Six weeks after the end of a bruising 191-day lockout of its musicians, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra is turning the page to what it hopes will be the happiest chapter of its existence.
On Wednesday, the SPCO and it arts partners officially kick off construction at the Ordway Center of an 1,100-seat concert hall that will become its principal home. The venue, on the site of the soon-to-be-demolished McKnight Theatre, is due to open in spring 2015.
The SPCO plans to use the new hall about 20 weeks a year, said SPCO President Bruce Coppock. “People are going to hear the SPCO in a whole new way in this purpose-built hall,” he said, alluding to past complaints about the Ordway’s acoustics for orchestral music.
The new, still-unnamed hall is part of a $79 million campaign that already has raised $65 million. Construction will cost $40 million, leaving $32 million for an endowment to ease rents for principal tenants, and $7 million for transition costs.
The concert hall is the result of a years-long effort to achieve peace at the Ordway, which has a history of fractious relations among its principal users — the SPCO, the Ordway itself, the Schubert Club and Minnesota Opera.
From the Ordway’s opening on Jan. 1, 1985, the resident arts groups competed for time on the main stage and for resources to fund their respective efforts. Coppock, who ran the SPCO for nine years, then left and just returned for a second stint at the helm, referred to the tense decades at the Ordway as a “25-year civil war.”
For the past seven years, or so, they are all working collaboratively, spurred on by funders led by Carleen Rhodes of the Saint Paul Foundation and Bob Senkler, chairman and CEO of Securian Financial Group.
They have come together under the aegis of the Arts Partnership, a separate nonprofit entity.
“It’s a Minnesota solution to a problem that people have wherever there’s a center used by orchestras and theater and music,” said Rhodes, now president and CEO of Minnesota Philanthropy Partners.
The new facility promises to relieve pressure on the tightly packed schedule of the 1,900-seat music hall, which is used by the Ordway for Broadway productions, dance concerts and music, by the opera for its shows and by the Schubert Club for recitals.
Due to its short runs at the Ordway, Minnesota Opera for years has double-cast its main singers to give them a chance to rest their voices. When the new venue opens, the opera will have the option to do longer runs with just one cast.
The concert hall is being designed by architect Tim Carl of HGA to complement the original look by architect Ben Thompson. It will continue Thompson’s glassy facade fronting both Rice Park and 5th Street. The 270-degree view will allow patrons to see the St. Paul Cathedral from the upper-floor lobbies. The oblong auditorium will feature undulating wood ceiling panels and some seats behind the musicians and facing the conductor.
“In the past, some star architects were dismissive of sound design and so you have these well-known venues with poor acoustics,” said Carl, who recently designed a new concert hall at Macalester College and oversees the renovation of Northrop Auditorium. “Not us. We work very closely with our acousticians.” Paul Scarbrough of Akustiks is HGA’s partner in the design.
The idea for a new facility began to emerge about eight years ago, when David Galligan headed the Ordway and some residents murmured about the need to move out. That is when Senkler and Rhodes brought together the parties, some of whom could barely stand to be in the same room with each other.
The conveners also enlisted the help of California-based consultant Steven Bronfenbrenner, who sees the historic problems of the Ordway as endemic to multi-arts venues across the nation.
“It’s really an issue of competition for limited resources,” he said. “The answer in St. Paul is so elegant, my partner and I use it as an example across the country.”
Now the Ordway, a jewel of a venue in St. Paul, is poised to have another facet.