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Arts complex opens in Philly with fanfare

Monday, December 17, 2001

By Andrew Druckenbrod, Post-Gazette Classical Music Critic

PHILADELPHIA -- The acoustics need tweaking, but this city's striking new performing arts complex, the Kimmel Center, announced itself Saturday night as a major player on the international scene.

Verizon Hall in the Kimmel Center is the new home of the Philadelphia Orchestra. (Brad C. Bower, Associated Press)

Its Verizon Hall marks the new home of the Philadelphia Orchestra, replacing its 144-year-old Academy of Music.

Built with $265 million in gifts and public money, the center is yoked to a burden of heavy expectations. But with breathtaking design and committed resident companies, it's likely the arts hub will solidify interest in performing arts for decades to come.

You'd never discern a weighty mandate from architect Rafael Vinoly's buoyant design, which casts a glass barrel vault over nearly an entire city block on the vibrant and prestigious Avenue of the Arts. Vinoly, who is designing Pittsburgh's new convention center, has succeeded in placing a novel, curved design in a city of right angles and has created a extraordinary structure that will no doubt come to signify music to the city and region.

The Kimmel Center not only complements the city line (playing off the nearby Academy through its red brick and other features) but also lessens the elitist connotations of art music by allowing those inside and outside to see each other. The glass shell is ribbed, rather than flat, which slightly skews perspective and creates the marvelous illusion that it curves. Inside the enclosed structure, city and sky leap out at you, whether you are eating at one of its restaurants or moving toward one of its two venues, 2,500-seat Verizon Hall and 650-seat Perelman Theater. Though radically different -- Verizon's rich makore wood to Perelman's corrugated steel -- the ever-present canopy calms the halls' potentially jarring juxtaposition.

The Academy of Music is a beautiful building, inexorably linked to the Orchestra. But it could not satisfy the many demands put on a modern symphony orchestra. I visited it this past spring to get the sound of the orchestra's old hall in my ear one last time. I quickly realized, however, that the famed poor acoustics of the venue weren't the only problem. Rather, it was its cramped seating, poor sight-lines and inadequate facilities.

It was clear that classical music in Philadelphia could not compete with other forms of entertainment in these conditions. You truly had to love classical music to suffer through the seating at the academy, and America doesn't have enough of those patrons these days to keep a symphony afloat. Verizon Hall far outpaces the academy in comfort and amenities.

Of course, the ultimate concern with a symphony is how things sound. With the Philadelphia Orchestra, this has spun out into a paradox. The orchestra has built its stellar reputation largely on its signature "Philadelphia Sound," which arose partly to compensate for the poor acoustics of the Academy of Music. What happens to that sound, then, when it settles down into an acoustically perfect hall? Having lost its distinctive hall, will the ensemble someday lose its distinctive sound?

These thoughts worried everyone involved, not least of all the musicians. "We were frightened to death with what might happen to the Philadelphia Sound," said orchestra bassist Neil Courtney, who was on a new hall committee. The sound is not likely to disappear, though, since the orchestra's traditions of bowing and selective auditioning have to do with people, not buildings. Only time will tell.

Saturday night's gala opening showed, however, that Verizon Hall is not yet acoustically worthy to even bring up the issue of how the orchestra will adjust to a savvy hall. The sound of the orchestra, led by music director Wolfgang Sawallisch, was dominated by treble registers and lacked warmth, though solos were clearly heard. With wrap-around seating and a curvy take on the classic shoebox layout, the orchestra felt right on one's lap. But the sound was distant and small and lacked presence. The audience should be swimming in the lushness of Ravel's Suite No. 2 from "Daphnis et Chloe," but we were parched.

Luckily for the orchestra, the acoustics were designed by Russell Johnson, who has pioneered moveable parts in halls around the world. The hall will be able to shift on a time continuum, adjusting to the requirements of any given night through manipulation of curtains, canopy, stage and side chambers.

"Each different format of symphony and choral music needs an acoustics environment tailored specifically to its nature," Johnson said earlier this year, articulating his core philosophy. "To achieve good acoustics for all the formats of music is an awesome task. But that is what is needed, and that is what symphony conductors desire in the world of music in 2001." For now, however, Johnson must establish a semipermanent set that is better than the one at present, so the orchestra can begin to transfer its sound to the new space the way it does when it tours.

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra will be one of the first visiting orchestras to check out Kimmel when it swings by the center in November 2002 on its tour to Carnegie Hall in New York City. "Being a Pennsylvania orchestra, you want to be a visiting orchestra in this wonderful facility," said Gideon Toeplitz, who attended the opening.

In addition to exhibiting unfinished acoustics, the concert itself held some memorable moments. Former governor Tom Ridge, who was central in securing more than $63 million in state funds for the center, spoke, a new work by Aaron Jay Kernis premiered and cellist Yo-Yo Ma lived up to his name: In Beethoven's Triple Concerto with pianist Emanuel Ax and violinist Itzhak Perlman, Ma's chair fell off the back of his soloist platform, but he righted himself before he hit the floor and then played on.

Now, all that needs to happen is for Verizon Hall to follow suit and right its acoustic issues for decades of performances to come.

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