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Conductor Favors New VAA Performance Venue

Much has been written lately, in these pages and beyond, about the current plan of Vashon Allied Arts to construct a new performance venue. To voice my agreement with Steve Amos’s recent article that the arguments in its favor outweigh those against, I would like to add a few comments regarding acoustics and other issues specifically related to performance. It is especially worth considering how the new venue would compare to those already extant on the Island. While we performers are very grateful that these spaces are available to us, we are also keenly aware of their innate disadvantages. To illustrate the current situation, I will call upon my personal experiences with Vashon Island Chorale and Vashon Opera, the two Island-based organizations with which I have been most closely associated. That said, I should point out up front that these remarks are representative solely of my personal opinions, and are not necessarily the official positions of either of those organizations.

I know of only one acoustically excellent space on-Island that is in occasional use as a performance venue: the Methodist Church. Its proportions and building materials are quite good from an acoustical point of view, though it has other crucial drawbacks, most fundamentally the size of the stage area. Certainly a ninety-voice choir wouldn’t fit at all, let alone when joined by a twenty-piece orchestra. As for sheer size, the O-Space would work theoretically, but its acoustic is dreadful for unamplified sound. And I am told that it is quite noisy there when it rains. The Vashon High School auditorium likewise gains in size what it lacks in ambience.

Bethel Church has been a decent option for the Chorale and Opera, but it is acoustically far from effective for the purposes of live performance. The Chorale, all things being equal, could balance a medium-sized orchestra of 30–50 players quite nicely. However, at Bethel, fully a third of the singers must be nestled into an acoustically disadvantageous nook in order to fit everyone on the stage. We are currently planning to perform a major work with strings and a brass quintet for our December concert, and balancing with the brass is a major consideration as we move forward with rehearsals. There is also only barely the space for about twenty players, which severely limits our choices of repertoire. We would love to present Vashon audiences with major works such as Orff’s Carmina Burana, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, or Haydn’s Creation, but there is simply not enough space available at Bethel. The Island’s own performers and audience members are thus being deprived of basic artistic experiences because of the lack of suitable performance venues.

Vashon Opera has performed at Bethel twice, both times under my baton. For the first show, The Tender Land in 2010, we placed the very small orchestra (just thirteen players) in a corner to the side of the stage area. This decision proved an acoustical nightmare: the orchestra strongly outbalanced the singers in much of the room, no matter how softly the instrumentalists played. For the second performance, Madama Butterfly this past spring, we placed the similarly sized orchestra front-and-center in the room and built a raised stage. These two changes mimicked a true orchestra pit, but there were still notable problems. Some audience members had to sit right next to the players, which obviously meant they heard less of the singers. Also, I conducted from a raised podium in order to be seen clearly by singers and orchestra alike, which deleteriously affected the sight-lines for the entire audience. You could say that resolving one acoustical issue just created more performance problems.

At a planning meeting this spring, I met two of the acousticians who are working with VAA’s chosen architects, and they seem quite worthy. They know all about the building materials, architectural angles, sound-proofing techniques, and other tricks of the trade (such as movable surfaces on the walls and ceilings) that can render a space of any size acoustically satisfying for the entire audience. The addition of an orchestra pit will work wonders for the Opera’s acoustical and theatrical needs. I am told that the latest plans allow for the pit to be raised or covered, thereby yielding a larger stage when no pit is needed. This would handily resolve the Chorale’s acoustical and stage-size issues at Bethel. Based on the architectural drawings that I have seen, I feel that this could become one of the superior performance spaces in the region, both from the performers’ and the audience members’ points of view. And there currently is no space on the Island that serves that function admirably.

Another major concern is that the current venues are all in such high demand that it is essentially impossible to rehearse in the performance space. Any audience member can understand the importance of rehearsing a fully staged theatrical production in a room that is at least of comparable size and dimensions as the eventual stage. And yet, despite the vigorous efforts of the company’s Artistic Director and various stage directors, the only available spaces are often off-Island or of substandard quality. The Chorale has a similar problem: our numbers are currently limited to the capabilities of our rehearsal space, the band room at Vashon High School. For some concerts, we have turned away participants because our rehearsal space cannot accommodate a larger ensemble. Vashon Allied Arts has assured both organizations that an integral part of the new building’s plan would be its availability as a rehearsal space.

In light of such major concerns as acoustics, stage size, and rehearsal space, other ancillary issues may seem of paltry significance. But, when added together, they present noteworthy complications. During performances, the performers need private space, called "green rooms," to change costumes, prepare make-up, store their instrument equipment, or simply to rest their legs, lungs and minds during intermission. While the High School’s stage does have limited facilities for this purpose, the other venues on the Island are woefully lacking. Sometimes, available green rooms aren’t even large enough for all the performers to sit down. There are not generally sufficient restroom facilities, so exhausted performers wait in lines that are often undesirably long just for the audience members. Further, most venues do not have an appropriate lobby area suitable for taking tickets, selling merchandise, or assembling casually before and after the performance.

My purpose in this note is not to denigrate the Island’s current venues outright. Rather, those venues’ managements are to be applauded for their creativity in adapting spaces to artistic purposes and for trying to mimic other artistic needs. But such creativity and mimicry needn’t be necessary. Recreating these logistical efforts anew for each concert takes time and money away from the core purpose of engaging audiences through a transformative artistic experience. And no amount of cleverness can outbalance the sheer architecture of a space that is not built with acoustical considerations in mind. If the proposed Vashon Center for the Arts were not built, the Chorale, the Opera, and other arts organizations would continue to exist. But their efforts would be perpetually hampered by a lack of appropriate facilities. If Vashon Island, as a community, wants its unique artistic culture to develop and grow, then the new Vashon Center for the Arts is not merely a luxury: it is essential.

Gary D. Cannon

Artistic Director, Vashon Island Chorale
Artistic Director, Cascadian Chorale
Music Director, Sine Nomine: Renaissance Choir
Assistant Conductor, Choral Arts
Secretary, Greater Seattle Choral Consortium
Freelance Tenor, Musicologist, and Composer