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ISSUE 118 VOL 18 PUBLISHED 4/29/2005

Sing, O Muse, for concert hall

By Andrea Horbinski
Copy Editor

Friday, April 29, 2005

When I first came to St. Olaf I was greatly impressed by the quality and scope of the music programs on campus. Although official figures cite about 1,000 students as being involved in music, most of the time it feels like everyone – except for a few dire holdouts – is involved in some way or another, whether by participation or by enjoyment. As a musician coming from a high school in which there was almost no music program whatsoever, this enthusiasm was a welcome change for me.

Over the past two years of performing and attending musical events of all kinds at Olaf, however, I’ve come to feel that there is something essential missing from the music experience on campus. For starters, St. Olaf would benefit hugely from the construction of a concert hall.

At first glance, such a proposal seems positively profligate in Olaf’s current climate of fiscal belt-tightening. After all, we can’t even scrape together the money to adhere to the proposed schedule for the new science center; why am I even thinking about another large construction project?

Well, why not? There are as many idealistic arguments in favor of a concert hall as there are practical arguments against one. Perhaps most importantly, a concert hall would be a great symbol of the school’s financial and institutional commitment to the continued vitality and rising profile of the music program.

Not to denigrate any other department, but as someone from an area where no one has heard of St. Olaf College, I can attest that when a rare individual does know the school (“Golden Girls” notwithstanding), they’ve invariably heard of one of our musical ensembles.

Moreover, the plain fact is that Olaf’s current venues are acoustically horrible. Urness, with its cement pillars and brown carpeting, is both small and strange. Boe (since, of course, it was never designed with music in mind) is little better than a barn from an acoustic standpoint, especially in the colder months when fingers go numb and instruments constantly wander out of tune. Skoglund is a gym, and it’s a shame that such fine ensembles as the St. Olaf Orchestra are condemned to play there.

I’m not advocating building a huge venue which could accommodate, say, Christmas Fest-size crowds, although from a financial standpoint, it might be nice if we could pack more of ‘em in each night. Let’s give the people what they want, after all.

But the primary objection against a concert hall I’ve heard while discussing this editorial – the money it would require – is not necessarily as much of an obstacle as one might immediately assume.

There’s been talk around campus recently about why St. Olaf’s endowment is so small compared to other state colleges, and what can be done to increase it. Given how well our investments are being managed already, if we want more capital we have to explore venues other than the financial markets. The science center is enough, I often hear people saying. Well ... maybe not.

Perhaps what is needed to energize potential donors is not just a scheme in which Olaf will “catch up” with its perceived competitors, but outdo them altogether. A concert hall would lift Olaf even further ahead of the pack and greatly improve its national profile.

Moreover, since we have no money, we can afford to take the time to do a concert hall right.

In Philadelphia, where I went to high school, the reaction to the news of a new concert hall for the Philadelphia Orchestra, one of the best in the world, was rapturous.

Unfortunately, when the Kimmel Center opened in 2001, the vaunted, cello-shaped Verizon Hall, while visually gorgeous, turned out to be one of the most acoustically harsh spaces I’ve ever been inside, and the “adjustable” wall panels didn’t do very much to help improve sound quality.

Moreover, no one had really foreseen the difficulty of cleaning the center’s barrel-vaulted glass ceiling.

When I went home for spring break, the latest news on Verizon Hall was that it would cost non-existent millions to improve the building’s acoustics.

St. Olaf can learn several lessons from Philly’s mistakes. Most obvious is this: When you build it, build it right; don’t go for style over substance. Moreover, if you dream big, you can build it (much like Olaf, the Philadelphia Orchestra is chronically under-endowed). And, as James Earl Jones once intoned, “if you build it, they will come.”

Copy editor Andrea Horbinski is a sophomore from Marlton, N.J. She majors in classics and linguistics and has a Japanese studies concentration.

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