Classical Music

For Hopkins Symphony Orchestra, a happy return to its home venue

After a nearly two-year absence, ensemble returns to the stage at renovated Shriver Hall

Hopkins Symphony Orchestra music director Jed Gaylin

Image caption: Hopkins Symphony Orchestra music director Jed Gaylin

After an absence of nearly two years, the Hopkins Symphony Orchestra is thrilled to return to its longtime home this weekend, music director Jed Gaylin says.

The orchestra was able to start rehearsing in the renovated Shriver Hall earlier this year, and two upcoming concerts—the HSO spring debut on Saturday at 8 p.m. and the afternoon family concert on Sunday at 3 p.m.—are the first public performances in the recently reopened venue. Shriver Hall has been closed since September 2017 for a $14M makeover project that included the addition of an LED lighting system, digital projection system, new seating, new screens, and much more.

Over the past two years, the HSO has by necessity performed off campus, with HSO general manager Nicoleen Willson tasked with navigating a host of related issues, from ticketing challenges to logistical hurdles such as making sure doorways are large enough for timpani drums to pass through them. Despite being a bit itinerant over the past two seasons, Gaylin and Willson report that student participation in HSO has steadily grown over the years, and the HSO community musicians continue to be generous mentors and partners to the young musicians.

Video: Patrick Ridgely and Dave Schmelick

The Hub caught up with Gaylin and Willson to talk about this weekend's concerts—which features Franz Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, Igor Stravinsky's Symphony in C, Johannes Brahms' Double Concerto for Violin and Cello featuring soloists Kristin Lee, violin, and Thomas Mesa, cello; and Beethoven's Consecration of the House (Overture)—and returning to Shriver Hall.

How does it feel to be back in Shriver?

Jed Gaylin: We're glad the day has finally come. For me, just to have a well-lit space is key. The musicians can see their music, they can see me. It has a much brighter feel, so it's a happier place to be. There are options in terms of the lights, and the lobby feels like a more cheerful place. Everything just feels gussied up.

I ask because I've dropped in to look around the hall and have read about all the things that were done to it, but I haven't chatted with anybody who regularly used it before. How does it sound?

JG: It sounds more or less the same. The fact that that supposedly retractable screen that could never retract fully is no longer blocking the proscenium is a big thing.

Nicoleen Wilson: There's now a functional, fully retractable screen. Through the renovation process, the folks involved stayed diligent to the fact that the decisions that were made didn't negatively impact what was going on for the users of the space. There were lots of people involved, big committees, but it was very much a team effort across many departments.

This weekend's concerts are going to be your first performances in Shriver since spring 2017. Did you program for this return—because you've got three really gorgeous, kind of swaggering pieces in the repertoire?

JG: We had done our share of thinking about launch programming and then we made the tactical decision that even if this was going to be our soft opening, the really big celebratory event was going to be the start of the next season. So we're going to have a really splashy program [in fall 2019]. That said, this is a great program but we knew that if we needed to take this to the Interfaith Center, we could. And we added a fourth, the Beethoven Consecration of the House (Overture).

NW: The Beethoven was a way to celebrate being back in the hall. The other repertoire was planned for being in Shriver, but that we could take it on the road if we needed to. We became really good at being flexible and creative.

JG: So we have four hugely different pieces, from a late Beethoven overture that is an incredible fusion of symphonic form and fugue, to the Liszt, which is over-the-top fun. It starts off dark and gypsy-ish, and then the cork comes out and it's just explosive. We have the Brahms double concerto, which is just rapturously beautiful and fuses Romantic sentiment and a retrospective look at the double-concerto form.

The Stravinsky was programmed to be a challenge for the orchestra. At one point we were considering doing "The Rite of Spring," but we can barely fit that at Shriver. So we thought to go with a smaller Stravinsky, which is no less difficult. It is clean-lined like Scandinavian furniture, crisp and fresh. And like most Stravinsky it's essentially a dance piece, in this case masquerading as a symphony.

And it's tough. But I can say with conviction that the orchestra is rising to the challenge. With some Stravinsky that has the same metrical complications as this piece, like "The Rite of Spring," you can muscle your way through. This one is difficult and you need finesse.

NW: It's so spare and compact that you can't hide.

JG: Nicoleen's husband, Nat, a professional horn player, said a great thing about the Stravinsky. What was it?

NW: He said that piece doesn't sound good until it starts to sound good. Don't worry, it takes a moment to get there.

Tell me a little about the family concert on Sunday.

NW: We've always taken repertoire from the symphony concert the day before, and Jed creates a narration to introduce different instrument sounds to the audience, and then playing it through. And then the audience is invited up onstage to try instruments and meet the musicians. We think you can give kids credit for being good audience members and interested in what's going on in an orchestra, and let the music speak for itself.

JG: One of the things I love about the orchestra is that we can do real music for kids. I often see orchestras put together concerts for children, but it ends up being about gimmicks. I remember the first children's concert I went to, which was after the Kennedy Center first opened up, and they played Charles Ives "The Unanswered Question." It's a great piece, it's a great piece for kids, and it stayed with me. So there's a lot of great music for kids, and kids are more open than adults about style, so as long as it has some immediacy you can get them interested. My attitude is that you should only play the best music for kids, and we're going to do the Beethoven and the Liszt, which will take up about an hour. It's always fun.

And this is not the usual young people's concerts that I do during school days, with buses of kids and chaperones. This is a come one, come all family concert, and we don't say nobody under a certain age. We encourage, if a kid is really squawking, to be respectful to the other audience members, but there is a little bit of a free for all element to it, which is fine. I think there's an unfair perception that classical music in general is elitist, but it was not intended to be elitist at all. It's become that because of a lot of social factors in this country.

You've been rehearsing in Shriver since January—how has it been for the students? Some of them have never performed there. It's a proper concert hall, and I imagine being onstage there is different than being in the Mattin Center, where you've been rehearsing, or the Interfaith Center.

JG: They love it. And being able to rehearse in the space where you're going to perform is huge, just to be able to set the sound, for the musicians to have the kind of space they need to make an orchestral sound. And I think, for the students, it feels special going into Shriver Hall.

The Interfaith Center, who have been so nice and so supportive and accommodating in every way you can imagine, and continue to be great for our [smaller] concert orchestra, it's a beautiful room and the acoustics are great. But for the [larger] orchestra it can be dimly lit, which can be hard for the musicians to see their music. Orchestras were invented before the light bulb, so we don't need a great deal of it, but we do need to see the tiny notes on the page. And the lighting in Shriver now is not only new, but it's in the right place for us.

So you're back in your home after nearly two years of learning to be nimble. Does the new and improved Shriver affect programming going forward? There are all these bells and whistles in the space now that you don't have to use, but maybe you want to.

NW: In the past there have been programs where we've used projections or other visual elements, and [Shriver's capabilities] used to be a major challenge, if not a complete barrier. In the past, we sometimes overcame that with outside technology, but I think now it is a place where we can explore more visual collaborations. There's a rear-screen projector, a couple of different screens and abilities to bring in visual elements.

JG: And I think that as we start to become more familiar with the hall, then we can start talking to our visual friends at the Digital Media Center and say, "What kinds of things might we do?" Right now we're just really getting used to being back at home. And it's good to know that we can execute the season we have for next year without changing it.

I remember when the HSO first had to start moving around a bit, there was a little anxiety. But you also took it as an opportunity to try to reach people who maybe haven't come to see the HSO before. How was that process for you, turning displacement into an opportunity?

NW: It was a challenge and, as expected, our audience numbers were somewhat lower than if we were able to build on what we were doing at Shriver. But I definitely think people who otherwise wouldn't have known about us, did, and now we're hoping to build on the excitement of being back at Shriver, because we really exist to serve this community. Prior to the renovation we made the best out of the facility we had. Now the facility adds to the experience.

JG: And I think going forward we'll see how successful we were at that.

So next year's season is already programmed?

NW: Yes, and we officially announce it at Saturday's concert. One thing I'll say—that first concert in October will be our grand opening in Shriver, and we're doing a commission for a new piece and world premier for the hall.