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Indian Hill Music Transitions in Style

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Fish-scale patterned metal an important feature.

Indian Hill Music, the Nashoba Valley region’s premier non-profit center for music education and performance, will take the name Groton Hill Music Center with the fall 2022 opening of its stunning new home for music, currently under construction. Indian Hill Music has boldly undertaken one of the most ambitious cultural projects in New England, departing from Littleton to the North Central Massachusetts town where, in 1985, a handful of local musicians and music enthusiasts incorporated.

Designed by award-winning Epstein Joslin Architects of Cambridge (Shalin Liu Performance Center, Rockport; The Conrad Prebys Performance Center, La Jolla), Groton Hill Music comprises a 1,000-seat concert hall with lawn seating for seasonal concerts, a 300-seat performance hall, multi-scaled rehearsal and teaching spaces, state-of-the-art acoustics designed by Threshold Acoustics of Chicago, and dynamic architecture. Additionally, two-thirds of the land on which the facility sits — formerly an apple orchard and a horse farm — is preserved as picturesque agricultural fields.

The Center plans to be a gathering place for all to experience private lessons, classes, ensembles, and supplemental learning programs for all ages and abilities, with outreach to the underserved. Not does GHM offer concerts by its own Orchestra of Indian Hill and outstanding local and touring professional classical ensembles, they also present high-quality concerts in jazz, traditional/roots, and global music, and have 70+ faculty who teach in a variety of styles as well. Their website has all upcoming performances, faculty, and educational programs. According to staff, the interactive building will encourage musicians, educators, students, and audience members to inspire one another.

BMInt enjoyed a short interview with Fiorentino and a substantial conversation with architect Alan Joslin. Those follow after the break.

“We are anxiously anticipating the opening of this incredible new chapter for our organization, creating a vibrant musical hub that will be a treasured and valuable asset to our 79 communities,” said Lisa Fiorentino, CEO of Indian Hill Music.”

Flexible Performance Space (Karen Riggert photo)

FLE: How about some thoughts on what a stretch this must have been for a relatively small community?

LF: We are a relatively small, yet well-established organization, with very loyal and generous supporters. Our organization began in Groton 46 years ago when a group of local musicians formed the Orchestra of Indian Hill, now in its 47th season. Our school was founded 36 years ago and is now home to 70 highly-trained faculty who teach 30+ instruments and voice, serving over 1,000 students of all ages per year. We also present several professional concerts in many genres of music each year and have many community outreach programs as well. So, although we were smaller when the opportunity presented itself, we are a robust organization and have been lucky to have the support and excitement of thousands moving us forward!

Rockport Music, another small but ambitious musical community, started its transformations with one supremely generous gift.

Our opportunity first came about in 2014 when we received an incredibly generous anonymous donation that covered the costs of the property, design, and construction. We are now in the middle of a comprehensive campaign to raise funds to staff and operate the facility and have been astounded at the level of support we have received from many music lovers in our area and beyond. 

This looks to be a much bigger development.

Yes, it is! This is a 126,000 square foot music education and performance center with two professional world-class concert halls (1,000 seats with expanded lawn seating of 1,000+ and a 300-seat hall), multiple flexible use spaces, 35 teaching studios, and community gathering spaces. It sits on 110 acres, 75 of which are agriculturally restricted. It is a stunning facility, inside and out.

Where did you play before?

Our Orchestra has been performing at Littleton High School Performing Arts Center, which is adjacent to our current school and performance center on King Street in Littleton. In addition, we have a 100-seat hall where we offer high-quality professional jazz, traditional, global, and chamber music concerts, plus student recitals and other music events.

Questions for Alan Joslin

Groton Hill Music Center Rear Elevation  ( Karen Riggert photo)

FLE: Groton Hill Music Center looks very different from other things that that I’ve seen you do. Shalin Liu Performance fits into a Main Street and Groton Hill feels contextual in an entirely different way: it recognizes the landscape and the local history, but it also takes on quite a curvaceous and organic form that is part structure and part sculptural evocation.

AJ: Those curvaceous forms could have been dicey, but fortunately, most people who have experienced the facility have been very excited by it. They understand the relationship between the form and the purpose of the building. It has grown on locals, even the early naysayers

But I’m really happy to see how those curvaceous forms are working with the topography of lawns and the distanced rolling hills of trees. And by the time people see it, it’s going to have been grown in a bit and not be sparkly new. Can we call it Joslin meets Gehry?

Gehry’s trademark serpentines of titanium and stainless can feel a bit like billboards, especially, in the case of the Fisher Center at Bard, which, at its center, is a rather straightforward rectangular box with gorgeous applied skin. It’s fascinating to be inside and observe the skeleton on which all the ornament is hung. It’s akin to being inside the Statue of Liberty. From inside you have no idea of how the outside would look. The form, even as it evokes and celebrates function, hardly follows function.

Your Groton Hill complex, even with its fluidity of movement, seems, in its exterior from interior development, almost Miesian by contrast.

We wanted the exterior to feel organic with the experience of the hall itself. The geometry of the exterior grew out of the geometry of the interior.

So it’s more Miesian.

You could say we have applied certain modernist sensibilities, such as “expressiveness of structure and function”.

But adding to that, we are at a time when CAD has given architects tools to realize complex and newly expressive shapes. We can use those tools to create architecture that at an earlier period would have been difficult to achieve. Our entire building was modeled in virtual 3D in the computer. It gives precision of dimension, particularly with the complex curves, and facilitates better coordination amongst trades. You can then give these documents to a builder who translates them to the tools that construct the building’s pieces. A wonderful fluidity is being developed between design technology and construction.

We were also able to use these modeling tools to test the acoustics and lighting, allowing us to know how to adjust geometries, room shape and lighting sources to achieve acoustic balance within the room, and a desired quality of illumination.

Concert Hall Interior (Karen Riggert photo)

The acousticians can actually put you in a simulated chamber where you can sample the sounds of the spaces. I don’t know whether the results fully accord with the simulations but at least they exist as tools for that.

You’re absolutely right. It’s not going to be precise, because there are still variables that can’t be completely modeled, but it does give you a strong sense of what effect changes in room shape, volume and material can have on the acoustics at each seat in the hall. The primary benefit to the simulation is that it reveals dispersion patterns of sonic energy, so that if we find that a corner of a room experiences weaker resonance, we can tweak the room’s dimensional qualities to correct any gross inadequacies. And fortunately, both the acousticians, Threshold Acoustics, and ourselves, in reacting to the music recently played in the empty Recital Hall, felt very happy with the overall sound and how the simulations had predicted it. There may even be a tad bit more reverberation than we expected, which will only further enrich the experience.

That’s a good problem to have. It’s easier to mitigate excessive reverberation than to add reverb when it is lacking.

You’ll eventually discover that both of the halls are generous volumes for their seating capacity. You’re going to feel a lovely bloom in both of them.

Well that’s great. And, and that’s achieved without a lot of parallel surfaces… which is really surprising. But I guess density and massiveness are really important there.

I think that’s the whole point. You want to keep the sound energy alive — reverberation without echoes — for a sufficient duration as it reflects off of the various room surfaces surrounding the audience. Thus producing sonic warmth. This is achievable with the use of thick concrete backed walls and ceilings that can reflect the full spectrum of sound frequencies — highs and lows—without absorbing such energy into the wall and ceiling surfaces themselves.

Part of the success of Symphony Hall is the unusual thickness of the masonry wall in the first couple of floors of the hall, and the heavy plaster above you.

Architects forgetting those lessons, which Wallace Clement Sabine taught them, would build something like Lincoln Center with light flimsy plaster over hollow walls. How could the disappointing results not have been predicted?

***

FLE: The 126,000 ft campus sits beautifully on 110 acres. Placing it on a hilly section of the site allows for access on multiple levels without any basementy feel except for services entrances.

AJ: It is also located to act as a portal between the active arrival/parking sequence and the more sylvan setting of the protected lawn gathering spaces and agrarian surrounds to the south, east and west. 

Will there be any formal landscaping (in addition to the new naturalistic landscape elements) to enhance the grassy expanses? Any old apple trees remaining?

In the near landscape to the south, between the Concert Hall and recital hall (Meadow Hall), there will be dining terraces and a manicured lawn with a spattering of trees for gathering under and finding shade. Directly behind the Concert Hall will be a sloped lawn, edged by special planting and trees to frame the outdoor seating for the Concert Hall. Further south, the land is protected as agricultural property, and at the top of the southern slope there is currently an active apple orchard. Unfortunately the orchard that had been on the immediate site suffered decay and could not be saved.

I see a rectangular red barn within the intricate grid system; are there other allusions to the past use?

While the architectural form grows out of an expression of the workings of the performance and teaching spaces, rather than a pastiche of another building type or style, it does make references to local and historical characteristics of the region as a way of grounding it in the uniqueness of place. Thus we were inspired by,

1) The structural rhythm of the old orchards referenced in the structural timber “trees” dimensioned to the scale of the teaching studios and ensemble rehearsal rooms. 

2) The traditional gambrel barn roof forms that have been transformed into the curvaceous performance spaces

3) The timber, stone and metal materials that are drawn from agrarian environs.

4) The familiar red and white (stainless steel) colors of the New England farm compound.

5) The familiar timber structure ubiquitous to historic New England

6) The rail fencing of a horse paddock that was previously on the site, transformed into the sculpted balcony railings that frame the performances.

etc…

The interactions of curvilinear buttressing with rectangular stonework and lacy grids make for dramatic tension. Any danger that the effect is too busy?

We have tried to frame the performance spaces in soft curvaceous timber and structural wood decking in a monochromatic white stained tone that blends with that of the warm brown stonework. We hope these to feel grand, cathedral like and softly lyrical, to dignify the experience of the music.

The larger public spaces of the lobbies and school atrium contain the dense stone and orchard like structure that is meant to break the larger spaces down into more intimate settings gathered together to intensify the energy of the human interaction therein. 

How did you decide on fish scale treatment rather than standing seams for the metal work?

The fish scale is a form of metal roofing that can more comfortably sheath a curvaceous from in a most economic fashion.

Any applewood for trim?

Unfortunately not. We used white stained Southern Yellow Pine for timber and wall decking, Ash for millwork, White oak for flooring and window trim—all selected to retain the monochromatic “off white” interior that receives and reflects light to keep the environment bright in all seasons.

Any massive timbers or all glue-lam?

Glue Lam is a technology used to create the curves of the primary structure for the performance spaces and ceiling forms of the school. Smaller structural and linear wood members are solid timber. All of the wood is new.

Recital Hall (Epstein-Joslin phot)

For the 300-seat Recital Hall, I wonder about how you will deal with glare from backstage glass wall, drapes, liquid crystal dimming?  

I wish Shalin Liu closed the lattice blinds more often—both during late afternoon glare, and at nighttime when the windows just look black. The rarely deployed lattice screens make for intimacy and sometimes we want the world to go away when we are listening to music. Are glass back walls for stages a fad?

Wood louvers can be drawn over the lower windows for sun and glare control at Groton Hill. Acoustic drapes can be drawn over all of the stage windows, and behind the wood louvers to both darken the room and/or add acoustic absorption.

We provide these closure elements to allow for visual and acoustic conditions on stage as desired by the performer and audience. Some choose to exclude the surrounds and others prefer the natural backdrop. 

We thought that those screens at Shalin Liu would be used just as you outlined. However, it turns out that leaving the view open (day or night) has become favored by both many musicians and audience members. 

YoYo Ma recently chose to record a couple of his music videos for “Songs of Comfort and Hope” at Shalin with the window open. The view suits that music. 

When performers choose to close the window view, it is frequently met with audience disappointment. Why? Many will come specifically to the hall for the combined experience of music and environment. 

Is this a fad?

I like to think of this as a feature that can help expand classical music audiences, at a time of great challenge for the field. I take inspiration from Tanglewood’s success in providing excellence for the cognoscente and a joyful and approachable experience for the casual attendee.

Can the halls be blacked out for video projections?

They can be darkened to an extent that allows video projections in the daytime. And, of course fully darkened in evening performances.

The upstage wall of the Concert Hall is a large scale and curvaceous video screen using 3D projection mapping. Behind it is an enormous array of speakers for an electronic organ. The experience should be very powerful.

It’s great that the halls have no concave surfaces to beam the sound. Rather we see a lot of convexities which will create great diffusion. But without parallel surfaces, will there be enough reverberation? What are the targets for reverb in the two halls? Are there moveable panels to adjust acoustics? Will the acoustics remain the same when the back wall of the larger hall opens?

Not only are all of the surfaces curvaceous, but they are all backed by solid concrete to retain strength of reverberation in all, but specifically in the lower frequency ranges. Our recent acoustic testing (live performance in an empty hall) suggests that there will be no lack of reverberation.

The calculated targets by the acoustician, Threshold Acoustics, are as follows,

“We can safely say that we’ll be around 1.8 or 1.9 seconds in the fully occupied CH, which will likely drop to 1.6 or 1.7 with the banners deployed. Recital Hall will likely be 1.5 to 1.6, dropping by about .15 with the banners deployed and a bit more with the lower glass at the stage walls draped. Orchestral Rehearsal Hall looks to be about 1.2, and the Orchard Room around 1.0.”

The two large halls are equipped with deployable drapes and banners that adjust acoustics as mentioned above.

The Concert Hall will also have a movable clear plexiglass “cloud” above the stage that raises and lowers to accommodate desirable acoustic reflections for various sized performance ensembles or soloists. 

The artificial stone at Shalin Liu turned out to be a bit more absorbent than expected. It looks like you are using dense fieldstone for Groton Hill.

The large-scale solid field stone veneer, with solid concrete behind shows no loss in high frequency response, and is a great benefit to low frequency response

So, the Recital Hall backstage windows can be shuttered or left unobstructed. The Concert Hall, by contrast, has in effect, a visually reflective but acoustically transparent backstage wall onto which images can be projected.

Yes. Visual media accompaniment with live performance is becoming quite the standard. Many halls are having to clumsily retrofit their environs to include this new technology. Our up-stage wall has been designed to seamlessly incorporate such technology. Projectors in the ceiling use “3D projection mapping” to project imagery onto the complex warp of the up-stage wall. Since the surface isn’t flat, digital corrections adjust the image to the geometry of the surface. We can cover much of that wall. And behind it, a large scaffold filled with speakers can transmit a full-scale organ sound to the room.

a detail of GH’s Meta Digital Organ

The Meta Digital Organ will come as gift from a Randy Steere and his husband Paul Landry. The organ will have 12 Hauptwerk sample sets” (i.e. complete instruments) initially, but more can be added as desired.

RS: I have personally tested each sample set on my home Hauptwerk instrument to ensure the best quality, suitability for a 4-manual concert hall instrument, etc. They were chosen from over 30 we considered and there are hundreds of others on the market. Each instrument (known as a sample set) is intact, so one loads one sample set at a time to perform on. We have chosen instruments from all the major eras in organ building: German Baroque and Romantic, French Baroque and Romantic, Spanish Baroque, American Classic and Aeolian Skinner, English Cathedral and a few others.

Hauptwerk samples real pipes many ways and also represents the ambience in the room and accurately records starting speech and decay, and the pulling-into tune of real pipes.

One can practice or teach on the instrument in its storage area, or it can be rolled out onto the stage and plugged in to a simple ethernet cable.

We’re looking forward not only to organ recitals, but also organ with orchestra extravaganzas like the Saint-Saens Organ Symphony.  It will likely also have a Wurlitzer theater organ set too. So maybe some classic silent movies will get the adrenaline of enthusiasts going.

***

From Indian Hill’s perspective, the operating expenses of this new facility are going to be substantially greater than running concerts in a high school auditorium and a providing school of half the size of the current operation.

AJ: They have prepared for this transformation. They have a very strong school and organization and now that they will also be running a performing arts center, for which they are currently organizing. I gather they will be booking, major talents, in addition to the fine work of their own artistic community. I expect thousands of people will visit. I do think Groton Hill is in a part of the state where there are a lot of cultivated people who don’t necessarily want to drive into Boston all the time for their culture.

And the qualities of sound, setting and performers should be very attractive to an audience even well beyond the local region.

…even world class, if I dare to quote the PR.

***

Will there be ways of securing the teaching areas from the public concert areas?

The school is purposefully intertwined with the lobbies of the performance spaces in order to encourage the intermingling of professionals and students, leaving both worlds a bit transparent to one another. However, the school is organized so that the lobby can be full of patrons for a performance while the students, overlooking the lobby can go on with their business, undisturbed.

What does excite me is the thought of the sounds of the teaching studios leaking out just a bit to animate the larger public spaces, and lend it additional life. 

Again we hope the environment offers a comfortable invite from school and performance to those who might have been otherwise reticent to experience either.

Lots of circulation space around the theaters. How many bars?

Bars are on all three levels of the Concert Hall lobbies, and a bar/cafe can be found in the lobby of the Recital Hall / School

How many years went into the planning? Have you designed a school before?

The planning of the facility started in mid 2015. Construction started in early 2017.

While at William Rawn Associates, I designed music schools, including Exeter Academy and Lawrenceville Academy. Along with Celebration K-12 School and Teaching Academy in Walt Disney’s town of Celebration, FL.

Our current work focuses primarily on Performing Arts. So this project nicely combines these experiences.

Lots of contours in the plan and no straight lines in the parking lots. Nice

We have also worked the topography such that during the wrap around arrival “country” road, one is not visually aware of the expansive parking area in the front, until after one has arrived at the building proper. One then drops off and turns back to park.

You worked with William Rawn on Ozawa Hall, using seemingly millions of board feet of teak. The joinery conveys a somewhat Japanese shoji screen like feel…as does your own Shalin Liu to a lesser extent. That seems gone now at Groton Hill. Is that because the incredible joinery of the former two is just too expensive?

The balcony railings at Groton Hill are no more nor less expensive than those at the previous facilities. They are also sculpted wood. However, they make reference to the old horse paddocks that once occupied the site. We decided to keep them calm in juxtaposition to the grand curvaceous geometry of the room.

You will find a bit more detailed wood assembly in the stage surround of the Concert Hall, in its reference to the tall grass agrarian fields beyond it.

And you seem to have learned from one major design flaw at Ozawa Hall…its lead roof does not overhang the brick walls and dribbles, stains, and efflorescence results. Indian Hill looks to have no such issues…generous overhangs everywhere.

Water flow has been carefully taken into account and the stainless steel selected for the exterior skin of the large halls will virtually last forever, as the water and snow flows off of it. 

There is already a lot to see from the outside.

A drive by will show the exterior in a fairly complete state. But I highly recommend a walkthrough, especially closer to the spring when the concert hall is at the same level as the recital hall is right now.

I’m pleased that you are covering this project. Your team dispenses some of the most intelligent music-press in New England and beyond.

Thank you very much for the kind words. We will look forward to opening night if we’re invited.

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1 Comment [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. As Artistic Director of Rockport Music during the design and building stages of the Shalin Liu Performance Center, I worked closely with Alan Joslin and Deborah Epstein. They are a real Dream Team, skilled architects and interior designers who truly listen to their clients. They have created perfect venues in both Rockport and La Jolla for a wide range of music to be performed. I anticipate Groton Hill to be their crowning achievement. Central MA will soon be a major new destination for world class musical events.

    Comment by David Deveau — October 5, 2021 at 9:08 pm

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