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In Newark, an Arts Mecca

This article by Elaine Strauss was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on January 1, 1997. All rights reserved.

With signs as thick as dandelions in a spring lawn, it was no challenge at all to drive to Newark's new New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC). Approaching the building to hear the gala concert of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) as it opened its 1997-'98 season in October, the general animation was telling. Being a fan of urban civic life, I could feel my blood pressure rising when I saw the bustling crowds converging on the glass and brick facade of the imposing building. This was a multiple celebration. Three days after the first public performance took place in the $180 million art center, the NJSO was taking up residence in its first permanent home and beginning its 75th anniversary season. The new hall was a magnificent birthday present for the NJSO, and a gift both to those interested in the arts in the region and to those who hope to see Newark regain its vitality. Making the center a reality began with the 1987 dream of then Governor Thomas Kean and required a construction period of more than four years.

NJPAC architect Barton Myers claims urbanism, as well as architecture, as part of his background. A native of Norfolk, Virginia, Myers' family lived in the townhouse built by his ancestor, Moses Myers, from 1791 until 1932. His grandfather was a developer who planned some of the city's notable parks. "When the city was torn apart after World War II, I took it personally," says Myers. "By that time, I was on my way toward becoming an architect, so I felt I might be able to do something to help other cities." In Newark he was handed an opportunity to design a performing center for a region of 4.6 million people living within a 25-mile radius of the site.

Myers' 250,000 square foot building occupies a 12-acre site and includes two performing spaces: Prudential Hall, a 2,750-seat auditorium; and the Victoria Theater, a 514-seat performing venue. In addition, the complex includes a 3,000 square foot rehearsal space, offices, restaurant, an outdoor plaza, and a gift shop.

The programming envisaged for the space ranges from rock concerts to chamber music, from classical ballet to jazz, and from Shakespeare to experimental performance art. Three of the principal affiliate organizations are from U.S. 1 territory: McCarter Theater, American Repertory Ballet, and Crossroads Theater. McCarter's William Lockwood Jr. is NJPAC principal programming associate, working with Stephanie S. Hughley, vice president for programming.

Public transportation links to the NJPAC abound by rail, bus, and plane. For those who travel by car, highway officials and Newark's transportation supervisors have marked the city's streets and the road connections to Newark with most extensive system of highway signage for any American arts center.

Inside NJPAC, Prudential Hall, the large performing space where the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra opened its season, impresses by its size and contours. "This is as big as Carnegie Hall," I thought as I entered. Above the orchestra level, horseshoe shaped seating in four tiers wraps around the hall. Unlike Carnegie Hall, which is very ivory colored, this space is very red. Except for a large, illuminated domed space in the ceiling, the room is all mahogany-stained cherry wood. Lawrence P. Goldman, NJPAC's president and chief executive officer likens the feel to being inside a cello. He's right, but I'm not sure if it's an advantage. My restless eye wandered around the space, finding no particular place to settle, and I wished for a visual accent of another hue to define the curves of the banked seating spaces.

In any event, listeners at the NJSO concert voted with their hands for both NJPAC and the NJSO. "Welcome to Newark," NJSO board chairman Victor Parsonnet said in greeting. And the audience responded fervently. "And welcome to the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra," he added, eliciting more of the same. The link between the orchestra and the city was an embrace.

This audience was dressed to celebrate. Black tie was optional, and I managed to talk my husband into wearing his tuxedo. He left the jacket in the car and hid the dress shirt under a plaid flannel shirt while we ate at "The Spain," a Spanish restaurant near the city center. During dinner he was apprehensive, wondering if he and the waiters would be the only men in tuxedos that evening. Not to worry. About 90 percent of the men at the concert hall were in black tie. Without glitter or sequins to my name, I was underdressed.

Chrysanthemums and ferns lined the front of the stage. In scarlet robes, behind the orchestra, sat Joseph Flummerfelt's Westminster Symphonic Choir, consisting of 200 students from the Westminster Choir College of Rider University in Princeton.

Various commentators, sitting in various locations for concerts of various sonorities, have had differing reactions to the sound of the hall. Clearly, individuals' ears differ, and different locations deliver different sounds. On the whole, the reaction to the acoustics of this hall, which is equipped with the capacity for changing the sound delivered from the stage, has been favorable. Furthermore, musicians report that they are able to hear each other well while performing.

By means of velour curtains, a movable ceiling above the stage, and an adjustable sound reflector (called an "eyebrow," that can be made to reach out over the audience), the configuration of the sound can be changed. Architect Myers and acoustical consultant Russell Johnson collaborated closely, not only to develop the sound-enhancing devices, but even to include design features that would optimize what the audience hears. Talking about the goal of reflecting and diffusing sound, architect Myers says, "In a way, every surface of the room -- every curve -- has been designed with that function in mind."

It is to be expected that as performing groups gain experience with the hall, and learn how to tune it for particular purposes, the acoustics will improve. NJSO is particularly adept at turning on a acoustic dime. It has to modify its sound to suit the acoustic qualities of the seven different locations in the state where it habitually performs.

Our seats in the Grand Tier that hugs the back of the orchestra, provided, for the most part, X-ray hearing. A few scattered muddy passages aside, I was delighted to confront the layers of sound that make the music. I could hear just about all the instruments at all dynamic levels. The ping of sticks engaging a drum head came through, the bows as they contacted the strings of string instruments were audible, and I imagine that my ear picked up columns of air vibrating within the brass instruments.

The program was tailored to the occasion. Beethoven's "Leonore Overture No. 3" gave artistic director Zdenek Macal an opportunity to place a solo trumpet in the second tier for dramatic effect. It is only a small stretch to think that the stirring music associated with Beethoven's "Fidelio," and its stand against tyranny, was intended to declare its stand against the injustices that led to racial tensions in Newark back in the 1960s.

Nurturing this outlook, it was easy to hear the drum roll and brass opening of George Walker's "Pageant and Proclamation for Orchestra," commissioned by the NJSO, and premiered at the concert, as evoking the uncomfortable moments from which bravery can grow. Walker notes that after the introductory fanfare, he manipulates the musical material of the piece to culminate in both spiritual and secular development of the basic material. Pulitzer Prize winner Walker has associations with both Newark and the NJSO. He is an emeritus member of the Rutgers Newark Music Faculty from whom the NJSO has commissioned music in the past. Thus the presence of his music at the concert carried history with it.

Climaxing the concert, Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 ("Choral"), with its rich use of orchestral resources, permeated the hall with powerful sounds. Its vocal evocations of brotherhood can be seen, not only as hopping on the bandwagon of the French Revolution, but also as making a 20th-century bid for a fraternal ideal that will replace Newark's past tensions with a harmonious rebirth that will also bring prestige and economic well-being to the city.

I took advantage of the intermission to walk up to the fourth tier, and was astounded to find a handful of people clinging to the walls from fear of the height. They thought that the railing at the front of the section was dangerously low. I walked along the suspect area and determined that compared to the Alpine spots where the average Swiss octogenarian hikes in the summer, the height difference from fourth tier to orchestra floor was unmemorable. Imagine my surprise to run into a friend who reported feeling uncomfortable from a seat in the third tier. Imagine my astonishment to find somebody who took one of the Monday tours of the building and said, "The second tier was scary. You go up one flight of stairs, you wouldn't think it would be so scary." These perceptions opened up a potential research area.

A NJPAC spokesman revealed that the front of the fourth tier is only 48 vertical feet above the orchestra level. At Carnegie Hall, a member of the archives department estimated that the difference between the center of the balcony and the orchestra floor is 53 feet. He also made the observation that about a third of the first-time listeners in the Carnegie Hall balcony are taken aback by the height. "If they go to more concerts, they get used to it," he noted. "People should just go to more concerts." This sounds like good advice.

Maybe those New Yorkers seeking to increase their concert consumption might consider a trip to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. The NJPAC is a match for New York's concert venues in size and acoustic quality. What's more, the distance from Times Square to Newark is exactly the same as the distance from Newark to Times Square.

-- Elaine Strauss

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