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Seattle's Sound Investment

A $118-million monument to symphonic music, the new Benaroya Hall is the crown jewel in the city's plan to weave a world-class arts infrastructure into its downtown core.


SEATTLE — As a pure concept, the idea of building a first-class symphony hall on top of a train tunnel and a bus transit line, and at one of the busiest downtown intersections, makes sense only if you like the rumbling of the Burlington Northern underneath the bass line, with honking taxis on top of the horns.

Then again, what an intersection! Right across the street from the Seattle Art Museum, with a view down to the ferries on Elliott Bay. Steps from some of the most fashionable new restaurants in town, just down the street from a major new downtown retail and movie complex and the headquarters of two important theater companies. Still worried about the traffic? Don't be. This is Seattle. There are no honking horns here. Everyone is much too polite.

Armed with an abundance of optimism, in a city bent on weaving a world-class arts infrastructure into its downtown core and supported by suburbs full of generous software millionaires, the Seattle Symphony debuts its new home this week--the $118.1-million Benaroya Hall, the crown jewel in Seattle's arts renaissance and the nation's first new hall constructed specifically for symphonic music in nearly a decade.

Saturday's gala opening--featuring soprano Jessye Norman and a nostalgic rendition of the "Firebird" Suite, which Igor Stravinsky himself conducted at the opening of the symphony's former home, the Seattle Center Opera House, in 1962--kicks off a two-week inaugural celebration featuring cellist Yo-Yo Ma, jazz artist Chuck Mangione, violinist Kyung-Wha Chung and singer Gladys Knight.

The long, low concert hall, with its stunning four-story glass lobby, joins a growing list of investments in performing arts infrastructure across the country, including new performing arts halls in Newark, N.J., and Fort Worth, two more planned in Los Angeles and Philadelphia and major rebuilds in Chicago, Washington, D.C., Santa Fe, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

But like the Frank Gehry-designed Disney Hall scheduled to open in Los Angeles in 2002, Benaroya caters neither to drama nor ballet. It is a monument to the orchestral arts, and its lead designer was not its architect, but its acoustician.

Symphony officials say they expect Benaroya's 2,500-seat S. Mark Taper Foundation Auditorium to rank among the top 10 symphony halls in the world in its acoustic capabilities, its classic, shoe-box design supplemented with important new innovations in wall and ceiling construction--and an unusual box-within-a-box air-lock sound-proofing system that should quiet the trains, buses and taxis for good.

"People have asked me, how does this compare to other modern halls, and my answer is, it's easier to compare it to halls built 150 years ago," said Cyril M. Harris, the 81-year-old acoustical consultant and professor emeritus at Columbia University whose previous work includes the Metropolitan Opera House (1966), the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (1971) and the reconstruction of New York's Avery Fisher Hall in 1976, as well as halls in nearly 100 other cities around the world.

"Building it on this traditional basis, I felt very confident it would be a very good hall. I just had to try to figure where in the top 10 it would fall," Harris said, just after the orchestra's first rehearsal on Wednesday. "I can tell you that my fondest hopes have been realized."

Symphony executive director Deborah Card, who ran the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra before moving to Seattle in 1992, was equally jubilant. "I think that what I heard this morning in our first rehearsal was amongst the most beautiful sounds I've heard anywhere," she said. "This is a magnificent space."

Things weren't always so upbeat. When Card arrived six years ago, the symphony was at the lowest ebb in its history. Fresh from the defeat of a countywide ballot measure for a new concert hall, the orchestra was reeling from a 30% staff layoff and a performer pay cut. It faced an accumulated deficit of $2.6 million, projected to hit $3.2 million by June 1993.

On top of that, there was the battle over the Opera House, which the orchestra shared with the Seattle Opera and the Pacific Northwest Ballet. Not only was it hard to schedule enough dates to earn money, it didn't sound like a symphony hall.

Music director Gerard Schwarz believed the orchestra deserved a home. Though not widely traveled, the Seattle Symphony has earned a national reputation through its recordings, many of which have received Grammy nominations and seven of which have made it onto the Billboard charts.

Things began to turn around. A pair of challenge grants attracted enough capital to start paying off the deficit, and then there was Schwarz's historic lunch in 1993 with real estate developer Jack Benaroya, an old friend. Benaroya and his wife, Rebecca, were thinking of giving $10 million or $15 million away to an arts organization; where did Schwarz think it should go?

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