A concert space is as much a musical instrument as those expensive violins and oboes that actually make the music. The new $42 million, 1,100-seat Ordway concert hall in downtown St. Paul, which officially opened with a sold-out concert by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra on Thursday, serves as a splendid reminder.
Always something of a dim sonic presence in the music theater next door, where it has performed its main series the past 30 years, the SPCO in its new home sounds like a different orchestra — richer in color, more resonant, capable of more fully detailed music-making. It was as if our ears became unplugged.
Given the distinctively smooth, sensual aura of its interior, plus the fact that it will be used by numerous other musical groups including the Schubert Club, the hall has to be called the most significant new space for music in the Twin Cities since the opening of the Ted Mann Concert Hall at the University of Minnesota in 1993.
The new Ordway hall — the imaginative work of architect Tim Carl and his design team at the Minneapolis firm HGA — feels intimate. No seat is more than 90 feet from the stage. The undulating pattern of the mahogany-stained wooden dowels on the ceiling suggests sound waves. The ceiling continues all the way to the back of a stage hugged by a semicircle of warm wood, connecting the musicians with their audience.
Whereas the larger music theater, to use Marshall McLuhan's old terminology, is hot, the concert hall is cool. The music theater presents a busy visual field, demanding that we look again even though we've seen it dozens of times. Acoustician Paul Scarbrough's wall panels in the concert hall, glass fiber-reinforced gypsum — what Scarbrough calls high-tech plaster — instead engage the eye only briefly. The focus is on the stage.
Scarbrough's shrewd calculations have paid off handsomely. Heard from a seat in the front row of the first tier, the orchestra's sound seemed impressively clear while achieving ample resonance. Climaxes had real power without being jarring.
Bass response was definite, though with only two bass players on stage, this wasn't a large element in the mix. The upper strings took on an inviting silvery quality at times, a texture never heard in the music theater. The strings seemed over-dominant in a few places, suggesting that the players, though they've been rehearsing here for quite some time, might still need to pull back a bit.
As a showcase for both the hall and the orchestra, the program was well chosen: works by Prokofiev and Beethoven, along with a new commissioned piece by the American composer George Tsontakis, who was present for the performance. With no one at the podium, concertmaster Steven Copes acted as "leader" in the 18th-century manner.
For the curtain-raiser, Copes and his colleagues easily conveyed the sly wit of Prokofiev's Symphony No. 1, "Classical." Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony served as an expansive finale — briskly paced, lean-textured and bristling with energy. Tsontakis' "Coraggio" for String Orchestra, a reworking of his String Quartet No. 3, was preceded by Charles Ives' "The Unanswered Question."
Michael Anthony is a Minneapolis classical-music critic.