Merriweather pavilion dances to a new tune

July 01, 2004|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

A few hours before the band Dashboard Confessional took the stage at Merriweather Post Pavilion, Chad Houseknecht was on the job, fixing an electrical problem near the stage, directing workers to put more plants in the artists' dining area and calling for staff on his radio to empty a full garbage can.

As director of ambience and atmosphere, Houseknecht is also leading a larger effort to make the Columbia venue more appealing, from an acoustic overhaul to more art on the grounds to sushi at the snack bar.

"I just want people to have an escape when they come here," said Seth Hurwitz, who owns Bethesda-based I.M.P. with partner Rich Heinecke. Their company, which owns the 9:30 Club in Washington, took over management of Merriweather this year, replacing Clear Channel Entertainment Inc.

It is a welcome change to many. Merriweather's owner, the Rouse Co., had complained of limited concerts and poor financial performance in recent years. But Rouse still says it wants the pavilion, which seats 5,000 under its roof and 10,000 on its sloping lawn, converted into a year-round, enclosed arts venue.

No timetable is in place for that to happen, and last month, Howard County began studying the possibility of buying Merriweather, with no firm plans for its future.

Amid all of the uncertainty, Hurwitz and his staff have thrown themselves into making Merriweather a success.

"All we can do is make it the best venue it can be and hope that counts for everything," he said.

The venue has booked 16 concerts so far this year, drawing popular acts such as Diana Krall, who is scheduled to perform Saturday; Kenny Chesney and the Dave Matthews Band, both of whom have sold-out shows this month; and Norah Jones and Sarah McLachlan, slated to appear next month.

More are under consideration, although Hurwitz said the focus is on quality and variety, not quantity.

Merriweather will also offer the McDonald's Sessions at Merriweather concert series on Saturdays from July 17 through Sept. 4.

The series will bring national and regional acts to the pavilion, with tickets going for $10 or $15 at the door.

Performers include Fuel, Evanescence (patrons must buy tickets to a second Sessions show to get the low rate for that band), Big Boi of Outkast and Cake.

Hurwitz said he hopes that people will be impressed by the improvements that have been made over the past few months.

Two changes are specifically aimed at the quality of the show.

The Walters-Storyk Design Group, a New York-based architectural and acoustic design firm, completed a renovation that included installing 300 new acoustical panels on the pavilion ceiling.

The pavilion was designed by architect Frank Gehry and built in 1967 with state-of-the-art acoustics to serve as home to the National Symphony.

But the orchestra shell has disappeared and over the years, amplified rock, country and pop bands have become the main users of the hall.

The acoustic panels and other improvements serve to soften the sound and make the space "more lively," Houseknecht said.

New video screens have also been installed beside the stage and on the outside of the structure for lawn patrons, with technology that makes them visible even before the sun goes down.

"This commitment to the sound is something I'm really happy about," said Ian Kennedy, a Columbia resident and fan of the venue.

Kennedy has been a member of the grass-roots group Save Merriweather since last year and said the group is pleased overall with the choice of I.M.P.

"People talk about how it's this fading dinosaur of a pavilion," he said. "It's still got plenty of life and I hope people see that."

Other changes are aimed at improving the ambience. More than a dozen sculptures have been added to the lawn area, as well as a sculpture garden. Some, like a dinosaur made by Baltimorean Derek Arnold out of tractor and machinery parts, and a towering silver figure with waving hair by Washington-based Robert T. Cole, are visible from all over the property.

More benches provide places to mingle, signs and trash cans have been repainted in a blue and brown leaf pattern, and the grounds have been beautified with landscaping, screens and foliage.

Food service has been handed over to Baltimore-based Charm City Hospitality. Food stands now offer veggie wraps, salads, fruit, and sushi along with pit beef, hot dogs and pizza.

Some changes are specifically for the artists, including newly decorated dressing rooms and new basketball hoops behind the loading dock.

Throughout the venue, "We want to make it fun again," Houseknecht said. "We want to get away from that cookie-cutter thing."

Hurwitz estimated that several hundred thousand dollars in improvements have been made so far. With so much scrutiny of the venue by its owners and fans, "We should give it the best shot we can," he said.

"The real key is ... this is the first time the venue had been operated by someone who views it as the real crown jewel of their business," said County Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat.

He believes I.M.P. is "really 100 percent focused on restoring it to its former greatness."

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