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Severance payoff: Refurbished orchestra hall to reopen in Cleveland

Sunday, January 02, 2000

By Caroline Abels, Post-Gazette Cultural Arts Writer

It may not be as monumental an event as when Loew's Penn Theatre in Downtown Pittsburgh opened as Heinz Hall in 1971. But this week, Cleveland will reopen a freshly refurbished orchestra hall to an eagerly awaiting classical music crowd, much as Pittsburgh did nearly three decades ago.

On Saturday, a $36 million renovation of Severance Hall, home of the Cleveland Orchestra for the past seven decades, will culminate in a gala concert by the world-renowned orchestra. It will be the first performance on the hall's new stage, which was designed to enhance the auditorium's acoustics and architecture.

It will also be the first concert at which audience members can use the hall's increased number of all-important public restrooms. (The orchestra trumpets a 150 percent increase in women's stalls.)

Patrons also will notice a new addition at the back of the hall and a repainted auditorium, which had not been touched since Severance opened in 1931. The orchestra also plans to operate a full-time restaurant on site and, much like the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra with its store opposite Heinz Hall, will run a retail shop that will feature Cleveland Orchestra CDs.

Next year, the hall's 6,025-pipe organ will be reinstalled after a renovation. A 1958 acoustic refurbishment nearly covered over the organ, rendering it unusable. The lifeless organ was a primary reason why Cleveland's music director, Christoph von Dohnányi, wanted to refurbish the stage, said Donald Rosenberg, the Cleveland Plain Dealer's classical music writer.

"He also wanted to get more warmth in the [sound of the] hall," Rosenberg said. "He felt it was a little too bright."

Problems with the neo-classical hall, which is made of Ohio sandstone and Indiana limestone, began to surface in the 1970s. Details in its architecture had begun to fade, and backstage areas were increasingly cramped.

"It was looking a little dour, and needed to be updated for the 21st century," Rosenberg said.

So in 1994, buoyed by artistic recognition under the baton of von Dohnányi and by economic growth and revitalization in Cleveland, the orchestra formulated a plan for refurbishment. The hall, which is in University Circle, is considered an architectural treasure, which might have helped the orchestra raise $100 million over the last five years for the refurbishment project, operating expenses and its endowment.

Rosenberg said he has not heard the sound of the hall but noted that the stage area, which has been restored to its original art-deco style, is "utterly magnificent."

"I can't think of any concert hall that's more beautiful," he said.

David M. Schwartz Architectural Services of Washington, D.C., was the architect, and Jaffe Holden Scarbrough of Connecticut were the acoustical consultants.

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