The AU Howard Performing Arts Center
Inaugural Concert 2003
The sound of children singing broke the absolute silence, as the opening notes in a cascade of music reverberated around the room and into the ears and hearts of those who listened. The rich clear singing, enhanced by an auditorium that, like a fine instrument, amplifies the touch and sound of a skilled performer, was stunning. It was the start of a memorable evening for performers and audience alike, the inaugural concert of the new Howard Performing Arts Center at Andrews University.
For over forty years, Andrews University has dreamed of having an auditorium, an elegant facility in which to perform, a gathering place that would be a cultural focal point for both the university and the surrounding community. In October 2001, John and Dede Howard, musicians and philanthropists in the community, in response to hearing about this dream, met with Niels-Erik Andreasen, AU President, for the first time. Agreements were reached and the Howards made a commitment for a sizeable donation to AU, one that would cover half of the cost of such a facility.
Plans were drawn by architects and acoustical consultants, costs determined, fundraising initiated, construction agreements reached, and in March 2002,on a wintry cold day, a spirited groundbreaking took place. From the start, contractors met deadlines for construction as promised. The building process was accelerated through the use of precast units, the exterior walls consisting of 53 precast panels weighing 27 tons each. They are over three feet thick and block all outside sounds. These walls and the fact that all mechanical functions associated with a hall of this size are isolated helped create an absolutely silent interior.
Acoustical engineering was done by Kirkegaard Associates, internationally known for their work with such notable facilities as Chicago's Orchestra Hall, Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco, the Barbican Concert Hall and Royal Festival Hall in London, and the Atlanta Symphony Center. The result is a wonderfully resonant spacious auditorium finished in aesthetically pleasing wood and randomly placed stone surfaces. It is a transparent setting which demands that performers play well and project in a convincing manner if they want to connect with the audience.
Acoustics can be adjusted through the use of curtains that close and open by remote control. Presets are possible for curtains on the sides and those on the back wall. Changes can be made quickly, even between numbers within a concert where differing groups are performing.
With a seating capacity of 832, including 417 on a sloped main floor, 265 in the balcony, 38 in boxes, and 112 in an elevated area behind the stage that can double as a choir loft, the auditorium creates an intimate ambiance. The stage, which is elevated about two feet above floor level, is capable of seating an orchestra of 120. A spacious two-story lobby provides an impressive entry to the hall and an attractive place for visiting during intermissions.
Derek Bradfield, manager of Howard Center, began planning for its opening months earlier. Volunteers from the community and campus were trained for their roles as ushers, greeters, and box office staff. Lighting, sound, and recording technicians became familiar with the equipment and controls in this state-of-the-art facility and, finally, the musicians were given a chance to rehearse in the auditorium, after it had been "tuned" by an acoustician. The tuning process had been done a few weeks earlier by filling the auditorium with a "hard hat" audience and using various tests and measuring devices while different persons and groups performed.
Peter Cooper, chair of the music department and a piano soloist in the opening concerts, described his first practice there:
It was a profoundly moving experience, first because of the reality of the space itself and then the silence. It was completely silent. It was like the room was saying, "Just do something, but you have to know what you want to do.
The beauty of this hall is that it is requiring everyone who plays there to think more about the kind of sound they want to make. The sheer joy of doing anything you want and having the room produce it is both challenging and exciting.
Recent guest performers in a brass group, many of whom are graduates of one of the major conservatories in the country, were totally impressed. They felt that the conservatory had nothing like this.
It is an uncommonly wonderful acoustic auditorium. The hall works with you as you perform and the result is sheer joy. It is so far beyond any hall I have ever performed in. It is humbling to think that we have an auditorium like this at Andrews University.
Steve Zork, Director of Choral Studies, reacted similarly:
The openness of the room is breathtaking, a unique combination of airy spaciousness, yet inviting intimacy. The stage projection into the room coupled with the closeness of the balcony and the seating behind the stage in the choral terrace literally wraps the audience around the performers.
I had difficulty getting used to the silence, thinking at first that perhaps it was the result of too much sound deadening. That concern was dispelled the moment the choir sang its first note and a rich warm sound filled the hall. I really enjoy the auditorium because I like a nice ambience on the stage but don't like reflected sound coming back at me.
Because of the control we have at the touch of a button over the acoustics, none of us has to compromise when multiple groups are in the same program. There is a difference between singing on the stage or from the choral terrace, one that arises from the fact that there are fewer reflective surfaces in the terrace. Even though you don't have the intimacy there that you have on the stage, it still works well and the audience loves that effect.
It is a very easy place in which to sing and the students love to sing there. While it is a flattering room, you don't dare to force the sound.
The reverberation is equally good whether the room is empty or full. When I have attended as a member of the audience, I have been thrilled with the full bodied, yet focused sound that surrounds you. It is an amazing hall, a great gift to the university.
Alan Mitchell, Director of the Wind Symphony, also noted the silence, observing:
Performing in the hall is as close to a translation experience on this earth as one can have. After playing there you become much more aware of extraneous sounds present in the rehearsal room and at other performance sites. It was a challenge to adjust to the total absence of sound.
We discovered that our best sound and balance happened when we were seated back on the stage. Once we made that change, the balance, blend, ability of the performers to hear, and the projection into the hall was great.
While sometimes the best place to hear what the band is doing is at the podium, in a walk around the room I found no dead spots but an evenness in balanced sound in all areas of the room. The students in the band particularly enjoy the "surround sound" effect, and the sight-lines they have as they play.
The inaugural concert, given on two successive evenings in mid-October, was a huge success, as close to perfection as is humanly possible. The concerts, following a welcoming ceremony of recognition and thanksgiving that opened with the Berrien Springs Children's Choir, included music by AU soloists and ensembles, along with a regional string quartet and brass ensemble and guest conductors from the community.
The audience, aware of what they were participating in and hearing, responded enthusiastically throughout both evenings. The final number, Beethoven's Choral Fantasy, featuring the AU orchestra with Cooper as piano soloist and the AU Choral Union, a group composed of AU choirs and the Andrews Academy Silhouettes, ended the evening on a transcendent and triumphant note.
The opening of Howard Hall was a magical event then and a vivid memory now for all who were there. Andreasen, in a printed program tribute to the many who had made the facility possible, referred to this accomplishment as "a dream fulfilled and promises kept." He concluded with a commitment on the part of the university to fill the hall with good music, to help future generations develop their musical talents in this "inspiring place," and to make it a place where campus and community can meet in friendship.