It's easy to fall in love with this building.
When you enter Kanbar Auditorium in Studzinski Recital Hall you are enveloped in the warmth of wood. The aisles curve softly down to a golden-lit stage. Above the stage, suspended like a wooden wave, an acoustical panel lifts your view upward. Natural light filters through a row of windows at the side, and brass-mesh pylons embrace the loge. Each of its blue-velvet seats is the best view in the house.
Add music to the mix, and you get pure poetry.
The latest in Bowdoin's building projects, Studzinski Recital Hall, Kanbar Auditorium opened to rave reviews this spring. The challenging $15-million renovation and preservation of the former Curtis Pool - a historic McKim, Mead and White building - brings the College's reinvigorated arts mission into the heart of campus.
Listen to a clip of "Canta Giorgia" by Orlando di Lasso (c.1532-1594), recorded in the new Studzinski Recital Hall, Kanbar Auditorium, May 5, 2007. Performed by the Bowdoin Chamber Choir, Robert K. Greenlee, director. Tim Kantor '07 and Professor Mary Hunter, violins; Nick Kasprak '08, organ.
Across the Quad, the renovation and restoration of the Walker Art Building nears completion, creating an "arts triangle" of the art museum, recital hall and Pickard and Wish Theaters [the latter were renovated in 2000].
"This exceeds our wildest expectations," says Bowdoin President Barry Mills. He is standing by glass doors facing Hyde Plaza as he welcomes 300-odd guests to the Dedication Concert in May - performed by the Eroica Trio no less.
"It's just world class in every respect," says Mills, beaming.
He gazes into the reception hall, its 25-foot walls illuminated by the last, bright light of day. "I think it's the soul of the building, its balance, the proportions, the colors. It's a very exciting, yet peaceful, place. Clearly, we have demonstrated our strategy: If you build it, they will come."
The 280-seat recital hall was designed by William Rawn Associates, of Boston, in collaboration with Lawrence Kirkegaard Associates and Theatre Projects Consultants. This is the same team that designed the much-acclaimed Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood for the Boston Symphony, considered one of the best acoustic halls in America.
Their design respects the exterior of the original 1927 McKim, Mead and White building - with its lofty ceiling and arched windows - while bringing a warm modernism to the auditorium's interior. A glass corridor connects the recital hall and adjacent Sargent Gymnasium. Beneath the hall and behind the stage, there are nine technologically-wired practice rooms, several rehearsal and teaching spaces, and a roomy backstage area that includes a green room.
Challenged to create acoustical excellence in a brick "shoe box" shape, the team developed an innovative means for adjusting sound quality: They created ten freestanding "pylons" at the loge level that conceal adjustable acoustical curtains. Their taut surfaces of brass mesh contain the space visually, yet allow sound to pass through to the brick exterior walls, maintaining the acoustical "bigness" of the hall. By raising or lowering the curtain contained within, the hall can be "tuned" for different musical programs.
Upholding the College's commitment to sustainability, many of the materials removed during its renovation were recycled, including 165 tons of concrete and 30 tons of steel. In addition, the recital hall is heated and cooled geothermally. Two 1,500-foot-deep wells and heat pumps circulate well-insulated groundwater into the building, which remains at a constant temperature of around 50 degrees.
And come they have.
During the week of inaugural concerts leading up to this official dedication, the hall has been packed nightly for an array of performances spanning classical, jazz, world music, and choral works - performed by faculty and student musicians, with a few special guests (Anthony Antolini's ambitious staging of Stravinsky's Le Noces, for instance, included soloists from the Nevsky Vocal Ensemble of St. Petersburg, Russia, and the combined voices of the Bowdoin Chorus and Downeast Singers).
Tonight's reception and concert are as close to glitzy as anything at Bowdoin gets. There are platters of cheese and paté, fresh seafood, drinks with glowing ice cubes, and a modern reception hall jammed with trustees, friends, faculty, staff, students, and alumni.
"This is magnificent, absolutely magnificent," says Board Chair Peter Small '64, grinning. "I'm sure many of the people in this room have floated around in this building at some point," he laughs.
"You know, when you go into a hall like this, you understand the importance of having a quality space to do the arts. All I can say is, it's intimate, it's beautiful, the acoustics are understated. It is Bowdoin. It just feels right."
No one quite knows when the idea was conceived to transform this former campus pool into a concert hall. Some say it had been "floating around" since the late 1970s. Former Bowdoin President Bob Edwards and his wife Blythe got the ball rolling in earnest in the 1990s, when they engaged the acclaimed Boston architectural firm of William Rawn Associates to work up initial designs [see sidebar].
"They went through various designs," notes Blythe Edwards, "but when they came back with this one it was an aha! moment. We knew it would work."
The project was back-burnered for several years as the College pushed forward on other needed capital projects, notably, construction of Druckenmiller and Kanbar Halls, which have helped Bowdoin to deepen and broaden opportunities in the sciences. The Millses picked up the baton and included the concert hall project as part of what Barry Mills describes as a mission to "reinvigorate our commitment to the arts and to bring them quite literally into the center of a liberal arts education."
Karen Mills agrees. "What Barry knew when he saw the plans and the location is that it would be transformative," she says. "Already in this week of the opening, we have students who just come here and practice, and they visit and they engage. It's going to really transform the place. It's magical."
It's a vision also shared by some of Bowdoin's most generous benefactors - most prominently, John Studzinski '78, Elliott Kanbar '56, and Elliott's brother, Maurice Kanbar - who provided substantially for the renovation and for whom the building and auditorium are named.
"When Barry mentioned the recital hall to me, I just thought it was important," says Kanbar. "I graduated from an inner-city school in Brooklyn where very few people went onto college. Bowdoin took a chance on me, and I'll never forget that. I always said to myself, if I ever had the wherewithal, I'd repay."
"All of my giving is very focused on nurturing young talent and audiences," notes John Studzinski, whose Genesis Foundation in the United Kingdom provides substantial support for young adults in early stages of careers in the arts. "In the case of the recital hall at Bowdoin," he says, "it will give talented stude'78nts a chance to perform in the kind of grown-up space that you find in big and small cities around the world. It brings a real urban cultural experience to a place as idyllic as Bowdoin.
"The important thing about music is feeling that you are intimate with the musicians," he adds, "and the acoustics in this hall make everyone feel close to the music wherever they are seated. This space will draw very good musicians to want to perform at Bowdoin."
The Music is in the Details
There is much more to Studzinski Recital Hall than meets the eye. In fact, it may be the backstage areas that raise the academic profile of the music program at Bowdoin as much as the elegant performance areas.
Long before student performers take their place on the Kanbar Auditorium stage, they will have been studying and practicing their instruments in one of the hall's nine new practice rooms. Each is soundproofed, equipped with wi-fi technology, and acoustically engineered to preserve the true sound of the instrument being played.
Behind the stage, a large, soundproofed room offers classroom or rehearsal space. It includes two digital projectors and screens, which can function either as video feeds from the hall or as DVD players for watching and analyzing recorded rehearsals.
There is a green room that can function variously as a lounge for musicians, a makeup room, or a hi-fidelity computerized recording studio miked to the stage.
Seventy-four instrument lockers give students safe instrument storage; all are outfitted with adjustable climate-controls.
A gentle bell warns concertgoers that the show is about to begin. In case you weren't certain, you could also glance up at one of the two sleek monitors that broadcast a live video/audio feed from the stage at all times.
Tenor Michael Peisner '07 gives one last rush at the cheese table. "I gave an a capella concert here last night," he gushes. He is a member of the popular Longfellows singing group - one of several new student musical ensembles to have formed in recent years. "Last week I sang in the Chamber Choir. Performing on this stage is just an incredible experience."
Professor of Music Mary Hunter isn't surprised by his reaction. "I think the recital hall will transform music at the College," she says simply. "Having a beautiful place, dedicated to performance, tells students visibly that we are serious about music. I think it will improve the standard of student performance as well. When you have a better hall, you actually play up to the facility."
Though she had been a grand prize winner of the Robert Schumann Competition and a prizewinner in the Van Cliburn, internationally renowned concert pianist Emma Tamiziàn says it was an honor unlike any other to be asked to select the grand piano - a gift of Nancy Kirkpatrick Morrell in memory of her mother, Mary Rose Clark Kirkpatrick - for Bowdoin's new Kanbar Auditorium.
"Being asked from a place that has come to mean a lot to me to choose a brand new concert grand from the Steinway factory, it is more than an honor," she said. "I have invested my work and my person since 1988 in the Bowdoin International Music Festival, and for this, both the College and the Festival put their hands and hearts together."
In her own words, the Bulgarian-born pianist describes the process of selecting the perfect instrument from the Steinway factory, in Astoria, Queens:
We entered a room with five or six pianos. I sit down and play the same things over different pianos and go back and forth. I was advised by the salesperson that what works best is to close the lid of the piano you do not like. I did not do that. I do not make my mind quickly.
I considered that it was going for a hall that has about 300 seats. I would imagine something that is not overly bright or overpowering. It's not only the sound you look for, it's how it feels and what it does under my touch.
After I played all the pianos we went on a tour of the factory; that was an incredible treat for me. I was able to see certain steps in the making - the rim, the soundboard and keyboard. One room is called the "pounding room." It's a tiny room where the keys are being tested, worked mechanically, like a player piano.
We went back to the room with the pianos and started all over again. There was something about this piano that made me come back, I don't know what made me want to get acquainted more.
This piano will not tell you at first what it is: It sort of waits for you to shape it. I asked the people from the factory to put it in the worst possible place acoustically. To put it away from the others. And then I played a little bit, concerti, through sonatas, through contemporary, through Baroque, Romantic.
I just sank in it. It was mesmerizing. This instrument was opening and opening and sounding and feeling differently. It began to get molded. It shines when it gets molded.
So I chose this piano and ultimately it went home to Bowdoin. I had not seen the hall ... I went the day before my concert in May to see it for myself. It was early evening and I was there alone in the concert hall. I had an audible inhale.
I see this sheer beauty. The different materials, the color of the wood, the amphitheater. I know how magical and magnificent an amphitheater is acoustically.
And as I played, the whole thing again happened. The piano connected within itself, sound by sound, key by key.
There are many concert halls that are gorgeous and fantastic, but this one is really a wonder and a marvel. Everything has come together. This is such rarity. It's a beautiful stage with world possibilities from now on. Whatever the College wants, recordings, everything and anything can happen.
For some, however, feelings about the transformed hall are bittersweet. Curtis Pool was a central backdrop of a Bowdoin education for many alumni - particularly in earlier days when swimming was a more widespread competitive sport and passing the swim test was a graduation requirement. Memories are afloat tonight.
"I do love it," says Norman Seagrave '37, settling comfortably into his seat. "But I loved it even more when it was a swimming pool," he adds wistfully. "I can still see my brother standing by the windows over there. We were both on the swim team. He would be diving over those chairs there, right into the deep end."
It is a testament to the subtlety of William Rawn's design that a modern space can still conjure its past. But it is a testament to tens of thousands of skilled man-hours that it came into being so beautifully.
No one knows more about that than Don Borkowski, director of capital projects, who has overseen the project since its beginnings nearly two years ago. Tonight he is sidelined for perhaps the first time - literally, sitting in a side seat in the loge surveying the crowd below.
"After years of talking about this place, to see all of these people here at the same time, and to see them loving it," he marvels, "it's just the coolest thing."
It's a reward Borkowski might have had a hard time imagining just a few months back, when the place was crawling with construction workers and Caterpillars.
"It was very detailed is the best way to put it," he grins. "There's a lot of building in a very small space. A lot going on that you don't see. There are geothermal wells and huge duct work that moves under the floor. We acoustically isolated every piece of equipment in every space - the pump in the mechanical room has vibration isolators so you don't get noise emitting from it."
The renovation began in September 2005, by H.P. Cummings Construction Company of Winthrop, Maine - the same firm that built the original Curtis Pool in 1927-28. This time around they faced a daunting and unique challenge: remove a swimming pool - which supported the building's walls - without compromising the structural integrity of the historically significant building.
Borkowski describes the process: "The structural engineers came up with a great plan," he says. "We put in steel beams - one at the top of the wall and one at the bottom. Then we threaded rods between them, about 10 all around. The walls were literally squeezed to hold them into place."
The far greater challenge, he says, was excavating the former courtyard between Curtis Pool and Sargent Gym to make way for the glass breezeway that now connects the two buildings.
"We had to support the wall of Sargent Gym with soil anchors going diagonally from its south wall, through the foundation, and drilling 40-feet deep under the building," says Borkowski. "That was a fun project."
Much as the building is anchored to the earth, the recital hall is rooted to the many communities it serves. It's a point Barry Mills joyfully makes as he prepares to welcome the Eroica Trio to the stage:
"We build architecturally special places at Bowdoin because we are deeply committed to continuing the history and beauty of our campus," he says. "But the architecture is only a reflection of the core value we place on the role of arts in a liberal arts education.
"What we really provide here is a place for our students, faculty, and staff to be inspired, to play, practice, and listen to music. But this is also a cultural center for the region and for Maine. We are delighted to welcome the Bowdoin International Music Festival to this concert hall, and we look forward to welcoming the community here for many years to come."
The lights dim seamlessly. The musicians take their place on the stage. For one brief moment, there is total quiet. The hall itself seems to hold its breath. And then, with one chord, the spell is broken.
After that, everything is music.