New Ordway Concert Hall: Dazzling or Disappointing?

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DSCN2413One of the newest performing arts venues in the U.S. – the $42 million Ordway Concert Hall – opened several months ago in St. Paul, Minn. We attended the public open house before the grand opening, where several ensembles – both vocal and instrumental – delighted audiences with free performances.

Since its March 5th debut, the hall has garnered rave reviews from musicians with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO) and audience members. However, art’s subjectivity means not everyone’s happy.

Organic & Geometric. This new concert hall was designed by Tim Carl with the Minneapolis architecture firm HGA, in partnership with acoustical consultant Paul Scarbrough. The hall’s intimate scale means that none of the 1,100 seats is more than 90 feet from the stage. The ceiling is lined with seemingly endless rows (actually 14 miles!) of mahogany-stained oak dowels, arranged in wave-like patterns and appearing like a brown surf cascading toward the stage. In contrast to the ceiling’s organic look, the side walls feature geometric, angular shapes – more than 1,000 white gypsum panels of various depths intended to increase sound diffusion.

Unplugged Ears. The informality of the open house encouraged people to move around the hall, even during performances, to enjoy the varied vistas and sounds. We can attest to the new hall’s clarity, resonance and warmth. Writing later in the StarTribune about the SPCO’s opening-night concert, classical-music critic Michael Anthony found little to criticize:

“….the SPCO in its new home sounds like a different orchestra – richer in color, more resonant, capable of more fully detailed music-making. It was as if our ears became unplugged…

Even The New York Times covered the opening program; critic Anthony Tommasini was equally enthusiastic:

You could sense the excitement of the musicians over their new home, especially during the Beethoven, as the players leaned forward in their seats, listening to one another intently. Inner voices and solo lines came through beautifully. Yet the overall sound had symphonic depth and, during big climaxes, plenty of heft.”

Dissenting Voice. Unsurprisingly, acclaim was not universal; notable architecture – like famous art – attracts detractors. (Back in 1891, rumor has it, one of Andrew Carnegie’s business rivals disparaged his new “Music Hall” in Manhattan for sounding “too steely”!) While not a professional music critic, Margo Fortunato Galt took issue with the Ordway Concert Hall’s aesthetics. A writer and teacher, Galt wrote an opinion piece in the StarTribune that likened the interior décor to a “packing box…lined with white Bubble Wrap and Styrofoam pellets.”

Galt doesn’t fault the hall’s acoustics, but unfavorably compares her Ordway experience to the pleasure of an outdoor concert at Tanglewood Music Center in Massachusetts. She recalled an al fresco performance there by Yo-Yo Ma and his orchestra, accompanied by “small, natural sounds, including a distant rumble of thunder.” After enduring another long, cold Minnesota winter, maybe it’s only natural that Galt would prefer her fond memories of summer concerts outdoors. (Maybe the Ordway’s white walls subconsciously reminded her of snowbanks?)

Your Views on Venues? What’s your opinion of the new Ordway Concert Hall? What concert venues are most memorable for you? Can you separate aesthetics from acoustics?



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