When the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra walked into the newly renovated Eastman Theatre on Oct. 5 and played a few notes, one orchestra member remarked “I hear music for the first time.” Other musicians’ comments were “30 years of muss has been cleared off of my instrument.”Christopher Seaman talked to the crowd at the theater’s opening that Wednesday with a large confident grin, said, “Put RPO into a good acoustic and you will not know what hit you … [the renovations] will transform the hall concert-going experience.”After a $5 million renovation, the Eastman Theatre remains the crowned jewel of Rochester – only better. The theater’s overall appearance has been enriched in addition to its mechanics, safety and, of course, its sound. All achieved in 90 days.The most noticeable change to the theater has been the orchestra shell. The shell was designed by Chaintreuil Jensen Stark Architects, and built by Hoffend & Sons, a local company out of Victor, N.Y. Its steel framework was designed by Adirondack Scenic, and its automated computer rigging system was designed by Vortek.This means that the design holds true to the historic nature of the building. Eastman Dean and Director James Undercofler said that he would have liked the stage to be a modern design to hold the audiences of the future, but was amazed when he opened his eyes to an Italian Renaissance stage, unlike the bland brown one of the past. The stage looks like an extension of the rest of the hall, with the same square stone-like design in the seating area. It also includes an extension of the artistic designs throughout the house.”You feel as if you are in the same room as the audience,” said director of facilities at Eastman and leader of the project team for the renovationsLou Wisner. The new appearance is brighter, and has turned it into one of the most attractive theaters in the world, bringing an audience into the space rather than feeling distant from it.The building of the stage included a completely new rigging system. Older rigging systems use ropes and weights that need to be counterbalanced to lift up curtains and scene designs. Not only are they dangerous to use, but there isn’t much flexibility as to where items can be placed on the stage or how far they can be moved.Now, there are scenery pipes, each having its own computer inside to measure and send feedback to how much weight is on each pipe. Each pipe can hold 1,200 pounds of weight, can move 180 feet per minute and with the new automated Vortek computer system controlling these pipes, 10 pipes can be moved at the same time. There are 44 of these pipes over the stage, and three over the auditorium. The new system has reduced the strain on the building by two-thirds.The computer system also allows for the storage of the shell and other scenery designs to be up in the space above the theater, safely and easily. Peter Hoffend of Hoffend & Sons said, “An eighth grader can run it.” New paging and intercom systems have also been installed to improve communications in backstage operations.Other technical changes include a new orchestra lift, or pit. The old pit didn’t even reach ground level, posing challenges for placing pianos and other large items on for use. The new pit is at ground level, creating one surface. Also, there is new lighting, and new mechanics and hydraulics make it safer, all of which will make playing in the pit a more enjoyable experience.Addressing all needs of a modern theater, much electrical work was done to add more theatrical lights – over 100 miles of wires.Aside from the technical improvements, the improvement to acoustics has been the main focus of the project. The Eastman School has consulted with Fisher Dachs Associates, a theater design and renovation firm, and with Akustiks, an acoustics firm from Connecticut to help with these improvements.The new shell is a much thicker, heavier and harder shell than in the past, helping to bounce sound into the audience. Seven “tunings” exist which can open to let sound escape, dampening the acoustics or close to let sound reflect more. This gives plasticity to the stage, changing to the needs of each new group. A special sealant has been applied to harden the walls in the orchestra section of the house to increase acoustics there, which have sounded muddled in the past.It took many arduous 16-20 hour days within a three month timeline to achieve these improvements. Work was done all through the summer, with only July 4 off. The project was finished on time and in budget. Communication on the project was excellent says Wisner, “When you have a project like this, you have to have a fantastic staff.”Though the renovations don’t make Wisner’s job any easier, stage manager of the Eastman Theatre, Ron Stackman’s job will will benefit the most. “It will improve operations backstage. [It will be] a better visual and overall experience for the concert goer,” he said. Stackman said that the cooperation on the renovations has been “spectacular” and that there were only a few hitches along the way. The rigging system was to be built in North Carolina, but the welding was to be done in Florida. However, a hurricane hit and all of Florida was closed down, halting the delivery of the rigging system to Rochester. In order to assure that Eastman had the rigging system in time, it ended up being both built and welded in North Carolina and sent up. Also, the discovery of a special “gallow lift” elevator for the orchestra pit, which folds down like a slinky, helped the problem of possibly needing to drill into the ground to accommodate the new elevator.The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra’s opening concert on Oct. 7 confirmed all the speculation about the renovations. Opening with David Diamond’s “Fanfare for George Eastman’s Anniversary,” the brass and percussion sections came out in full force, using the stage to their advantage. The sound was crisp and clear from my spot in the balcony of the theater, and the visual experience of the new shell added to the experience.Next, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” sparkled with its sometimes impressionistic sound. The RPO found many new colors in the piece, and Christopher Seaman took a slower tempo in order to highlight the sound of the piece over its showy nature.It was in Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” that I found that the string sections were overpowered by the rest of the orchestra. In most cases, I would consider this to be something that could be improved in the new acoustics, but being as that the string section tends to be the least together or in-tune section of the RPO, I was happy to be able to keep my attention on the soloist and some on the winds and brass, all who played marvelously with intimate detail and emotion.Kenneth Grant, principal clarinetist, was the one musician who tested the stage to its limits in Berlioz’s “Symphony Fantastique.” He played his solo as a whisper, pulling the audience into his gorgeous sound, and the theater let him do it. Even the string section managed to find hauntingly soft and chilling sounds during the concert. Overall, I found that the orchestra sounded much improved in the new theater, and is able to let artists be artists. The Eastman Theatre was build to be a visually stunning theater in the 20s and to serve most prominently as a place to display Eastman Motion Pictures. President of UR Thomas Jackson said that the theater is “as much about the future as it is about the past.” Now housing all combinations of musicians, dancers and actors, the new renovations will accommodate to the new, as well as keep the feel and ideals of the past. Undercofler finished the opening ceremony saying that “this is what George Eastman would have done” – an appropriate 150th birthday present for the founder and creator of Rochester’s Eastman Theatre. Reguero can be reached atareguero@campustimes.org.



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