Sunday, October 12, 2003

'The Max,' Detroit Symphony's new performance facility, opens

By Mike Householder
The Associated Press

DETROIT - The days of symphony musicians preparing for performances in a trailer, concertgoers sitting on their coats and patrons standing in the snow to collect tickets are no more.

On Thursday, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra dedicated a venue to match its reputation: the Max M. Fisher Music Center, known as "The Max." The $60-million center includes a restored and modernized Orchestra Hall, a newly built 450-seat performance hall and an education center.

"It symbolizes for us, finally, a facility that is worthy of our musicians, that is worthy of the acoustics of the Hall and is worthy of our audiences," said Emil Kang, president and executive director of the DSO. "They have suffered as long as we have."

Orchestra Hall revival

Neither the audience nor the musicians has suffered as much as Orchestra Hall itself.

The 84-year-old structure has seen it all - a grand opening in 1919, the departure of the DSO 20 years later, a stint as a jazz club in the 1940s and a near-death experience in 1970.

The Hall was scheduled for demolition that year to make way for an Italian restaurant. But DSO bassoonist Paul Ganson learned of the plans and formed the "Save Orchestra Hall" organization. A grass-roots movement then raised funds for its renovation. In 1989, the DSO returned to its original home after 33 years at the lackluster Ford Auditorium across town.

"The Hall is a part of Detroit's history," said Peter Cummings, the DSO's chairman of the board. "There's a generation of people ... for whom Orchestra Hall and a few other institutions are the repository for their memories of the days when Detroit was great."

Amenities improved

Backstage facilities at the 135,000-square-foot complex include temperature-controlled instrument storage areas, a music library for the DSO's collection of scores, dressing rooms for music director Neeme Jarvi and musicians, as well as warm-up rooms, practice rooms and even "quiet rooms" for napping.

The Music Box, a new 450-seat performance venue, will host chamber music, jazz, cabaret and other musical and genres, including poetry slams.

The refurbished Orchestra Hall also features a new entrance that allows concertgoers to wait inside for tickets as well as the Hall's first-ever elevators.

Gone are the Hall's leaky roof and dim lighting that sometimes made it difficult for audience members to read their programs and for the musicians to read their music.

'Everybody very enthused'

"The donors and patrons have been loyal supporters of ours in a facility that had no elevators, had inadequate washrooms, had inadequate heating, ventilating and air conditioning," Cummings said. "So, totally apart from the new performance venues ... the sheer addition of amenities has gotten everybody very enthused."

The man for whom the facility is named, however, wasn't always enthused about the project.

Max Fisher, the 95-year-old Detroit-area philanthropist and Cummings' father-in-law, is not a classical music fan. But when he learned that the DSO also intended to revitalize the neighborhood surrounding the Hall, he got on board with a $5 million donation in 1997. Fisher recently provided the DSO with an additional $5 million gift.

The Hall used to be surrounded by crack houses and abandoned buildings. Phase one of the renovation replaced those with a parking structure, office building and retail complex.

New school a plus

Phase two was building The Max. The third phase, which should be completed in two years, is the Detroit High School for the Fine, Performing and Communication Arts. The $122-million high school will feature a state-of-the art digital communications center with production and broadcast studios.

The project represents a nearly $220 million investment in Detroit.

"I think everybody is really impressed with what Detroit has done with what is now the Max Fisher Center," said Jack McAuliffe, chief operating officer of the American Symphony Orchestra League, which represents most of the nation's 1,800 orchestras. "This is a real success story of going out there, grabbing that hall, which was about to disappear, turning it back into a really first-rate performance venue."

The Max at a glance

Facilities: 135,000 square feet, including a restored and modernized Orchestra Hall; 450-seat Music Box venue; and the Jacob Bernard Pincus Music Education Center.

Cost: $60 million.

The name: Max M. Fisher, 95, made millions in oil and real estate and has poured them back into Jewish philanthropy, Republican politics and his adopted city of Detroit.

Kickoff performance: On Saturday, Music Director Neeme J”rvi led the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto, with featured soloist Itzhak Perlman.

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