in: News & Features

September 9, 2009

Constellation Center’s Delay Worries Classical Music Presenters

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The domino effect of the current economic crisis is affecting the Classical music world, but not only for its effect on endowment income. Many organizations, especially smaller ones without their own performance halls, are looking for less expensive venues for their season’s programs, though without sacrificing fine acoustics.

So music organizations recently have been asking how work is progressing on the eagerly-sought Constellation Center.

One of the more compelling visions that has emerged in the last few years, Constellation Center was announced to be a mini Lincoln Center in Kendall Square, Cambridge, that would provide three critically needed auditoriums to the Greater Boston performing arts community. The site would be close to the Kendall Square T stop on the Red Line but would also be adjacent to ample indoor parking lots. The rental prices would be reasonable. There would be one of the world’s finest Wurlitzer Theater organs, as well as a Baroque tracker similar to one Bach would have played, both proposed gifts to the Center, as well as a small third organ. And the acoustics would be state-of-the art, the best available in the world, with the sound programable for the style of music to be played.

<p>Glenn KnicKrehm alongside a model stage.</p>

Glenn KnicKrehm alongside a model stage.

The brainchild of Glenn KnicKrehm, a Boston-based engineer and management consultant, the idea first surfaced in 2001, when Constellation Center was incorporated. The project received a great deal of publicity when he led an all-day presentation to attendees at the biennial Boston Early Music Festival in 2003. Presentations were given by the architects, then Stubbins Asssociates, and the team of acousticians, detailing their research while visiting sites throughout Europe. The Center, KnicKrehm announced, was to be up and running in five years.

Six years later, ground has yet to be broken. And at this year’s Boston Early Music Festival, attendees learned, from a subsequent presentation, that a second architectural firm, Rose + Guggenheimer Studio, was now working on the project. Soon after that, BMInt learned that the contract with that firm had been terminated.

KnicKrehm ended arrangements with both firms, he said, because “I haven’t met an architect who can deal with all of the details. We have lots of data and many constituencies, including users. It hasn’t been possible to find an established firm willing or able to deal with all that’s required. Therefore we are going to take the step of starting our own architectural firm. … Most architectural firms have many layers of authority. Mine will have just two.”

In addition, absent a working team and a clearly promulgated business plan, it is difficult to evaluate whether, or when, the halls would be available, and at what cost.

Meanwhile, other potential solutions to the problem of adequate performance sites are on hold. The prospect of the Constellation Center had been cited as one reason the historic Gaiety Theater in downtown Boston, which could have answered demand for a medium-sized and acoustically superb music hall, was allowed be torn down. The project is also cited by arts administrators at MIT as a reason the university need not build its own new small and medium concert hall-theaters.

An article in The Boston Globe in June 2006 spawned several blogs about the feasibility of creating a residential, more upscale area around Kendall Square:

“The Constellation Center (http://www.constellationcenter.org/) will help a lot, if it’s ever built. (Anyone know its current status?)”

“Good question. Do you think they were waiting for Watermark to be finished? The only thing I can see holding back Constellation Center is a problem with funding.”

“Somewhere in those Constellation Center pages, they mention that they have raised about half of their $71-million goal. The problem is that this is what they were claiming in 2002. Even if they are increasing their funding, construction costs continue to rise as well. They do, however, own the land . Like Mass Horticultural Society over on the Greenway, I don’t know if this is a blessing or a curse. Seems like they both suffer from the lack of exposure on a regular basis to help drive donations … Anyway, this project is certainly a positive step for Kendall. Much work yet to be done.” [Note of explanation: Mr. KnicKrehm’s group does own the land, but he recently acknowledged that the balance sheet currently carries liens equal to its value.]

Asked why he doesn’t break ground now, or start with just one building, and use the rising buildings as a fund-raising tool, KnicKrehm responded, “I ask myself that question many times.” But, he stressed, his advisors said that because of the complexity of electrical and plumbing work throughout the proposed complex, it would be impractical not to do it all at once.

<p>Mr. KnicKrehm inside his acoustic simulator.</p>

Mr. KnicKrehm inside his acoustic simulator.

“We don’t want to start until we can get things right. This requires a tremendous amount of research. Some of that research has already produced valuable intellectual property. The million-dollar acoustic simulator is something no other arts organization in the world has. …

“I could break ground tomorrow, but that would be smoke and mirrors. I want to have all the money in hand before construction begins. I want to be sure the acoustics are perfect and that I won’t have to cut costs at the end with cheaper seats or cheaper finishes.”

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