St. Paul Chamber Orchestra begins rehearsals in new hall

Tuning the hall
St. Paul Chamber Orchestra plays in the newly completed concert hall at the Ordway Center for Performing Arts Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015.
Jeffrey Thompson / MPR News

The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra played for the first time Wednesday in its new Ordway Center Concert Hall, celebrating its completion with Beethoven's Fourth Symphony.

"We wanted to have the whole orchestra play the first notes in the hall together, because it's a group experience, so it was a natural thing to start with that," said Kyu-Young Kim, the SPCO's Senior Director of Artistic Planning and principal second violin.

The custom-designed, 1,100-seat hall will formally open Feb. 28. In the weeks before the gala, the orchestra will hold a series of rehearsals and practice concerts so acoustician Paul Scarbrough can fine-tune the sound of the space, which was built with intimate concerts in mind.

"We'll just be trying to audition the sound from as many vantage points within the hall as we can: from behind the orchestra, the sides, the balcony, the mezzanine, the orchestra floor," he said. "We'll just be wandering all over the place."

Throughout rehearsals this week, Scarbrough will adjust the sound by raising and lowering special curtains around the hall. He'll also work with musicians to adapt how they play to make best use of the hall's acoustics.

The Ordway Concert Hall is unusual because it is designed for a chamber orchestra. It provides an intimate setting, with back-row seats that are only 90 feet from the stage.

Scarbrough, who has worked with the architects from the start, said the seats and the hall's shoebox shape will mean very different SPCO concerts from those played in the Ordway's main stage, called the Music Theater.

"Because of your proximity, and because we have designed the room to be very, very quiet, the difference between the loudest thing the orchestra produces and the softest thing it produces will be that much greater than it can be in the Music Theater," he said.

Ordway Concert Hall
A select group of people listen as the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra plays in the newly completed concert hall at the Ordway Center for Performing Arts, Jan. 7, 2015. The SPCO played in the hall for the first time Wednesday to begin the tuning process.
Jeffrey Thompson / MPR News

The hall also is designed to be visually stunning, with white walls sculpted with abstract shapes. The ceiling is made of wooden dowels, set in waves which sweep down towards the stage. All of the work was done with acoustics in mind. The shaped walls diffuse sound and prevent echoes, while the dowels allow the sound through into the space above, adding warmth and resonance.

"This is like being given a Stradivarius," SPCO President Bruce Coppock said. "And of course the orchestra will learn to play it the way one explores an instrument.

The orchestra's musicians couldn't be happier about the hall's intimate sound.

"You can play as soft as you want and you can hear it at the top of the second tier," Kim said. "I have been all throughout the hall and it's really exciting."

Watch the orchestra at work tuning: