The Boston Conservatory of Music will be opening a new building including a yet-to-be-named 325-seat theater and major additional studio and rehearsal space. A three-day celebration, from October 13 to 16, will feature all three of their departments — dance, theater, and music, and especially of interest to BMInt readers, a performance by Joseph Silverstein and the Hemenway Strings, directed by Lynn Chang. A link to the Boston Conservatory’s “Opening Note” is here.
Richard Ortner, President of BCM since 1998, spoke recently with BMInt’s Bettina A. Norton and Lee Eiseman.
BMInt: Tell us about your new theater
Ortner: It’s a $32-million project, which included a total renovation of our little 325 seat theatre, on Hemenway Street that was somewhere between a theatre and a high school auditorium built in 1948. We provided it with an orchestra pit, full handicap-accessibility, air conditioning, state-of-the-art technical facilities in terms of light and sound control, rigging and all of that.
BMInt: What is the name of that theatre?
Ortner: Right now it doesn’t have a name! For three million dollars, some lucky person is going to get their name on a gem of a theatre.
BMInt: Will it be used much for classical music?
Ortner: It’s not yet clear how much . . . we’ve only just begun to consider that. For instance, Joseph Silverstein will perform with the Hemenway Strings as part of our opening celebration in the new theatre. But there’s going to be a lot of demand for the new space for theater and dance and so Seully Hall (140 seats) is likely to remain the primary concert hall. And its renovation is planned for three years hence.
Ortner: Well, it happened as the result of steady, staid pressure from me and the faculty on a board that was increasingly capable and interested and committed. We succeeded four years ago in purchasing a little parking lot next to our theatre from Berklee College of Music which had been hanging on to it assiduously. We have a good relationship with their new president. He did sell it to us and that enabled the start of a design process that took into consideration the most pressing of the Conservatory’s needs and the interest on all of our behalf, really passion for creating a group of spaces — both ensemble rehearsal spaces and performance spaces that were the equal of the work that our students and faculty were now doing. From an operations point of view, it was very important to me to capture some of the large-volume ensemble rehearsal spaces that we cannot find on the rental market, like large-volume dance studios and a very large-volume orchestra rehearsal room. Places where you can assemble a full orchestra for rehearsal in acoustically appropriate spaces here in Boston are few and far between as you can imagine. The moment that these spaces began to take shape, we have had BMOP [Boston Modern Orchestra Project] and Opera Boston and Boston Lyric Opera and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in to have a look. I must say that their reactions are all very gratifying.
BMInt: Would this have happened sooner if you had known sooner that your plans for moving the entire campus weren’t going to happen?
Ortner: Frankly, things can only happen when they happen. This had to be a coming-together of several things. When Lee Berk was president of Berklee, he would not discuss the sale of any Berklee property. He just wouldn’t discuss it. Along comes Roger Brown and he says, “Well, sure, we’ll sell you that. It’s highly strategic for you, not especially for us. It’s not contiguous to anything we own. We can’t build usefully on that little site.” If you look at that site, the footprint of it which was 40 ft by 80 ft, under the current building code anything that you built there that was free standing, you’d be building elevator shafts, handicap ramps, handicapped-accessible bathrooms, zero program space. However, connecting it to our existing building opened up all kinds of possibilities. What we’ve done is to optimize the use of that footprint within the existing zoning envelope so as to capture as much space as ever could have been imagined. People who walk into these new studios and remember the parking lot honestly believe that they’re looking at spaces that are bigger than the parking lot was.
BMInt: Who’s your architect?
Ortner: The architect is Handel Architects from New York City.
BMint: Was there an acoustician?
Ortner: Yes, Larry Kierkegaard out of Chicago. The same guy I worked with on Ozawa Hall. The theatre consultant was Auerbach, Pollock, Friedlander. They are based in San Francisco, but Steve Friedlander, one of their partners, was a Boston area lighting designer in an earlier life and actually lit a couple of shows at the Boston Conservatory Theatre. So he knew our space pretty well. All I can tell you is that the transformation of this theatre is complete.
BMInt: Tell me more about what’s going on on October 13th -16th.
Ortner: Well, it’s a celebration that showcases all three divisions, and the same show will be put on every night except Saturday night when there are some special guests.
BMInt: You mentioned Joseph Silverstein. Who is he performing with?
Ortner: The Hemenway Strings, which is our elite group directed by Lynn Chang.
BMInt: But going forward, as you said earlier, the new theater isn’t going to take the burden off Seully Hall for classical performances?
Ortner: No, but what we can say is that our circumstances for opera and for other un-amplified — that is — acoustic music are greatly advanced. This new theatre supports young voices and solo instrumental performance in a way that we worked very hard to achieve, and we feel that we’ve really been successful with it. We took great care to make sure the dimmers and all the other theatrical equipment that ordinarily make such noise in the theatre space are elsewhere in the building. All of the air handling, when you see the size of the ductwork you won’t believe it. We could sublet the ducts.
BMInt: Larry Kierkegaard is very good about keeping halls quiet, that’s one of his trademarks.
BMInt: Can you say something about Michael Lewin and his artist series?
Ortner: The Piano Master Series is going to quickly become Boston’s premiere showcase for some of the best international performances on the solo piano scene. Michael’s choice of pianists over the years has just been wonderfully engaging and intriguing. We try to feature both local artists, including our faculty and some of the most interesting players on the scene. Till Fellner is a perfect example.
BMInt: I gather visiting Masters always do master classes…
Ortner: The recitals are always associated with a public master class — usually the following day.
BMInt: What amazes me is that you could use a much bigger place to have your hall with some of the people you get. Is that a frustration?
Ortner: Yes, we could. Remember, if you’re only a music school, then you have an auditorium that can be used for music continuously. We are, however, a theatre school and a dance school, and so the call on stage time for a proscenium theatre is very hot. That theatre never cools down. We go from one thing to the next in there. My hope is that as we break it in, as we learn to use it, as we integrate it into our schedule fully, we may find a way to begin mounting a dance program, break for one night, draw the curtain and in the thrust stage configuration, put on a solo piano recital. Those things are possible, but they have not been integrated yet.
BMInt: The thrust stage would mean that the musicians would appear in front of the curtain. Would there be some sort of a shell that you would use for such a configuration?
Ortner: My sense is that you wouldn’t need a shell for a solo piano recital. When you see what’s been done to the theatre; what the pit cover looks like, what the cheek walls surrounding the proscenium look like, what the clouds do, you will agree that a shell would be superfluous.
BMInt: Does it sound anything like Shalin Liu Center in Rockport, for which Larry Kierkegaard also did the acoustics?
Ortner: I can’t say because I haven’t heard that one, and frankly we haven’t heard ours in that configuration. . . . You’ll love the theatre when you see it and when you see these new rehearsal spaces — you’ll understand what a game-changer this is for the Boston Conservatory.