MPR News: Ordway builds plans for month-long opening celebration

Euan Kerr, MPR News 9/9/14

When the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts unveils its sparkling new $75 million concert hall next spring, it will do so in elaborate and enduring style.

In a month-long celebration that begins March 1, the Ordway will introduce the public to its intimate new venue for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra with a rich mix of performances designed to appeal to diverse audiences.

“Twenty-two days of opening nights,” Ordway President Patricia Mitchell said in describing the month-long celebration. “Because that’s really what it is.”

The invited artists include two South African legends in singer Vusi Mahlasela and flugelhornist Hugh Masekela, who on March 7 will perform together in the Concert Hall.

“Those two artists in that intimate space will be extraordinary,” Mitchell said.

A host of local artists also will perform, among them singer Haley Bonar, the Sounds of Blackness, Cantus, and Ananya Dance Theatre, which will perform a piece created for the Concert Hall. Both the Minneapolis Youth Symphonies and the Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphonies will play concerts.

Mitchel said the breadth of the artistic styles included in the opening month celebration — from classical and popular music to dance — is deliberate.

The schedule, she said, aims to welcome many genres and musical cultures to the Ordway, “and hopefully to make patrons, potential patrons from those same communities to feel that they are welcome as well.”

The celebration begins with a ribbon cutting and open house so that the public can visit both the new hall and the Music Theater, as the original hall is called.

“You know, to see it and stomp around, which you normally don’t get to do when you are coming to a concert,” Mitchell said with a smile. “Normally stomping around is discouraged. It will not be discouraged at the open house.”

The four primary occupants of the Ordway — the SPCO, the Schubert Club, the Minnesota Opera and the Ordway itself — will have major events during the grand opening month.

The SPCO will present its opening celebration on March 5 and 6. Hard on its heels will be the Minnesota Opera world premier adaptation of “The Manchurian Candidate,” which opens March 7 on the Music Theater stage.

On March 8, the Schubert Club makes its Concert Hall debut with a performance by violinist Pekka Kuusisto and accordionist Dermot Dunne.

Other highlights will be a concert by musical theater star Bernadette Peters, and a Liquid Music presentation by Helado Negro, the moniker for Roberto Carlos Lange, performer of Ecuadorian heritage who has synthesized Latin influences with rock, electronic beats, classical music and other influences.

Even as the Ordway announced the celebration, work continued on the hall.

“The project has been a real puzzle really,” said architect Tim Carl of HGA, who designed it. “Just the constrictions of the site, to fit a 1,100-seat concert hall. The biggest challenge is to understand how we thread this thing into this existing building.”

A big problem for engineers and construction crews was navigating the limited space outside the Ordway. Everything had to be carefully planned so building materials only arrived on the day they were actually used.

The design also presented a challenge, as the new hall must fit the footprint of the old McKnight Theater, which only had 306 seats.

The interior of the hall is currently a nest of scaffolding as workers install the acoustic ceiling made of mahogany dowels. The hall is designed for acoustic performances, but flexible enough to also host amplified shows.

Ordway Production Manager Andy Luft said members of the audience should feel remarkably close to the performers.

“From the furthest row in the back on the third level to the conductors head is approximately 87 feet,” he said.

If all goes well, the SPCO will begin rehearsing in the new hall at the beginning of December. The first week will include tuning the hall by adjusting reflectors above the stage, to get the best sound out in the hall and for the musicians to best hear each other as they play.

Meanwhile, work will continue on three lobby spaces for the new hall. There will also be a new box office, which will for the first time allow the Ordway, the SPCO, the Minnesota Opera, and the Schubert Club to operate out of the same space.

Those primary partners make up the Arts Partnership, which has spearheaded the effort to build the new hall. It has raised $81 million to fund construction and create an endowment to help fund performances at the Ordway.

Mitchell said the organizations have come a long way from the old days, when they openly quarreled over the use of the building.

“We finally have solved that with what is really a completely different way of working. It is not always efficient,” she admitted. “But, so far anyway, it is effective.”

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