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Orchestra Hall plans ‘slimmed down’ expansion

Orchestra Hall in downtown Minneapolis has been a major music venue since its construction in 1974. Photos by Bill Klotz

Orchestra Hall in downtown Minneapolis has been a major music venue since its construction in 1974. Photos by Bill Klotz

Brian Johnson
Dolan Media Newswires

Minneapolis — The Minnesota Orchestra is making a pitch for a toned-down expansion of Orchestra Hall.

Two years ago, the Minnesota Orchestra’s board was promoting a $90 million expansion and renovation that would bring expanded lobby space, more flexible acoustics, better sight lines, more comfortable seating, a choral loft and other improvements to the 1970s-era concert hall in Minneapolis.

At the time, orchestra officials hoped to have construction under way by fall 2009. But that was before the economy hit its low note.

In response to the economic downturn, the orchestra changed its tune and came up with a revised, $40 million plan that focuses more on lobby and public spaces and less on major structural changes to the auditorium.

“Essentially, we really slimmed down the project to a very focused renovation in light of the poor economy,” Minnesota Orchestra spokeswoman Gwen Pappas said. “This [$40 million] is a number we feel confident we can fundraise for.”

Pappas said the orchestra has raised $18.6 million in private donations for the project — up from $14 million as of June. Orchestra officials hope to secure a third of the project cost from state bonding in 2010, and raise private money to pay for the other two-thirds.

The current project “gets to the heart of what needs to be updated about Orchestra Hall, and that is essentially front-of-house and lobby,” Pappas said. The plan calls for, among other things, improved lobby spaces, a “refreshed” auditorium, backstage improvements and a “welcoming exterior.”

When Orchestra Hall was built in 1974, the focus was on the auditorium itself, as opposed to lobby and backstage spaces. It may have been a wise use of resources given the budget limitations at the time, but it resulted in public spaces that don’t measure up to today’s standards, according to orchestra officials.

Front-of-house and lobby spaces are insufficient for a music venue with a 2,450-seat auditorium, and anything over one-third auditorium capacity creates crowded conditions in the gathering spaces, according to orchestra officials.

There’s an upside to the fact that structural changes in the auditorium will be avoided, Pappas noted.

“The thing that is sacred to us is to make sure that the acoustics in the auditorium remain as good as they are today when the renovation is completed,” she said. “The more structural changes you make within the auditorium, of course, the more that might be called into question.”

In September, the Minnesota Orchestra selected Mortenson Construction to perform general contractor duties for the project. Toronto-based Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects is on board for design services.

Both firms have experience with cultural work. KPMB’s design work includes the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, a $30 million renovation of Yale School of Music’s Hendrie Hall, and a $75 million renovation of the National Ballet School in Toronto.

Mortenson has built cultural buildings across the country, including the MacPhail Center for Music and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, and the Denver Center for Performing Arts.

“We have a good combination of experience on both the cultural performance center projects and building major projects in downtown, congested urban environments,” said Ken Sorensen, Mortenson vice president and general manager.

Pappas said the Orchestra hopes to complete the renovation by winter 2013.

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