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?
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.
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.