In one year, the stage at the Rachel Schlesinger Concert Hall has played host to 101 concerts, plays and awards ceremonies.
Almost two dozen musical ensembles have played the hall, and 10 or more local symphonies, orchestras, choirs and chamber groups have come to call the center their home stage. Musicians like Bobby McFerrin and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg have visited.
The Schlesinger Center, on the Alexandria campus of the Northern Virginia Community College, opened for business last September, and will celebrate the one-year anniversary of its dedication this Saturday, Oct. 19.
The first concerts there came as the region began to emerge from the shadow of Sept. 11. That didn’t keep the center from attracting customers. Dr. Leslie White, the Schlesinger Center’s managing director, said that revenues for the concert hall have run about 15 percent above expectations, and bookings for the stage and the lobby have become an almost Darwinian battle.
“If I could get another dozen Fridays and Saturdays, life would be good,” White said, because there’s a demand for the hall from across the community. In addition to music, Schlesinger has housed weddings, and a bat mitzvah party for twins. “There were about 60 of those little 13-year-olds running around here,” she said.
That puts Schlesinger on track to meet budget goals over the next four years; when it opened, White told the university she hoped to be self-sufficient by 2005.
The success of the center has pleased tenants like the Arlington and Alexandria symphonies. “It’s a great honor to be at the Schlesinger Center, especially since it is named for one of our violinists,” said Jonathan Kerr, managing director of the Arlington Symphony Orchestra “Schlesinger is a world-class facility.”
SCHLESINGER WAS a step up for both symphonies in terms of performance space. Before last September, the Arlington Symphony performed most of their concerts in the auditorium of Bishop O’Connell High School.
“The acoustics and lighting were only so-so, and we had little control over the heating and cooling,” Kerr said. The move to Schlesinger let the orchestra better show off its skills, he said, let the musicians flex muscles already developed.
“It’s like a fine violinist who has been playing wonderful music for years on a standard instrument,” Kerr said. “Then he plays a Stradivarius and it makes all the difference in the world. The Schlesinger Center has become the Stradivarius for the Arlington Symphony.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Kim Allen Kluge, conductor and artistic director for the Alexandria Symphony. The orchestra performed at T.C. Williams High School before Schlesinger opened, along with occasional performances at the Kennedy Center and the George Washington National Memorial.
Schlesinger gave the orchestra a more permanent home base. “The consistency is important, and it’s the best acoustic venue we’ve been in,” Kluge said. “Acoustics were good at TC, it’s an outstanding space. But it isn’t in league with a truly world-class concert hall, as Schlesinger is.”
SOUND IN SCHLESINGER has attracted many local music groups, White said, and Schlesinger is rapidly filling up its schedule.
“We’re running just about double the number of bookings as last year,” she said. “We’re two-thirds booked for the fall, and between mid-February and June, there’s probably on Saturday night available, maybe two Fridays and half a dozen Sundays.”
That same success has occasionally put the squeeze on student performances, said Tony Stanzo, dean of the college’s arts department, and that can upset students who look at Schlesinger as a concert hall built on a college campus.
“It’s a mixed bag for students. We get them signing up because they see the opportunity to perform in there,” he said. “But we have some classes that just don’t meet those expectations.”
Stanzo and White have ensured that students will never be scheduled out of using Schlesinger completely, with two slots at the hall a year for each performing arts program.
“We have a written policy that gives academic ensembles access to the building,” White said. “But they may have to make compromises, Thursday instead of Friday night performances.”
“What it boils down to is, the paying clients get the first shot,” said Stanzo. That can frustrate students, particularly performing arts students who came to the campus with hopes of performing on Schlesinger’s stage. “Every aspiring actor envisions himself performing in a venue like that,” Stanzo said. “I haven’t seen a student yet whose eyes didn’t light up at the mere mention of the possibility of getting in.”
But he understands the financial necessity of making those compromises. “It costs money over there to walk in the door,” he said. “A big part of the logistics are working around the paying customers that are the lifeblood of its existence.”
“It would be real nice to have a building of this caliber that serviced only your campus,” White agreed. “But that’s not in keeping with the economic realities of the moment, or the economic realities of the Commonwealth.”
In the end, Stanzo said, that has probably been for the best. There are more than enough student slots at Schlesinger right now, and he may have to scale back some of them. “Beginning acting classes may not ever get a production worthy of that space,” Stanzo said. “This is the carrot at the end of the stick. We can say, ‘Stay here long enough, and you will get to put a performance on over there.’”
IT’S QUITE A CARROT, and lures performers and audiences into Schlesinger as well, said Ruben Vartanyan, conductor of the Arlington Symphony. “Musicians are feeling very happy because it’s a professional concert hall,” he said. “They’re feeling that the decision was absolutely right” to move symphony concerts to Schlesinger. But that’s only part of the way towards getting the musicians in the right mindset for a performance.
“It will be a full advantage, if one day we have the possibility to make all of our rehearsals in the same place as the concerts,” he said. Currently, the orchestra can only perform on Schlesinger’s stage for the final dress rehearsal before a concert, due to the cost of operating the hall.
That cost includes two technicians versed in the acoustics of the hall, who can shift curtains, tiles and parts of the stage to provide the optimal sound. The service is a draw for smaller music groups, and a necessity in a hall like Schlesinger.
“The hall is most flattering for use by a symphony orchestra,” Kluge said. “It was built as a symphony concert hall, with additional flexibility built in.”
Flexibility may mean some extra wrangling during rehearsals, but orchestra members appreciate it, Kluge said. “Musicians are thrilled with the hall, because their natural sound is realized and enhance. They don’t have to fight the sounds of others.”
INDEED, SCHLESINGER FOSTERS some harmony between local orchestras, White said.
“It enlarges the audience for each group,” she said, as fans of the Alexandria or Mount Vernon come to Schlesinger to hear those groups perform, and see fliers for the Arlington Symphony while at the hall.
That was part of the hope in moving to the hall, Kerr said. “We always kid that the Arlington Symphony is the best-kept secret in Northern Virginia,” he said. “Being at Schlesinger has really put the symphony on the map.”
There has also been a word-of-mouth campaign attracting military bands from around the Washington region to Schlesinger, White said. The Marine Band performed there in January, and since then there has been an onslaught of other groups booking the space. The Marine and Air Force bands will both be setting up shop in Schlesinger for a week at a time next May, for recording sessions.
“It’s a good hall and acoustics,” White said. “They can set up for a full week at a fraction of the cost of a recording studio, and they aren’t squeezed together like a studio.”
AS SCHLESINGER CONTINUES to fill out its calendar, White said she is looking forward to experimenting with the hall. Once it supports itself, she said she will take a look at the calendars for the first seasons at Schlesinger, and read between the dates.
“We need to look at five years of calendars, see what local groups have used the building for, and then look for holes,” said White. “There are holes. Last year, there was no children’s theater here. This year, there are two performances.”
That’s a little frustrating for White, who came to Schlesinger with a background in using theater as education. But the realities of the hall can make it difficult to put on a play on the stage – a space that was built for 100 or so musicians, not a cast of five or 12.
The stage may hold the solution to that problem in the future, however. “We’ve been talking about the potential for turning the stage into an experimental theater, with the actors and the audience onstage,” she said.
Other spaces in the Washington region, intended to house experimental theaters, have instead become the home to long-running productions, as with the 15-year-old production of murder mystery-comedy “Shear Madness” at the Kennedy Center’s Theater Lab.
That’s the economic reality of theater, White said: long-running shows pay the bills. That could make an experimental theater on Schlesinger’s stage very attractive. But for now, the idea is just a pipe-dream. “That’s not something that’s been at the forefront,” because it is at least four years away,” she said. “One thing you learn real quick in this job is how to prioritize.”