The thud of pile drivers and the whine of saws are adding an unexpected obbligato to the country’s musical life as orchestras and conservatories nationwide are building concert halls, restoring historic theaters, and constructing new spaces. The construction projects take a variety of approaches, on a variety of scales, from adaptive reuse of landmarked edifices to building a brand-new school designed by a starchitect to installing updated tech systems to finally create the concert hall the orchestra deserves. All that cement being poured and paint being slathered—for orchestras, it’s literally musique concrète.
When the pandemic hit, concert halls went quiet as orchestras pivoted to alternate venues—parks were alive with the sound of music—and virtual presentations. During the lull, many orchestra halls got a facelift—sometimes much more—and others were built from scratch. The reasons range from improved accessibility and acoustics to infrastructure upgrades, new safety features, spaces for music education, and more. Many of these projects were long-held dreams or already on the drafting table, and though the pandemic posed unprecedented challenges it also offered a rare opportunity: with concerts and gatherings shut down, now was the time to call in the acousticians and builders.
Perhaps more importantly, as orchestras rethink their roles in a rapidly evolving society, their physical presence—the concert hall, the theater, the performing arts center—is a palpable manifestation of how orchestras relate to the multiple communities they serve. Sheets of glass that let everyone see what the musicians are up to, or marble walls that make a grand civic declaration? A shining temple on a plinth, or a low-key structure that merges with the streetscape? For orchestras, architecture isn’t only a practical matter of good acoustics or a cool design—orchestras’ homes tell people who we are and what we do.
This article is the second of two parts. The first part, which ran in Symphony in December, examined the renovation of David Geffen Hall, the New York Philharmonic’s home at Lincoln Center, and the creation of the San Diego Symphony’s new Rady Shell at Jacobs Park, an outdoor venue on the city’s waterfront.
The Colburn School
In Los Angeles, the Colburn School is about to break ground for a 100,000-square-foot campus expansion, designed by no less than Frank Gehry and slated to open in the fall of 2026. The new Colburn Center building, across the street from the school’s main campus, will include a 1,000-seat concert hall, professional-sized dance studios, a flexible 100-seat studio theater, commercial-quality recording and streaming capabilities, and green spaces, many of them publicly accessible.
The Curtis Institute of Music
In 2020, Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music embarked on a major project to restore and modernize its historic building in Rittenhouse Square, the school’s home since it opened in 1924. The building was originally constructed in 1894 as an elegant mansion for the Drexel family, so things like digital tech and HVAC systems weren’t part of the scheme. The $15 million project, completed in 2022, revived the building’s period-perfect sheen and included upgrades to heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning; a new elevator; a larger costume and wig shop; and acoustical and other improvements to Field Concert Hall. The renovation balances a respect for antique aesthetics with the need for modern infrastructure.
The Erie Philharmonic
In January 2021, Pennsylvania’s Erie Philharmonic opened its first full season in the newly restored Warner Theatre, an historic movie palace where improvements include a new acoustical shell, an expanded stage, updated tech systems and loading docks, and even a restored Wurlitzer organ. The goal was to combine the grandeur of the building’s origins as a 1930s movie house with a state-of-the-art performing arts center, said Erie Philharmonic Executive Director Steve Weiser. The project happened during the COVID-19 shutdown, when the Erie Philharmonic performed a season of eight televised concerts, broadcast free on WQLN PBS. The Warner Theatre is a state-owned property maintained and managed by the Erie County Convention Center Authority. The Philharmonic is the theater’s most consistent tenant, and the hall also hosts the Lake Erie Ballet and the Erie Broadway Series. Erie Philharmonic audiences have flocked to concerts at the renewed Warner in record numbers: the orchestra has sold out 50 percent of its performances this season.
The Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra
In Pennsylvania, the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra returned to the Forum Auditorium in October 2022 for its 2022-23 season, following a renovation of the historic theater. (The orchestra performed at the Scottish Rite Cathedral during the renovation.) The 1,610-seat auditorium was built in 1931, the same year the orchestra was founded; the Classical-style auditorium is part of the State Capitol Complex, owned and operated by the Commonwealth of PA, and also hosts choral, jazz, gospel, dramatic, and dance presentations. The renovation includes new heating and air conditioning, plumbing, wiring, fire alarms and fire suppression systems, and computer and data networking. All great, and all essential—but what really dazzles are the auditorium’s redone public spaces, complete with a lighted map of the constellations on the ceiling. As Harrisburg Symphony Executive Director Matthew Herren points out, guest artists are always stunned when they arrive for rehearsal.
The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Some construction projects are more visible than others. Heinz Hall, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s home in downtown Pittsburgh, underwent renovations during the pandemic shutdown that may not have been all that noticeable to the public: expanding the box office, adding accessible doors, and improving ventilation. More recent changes will be harder to miss: the historic hall is about to emerge from a multimillion-dollar facelift that includes the restoration of its terracotta façade, the replacement of dozens of windows, and the installation of new lights—and possible lighting effects—on the exterior.
The League of American Orchestras’ 2023 National Conference takes place in Pittsburgh, June 14-16 and is hosted by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Many events and concerts take place at Heinz Hall during the Conference—providing the perfect opportunity to see what the fuss is about. Learn more at https://leagueconference.org/.
The Sarasota Orchestra
For about a decade now, Florida’s Sarasota Orchestra has been considering how to meet its need for something the region has never had: a state-of-the-art, acoustically superior purpose-built concert hall. The orchestra has also been thinking about the area’s expanding population and arts and cultural communities—and it is thinking big. The orchestra has now gotten government approval to acquire a 32-acre site for a permanent Music Center that will include a new 1,800-seat concert hall, a 700-seat recital hall for chamber performances, space for education activities and partnership with local schools, and outdoor community places. Approximately 20 acres will be dedicated to the Music Center, an additional building for possible future expansion, and parking facilities. The remaining 12 acres will be dedicated to wetlands, water features, natural parks and trails.
The Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras
A combination of factors exacerbated by the pandemic resulted in the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras losing access to rehearsal facilities it had inhabited for 53 years. For the last two years, the organization has been operating without programming space and holding rehearsals for 450 students in schools, churches, and parking lots. How to solve the space race? In June of 2022, the youth orchestras broke ground on a new 40,000 square foot facility in downtown Madison with space for lessons, rehearsals, offices, instrument storage—and expanded opportunities for young musicians. The construction of the new building says much about the growing centrality of youth orchestras in their communities, with dedicated buildings for youth orchestras opening across the country.
This is the second article in a two-part series. Read Part One of “Building Boom.”