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A New Music Hall For Rockport Chamber Fest

(Courtesy Michael Lutch)
(Courtesy Michael Lutch)

In the past, classical music lovers attending the Rockport Chamber Music Festival experienced stellar performances by internationally-known soloists and ensembles.

But the concert space, owned by the Rockport Art Association, wasn't exactly up to snuff.

"It was a charming little funky art gallery that people really enjoyed," said concert pianist and Rockport Festival Artistic Director David Deveau, "but the facilities there were very limited and didn't allow us to do the kind of programming that we want to do."

Well, now they can. The 29-year-old concert series kicks off its busy summer season Thursday night in a new, state-of-the-art performance space.

The 330-seat Shalin Liu Performance Center has been years in the making. It's quite a sight, with wooden panels, unusual stonework and a two-story-tall picture window overlooking the glimmering ocean.

But the way the hall looks isn't nearly as important as the way it sounds. Rockport Music went to great lengths — and spent $20 million — to create a perfect acoustical space for live chamber music.

"It's extremely clear acoustically," said Deveau. Then, the musician elaborated.

"We're looking for a bloom to the sound, which is reverberance in the space," Deveau said. "We're looking for something that allows us to have the notes that we play reach out and speak to the hall and the people in it so we can whisper or shout with our music and it will be heard in the very last row of the balcony."

To get what they wanted, Rockport Music hired an experienced architect duo, Deborah Epstein and Alan Joslin, along with acoustician Larry Kirkegaard. Kirkegaard and Joslin worked together on Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood, so they were prepared.

"They've studied the greatest concert halls in the world," said Deveau, "including Symphony Hall in Boston, but also Carnegie in New York, the Concergebouw in Amsterdam, the Philhamonie in Berlin."

"We're looking for a bloom to the sound, which is reverberance in the space."

-- David Deveau, festival director

The team understands the scientific properties behind a great hall, he added, but not all great halls are created equal. "The difference being with us is that this is a much smaller cubic volume," Deveau explained, "so they really were working with much greater constraints."

Size matters in concert hall design. High ceilings and wide, open spaces give sound room to travel and expand. The Shalin Liu has a rectangular shape similar to Symphony Hall's, but lacks that famous building's girth.

That said, after painstaking acoustical tests, Deveau and the design team are more than satisfied with the end result. "I think they've really worked some miracles," he said.

Finishing the new hall in the midst of a recession is also something of a miracle. But for Deveau and the festival's board of trustees, investing in a world-class music hall is critical to their mission.

"We are aiming very, very high," Deveau said. "We would like Rockport to be thought of the way Aspen is, the way Spoleto, Santa Fe, you know the way any of the great music festivals are around the world so that when people hear Rockport they immediately think, 'Oh, the music festival.' "

The organization still has to raise about $3.5 million to cover costs associated with the new hall, said Deveau. For now, though, he admits to allowing himself to bask in this historic moment after years of laboring on this project. He's been the artistic director since 1995.

"The search for a new space, and then the campaign to build it, and now the completion of this project is a dream come true that I never thought would actually become a reality."

And now that it's done, the concert pianist also gets to christen the hall — and its new Steinway Concert Model D piano — Thursday night.

"So to sit on the stage in front a full house and be part of this inaugural concert is going to be emotionally one of the most fulfilling things of my 35 year career, and I just can't wait," Deveau said.

And he'll also be waiting to hear reviews of the Shalin Liu Performance Center's acoustical prowess as critiques roll in throughout the summer.

The Rockport Chamber Music Festival runs from June 10 - July 18.

This program aired on June 10, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

Andrea Shea Twitter Senior Arts Reporter
Andrea Shea is WBUR's arts reporter.

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