Utter the phrase "new performance venue" anywhere near downtown Knoxville these days and you are apt to find yourself in a spirited conversation involving the future of World's Fair Park, greenspace, and Knoxville's cultural scene. And no wonder—it was inevitable that downtown's successful emergence from an unofficial "phase one" of its revitalization would put questions about city resources on a collision course with questions of what's next for the performing arts, and for performing-arts venues.
As the needed downtown/WFP discussion continues, what's next in Knoxville's performing-arts venues is actually already here. Less than three-quarters of a mile from downtown, on the University of Tennessee campus, the Natalie L. Haslam Music Center, with a stated price tag of $40 million, opens this month as the new home of the UT School of Music.
Rising on the site of the school's former building on Volunteer Boulevard, the new facility stands in stark contrast to the mundane architecture and cramped quarters of the old 1965 Music Building. With Mondrian-like patterns of colored glass and metal panels intended to subconsciously suggest sheet music, the exterior's visual aesthetic is a bit un-UT-like in its sensibility and decor, but refreshingly so. This sensibility—simultaneously retro and modern—carries through as one enters the building and encounters an impressive three-story atrium, bathed in natural light, featuring a staircase of laminated glass and furnishings that hint at 1950s modern.
The new four-floor, 123,000-square-foot facility is chock full of rehearsal spaces, classrooms, offices, and acoustically isolated studios and student practice rooms, freshly equipped with state-of-the-art technology and brand new Steinway pianos. The public face of the facility, however, is its performance venue, the Sandra G. Powell Recital Hall. This 412-seat hall, situated just off the atrium lobby, will be the site for the majority of guest-artist and ensemble concerts, as well as student and faculty recitals, all of which are open to the public. With the stage having a capacity of only 20 or so musicians, the largest of the school's ensembles—the UT Symphony Orchestra, the Symphonic Band and Wind Ensemble, and the larger choral groups—will continue to perform in the Cox Auditorium in the Alumni Memorial Building.
For the recital hall, the architects, Associated Music Center Architects (a joint venture of BarberMcMurry Architects and Blankenship and Partners), have brought a traditional European concert hall shape into the 21st century with a stage, main floor, and wrap-around balcony enclosed by walls in an energetic motif of horizontal cherrywood slats. The slats are actually acoustically transparent, making a visual statement while hiding a system of motorized retractable curtains that will be used to "tune" the reverberative characteristics of the hall to suit the needs of specific types of performance.
Because of its educational uses, balancing the experience of audiences and performers was an obvious priority for the planners. "The audience senses a spacious hall due to the white ceiling clouds and the light-colored wood on the rear surface of the seats. But for the performers on stage, there is a real intimacy due to the room-darkening effect of the dark blue seat material," says Jeffrey Pappas, director of the School of Music.
According to the acoustician on the project, David Kahn of Acoustic Dimensions in New York, providing an intimate and supportive environment for the performer was one of the key elements of design. "While certain events will fill the house, many student recitals are likely to draw smaller audiences," Kahn explains. "Confidence can be rattled when it seems as no one has come to hear them play. The hall configuration was specifically designed so that the hall seems fairly full even when the house is a quarter full. From an acoustic standpoint, intimacy is supported by low background noise of mechanical systems so that they are practically silent in operation. This allows performers to maximize the dynamic range of their playing."
Hopes, planning, and anticipation aside, the ultimate test of the recital hall's capabilities will come as music begins to fill the hall later this month. Although the school's role in Knoxville's classical music scene is tempered by its educational mandate, the accessibility of the new hall, and its expanded public offerings, should be game-changing factors. Hopefully, too, those settling into the new seats will be inspired to continue the quest for what's next for downtown's performing arts.