The new Ordway Concert Hall and why it excites me

By Barry Kempton

At our Schubert Club Annual Luncheon back in June, we shared the news that some of our International Artist Series recitals will move from the existing 1900-seat Ordway Music Theater to the still-under-construction 1100-seat Ordway Concert Hall. For those who haven’t driven down 5th Street into downtown Saint Paul recently, here’s a photo of the Ordway this morning as I look out of my window in Landmark Center.

I was pleased that the Star Tribune picked up this news last week and included it in an article about the Arts Partnership and our collaborative efforts to make the Ordway an even better center for the performing arts. The news has raised an important question from a number of people: Why are we going to move International Artist recitals to a smaller hall of 1100 seats when our audience is regularly 1500 people or more? It’s a fair question and one I’d like to address here. Leave aside the obvious capacity issue which I’ll come back to later. Primarily, what excites me about the new Concert Hall is that this is going to be a purpose-built Concert Hall with an acoustic designed for chamber orchestra (the SPCO), chamber music, and solo recitals.

Acoustician Paul Scarborough (of Acoustik) has a track record which promises us a room with the kind of support and warmth to unamplified sound which is all too rarely found. Though many great artists have performed and will continue to perform on the Music Theater stage (our current Ordway home), the size and design of the Music Theater are not ideal for smaller-scale, intimate performances, which are the hallmark of chamber music and recitals. Dare I say it, I sat in a decent seat at the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s opening concert on Saturday evening and the energy and vigor that I could see the musicians giving to their performance was never matched by the sound that reached me in my seat. The Schubert Club could never present a guitar recital on the current Music Theater stage, for instance, without having some kind of sound system to amplify the guitar. We fully expect that an un-amplified guitar recital will be possible in the new Ordway Concert Hall.

Which brings me to the other key anticipated difference in the experience of the new Concert Hall: the intimacy factor. The room will smaller and so every audience member will be physically close to the stage. That is how recitals and chamber music work best – the audience and the performers are in the same room, sharing the experience and sounds of the music. I’m told that the seat furthest from the stage in the new Concert Hall will be the equivalent of sitting in the front row of the first balcony in the existing Music Theater. There won’t be a bad seat in the house!

Another more practical benefit to us will be that all four organizations of the Arts Partnership including The Schubert Club will have more flexibility with scheduling our presentations. One of the challenges for The Schubert Club has been to match hall availability with the limited recital touring dates of major artists. Though both Ordway venues will certainly be busy in the future, I have a sense that there will be less schedule congestion which will make it easier for us to coordinate with visiting artist schedules.

Given the above positives, we have of course to deal with the challenge of accommodating our wonderful audience in a concert hall with a smaller capacity. Our solution is to have most of our visiting artists perform two recitals; and by scheduling one of these as a daytime recital, we are hoping that many of our audience members who prefer not to drive in the evenings (particularly on those very cold winter days we are guaranteed here in Minnesota), will be pleased to see a daytime option. Certainly it will be a bit of an experiment for us, but one well worth taking and one, I am pleased to say, that seems to be well understood by audience members as they contemplate the change next season.

The first opportunity to experience recitals and chamber music of the kind we will present in the new Ordway Concert Hall will be in the “Rock the Ordway” grand re-opening of the venue in March 2016. Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto is joined by Irish accordionist Dermot Dunne in a program of J. S. Bach and traditional Scandinavian folk music and a week later, we present the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in a program of vocal music including Brahms’ glorious Liebeslieder Waltzes. And our Scholarship Winners’ Recital will be presented in the new Concert Hall too. We hope that these will be opportunities for regulars and new audience members alike to sample the new Concert Hall and to see for yourselves what it looks, sounds, and feels like.