Setting The Stages

Sparkling renovations at the Meyerhoff, in concert with a planned new hall in Montgomery County, should put the BSO and its director on sound footing for seasons to come.

January 20, 2000|By ED GUNTS | ED GUNTS,SUN STAFF

When Yuri Temirkanov makes his official debut tonight as artistic director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, he'll be performing in a 17-year-old concert hall that has just received nearly $7 million worth of renovations.

If Temirkanov stays with the symphony beyond his initial 3 1/2-year contract, he likely will divide his time between the renovated hall and a new one, nearly as large, planned for construction at a cost of $88.9 million.

The BSO is one of the few orchestras in the country with plans to occupy two major halls serving different markets -- the 2,450-seat Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore and the proposed 2,000-seat Concert Hall and Education Facility at the Strathmore Hall Arts Center in Montgomery County north of Bethesda.

By establishing a second home in suburban Washington, the symphony will be more accessible to residents of Maryland's most affluent county and the nation's capital. It is one of the factors that drew Temirkanov to the BSO.

According to president John Gidwitz, the BSO's staff and consultants have been working to make sure both halls are first-rate performing spaces for musicians and patrons. Gidwitz said he is particularly pleased with the improvements to the Meyerhoff -- the first acoustical upgrade since it opened in the Mount Royal cultural district in 1982 at a cost of $24 million.

"Among modern concert halls, [the Meyerhoff] is one of the very best," Gidwitz said. "There have been halls that cost more than four times what this did and may be fancier, but they're not better. . . I think this hall is, in every way, even better than when it opened. And it was damn good when it opened."

Temirkanov is involved in the design of the Montgomery County hall, Gidwitz said.

"He believes it is important for the hall to have an intimacy, a certain feeling of closeness, but also a sense of excitement shared between the audience and the performers," Gidwitz said. "And, of course, excellent acoustics."

The BSO began renovating the Meyerhoff in 1997, and the work was originally expected to be finished over three summers. But design team members and BSO officials subsequently decided to spread the repairs incrementally over a five-year period so they could better evaluate the changes along the way, Gidwitz explained.

The hall renovations are intended to improve acoustic conditions for performers as well as enhance the audience's listening experience. Certain changes were intended to give the orchestra's sound a bigger "push" into the hall and a more even distribution.

Areas that have been rebuilt include the stage walls, the auditorium side walls and the rear wall. The original wooden walls were replaced by massive solid walls made of concrete, plaster and wood.

In addition, the stage has been expanded, a piano lift installed and orchestra risers constructed to provide better sightlines for both the audience and musicians. The BSO also expanded the Meyerhoff's ticket office and ticket lobby, increased the number of restrooms, created a "Governing Members Lounge" and more backstage storage space.

All of these changes are signs that the BSO wants to remain competitive with other symphonies that are building concert halls or renovating older ones. Just this month, the Cleveland Orchestra returned to Severance Hall, a 1931 concert hall that reopened after a $36.7 million restoration, renovation and expansion.

The Washington office of RTKL Associates is the architect of the Meyerhoff renovations, with Kurt Haglund as principal in charge; Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. is the general contractor. Kirkegaard & Associates of Chicago is in charge of acoustics, and Auerbach of New York is responsible for theater design and lighting.

The BSO restricted construction work at the Meyerhoff to the summer months -- eight to 12 weeks at a time -- so it wouldn't interfere with the orchestra's fall and spring concert schedules. So far, $6.7 million has been spent out of a total budget of $9 million.

"I think we have accomplished 75 percent of our objectives," Gidwitz said earlier this month. "Much of the confusion and excess sound on the stage has been ameliorated. It's a lot more clear for the musicians. They can hear themselves much better.

"We also want to achieve greater clarity for the audience without sacrificing warmth and beauty," Gidwitz said. "I would say we have done that, but we will have still more warmth when we have finished the job."

Still to come will be elimination of the acoustic baffles that are currently suspended above the stage and construction of a new stage canopy designed to improve acoustics. The ceiling work is scheduled to begin this summer and be completed over the next two summers.

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