Here’s something we can be certain nobody has said in 85 years: “Gosh, the acoustics at Northrop Auditorium sure are great, aren’t they?”
After the Friday performance Friday by the Minnesota Orchestra in the radically remodeled Northrop, people can finally say it. The new Northrop is a quite astonishing visual and auditory experience.
When construction on this project began in 2011 — with a price tag of $88.2 million — there was reason to be skeptical. Think of all the money spent since 1962 trying to repair the acoustics at Avery Fisher Hall in New York City — and the sound is still dim.
Architects HGA and acoustical engineers ARUP kept the exterior of the building and the three-story lobby but gutted the interior, reducing 4,847 seats to 2,700 and replacing the two-level shoe box configuration with a four-level horseshoe-shaped scheme, with curves everywhere, thereby improving sight lines and reducing the distance from stage to listener.
The sound, so distant and vague before, felt intimate and enveloping from a position on the main floor Friday night as Osmo Vänskä led the orchestra in a program of Wagner, Liszt, Tchaikovsky and Dvorak.
There had been a couple of public performances in the hall already; this was the first by a symphony orchestra. Up higher in the hall, the sound at the rehearsal Thursday was mellower, more reflected than direct, but still good. The sound on Friday night was warm with no loss in clarity, but the bass response — the kind of thing you can feel in your feet at Orchestra Hall — lacked something in depth and presence.
The idea was to duplicate the dedication program that the Minneapolis Symphony played in this hall Oct. 22, 1929, with Henri Verbrugghen at the podium. Weighty cultural history was being evoked here. For decades, the orchestra’s Friday night concerts at Northrop were the week’s main event culturally and socially.
As happened 85 years ago, the irresistible finale (just before the “Minnesota Rouser”) was Tchaikovsky’s “1812” Overture, when the orchestra was joined by the marching band and choirs of the University of Minnesota.
Vänskä drew vivid and energetic performances from the orchestra all evening while downplaying the inherent bombast in all these works. Marni J. Hougham caressed the English horn solo in the “Largo” from the “New World” Symphony as if she were singing a beautiful song, and pianist William Wolfram provided digital fireworks in Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1, though the sound of the piano was occasionally distorted.
A special moment came when trombonist R. Douglas Wright, standing onstage, introduced the orchestra’s conductor laureate, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, who, frail but vital at 90, slowly rose from his seat to acknowledge the enormous applause. Had Skrowaczewski not railed against Northrop’s sonic limitations in the ’60s, Orchestra Hall surely wouldn’t have been built in the ’70s. And, we probably wouldn’t be enjoying this splendid new version of Northrop in 2014.
Michael Anthony writes about music.