On almost any weekend night, the glittering lobby of St. Paul’s Ordway Center buzzes with a dynamic mosaic of patrons who’ve come to see shows on its two stages.
One year after it opened a $42 million concert hall, the Ordway is more than living up to expectations. About 300,000 patrons walked through the doors last year — up from 270,000 in 2012, the last year it had two halls in operation.
This week promises to be another busy one, as the high-kicking musical “A Chorus Line” begins a two-week run Tuesday in the 1,900-seat Ordway Music Theater while the new 1,100-seat concert hall presents Russian piano phenom Igor Levit on Tuesday and Wednesday, and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra plays Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony Friday and Saturday.
Just as important as the higher numbers is the variety of patrons, Ordway officials say.
“Culturally, we have a wider representation of art in the venue because we have more opportunity to present things, from a Martin Luther King celebration to an Asian dance company to [choral group] Cantus,” said Ordway executive vice president Chris Sagstetter. “The Ordway is truly a welcoming place for all.”
To that end, the venue now allows guests to bring beverages into the performance spaces. Patrons are spending 30 percent more on average for concessions, she said.
The new hall is not just a social force, but an aesthetic one as well. Those who use it sing its praises, pointing out its superb acoustics, clear sightlines and the intimacy and warmth of a performance space designed by Twin Cities architect Tim Carl.
“It’s one of the best concert halls in the country, with amazing sound all over,” said Cantus singer Matthew Goinz.
Harmony also prevails behind the scenes at a multi-arts venue whose four principal users — the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Schubert Club, Minnesota Opera and the Ordway itself — once vied acrimoniously for slots on the main stage.
The concert hall, which is home to the SPCO for 28 weeks a year, “has completely changed our world, and all for the better,” said the orchestra’s artistic director, Kyu-Young Kim. “There’s relief that we don’t have to butt heads about space and calendar time anymore. And acoustically, it allows us to connect more powerfully with our audience.”
Kim said the hall has changed the way the SPCO approaches its music: “We can play softer, for example, and speak more directly, unamplified, and still be heard throughout the hall.”
A new collaborative spirit
When it opened on Feb. 28 of last year, the Ordway expansion was the Twin Cities’ most ambitious arts redo since the Guthrie Theater launched its own multistage building in downtown Minneapolis in 2006.
It was the answer to a vexing question that plagues multi-arts venues in general: how to share space among various tenants while still carving out a distinct identity.
Competition for the main hall had been an issue almost since the Ordway opened in 1985 with a much smaller secondary stage, downsized from 1,100 seats to 306 because of a budget crunch.
A sense of shared interest has replaced what once was a rancorous relationship, said Barry Kempton, president of the Schubert Club and the overall Arts Partnership that oversees the venue’s calendar.
“We have a template that shows who has access to what and when,” he said. “But just as important is the collaborative spirit we now have amongst the organizations. This spirit of flexibility is the strongest I’ve seen in my 20 years in this community.”
Kempton said the Schubert Club, which presents shows in both halls, has seen its audience grow by 10 to 12 percent since the concert hall opened.
The Ordway is also making the concert hall available to community groups. The Knight Foundation has given it a $1 million endowment to subsidize the rental costs for such groups. More than a dozen used the facility last year. The Ordway intends to increase that number.
With the freeing up of the music theater calendar, the Ordway has flexibility in booking Broadway tours and in ramping up its own productions. In the past couple of seasons, it has staged its own versions of such big shows as “A Christmas Story,” “The Sound of Music” and “A Chorus Line.” Ordway officials said that trend will continue in the 2016-17 season to be announced in March.
Its own productions have been winners, Sagstetter said. “The Sound of Music” sold at 90 percent of capacity, she said. “It’s broadened our reach and scope in the community, and it has excited the acting community here.”
A meeting of minds
If there’s a downside to the Ordway’s success, it is parking. On nights when both halls are in use, 3,000 people may be in the building. That can mean a traffic jam if there’s also an event at the nearby Xcel Energy Center or Roy Wilkins Auditorium.
“That’s life in the big city,” said Sagstetter — a phrase that St. Paul officials, who’ve worked for years to establish a downtown nightlife scene, will no doubt be glad to hear.
The Ordway’s principals are not taking their newfound success for granted, especially now that three of the four organizations are getting new leaders.
Toronto-born arts leader Jamie Grant, who has been hired to succeed Patricia Mitchell as president and chief executive officer of the Ordway, will relocate to the Twin Cities in April from Austin, Texas, where he runs the Long Center for the Performing Arts. Jon Limbacher, former chief operating officer of the SPCO, became its president and managing director in January. In May, Arizona Opera leader Ryan Taylor will take the helm at the Minnesota Opera.
“It requires maintenance, collaboration and dialogue on a weekly basis,” said Kempton, who has been in this arts community for 20 years. “And now that I’m the only one here with long experience, I’ll help our new partners to continue that style.”
While the Ordway aims to continue broadening its staff and programming to reflect the increasingly diverse community it serves, officials say they are closer than ever to the vision of founder Sally Ordway Irvine.
“Aunt Sally wanted a place for all arts and all people,” said Sagstetter, using the pet name Ordway employees lovingly employ. “I think she’d be extraordinarily happy with what’s going on here.”