informed or to solicit input regarding the artistic issues in the design of the hall.  

“I’ve never been approached by management or members of the artistic advisory committee about my opinion regarding artistic or acoustic issues.  I’ve played in both Avery Fisher and Carnegie Halls, before and after their renovations, but I’ve never been able to talk to the acoustician or any of the architects about the hall they’re building here.  I’ve only been asked about a storage room and a practice room.”

Cliff continued by saying, “Management presents information about the hall occasionally. I’ve never been encouraged to ask questions or present my ideas and concerns.  And based on what I’ve been ‘told’ so far, I have some significant concerns about being able to perform large works or any pieces that feature a wide variety of percussion instruments.  Right now, it seems to be far too small.”

Compared to the other orchestras from the original study, Cliff’s experience is somewhat different.  In the other orchestras, individual musicians have been solicited for their artistic opinions regarding their hall project.

Additionally, it would make sense to actively solicit this type of input from the principal players in the orchestra.  Especially a section such as percussion where physical space and the unique sound issues related to their instruments have the greatest amount of variables to consider in the design of a new hall. 

Given those issues, it makes since that the members of Richmond’s management and artistic leadership would want to actively consider the input from members of the orchestra with experience similar to Cliff’s.

In order to produce a concert hall worth using, the best solution (and the one utilized by the other orchestras in the original study) is to have a significant amount of contact between the acoustician and the musicians.  Each player brings a unique and necessary perspective to the project based on their instrument and position in the orchestra.

When asked about the amount of direct contact that exists between musicians and the acoustician, David said there wasn’t much.

“Because the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation (VAPAF) is the organization building the [concert hall] and contracting the architects and acousticians, our links are inevitably funneled through VAPAF.  The Symphony representatives on the VAPAF Committees act as conduits for communication between VAPAF and the various constituencies of the Symphony: musicians, staff, Board, Music Director etc.”

When compared to the other orchestras in the study, this indicates that the amount of musician interaction and input with the people responsible for designing the acoustic and artistic properties of the hall is significantly less.

In Nashville, we learned about how direct musician interaction with the acoustician for their concert hall went a long way toward easing many of the players concerns about some of the design issues of their project.  Without that interaction, those concerns would have likely grown into anxiety.

In a recent issue of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, they ran an article about the new concert hall where they reported,

“[On the second floor] will be a rehearsal hall to be used by the Richmond Symphony and other musical groups.”

After reading this report, I remembered back to the original concert hall study to a quote from one of the musicians from the Nashville Symphony.

“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.”

I asked David Fisk about the Times-Dispatch report and how much time the orchestra would spend in the 34′ x 39′ rehearsal hall compared to the main stage.

David said, “Our desire and intention is to use the Music Hall stage for all our full orchestral rehearsals. But the rehearsal room upstairs would also be used by the Symphony for ensemble or chorus rehearsals etc.”

I contacted two additional members of the Richmond Symphony and asked if they were ever informed by management that they would be using a separate rehearsal room instead of the main stage for many of their rehearsals. 

They both said that they were never informed or heard mention of the room in any of the meetings presented by management.  The first they heard of it was in the Times-Dispatch article.  They both indicated a great deal of concern since that is a step back from the situation in their current hall, where the vast majority of their rehearsals take place on the main stage..

Since the hall in Dayton is completed, I asked their executive director, Curt Long, about what they do regarding rehearsal space.

Curt said, “Our preference is to always use the main stage for all rehearsals for Schuster Center concerts, but sometimes we have to schedule rehearsals when the main stage is not available (one of the drawbacks of sharing a multi-purpose hall).  And, on occasion, we will schedule a rehearsal in the rehearsal room for purely financial reasons–between stagehand expenses and theatre rental we can save several thousand dollars by having an isolated rehearsal in the rehearsal room rather than on stage.”

And in Kansas City, the concert hall is being designed as an exclusive symphony space, so it is planned that they will use the facility for their rehearsals and concerts.

It’s important to realize that the space where musicians rehearse is just as important as the space they perform.  Given the fact that Dayton doesn’t have as long of a season as Kansas City, Nashville, or Richmond it’s easy to see where there is an increased opportunity for conflict with the other organizations over the use of their main stage.

But Richmond seems to be moving in an opposite direction from that of Nashville and Kansas City.  By all accounts, the musicians at Nashville consider regular performances on the main stage as a critical component for their future success.

And as with any building project, it becomes exponentially more difficult to make any changes to the design and plans for a new concert hall with each passing week.  And it becomes equally as difficult for Richmond to enact any changes in their course that will determine their future for decades to come.

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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