Some (well… Many) Thoughts about the New Orchestra Hall

This month marked a milestone for me—my first time back in Orchestra Hall since June 15, 2012, when the building closed for renovation.  Truth be told, that particular day was a milestone in and of itself. I had worked at Orchestra Hall in some capacity since 1992, and had been a regular performer there as a member of the Minnesota Chorale since 2002.  On that day, I sang selections from Carmina Burana and Steven Heiztig’s new work, Let Us Start the Great Round, then walked out to the lobby to share a celebratory champagne toast with my co-workers before ceremoniously turning my passcard in to my boss.  It was a bittersweet day that I vividly remember for its mix of camaraderie, wonderful artistry, final chapters, new possibilities—and anxious concerns about how the contract negotiations were going.

As we all know now, those concerns were more than well founded, and the last year and a half has been a nightmare.

But at long last, the nightmare is over and we are awakening to a new day.  For me personally, the “end” of the dispute came now, when I finally returned to a place I called home for more than two decades.

In light of this, I wanted to share my first impression of the new building—a review not of the Minnesota Orchestra, but rather Orchestra Hall itself.

And I have to say that this was a hard blog entry to complete.  I fully realize we’re in a healing phase as we try to move beyond the lockout, and I hate to go negative at such a time.  And I have deep, long-standing ties to many who work there (my return was punctuated with frequent flying hugs), and I hate to put forward anything that could in any way reflect badly on them.

But at the end of the day, my first impression is the renovations represent a missed opportunity.

* * *

Let me begin my review with a bit of background.

For many years now, I have interfaced with Orchestra Hall intensely, and done so in a wide range of capacities; as a result, I am intimately aware with its highlights and shortcomings.  Moreover, I’ve seen how the use of space has evolved over time, responding to ever-changing artistic demands, audience expectations, technological capabilities, and economic realities.

And based on my experience, I absolutely believe that the refurbishing of Orchestra Hall was a necessity.

Don’t get me wrong.  I know there are legitimate questions as to why such a project should have taken place, and why it should have happened when it did.  There’s a long history of businesses (both for-profit and non-profit) building a fancy new headquarters only to see a substantial dip in their business immediately thereafter, primarily because everyone was so concerned with the new project that no one was minding the store properly, so to speak.

And since my blog’s inception, I’ve obviously devoted a great deal of time and energy criticizing the way this project unfolded.

But let me be clear: the lobby had some significant issues that were serving as a drag on its operations.  Or maybe a better way of putting it is that Orchestra Hall’s public spaces had issues that were serving as a drag on its operations.  For one, the lobby was only designed to hold about 1,800 people—while the Hall itself seated 2,450.  This created a crush of humanity that clogged walkways and made it nearly impossible to move from one side to the other.  Restroom facilities and other amenities were woefully inadequate.  And of course, there were huge issues of accessibility.  Caterers, vendors, staff members, audience members, performers… everyone had difficulties getting around—especially those who used wheelchairs or had other mobility issues.

And ultimately, there was simply an issue of how space was used.  There were no break-out areas where smaller groups could perform or rooms for the education or outreach programs, let alone any discrete public meeting spaces.

As a result of all this, the lobby desperately needed a make-over.  It no longer matched with how people used its space, or what audiences expected when they arrived at a world-class theatre.  Yes, it was possible to present good concerts, but everything had a jury-rigged feel to it, and there were clear limitations to how the space could be used.

When the MOA announced their intention to refurbish the Hall, ostensibly to improve the audience experience, I was a strong supporter.  And because I knew how badly the renovations were needed, I was hopeful that the Orchestra would go all in and make all the changes that were needed, and do them well.

* * *

So, did it work?  Did the MOA achieve its aims of truly improving the customer experience?

Well, somewhat.

There were some clear highlights.  The discrete spaces, such as the atrium and the new green room that replaces the Cargill Room, were friendly and nicely apportioned.  They are great additions that happily meet the need for stand-alone, flexible-use spaces.  I liked the idea of a fireplace in the atrium, although I’m not entirely convinced by the scale.  Both rooms featured full-length windows that provided incredible views of Peavey Plaza.  One quibble, however—from experience, I note that in the summer the atrium will be both baked and blinded by the sunshine in the afternoon-evening.   It looks like they attempted to mitigate this with a few strategically placed “fins” at the top of the windows, but I’m curious to see if they are sufficient.

I appreciated the open design, aided and abetted by the extensive windows that helped make the space feel expansive, despite the crowds.  The windows also provided wonderful views of downtown, helping to anchor the space in the urban fabric of Minneapolis.

The staff was doing everything to make the space as friendly and welcoming as they could.  Clearly they are happy to be back, and their enthusiasm was contagious.

And I want to point out that one of the most glaring issues I noted—the recurrent traffic jams—may ultimately resolve itself.  Since one of the overriding goals of the rebuild was to ease traffic flow, it was dispiriting to see that congestion was very much alive and well.  That said, I understand that nearly everyone was brand-new to the building, and unsure about where to go or how to get there.  This is to be expected—I know people who still get turned around in the “new” Guthrie.  Plus, many of us were deliberately wandering to take in the sights, and presumably as time goes on we’ll be more direct about going where we want to go.

But still—if the goal of the lobby redesign was to make people feel at home, and serve as a gathering place, shouldn’t people be able to meander, and not rush in and make a bee-line for their seats?

Unfortunately, there were more serious problems.

Too Corporate. My reservations began right away upon entering the building from the skyway.  It felt… well, corporate.  It felt like an extension of the skyway itself, or the skyway level of any other office building in downtown Minneapolis, such as the Crystal Court or the atrium of the US Bank building.  In a way, I wouldn’t have been surprised if the perimeter of the Tier 1 lobby at Orchestra Hall was lined with lunch eateries, boutique stores and dry cleaners.   I respect the idea of streamlined modernism—that’s a great design concept with all kinds of possibilities.  But there is a difference between sleek modernism and what we have here, which unfortunately strikes me as Commercial Interior #3, in Honey Maple.

Too Generic.  I don’t know if I can fully articulate the impression, but at times it didn’t feel like we were walking through a building per se, but a passing through a random open space on our way to get to a building.  There was nothing to set it apart, nothing distinctive to indicate that you had moved into a new, discrete space with its own character—as I mentioned, it felt like an extension of the skyway itself.  Maybe a focal point would have helped, like having a grand (or at least grander) staircase that felt like a statement instead of a simple connection between floors.  Or anything to serve as a landmark as you move through the space.  Or, to be candid, interior decorations.  Any of these would again make it feel like we were in a distinct building rather than just a transition point from the street to the auditorium itself.  And, any of these things would also inspire feelings of warmth, comfort, and hospitality that would make us want to engage with the space rather than to move through it as quickly as we can.

Artistic Void.  Something else that strikes me is that there was little to indicate the purpose of the building.  Nothing in it felt “artistic” or indicated that it was a performing arts venue designed principally to support classical music.  Part of this, and something that contributed to it feeling generic, was the fact that I didn’t see signs of the musicians.  They were there in person, of course—greeting the audience members before and after the concert.  Maybe I missed these things, but there used to be head shots, banners and other items around the lobby.  Also, musicians used to be featured prominently on the wrap that was affixed to the exterior of the building.  But now all references to music and musicians are muted, at best.  In contrast, consider the new Guthrie building.  It features ghostly images of past productions on the outside of the building, and the lobby is filled with photographs from memorable past productions.  The Orchestra has more than 100 years worth of historic photos it could draw from, including shots of famous conductors, legendary composers, and beloved performances, in addition to its current artistic staff.  So why not display this heritage more prominently?  Or do more to celebrate the music that Orchestra Hall was designed to present?

It felt like the Orchestra was a temporary rental client in its own house.

[note: readers have remarked that there are some of these elements in place, but agreed with my assessment that they are shockingly few, muted, out of the way, and easy to miss.]

The Devil is in the Details.  Sadly, a recurring impression was that money became tight, and short cuts were made.  Take the bars, for example.  It’s clear that the marble counter tops weren’t sealed, as there are already beverage rings on them.  Plus, they are chipped in places—as are some of the facades.  And this was at the Hall’s “Grand Opening” only a few days after it had been open to the public.  This makes me nervous for the carpeting, paint, or floors over the long-term.  Speaking of the floors, I noted that they weren’t carpeted.  Sadly, with all the snow we’ve had the white stonework was covered with unsightly slush… and it was slippery, too.  These problematic details give the impression that the Hall was finished in haste, as if there was a mad scramble to get ready for a grand opening.  This is unfortunate—with the lockout, there was ample time to work on these finishing details while the Hall was still empty.

In the end, all these criticisms were vividly illustrated by the Orchestra’s program magazine, Showcase, which was handed to me as I entered the auditorium.

IMG_20140217_130012_292

The cover features a photo of the newly-completed lobby, displayed with the love and affection of a proud parent.  But look at it closely.  There is not one human being in the picture—it is a cold mass of glass.  Again, there is nothing that indicates what the purpose of the building is, except for the difficult-to-read sign “Orchestra Hall” over the entrance.  The name of the group, “Minnesota Orchestra,” is the smallest text on the cover, and everything about feels… corporate.

* * *

So, what do I think?  Well, it’s not a home run.  Again, I hate to beat up the organization, the staff or the fine workers that put their blood, sweat and tears into the new lobby.  By no means is it terrible, despite my grumbling, and some aspects are quite striking.

As I said, I guess for me it feels like a missed opportunity.  My initial impression is that the MOA didn’t prioritize the audience experience, but instead focused on creating a general-use space that was inconspicuous, and generic enough that it could be easily adapted to meet the demands of non-musical rental clients.  On a similar vein, I note that some of the nicest rooms are those that will probably be closed to the general public, and reserved for special VIPs.

This is too bad.  I wanted a building that reflected and embodied the Minnesota Orchestra—a world-class, classical music ensemble.  An ensemble that was so beloved by the community that we collectively gave millions of dollars to ensure it could perform in a world-class facility that matched its ambition and talent.

Maybe I’m projecting, and maybe I need to spend more time there, but the building embodies one of my biggest criticisms with the MOA’s new vision, as reflected its strategic plan—it seems to be happy being serviceable instead of striving for greatness.

* * *

What would I do, going forward?  I’m sure everyone has an opinion, but let me toss a few ideas out there.

1. Find a way to weave music and the musicians into the aesthetic.  I realize it may be too late for structural changes, but what about adding screens, banners, projections, wall photos, or smaller accents that make it clear the building is about making music?  As part of this, could you add more prominent photos of the musicians and/or the music directors?  There is a gallery of Life Directors in the green room, and smaller photos around, but we could do more.  Stanisław Skrowaczewski and Osmo Vänskä were instrumental in getting the Hall built at different times and in different ways.  Regardless of their future with the Orchestra, they are part of the history of Orchestra Hall… can’t we do more to honor them?  Or, what about Ken Dayton?  My word, that man and his family have been invaluable supporters.  I know he avoided attracting too much attention, but he should be honored as the best example of a civic leader and a true patron of the arts—and one of the best friends the Orchestra has ever had.

2. The staff can do wonders to humanize the building.  Give them the training and support they need (and deserve) to go out there and sell that Hall every night.  Also, I think it would be a great idea to officially “deputize” them to see how the customer experience could be improved.  Have them interact more overtly, and strategically, to uncover what the audience thinks and the improvements it would like to have.  Done right, this can be a great customer service boon that can get people interested in the Hall and give them a sense of ownership, plus a stake in its future.

3. Reach out to the community for ideas.  As a result of the labor dispute, a number of audience advocacy groups came into being—why not work with them and let them advocate for improvements?  Their members represent some of the most passionate supporters the organization has, and people that frequently use the building.  Work with them, and other allies.  Again, this will build bridges to the community and create a shared sense of ownership that will give people a stake in the Orchestra’s success.

* * *

One final thought.  Walking through the lobby, I couldn’t help but reflect on the parallel case of the Twins’ new baseball stadium, Target Field.  This was another massive building project that involved public money, and was similarly designed to showcase a local team that was playing at the highest level possible.  Inspired by the Twins’ tremendous success, the public put up a lot of money to help get the project done.  And by and large the building was a triumph, one that greatly enhanced the customer experience of seeing a baseball game live.  All the details are mutually reinforcing, and add up to a sum that is greater than its parts.  The design has been hailed by everyone, winning raves from professionals and baseball fans alike.

It is disappointing that given the parallels, the Orchestra wasn’t able to similarly build a facility that earns raves, and similarly enhanced the audience experience of attending an orchestra concert live.

But interestingly enough, Target Field is illustrative in another way, too—it shows that a glorious building isn’t enough if the activity it was built to house is inferior.  A short few years after it opened, the “glow effect” generated by the new stadium has most decidedly faded.  We used to be season ticket holders for the Twins… but after three seasons of atrocious play, and no real hope for a quick turnaround, we let our tickets go.  Clearly, I’m not the only one in this camp, as I’ve been bombarded with messages from the front office asking me to come back.  I want to tell them not to bother… it feels like the Twins were so focused on getting the stadium built that the other parts of the organization weren’t being attended to.  Now, the level of play is poor, to the degree that the Twins can’t even trade their players—no one wants them.  The farm system has atrophied, so there’s no new class of rookies coming up through the system.

So, I have no interest in returning unless some serious changes happen, and I have reasonable faith that I’ll see a good game.  Even then, the Twins will need to provide serious incentives for me to come back into the fold.   This isn’t vindictiveness—it’s just cold, rational cost analysis on my part.  There are just too many other entertainment choices out there… and besides, I can catch a game on TV if the mood strikes me.

That bit of reasoning should give the MOA pause… it will take a lot more effort to bring subscribers back into the fold if drift away.

Even if people love your new building.

 

Xochipilli

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19 thoughts on “Some (well… Many) Thoughts about the New Orchestra Hall

  1. My initial reaction to the renovation was, “$52 million for this?” True, the lobby is less crowded than it used to be, and there are more (much-needed) washrooms. But otherwise? Meh!

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  2. “. . . it felt like the Orchestra was a temporary rental client in its own house.”

    the MOA didn’t prioritize the audience experience, but instead focused on creating a general-use space that was inconspicuous, and generic enough that it could be easily adapted to meet the demands of non-musical rental clients. On a similar vein, I note that some of the nicest rooms are those that will probably be closed to the general public, and reserved for special VIPs.”

    Nail on the head, Scott. That’s EXACTLY what was intended, obviously.

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  3. Scott, I did notice on the wall near one of the bars there was a picture of each music director starting from the beginning. But these pictures were not very noticeable at all. The color was gray and muted, I suppose it give it some sort of historical feel. The bar that these pictures were located near was the one by the elevator near the old stairway to the first tier on the right side of the hall. Interesting to note that the men’s restroom was removed on that side to add a patrons green room but a not sure if it is for the average patron or for the high buck patrons.

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    • Thanks for the clarification, and for keeping me honest. I suspected I might have missed something, and in an earlier draft of this I had a couple more disclaimers to the effect that this was a first impression and I could easily overlooked something. I cringe in that someone from the administration could take this and say, “See, that idiot doesn’t know anything. We have an 8 x 10 of Stan right here.” And therefore write off everything else I’ve written.

      I would say the broader point still stands—as you point out, any photos are so muted and inconspicuous that they get lost. I’d prefer a much bolder statement saying “we are the Orchestra!” And as part of that, I’d prefer much more prominent photos, banners or other items that make it clear Orchestra Hall is the home of the Minnesota Orchestra.

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      • It is pretty ironic that I happened to notice the plaques just because it took such a long time to get a drink at the bar. I also had to chuckle at the usher at the main door in the main floor as she tried to remind a patron that there are no drinks allowed in the hall while two more patrons entered the hall with drinks in their hands! Another thing I noticed is there is such a contrast with the lobby and the walls of hall itself. The lobby does not blend into those brick walls at all!

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  4. You didn’t mention that the ventilation system was VERY noisy, at least towards the back of the hall — enough so that it overshadowed some of the quiet portions in The Planets.

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    • In truth, I intentionally side-stepped any commentary on the inside of the Hall. I have some initial thoughts, and I know the HVAC system has been driving some people crazy. But I want to wait until I have a better understanding of the Hall and how the sound is working before making any definitive statements. And… well, I realized this post was far too long already. Look for more soon!

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  5. I could not agree more. Very disappointing. It all had that feel of a project that ran out of money. Sort of “generic music hall lobby.” I got there early on my first night (last weekend), expecting that there would be a new, really nice place to get a drink. Wrong. Same lamely equipped bars, same plastic glasses with jagged edges, containing shockingly over-priced, mediocre drinks. The detailing of the lobby architecture is so generic and ultimately cheap looking. The visitor circulation is not substantially improved. Inside, yes, there are still those incredibly dysfunctional lockers for coats, many of them broken, none of them replaced (as they all should have been). The air-handling system was (toward the rear, house left, orchestra level) was loud and rattling, very distracting during the quiet moments of the Rach 2 (and yes there are lots of quiet moments). The new low walls mid-hall have shiny flat tops that reflect light and glow like huge iPads. The band on stage, mercifully, was absolutely splendid, and it was so good to hear them again in this hall. But Minnesota did not get the “new” hall it deserved.

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  6. the backstage area is even worse. All photos of the soloists and conductors who have appeared through the years have been removed. Musicians lockers are still not fitted with rods to hang clothes. The women’s lockers were not designed to hold full length dresses. Plumbing has already malfunctioned. There are areas that still have construction debris in them. Much of the clean up was done by our stage crew after the construction crew had left (did you notice the first week’s concerts were dedicated to Mortenson Construction?) Most of the improvements that were promised to the musicians never happened.

    It’s almost like they were counting on the musicians not coming back….

    Despite the MOA’s best efforts at sabotage this is now the musician’s and the audience’s hall – it’s time to take it back!

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  7. Well articulated, Scott. If the old pipes along the side made it look like a factory, the new decor makes it look like a generic office building.

    I happened to call today about more tickets for 3/22, and I pointed out to the ticket staff person that the podium is the original one, with the old upholstery and a dilapidated brass bar. It looked terrible! He told me that another woman had commented on that same fact yesterday, offering to buy a new one out of her own money–what an embarrassment! I think the whole redesign was to create a facade, geared toward corporate customers (who presumably don’t always run real deep). My comment to the ticket guy was that no expense was spared (and that was hyperbolic) on spaces/facilities the public would see, but no expense was incurred on spaces/facilities that the musicians would use.

    I am also extremely perturbed that they removed all of the dedication plaques that had been bought through donations. A dear, late friend’s name was on one of those, and it’s completely gone–not relocated, not referenced at all. And I know her (also late, now) husband–a long-time violinist in the Orchestra–paid a fair amount for it. It’s just wrong. I used to love also to look at the old pictures of the group, to see friends, friends’ parents who were musicians, and beloved teachers from times past. Their absence leaves a gaping hole in the personality of the building.

    Given what has transpired, I have no idea how exactly to address these issues. But I am saddened, not elated, each time I go into the “new” Hall. They missed an opportunity–no doubt about that!

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    • Theresa, I think I spotted the relocated brass plaques. On Tier 3 on the left side there is a narrow hallway to the restrooms. In this hallway is a plexiglass panel of names described as builders of the hall. That may be how and where they ended up.

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  8. It doesn´t compare with the artistic feeling and ambience of the ORDWAY. How short sighted to remove the drop off area, which could have been retained by building over it and provided a cover from the weather. Aside from the hall, I am wondering about the OSMO question as Gina Hunter expressed it in her blog Eyes on Life? Thanks, Scott, for the Open Letter to Gordon Sprenger. Would you have anything to report back to us? Keep up the great investigations.

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  9. The hall design, sadly, reflects the values and priorities of those in charge of the orchestra. The nice VIP-only rooms are reflective of the elitism that we observed during the lockout, where big donors were invited to closed-door question-and-answer sessions while subscribers and moderate-size donors were ignored, their letters and e-mails going into some type of black hole never to be answered. The lack of attention to the lockers while money was poured into a glistening lobby reflects a focus on superficial outer appearances, not truly caring about patrons or their experience. The lack of improvements backstage shows the same disrespect for the musicians that has been painfully obvious for nearly 2 years now. The renovations were a lost opportunity, indeed, but they are also representative of the values of the organization under its current management. Ultimately, I am less concerned about the deficiencies in the hall redesign than of the values represented by the decisions made during the renovations, and I am deeply concerned that, with the leadership and governance structure unchanged, these values will continue guiding the organization. If there is not a change in the values of the organization, all will be lost, as the organization will not be able to sustain even the reduced salary costs that it current carries.

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  10. Dear Scott: I agree with everything that you have written in this post. To me, the “new” lobby was a huge disappointment. The sound booth seems like a huge waste of space that could have better be served with seats for people. I miss the back wall on the main floor in the auditorium — it helped keep outside noise out and served as a wall to bounce the music off. But the lobby —

    What happened to the benches and ottomans that used to provide much needed places to sit in the old lobby? These could be added to create more warmth, I think. The lobby is so COLD. I intensely dislike the walls of donors, also. One even reminds me of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. I long, long for more of the music in the lobby — banners, photos, etc., and less of the “money.” And I wondered the same thing about the plaques (Thanks, Teresa) — how dare they remove those! And the awards the Orchestra had won that hung on the wall by the restrooms on the Peavey Plaza side. There’s so much that they’ve removed that showed love and pride for the Orchestra and the organization.

    But what really sent me into a fury: the so-called box office. What a horrible joke! It’s open ONLY for 2 hours before performances? There’s no separate entrance/exit so people can enter it without going through the lobby? Why are these people making it SO HARD to buy tickets? I’d have thought that an organization in financial distress would be doing everything possible to make it EASY and SIMPLE to buy tickets. Tourists who come into town and who want to buy tickets at the last moment can no longer just bop down to the Orchestra Hall box office and buy them in person. How will they know that they need to go to the International Center administrative offices? It’s absolutely ridiculous.

    The concert season brochure also supports the notion of Orchestra Hall as a performance venue because it puts ALL the offerings in one brochure. We used to break out each type of music in order to pump up the brand of each and generate more excitement, whether it was classical, pops, or presentation, or Sommerfest. Makes me wonder who’s working in the marketing department nowadays.

    I admire your restraint, Scott. I try and I try, but it’s the hardest thing for me to restrain my anger and frustration. I wonder, too, if anyone at the MOA knew that their “new logo” is exactly the same as the Sunrise Banks logo (https://www.sunrisebanks.com/) and there are branches in the Twin Cities?

    Thank you for being a calm, rational voice pointing out the good and the bad in an even tone.

    Gina Hunter

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  11. I too was deeply dismayed by the coldness of the lobby (and, of course, the very poor acoustics in the hall). I couldn’t put my finger on what it felt like, when my companion for the evening suggested that it looked and felt like an airline terminal. I agree that it is a manifestation of the decisionmakers, who appear to have little-to-no understanding of, nor interest in the fact that this is about high-level, acoustic art music.

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  14. A few years ago, as a student, I worked at the office of the renovation’s architects, and I think your comments ring true not only for Minneapolis Orchestra Hall, but for quite a lot (though certainly not all) of KPMB’s work. This kind of urbane modernism photographs nicely and generally functions well enough (at least for generic spaces), but has very little character or sense of history and place. I find that a building’s character owes more to small details of everyday use than to big architectural moves, and this is very hard to get perfect, right from the start. Especially when the design process doesn’t really engage staff, musicians, and audiences to learn what they value, functionally and symbolically. Still, I expect that the orchestra will gradually fill the place in with its own history and identity, just as it happens with a new house.

    I hope more architects come across this page – detailed, well-considered criticism from someone deeply involved with the orchestra is far more useful than the superficial write-ups in newspapers, or worse, architectural trade publications.

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