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A Hall of Their Own

The N.C. Symphony Orchestra finds a home in the newly completed Meymandi Hall


During the Depression, when the North Carolina Symphony was just a federally funded WPA project for out-of-work musicians, symphony leaders and supporters dreamed of having their own concert hall. Now it's here: Meymandi Hall, part of Raleigh's new $37 million BTI Center for the Performing Arts.

After much wrangling and agonizing, particularly over parking issues, the project was conceived as a cluster of four halls of different sizes. The oft-renovated Memorial Auditorium seats about 2,200, and will host large-scale events such as musical theater, ballet, grand opera and pop concerts. The basement of Memorial is home to the small, bare-bones black box that is Kennedy Theater, with bleacher seating for small theatrical productions. To the west of Memorial is Meymandi Hall, a 1,700-seat, shoe box-shaped room modeled after traditional European concert halls. Lastly, to the east of Memorial, sits the A. J. Fletcher Opera Theater--already something of a misnomer since the 600-seat facility will inevitably host recitals and ensembles more intimate than opera productions. Nevertheless, the stage, orchestra pit and technical facilities are there for any contingency.

It will be tough to evaluate the new auditorium until next year, since a good deal of tweaking will be necessary before the acoustical balance is adjusted to the different instruments, soloists and choruses that will be using it. But the initial verdict on Meymandi is that it's spectacular, especially when you compare it with what audiences and performers had to contend with before in Memorial Hall.

"You hear all these disaster stories about [new] concert halls planned in the image of the small 19th century European halls," said Associate Conductor William Curry. "Then the orchestra's management says they can't break even without at least 500 more seats, and the plans and proportions are changed, ruining the sound. We didn't play that game with the architects."

Last Wednesday's gala, kicking off a series of opening week performances for the BTI Center, began with music rather than speeches. Maestro Gerhard Zimmermann treated the gala as an opportunity to showcase the orchestra, section by section, solo instrument by solo instrument. The opening piece, Festive Overture by Dmitri Shostakovich, featured an augmented brass section that shook the rafters. Unfortunately, the upper strings sounded thin by comparison--but, of course, this wasn't their show. (However, when the orchestra repeated the Shostakovich at the opening of their regular Classical Series on Friday, the strings sounded well balanced, demonstrating what can be done with rehearsal, and time to adjust to the new hall.)

Perhaps the most thrilling moment of Wednesday's concert was the opening measures of Stravinsky's "The Firebird," a section solo requiring that the basses and cellos play pianissimo in their lowest range. The sound carried beautifully: You could actually feel the seats vibrate.

The speeches came eventually, after intermission, and included a few gracious words by Assad Meymandi, the hall's major donor. Meymandi spoke of his gratitude for being able to contribute to the artistic life of the city. He also challenged this audience, packed with major donors, to a "100/100 challenge"--that the symphony be expanded to 100 permanent players with a $100 million endowment in 10 years. The orchestra in return offered him "A Musical Toast" by Leonard Bernstein.

Pianist Andre Watts donated his services for the occasion, performing the Liszt Piano Concerto No. 2. The Meymandi, a more resonant hall, tended to take the edge off the percussive qualities of the piano, which resulted in some blurring, especially in the piano's lower register. Watts, who has an admitted tendency to go heavy on the sustaining pedal, will no doubt adjust to the hall's acoustics in time.

The pianist took time for a Q-and-A session with a group of the Triangle's best piano students, during a Tuesday rehearsal break. "It's a crazy house in there," he told them, referring to last-minute preparations of the hall that were virtually drowning out the rehearsal. In spite of the noise, Watts--with humor and self-deprecating irony--dispensed some common sense advice about everything from practicing to stage fright.

Big bang

The N.C. Symphony's composer-in-residence, Nathaniel Stookey, provided a world premiere for the gala. Big Bang served as another orchestra showcase, emphasizing the qualities of different instruments: really a collection of little bangs. The work is light and upbeat with the quality of a fanfare. To engage the audience, Stookey enlisted 132 audience members in the balconies to run their wet fingers around glass goblets specially tuned with water. (They were ordered not to drink the contents until the piece was over.) This gentle but unrehearsed conclusion, designed to be a long diminuendo--like the sound of galaxies spinning in an expanding universe--was an effective surround-sound touch as it reverberated throughout the hall.

An intimate Fletcher

The A.J. Fletcher Hall opened with a concert featuring lyric soprano Dawn Upshaw, the first in their new Great Artists series. One of today's most consistent performers, both on the operatic and recital stage, Upshaw captivated everyone with a program of songs by Henry Purcell, Gustave Faure, Hugo Wolf, Paul Hindemith and Charles Ives.

Upshaw has flawlessly precise intonation and declamation in any language she sings in. An emotive and personally accessible artist, she comes across as singing directly to you. Especially poignant was her performance of Hindemith's "Marienleben," a one-person mini-drama recounting the life of the Virgin Mary. Her ability to capture the excitement of the Annunciation, Joseph's initial jealousy, and the heart-wrenching pieta was marvelous.

Because of its smaller size, Fletcher has a more intimate sound that's not nearly as lively as the sound in Meymandi Hall. Nevertheless, people seated at the back of the balcony claimed to have heard every nuance of Upshaw's light voice. Because the stage is so large and deep, a light curtain is being used to cut off most of it for recital or chamber music concerts. But it will probably take some time to determine just what kinds of adjustments are necessary for the variety of ensembles that will perform there.

One tantalizing hint of the future came from an audience member who had already had the opportunity to sing on stage during the construction. "You can actually hear the other singers," we overheard her say to her companion.

Flaws exposed

The regular Classical Series on Friday featured another familiar Triangle visitor--violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, who ambitiously took on Tchaikovsky. Always a flashy, in-your-face performer, Salerno-Sonnenberg is something like the Maria Callas of the violin. In terms of pure drama and energy, she was a knockout, if you forgive her slipshod technique and intonation on rapid passagework and a scratchy lower register. That's one problem with the new hall--flaws are enhanced and exposed.

More exciting was concertmaster Brian Reagin's solo against a heavy orchestral accompaniment during the second movement of Brahms's Symphony No 1. Finally, you can hear him as if he were an entire section embodied in one person. The Brahms demonstrated the best qualities of the hall's acoustics: the ability to discriminate between each section and instrument. So often in the old auditorium, you could hear only the upper voice of a woodwind duet, or the bass virtually disappear during a full orchestral passage.

Differences heard

As we left the concert, patrons seemed excited by the new halls. We overheard innumerable comments from listeners who suddenly realized they were knowledgeable enough to hear the differences between one hall and the other. The new BTI Center is a boost to the Triangle's music scene: a home for musicians and fans alike, as well as a state-of-the-art venue to attract artists from around the globe. EndBlock

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