The Ordway’s Concert Hall: A user’s guide

Chris Hewitt, Pioneer Press 3/20/15

The Ordway Center for the Performing Arts has been around for 30 years, and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra has been in existence for 57 — but both feel brand-new with the March 1 opening of the SPCO’s new home, the Concert Hall.

Rehearsals and invitation-only concerts have been going on for the past month, but the public will get its first look at the $42 million Concert Hall on March 1 as the venue kicks off three weeks of celebratory events dubbed “Rock the Ordway.”

They’re the culmination of efforts you could trace to 2010, when the Arts Partnership — the Ordway, SPCO, the Schubert Club and Minnesota Opera — announced plans to tear down the McKnight Theatre and construct the Concert Hall in its footprint. Or you could go back as far as 1985, when the Ordway opened with the McKnight Theatre as a compromise space that never quite addressed the fact that so many organizations wanted to program events at the Ordway.

In part because the amount of available space was defined by its location at the corner of St. Paul’s Washington and Fifth streets, most of the new construction is devoted to the hall itself. That means Concert Hall users will still rely on the original Ordway for many things: bathrooms (although there are some new ones in the lowest level of the new hall), the ticket window, bars and the like. Your best bet, when using the new space, might be to think of it as part of a larger whole, with some amenities of its own and some that are shared.

“We hope patrons will explore how they want to live with and use the space,” says Patricia Mitchell, the Ordway’s president and CEO. The following user’s guide should help you find out what’s new — and not-so-new — at the venue that has been called, with slight geographic imprecision, the “Jewel of the Mississippi.”

PARKING

Perhaps the best advice on where to park when you’re attending events at either the Ordway Music Theater or Concert Hall is: Don’t.

The Ordway is a four-block walk from the “Central” stop on the Green Line. Especially if you’re coming with a small party, that’s going to be easier, cheaper and more energy-efficient than driving.

If you do drive, you could circle around for a while, looking for a meter, or you can opt for one of the nearby parking ramps such as Lawson Commons or RiverCentre or surface lots, where prices may vary depending on events. (If the Wild are deep in the playoffs at the Xcel Energy Center next door, plan to take out a mortgage to pay for your parking space.) Pro tip: The Ordway’s staff tends to park in the Landmark Towers Ramp, across Rice Park from the Ordway, partly because Ordway offices are in Landmark Towers.

WHERE TO SIT

There are a lot of great things about the Concert Hall but maybe the best great thing is that, no matter where you sit, you will not be more than 90 feet from the performers.

For comparison’s sake, if you were sitting in the SPCO’s old home in the Music Theater next door, 90 feet away from the stage would put you in the third row of the mezzanine. In other words, you can sit in the far back of the Concert Hall and you’ll still be quite close to the music. But where are the best best seats?

“I know this sounds like weaseling out, but it depends,” Mitchell says. “The sound is wonderful, although it’s true that the sound is more blended if you’re in the second tier than on the main floor. It you’re sitting on what we call house left, where the seats come all the way around (see maps on Page 9E), you’ll be able to read the music a pianist is playing. If he hits a wrong note, you will know, because those seats are like being in the orchestra. It’ll really be a different experience, depending on where you are.”

Andy Luft, the sound and lighting expert who is the Concert Hall’s project manager, agrees.

“If you’re sitting in the first few rows, next to the string section, you’re going to hear a lot of strings. If you’re by the tympani, you’ll hear more percussion,” says Luft, who echoes the Ordway theme that there are no bad seats in the Concert Hall (more on that later). If forced to pick, he says his favorite seat would be dead center in the first row of the first tier.

Luft might have to arm-wrestle acoustician Paul Scarbrough for that seat. He, too, gravitates to the front rows at either the center of the first tier or the center of the second tier.

“But that’s due to my subjective preference,” Scarbrough says. “The acoustical character will vary as you go around, which is natural in any concert hall. Some people like an intense, direct experience because, in the front row, you can see things you can’t see from anywhere else. But I prefer to sit farther back, where the sound has clarity and a little more resonance.”

Kyu-young Kim is with him. The SPCO’s principal second violin already has been at a lot of rehearsals and events in the Concert Hall, both playing on stage and listening from the audience, and he knows where he’d want to sit if he were paying.

“I’d want to be up high. The best sound will be at the top, and that kind of bird’s-eye view of the hall is really cool,” Kim says. “But I wouldn’t worry if I had to sneak in and get a ticket at the last minute. They’re all good seats.”

But there definitely are some less-good seats: specifically, the ones off to the sides on the second tier. At the front of these sections, there are two fantastic seats that face the stage but, unless you move way forward in your chair, you cannot see the entire stage from most of the other seats on the sides of the second tier. (At present, SPCO is not selling these seats as partial-view but they are letting patrons know there are sightline issues and working on a way to make sure those issues are reflected in online ticketing charts.)

Some of the seats in the choir loft, the area behind the musicians that will be sold at most concerts, also have slightly obscured views of the stage. But the intimacy with the musicians there is so real that you’ll practically feel like BFFs with the violinists. And the spectacular view of the Concert Hall, with the ceiling’s waves of wood rolling all the way to the back of the hall, has me determined to sit right in the middle of the front row of the choir loft: row A center, seat 16.

Sound, of course, may not be your only consideration when choosing where to sit. Wheelchair-accessible and companion seats are situated at various places throughout the Concert Hall. Ticket agents, and the website, can help with choosing those seats.

Ultimately, Mitchell thinks the key to finding your favorite seat at the Concert Hall is not to find your favorite one.

“It isn’t a matter of finding the seat you like best,” Mitchell says. “It’s all about switching it up.”

SOUND

If you find yourself thinking, “I wonder why they did that,” as you look around the Concert Hall, the answer will often be “because of the sound.”

The concrete floors? Better for acoustics. The each-one-different wall panels? They help to assure there’s no symmetry in the room, which makes for better sound. The subtle shifts that have taken place over the past month as to where the musicians sit on stage and to the acoustic panels at the back of the stage? It’s all about making the SPCO musicians sound as good as they’ve ever sounded.

“We’ve had about four weeks of rehearsal in the space, everything from a chamber music rehearsal to Beethoven’s Ninth, so we’ve had a chance to hear everything from the most intimate to the most expansive music,” Kim says. “What’s been interesting is that the hall has been very sensitive to any adjustment that’s been made. We’ve been trying different subtle things, and they make a difference. The orchestra members can hear this incredible detail and react to it.”

For the last month or so, acoustician Scarbrough and his team have been on hand as sound in the Concert Hall has been adjusted, almost in the same way an expert tunes a piano.

First, they had to get the room as quiet as possible, blocking out ambient noise from things such as the heating and cooling system. Then adjustments had to be made to various qualities in the room. One early problem, according to Luft, was that there was too much bass in the room but that sort of thing is fixable.

“There are two kinds of adjustability in the room. One is what we refer to as one-time adjustments: the acoustic canopies over the stage, the wall behind the dowels (at the back of the stage). We’ve been working with the orchestra to hone that, and once we’re done it will pretty much be fixed for all time,” Scarbrough says. “But things like acoustic banners and draperies will be used, depending on what’s happening in the room. When they’re doing other types of events, particularly events with amplified music or speech, those drapes, for instance, can be deployed to dampen the resonance in the room.”

But the vast majority of the Concert Hall’s usage will be by the SPCO. And what Bruce Coppock, the orchestra’s president and CEO, has been hearing over the last month or so of rehearsals has him convinced that the Concert Hall could make audiophiles of us all.

“What I’ve always found about audiences is they don’t give themselves enough credit for how much they understand, how much they hear,” Coppock says. “The challenge, I think is that, when you don’t have something to compare it to, it’s hard to imagine what it could be. That’s going to be the voyage of discovery for our audiences. All of a sudden, they’re going to hear things that they never knew were going on before.”

That will be a continuing process. Everything is pretty much set for this month’s concerts, but the SPCO and other tenants will continue to provide fine-tuning feedback, and Scarbrough says he and his team will return in about a year to make any adjustments that are required.

FOOD

One thing that has not changed at the Ordway: No outside food or beverages allowed, with the sole exception of water bottles.

“If we could establish water stations and completely eliminate selling bottled water — from an environmental standpoint that would make me happy,” says Tammie Weinfurtner, the Ordway’s food and beverage services manager. In the absence of those stations, though, patrons can bring their own water bottles in.

The biggest change is that patrons can now also bring their purchased refreshments into the halls with them, something that was previously not allowed. Hot beverages must have covers.

The bar underneath the staircase in the Music Theater has more than doubled in size, with room for five bartenders. It’ll be open to serve Concert Hall patrons, even if there isn’t also an event in the music theater, and the Concert Hall has added a bar on the second tier, the only level where the lobby of the Concert Hall doesn’t connect with the lobby of the Music Theater. Like drinks, the other refreshments offered at the Music Theater will be available to Concert Hall attendees.

“If there’s anything happening at the Ordway, you can get cake and cookies, beer and wine and a Kowalski’s wrap,” Weinfurtner vows.

BATHROOMS

When you’re planning bathroom breaks while attending the Concert Hall, it’s best to think of the entire Ordway space. If you’re on the main floor of the Concert Hall, it probably will be easiest to use the new restrooms in the lower level, which features 17 new stalls or urinals. But if you’re sitting anywhere else, there may be closer options in the original Ordway, which is accessible from the main and first tier lobbies and which always will be open during Concert Hall events, even if there’s nothing on stage at the Music Theater. The farthest you can be from a bathroom is probably in the “choir loft” seats, the rows of seats behind the stage. If you’re sitting there, you may want to visit the restroom before the concert begins because it’s a long walk to the restrooms in the foyer in the Music Theater.

Click HERE to read the entire user’s guide to the Concert Hall, including an interactive tour, FAQs, dining recommendations and more.

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