Harmonic Conversion

Baltimore's venerable Peabody Institute remakes itself for the 21st century

A Higher Note

Peabody raises the curtain on renovations to upgrade the conservatory's campus and welcome back the public.

Cover Story

April 18, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

During the 1980s, when celebrated soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson was a newcomer to the faculty at the Peabody Institute's Conservatory of Music, she wasn't exactly bowled over by the physical condition of the place. "I thought we were producing incredible beauty in the ugliest facilities," she says. "The beauty was internalized."

It's about to be externalized, with all appropriate fanfare.

This week, Peabody unveils nearly $27 million worth of campus renovations, the most extensive and expensive construction project since the institution opened in 1866. For the first time, all the main buildings of the Mount Vernon Place landmark have been connected; students, faculty and staff can get from one corner of the campus to another without having to brave any of the elements. And severely antiquated, potentially dangerous plumbing and wiring have been updated.

But the real payoff from the project is intended for those beyond Peabody's doors.

"The point of all this is to welcome the public in," says Peabody Institute director Robert Sirota. "When George Peabody conceived of an institute, the idea was that this should be a public facility."

The original complex offered Baltimore's first public library (the strikingly elegant George Peabody Library remains one of the city's structural gems), as well as a public art gallery. Lectures and musical events were also offered to the public.

"As the 20th century unwound, the school lost a lot of that," Sirota says. "It gradually became more ingrown and elitist and, I think, separate from Peabody's vision. It sounds like an idealistic thing, but I'm trying to more closely adhere to George Peabody's original charge. We are now coming full circle."

That's no small transformation, considering that the school was in danger of folding 25 years ago, because of mounting debts and an exhausted endowment. It was saved only by the intervention of Johns Hopkins University, which remains Peabody's administrative parent.

This affiliation has been decidedly successful. A decade of balanced budgets under Sirota's direction has solidified the institute's standing with Hopkins. The endowment is up to $70 million, "its historic high," he says. And, while the renovation project was getting under way, Peabody flexed its muscles by opening an adjunct operation in the Far East in cooperation with the National University of Singapore.

Peabody's Baltimore faculty roster keeps adding to its star power -- violinist Pamela Frank and soprano Harolyn Blackwell are two notable recent additions. Many of the school's alumni are doing increasingly admired work around the world; composer Michael Hersch is just one example. With such positive developments and now a gleaming campus renovation, Peabody generates the unmistakable impression of an institution on a roll.

'A soprano's dream'

The new look of the place should help the school reconnect with the community around it to a greater degree than ever before. Although the public was always welcome for performances, the entrance to the main concert hall tended to be dark at night. At other times of the day, access to the compound was hard to find.

From now on, though, people should have little difficulty finding the public gateway at the top of a few steps at 17 E. Mount Vernon Place (handicapped access is also available). And this gateway will be open from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday through Saturday, noon to 10 p.m. on Sunday.

An attractive foyer, where newly hired "information officers" will greet those visitors, sits between entryways to the concert hall on one side, the Peabody Library on the other. Straight ahead is the new, glass-roofed Grand Arcade -- "A Main Street for Peabody," Sirota says.

A gently curved staircase that descends more than 20 feet provides quite a focal point and is already drawing raves. "I like the art nouveau touches," says first-year student Kati Haynes. "At some point during the construction," says Blackwell, "I went, 'OK, I've had it with the paint.' Then I saw that gorgeous staircase, and thought, 'It's all worth it.' " Blackwell isn't the only singer who has taken a shine to the central fixture of the arcade. "That descending staircase -- it's a soprano's dream," says Bryn-Julson. "I just don't know what to wear."

In addition to its potential for facilitating grand entrances, this new spot has a practical function, as cellist and faculty member Michael Kannen notes: "People are already starting to say, 'I'll meet you at the staircase.' "

At the foot of the stairs is one of the biggest improvements in public-friendliness. "Having a new box office may seem like a little thing," says faculty member and Peabody Trio violinist Violaine Melancon, "but people used to have to wander through the bowels of the school to reach the old one."

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