Led by Music Director Christopher Seaman, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra christened the new hall Oct. 8, 2009.
Inside the new Eastman Theatre: transformed, yet familiar
Kodak Hall will stand tall among peers around nation
By NATE DOUGHERTY
High on the facade of the Eastman Theatre is an inscription, chosen by George Eastman himself, that says, "For the enrichment of community life."
For Douglas Lowry, dean of the Eastman School of Music, it was the same spirit that drove renovations over the past year to improve acoustics and create a better experience for patrons. The project had been a topic of discussion at the school for decades, and now that it has come to fruition, the theater will be on par with the nation's top performance halls, Lowry said.
The renovation added box seats at the hall's orchestra and mezzanine levels and took out 800 seats, reducing total capacity to 2,326. The larger lobby now is separated from the theater by a new wall, and a concessions area was added next to the expanded lobby. A passage links the existing oval lobby to a grand-entrance atrium in the Eastman School addition.
The work done this year is one phase among several that began in 2004 with the renovation of the theater's stage. In a little more than a year, the school will open an addition that includes a recital hall, a rehearsal hall, faculty studios, a recording room and the atrium.
Because the Eastman Theatre serves a major school of music sharing space with a top-flight resident orchestra, the renovation was something of a necessity, Lowry said.
"There have been a couple of renovations to the lobby spaces and the stage, but it's a hall that is 87 years old, and it's aging," Lowry said. "In an era where we've got a first-class school of music and a first-class resident orchestra, the need is for a performance hall that is similar in stature and quality to the very best peers we have. It stands to reason that we ought to be in league with everybody."
Renovations to the hall itself are focused on improving the patron experience. Upon entering the renovated hall for the first time, Charles Owens, CEO and president of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, said he was struck by how familiar it all looked. "What our patrons who are music lovers will appreciate is how many aspects of that concert hall have been transformed but how much it feels like the Eastman Theatre they know and love," Owens said.
Owens praised the contractors for maintaining the integrity and feel of the theater. The elimination of two large sections of seats on either side has given the theater a more intimate feel, he noted, but the new box seats still "look and feel like they've been there since 1922 when it opened."
The boxes represent an important part of the RPO's strategic plan. The 90 seats are expected to bring new revenue and increase demand for shows in the now-smaller concert hall. Owens said about 25 percent of the seats have been sold for this season, generating $110,000 in revenue, and he hopes sales will accelerate once more people experience them.
"Having stood in a box for the first time as it soars out over the orchestra level with an unobstructed view of the stage, it's a very exciting place to view a concert," Owens said. Owens said the RPO will approach sales the same way car dealers sell luxury cars-by giving people a chance to take a test drive. He plans events around open rehearsals; prospective patrons can move from box to box, testing out seats while watching the orchestra.
The changes also will improve acoustics in a hall originally designed for movies, not concerts. Lowry noted that in a hall of that size, it is difficult to gain what is known as "sonic presence," the way a loud note can fill the hall.
"If you heard the Cleveland Orchestra play at Severance Hall and they played a loud chord, you would say, 'Wow, that's a big sound,'" Lowry said. "The RPO or the Eastman Philharmonia could play the same chord and you would say it's loud, but if you listened to the same piece with your headphones on and the sound cranked up, you would get sonic presence."
The inexpensive seats occupying the now-eliminated side rows were never built with acoustics in mind, said Jamal Rossi, executive associate dean of the Eastman School. Sound also escaped into the unenclosed lobby. The seats have been replaced with box seats built to better reflect sound, and the open wall to the lobby has been closed. Getting the project to this point was not without difficulties for the Eastman School. After the first stage of the work was completed in 2004, the project came to a halt because of financial concerns and the swirl of uncertain plans regarding Renaissance Square.
There was talk of building a smaller theater in a lot across from the Eastman Theatre. But after making cost projections, the school and RPO decided the new theater would not be feasible. They then recommitted to the renovation, which would make the performance hall smaller.
More hiccups came during the building process as last year's economic downturn drove up original cost estimates. The school stopped construction for 10 days in January as it reviewed plans and studied costs. The total budget for the entire project, including the addition, was approved for $46.9 million, up from earlier estimates of more than $35 million.
Now, with the opening of the theater's most visible change to date, Lowry said the results justify all the hard work.
"This is enhancing a very important piece of what makes Rochester so great culturally," Lowry said. "I have been in some Midwestern cities that are larger and more significant in terms of the corporations that are there that can't tie our shoes in the quality of cultural life here.
"We are at the epicenter of the city, and there's a lot this project says about the resurgence of downtown as a major metropolitan, civic entity."
10/2/09 © Rochester Business Journal