Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Domino Effect

During the past few years we have experienced a distressing domino effect among arts organizations across this country (and its not just limited to the U.S.)  First, members of the Detroit Symphony went on a six-month strike beginning October 4, 2010.  Then, the Philadelphia Orchestra became the first major ensemble to declare Chapter 11 reorganization (April 16, 2011).  Two major orchestras: Minnesota (2012-2014) and Atlanta sent their musicians packing in protracted lock outs.  The venerable Metropolitan Opera narrowly avoided a strike and suspension of their season this past autumn.  Other, smaller ensembles are in jeopardy or have simply closed shop.  Case in point: the Green Bay (WI) Symphony is currently presenting its 100th (and last) season of concerts.

A different kind of domino effect is taking place in the conducting world as three very important posts will be up for grabs in 2017-18.

Chief among these is music directorship of the Berlin Philharmonic, a post held by Sir Simon Rattle since 2002.  His departure was well-documented and announced in January 2013.  While many names are being bandied about, a successor has not been named.  One thing is certain:  it will not be an American.  Here is a list of the principal conductors of the BPO:
  • Ludwig von Brenner (1882–1887)
  • Hans von Bülow (1887–1892)
  • Arthur Nikisch (1895–1922)
  • Wilhelm Furtwängler (1922–1945)
  • Leo Borchard (May – August 1945)
  • Sergiu Celibidache (1945–1952)
  • Wilhelm Furtwängler (1952–1954)
  • Herbert von Karajan (1954–1989)
  • Claudio Abbado (1989–2002)
  • Sir Simon Rattle (2002–2018)
Munich's atrocious Gasteig
I predict a German--just a hunch.  That said, Mariss Jansons, is very unhappy in Munich as the government has reneged on its promise of a new concert hall, opting instead to renovate the atrocious Gasteig.  While Valery Gergiev is conductor of Munich's "other" orchestra, he's not headed to Berlin. It can probably be safely said that Berlin will not go the way of the "youth movement."

On top of all this, rumors have been circulated that Sir Simon is being courted for a return to his native Britain to lead the London Symphony.  The conductor has, thus far, not indicated that he has any interest especially due to the fact that London possesses no concert hall of international stature (see S & P, 1/22/15).  However, suddenly support for a new London hall seems to be gaining traction.  Who knows what will happen?

* * * * * * * * * *

On this side of the pond, announcements of conductor departures have been swift:

  • Earlier this month, Alan Gilbert of the NY Phil, announced his resignation effective 2017.  This could not come at a worse time as the orchestra will be homeless starting in 2019 to accommodate yet another renovation of the hall formerly known as Avery Fisher.  The orchestra has little time to name a successor and recent searches haven't always gone as planned.  In 2000, the rumor mill was rife with news that Riccardo Muti was the top choice but he (apparently repeatedly) turned them down, making Gilbert--at best--a second choice.  Muti, of course, went to Chicago.  However things turn out this time, whomever is selected will still live in the shadow of Leonard Bernstein.  Although he has been gone almost 25 years, Bernstein remains, for many, the face and voice of the Philharmonic and much of America's music, for that matter.
  • Even more recently (this past week) the National Symphony in Washington, D.C. announced the departure of Christoph Eschenbach.  It seems as though the NSO has always been deemed a second-tier ensemble and Eschenbach hasn't really helped things.  His programs are sometimes fine and sometimes horrible, as evidenced by a disastrous 2013 Cosi fan Tutte in Salzburg.  And despite his track record, he was among the highest paid music directors in the world.  What will become of this post?   Contemporary criticism has it that the orchestra has been largely rudderless since the tenure of Antal Dorati, who left in 1977.  That said, Kennedy Center has a new boss in former Chicago CEO Deborah Rutter.  If anyone can get the job done in a short time, she can. 
Any way they stack up, I'm available!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Poland's Concert Hall Building Boom

Like much of Germany, Poland was decimated during World War 2.  Caught between the Nazi forces (set out to wipe the state from the map) and--eventually, following Hitler's ill-fated attempt to overcome the Russian winter, the Soviets--the country suffered nearly intended fate of the German Socialists.  The initial attack began on September 1, 1939.  Both the UK and France would declare war on Germany, but no one came to Poland's aid and its own army surrendered in October.

First, the Nazis established the Jewish Ghetto and then began shipping the inhabitants to Auschwitz.  The ghetto was eventually destroyed along with most of the capital, Warsaw.  The entire country lay in ruin.

85% of Warsaw was in ruins following the war.
Following the war, the country was given over to the Soviets as one of its satellites behind the Iron Curtain.  Any investment at all was made in restoring the country's basic infrastructure, 80% of which was destroyed nationwide.  Up until recently, very little was put forth into cultural amenities of the nation of Chopin.

But since the fall of communism, a movement which began in Gdansk (the city formerly known as Danzig, which has an interesting history of its own), we have seen what the New York Times calls Poland's Concert Hall Revival.  Among some of the more significant developments include

  • Warsaw:  Among the first buildings to be bombed, the Warsaw Philharmonic Hall was not reconstructed until the mid-1950s.  It's rendering was a pastiche between its former grandeur and Soviet realism.
Current Philharmonic Hall
A design contest was held to build a replacement.  Combining both the shoebox (for acoustics) and arena (for sight lines) styles, Austrian architect Thomas Pucher has proposed an exciting 1,800 seat venue, looking something like this:

Sinfonia Warsovia Concert Hall

  • Krakow:  Among Europe's newest concert venues is the city's Congress Hall, resplendent with a 2,100 seat concert space (that's large for Europe).  

Other new sites in smaller Polish cities include:

Polish National Radio Symphony Hall, Katowice

Philharmonic Hall, Szczecin
This really doesn't work for me...


National Forum of Music, Wroclaw

National Forum of Music, interior
Lest one believe that everything is new, efforts were completed in 1965 to restore and actually enlarge the magnificent Grand Theater of Warsaw, home to the Polish National Opera.

Grand National Theater, Warsaw (1,841 seats)

the stunning interior
One has to believe that, if such building can take place in once-war-torn Poland, it should be able to happen anywhere.  Of course, there needs to be a commitment to a country's culture.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The many homes of the Detroit Symphony...

Beginning its life in 1887, the DSO is the fourth oldest orchestra in America.  Concerts were held from that time until spring 1919 (with a hiatus from 1910 to 1914) at the old Detroit Opera House.

Old Detroit Opera House, 1906

The summer of 1919 was spent in a whirlwind of construction.  Russian pianist and conductor Ossip Gabrilowitsch had accepted a contract extension under the condition that a new concert hall be built worthy of the increasingly-renowned ensemble.  It took less than five months to build Orchestra Hall and the inaugural concert was held October 23, 1919.  One of the printed programs from the previous season summed up the orchestra's sentiments, “The new hall not only fills a demand, but marks a new era in the annals of musical history in Detroit. It will be the center of Detroit’s musical life.”

Orchestra Hall, 1924

1970, long after the move. Decaying grandeur.

Despite a beautiful (and acoustically sound) concert hall, the orchestra could not overcome the financial difficulties cause by the Great Depression, and left their own home for greater security offered by Detroit's Masonic Auditorium--the largest such facility in the world.

Aerial view of the Masonic campus

Detroit Masonic Auditorium interior
Although blessed with a very large and attractive facility, there were obvious drawbacks to performing at the Masonic facility.  With 4,404 seats, it was virtually impossible for the orchestra to "sell out" its concerts.  Thus, in a move similar to the Chicago Symphony (which had been holding its concerts in the 3,900 seat Auditorium Theater), the orchestra sought out another "new dig."  In 1946, the DSO moved into the renamed Music Hall.

Music Hall:  not really an external beauty

I once saw a movie (Greatest Story Ever Told?) from the balcony

Yet another move took place with the construction of Ford Auditorium on the riverfront in 1956.  Located near Cobo Arena (former home of the Detroit Pistons) and later, Joe Lewis Arena (soon-to-be former home of the Red Wings), Ford was a troublesome space from the start.  With an overly wide house (and other never-solved problems) the acoustics were atrocious.  Despite that, the DSO created a number of landmark recordings for the Mercury "Living Presence" label during that time.  The hall did have a fabulous Aeolian-Skinner organ so buried in the fly-space that it could barely be heard.

Ford Auditorium, 1950s chic

Not exactly a shoebox (I'd hate to sit under that overhang!)

Finally bringing her down in 2011.

By the 1970s, efforts were afoot to reclaim Orchestra Hall and, following a nearly 20-year renovation (the building had been re-used as a theater, among other things), the DSO moved home.  What goes around comes around and despite money troubles and labor strife, the DSO lives on.  In a city so recently bound for the dumpster, great things are happening in MidTown (and soon there will be a new hockey arena!  Ugh)

Magnificent Orchestra Hall...a thing of beauty.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Concert halls: the "gold" standard

As I have often written, little has been done to improve (at least for acoustical properties) upon the "shoebox" design.  Back before acousticians and their extensive computer models, concert hall design was basically hit or miss.  But somewhere in the nineteenth century, someone came upon what would prove to be the biggest "hit."

Another consideration--at least in my view--is that the exterior of the hall should not detract from the interior.  A concert hall should not necessarily be an artist's or architect's statement; rather, the simpler the better.  Cases in point:  Carnegie Hall and the old Met are/were no great beauties from the outside, but once inside the house, the beauty was apparent.  It could be the basic simplicity of Carnegie or the almost gaudy pretentiousness of the old Met (though I love it).

Here are the concert halls, limited in number, upon which all others are compared.

Musikverein exterior: classical simplicity
The Great Hall of the Wiener Musikverein, Vienna.  Designed by Danish architect, Theophil Hansen, and opened in 1870, the hall is itself rather small by "American" standards, with seating capacity of 1,744 and standing room for an additional 300.  But, oh the sounds! 

Inside the "golden" hall
The sounds of one of the world's great orchestras resound through architect Adolf Leonard van Gendt's famed Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.  Completed in 1888 on land that was, at the time, devoted to pasture, the hall has a commanding presence in the central part of the modern city.  It, too, is not overly large, with seating captain of 1,974.  I'm sensing a pattern here.....

Concertgebouw--shares a square with the Royal and Van Gogh Museums

Nothing "in the way" of the resonance of the hall

And the final part of our golden triumvirate belongs to an American hall and no, it's not in New York, Chicago, Cleveland (although Severance Hall is a fine space) or Los Angeles.  Symphony Hall in Boston came into being rather late, having opened in 1900.  It was, in fact, one of the first concert halls designed with the aid of an acoustician, Harvard physics professor Wallace Clement Sabine.  With an overall design based upon Leipzig's Old Gewandhaus (destroyed during WW2), it has required only one renovation: a $250,000 restoration of the stage area in 2006, employing original materials and construction techniques.  The 2,625 leather seats are all original.  Symphony Hall remains a monument to its city and to the great orchestra that performs there.

Symphony Hall...looks familiar

So does this....the design that can hardly fail...

Up next:  New(er) halls done right...