Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts

In Symphony's first rehearsal, new concert hall sounds like ‘dream come true’

Updated: 2011-08-03T04:33:48Z

By STEVE PAUL

The Kansas City Star

If you’re going to have a new beginning, you might as well do it with Beethoven. And more specifically, Beethoven’s First Symphony.

That fundamental and playful romp, ranging from light, dancelike parts to booming crescendos, gave members of the Kansas City Symphony on Wednesday their first chance to hear themselves in the orchestra’s soon-to-be new home, Helzberg Hall.

And hear themselves they did.

"It’s spectacular," said violinist Kristin Velicer during a break in the Symphony’s first rehearsal in the concert hall of the $413 million Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. "It takes your breath away. It is a dream come true."

The completion of all but the smallest details in the concert hall -- though a void remains where a huge pipe organ will come later -- gave music director Michael Stern and the Symphony musicians the opportunity to begin to tune themselves to their future surroundings.

As the morning rehearsal began, Stern told his players, arrayed before him on the blond wood risers of the stage, about the symbolic moment they were about to launch into. During his tryout to become the Symphony’s music director, he directed a program that his predecessor, Anne Manson, had planned, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 was on it. It has been eight years since then, and Stern and the Symphony musicians have steadily grown together toward this moment of working in a new home.



The hall’s esteemed acoustician, Yasu Toyota, had also told Stern that, rather than start with something dark and stormy, such as the Prokofiev they would get to soon enough, the musicians should ease into the new space with a work more gentle and familiar.

"We’ll start with the Beethoven," Stern told the orchestra, "to get in the mode of not needing to force the sound."

Velicer and her colleagues worked on pieces that will be part of this weekend’s Symphony program, which will take place as usual at the Lyric Theatre. The Symphony will rehearse mostly in the new hall for its three more sets of concerts this spring at the Lyric and its usual Sunday venue, Yardley Hall. It will make its public debut at the Kauffman center in September.

As the musicians played, Toyota moved around the hall, listening and shooting videos. The Symphony’s executive director, Frank Byrne, and associate conductor, Steven Jarvi, also popped up and down to hear the music from almost every section around the oval-shaped hall.

During one movement of the Beethoven, Stern called Jarvi to take over on the stage so that he, too, could hear what the sound was like from the balconies and seating edges.

"Whether you sit downstairs or whether you sit upstairs, what you feel from the stage is the same," Stern said later. "There’s no loss of clarity."

Everyone, it seemed, was no less than ecstatic.

Shirley Helzberg, Kauffman benefactor and the Symphony’s board president, sat quietly for most the session in the rear of the first section of seats. She said she wanted to be inconspicuous, but she could hardly contain her feeling on hearing the orchestra in action.

"We’re all so emotional," Helzberg said during the rehearsal break, before giving Stern a congratulatory hug.

Helzberg recalled how her friend Muriel Kauffman, whose vision and money launched her daughter Julia’s 15-year effort to build the two-hall complex, was so comfortable around the Symphony’s musicians.

"This would be very joyful to her," Helzberg said.

The 1,600-seat concert hall is wrapped in swoops of warm wood. Its contours echo the slopes and arcs of the structure as seen from the outside. PAC officials are trying to put a clamp on visual images of the hall’s interior, hoping to save some surprise for later. Suffice for now to say that the blue and purple upholstery and the soaring space combine for an easy-on-the-eye experience.

At some point during the orchestra’s rehearsal, it all seemed business as usual. Stern started and stopped the players to give guidance and discuss fine points of the scores.

"The sound floats without effort in a way we haven’t had," Stern told the musicians after their break. "It’ll do anything you do, so you have to do it. You can’t just be on auto-pilot."

After a vibrant string passage from Prokofiev’s "Alexander Nevsky" cantata filled the hall, Byrne leaned over to a listener. "There’s a blend to the sound we haven’t heard before," he whispered. "The dynamic range produced by the orchestra is enhanced in this room. It’s not congested or strident."

The Symphony and its coterie of listeners expected to get a different perspective Wednesday night, as the musicians rehearsed more of the Prokofiev and a Brahms choral piece with its chorus and a visiting soloist, the mezzo- soprano Sasha Cooke.

Velicer, the violinist, who sits at the very front of the stage, had said that playing music here and now with her fellow musicians was "like being inside a state-of-the-art sound system."

Symphony musicians -- and their leaders -- have long complained that they can’t hear one another well or at all while playing on the Lyric stage. It’s a burden for them and for their conductors.

Now, Helzberg Hall presents them a different story.

"You can feel the music in here the way you can’t anywhere else," Velicer said. "And it also looks fabulous."

To reach Steve Paul, call 816-234-4762, send email to paul@kcstar.com or follow twitter.com/sbpaul.

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