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Something of a Revelation

Student ensembles make their debuts at the Maltz Performing Arts Center


Fall | Winter 2015

On a Sunday afternoon in September, a week before the opening of the Milton and Tamar Maltz Performing Arts Center at The Temple–Tifereth Israel, student ensembles from the music department at Case Western Reserve got the chance to try out their new home.

During the previous seven months, construction crews, artisans and technicians had been at work transforming the Temple sanctuary into a concert hall. Now, acoustician Paul Scarbrough would be able to hear how it sounded. He still had time to make adjustments to the acoustical canopy suspended high above the stage—a massive structure of steel and glass, decked with a constellation of theatrical lights. Hearing the students rehearse would help him decide whether any tweaks were needed.

The performers that afternoon included members of the CWRU Concert Choir, and their first look at the hall was something of a revelation. “They hadn’t seen pictures of the interior,” says Associate Professor and Director of Choirs Matthew Garrett. “They hadn’t been in the space. It took us 10 or 15 minutes to get them over the ‘Wow!’ so they could actually sing.”

The Temple Tifereth–Israel has always elicited this sort of response. Upon its completion in 1924, it was acclaimed as “one of the masterpieces of the city” by the director of the Cleveland School of Art (now the Cleveland Institute of Art). A year later, a writer for The Architectural Forum attested to the “feeling of reverence” the sanctuary inspired.

In designing the building, Boston architect Charles Greco drew upon Byzantine and Romanesque models. Yet the seven-sided shape he chose for the sanctuary is distinctive. Each face of the interior contains an arch 34 feet in diameter and 40 feet high. Three of these arches open onto sections of the balcony, while another encloses a walnut ark and choir loft. A Star of David fills the inner summit of the dome.

Unlike the student singers, many of the people at the inaugural concert on Sept. 27 were already familiar with the Temple. Some came from families who had been congregation members for generations. But they, too, had cause to wonder at what they saw. The elaborately carved stonework had been cleaned for the first time in 90 years. Stained-glass windows on the balcony level and above had been restored. And the sanctuary’s historical features had been integrated with new elements—an expandable stage that left the pulpit intact for the congregation’s occasional use; the glowing canopy, whose clear panels reflected portions of the orchestra and preserved the audience’s view of the dome; theater seats installed in the pews, whose end panels had been refinished and fitted with aisle lights.

The initial phase of the Maltz Center project, designed by MGA Partners Architects of Philadelphia, had also wrought changes beyond the sanctuary. The Indiana limestone of the exterior, no longer obscured by soot, its mortar repointed, looked pristine. Damaged tiles on the golden dome had been replaced by the same company that made the originals in the 1920s. Inside, the Temple had been equipped with 21st-century heating, cooling and electrical systems, and various spaces had been refashioned for new purposes. A coatroom and hat room adjoining the sanctuary had become control booths—the Tom Peterson Light and Sound Production Rooms. The historic Gries Chapel was now the Bud and Katie Koch Recital Hall.

Trumpeter Samuel Izzo is one of 85 members of the CWRU Symphonic Winds, which gave its first concert at the Maltz Performing Arts Center this fall. Photo by Roger Mastroianni.

Trumpeter Samuel Izzo is one of 85 members of the CWRU Symphonic Winds, which gave its first concert at the Maltz Performing Arts Center this fall. Photo by Roger Mastroianni.

Case Western Reserve has never had a facility comparable to the Maltz Center. No other campus building could have hosted, as this one did at its opening, a performance by The Cleveland Orchestra. Before the concert began, President Barbara R. Snyder praised lead donors Milton and Tamar Maltz as “true visionaries who saw the enormous potential of this place,” and she thanked them “on behalf of the students who will learn here, the faculty who will teach here, and the audiences who will enjoy performances here for decades to come.” It would be only a matter of weeks before members of CWRU’s musical community made their Silver Hall debuts.

A Collective Heartbeat

The CWRU/University Circle Symphony Orchestra, led by Associate Professor Kathleen Horvath, is a 65-piece ensemble made up primarily of Case Western Reserve undergraduates. It is also open to students from the Cleveland Institute of Art and the Cleveland Institute of Music, people associated with other University Circle institutions, and faculty and staff members from the university. (Jesse Berezovsky, an associate professor in the Department of Physics, is one of the violists.) All of the players must audition for their places in the ensemble and attend rehearsals twice a week throughout the academic year.

“Our students work really hard,” says Horvath, who has directed the orchestra for the past 15 years. “I am over the moon that they now have an appropriate place to showcase their talents.”

Undergraduate Meigen Yu performs with the CWRU/University Circle Symphony Orchestra during its Silver Hall debut. Photo by Roger Mastroianni.

In preparing for their October concert, Horvath and her musicians worked even harder than usual. The department organizes an annual concerto competition for instrumental soloists, and the winner performs with the orchestra in the fall. This year, there were three winners. Undergraduates Meigen Yu and Ailin Yu, who happen to be sisters, opened the season with two formidable works for piano and orchestra—César Franck’s Symphonic Variations and Sergei Prokofiev’s First Piano Concerto. The third winner, violinist Robin Jo, would perform later in the season.

“This is pretty high-stakes,” Horvath said three weeks before the first concert. “I have concertos with two students who have never played with an orchestra, and it’s my responsibility to see that they have a successful educational and performance experience.”

Both Meigen and Ailin are music performance majors, and through the university’s joint program with the Cleveland Institute of Music, they each study with a member of the institute’s piano faculty. In addition, they are both pursuing majors in other departments—Meigen in psychology, and Ailin in systems and control engineering and computer engineering. Unlike students at many other universities, undergraduates at Case Western Reserve are free to earn degrees in such disparate fields, and music majors often do.

Kathleen Horvath (above), director of the CWRU/University Circle Symphony Orchestra since 2000, conducted two rehearsals in Silver Hall before the ensemble’s first concert. She is delighted that her students “now have an appropriate place to showcase their talents.” Photo by Roger Mastroianni.

Kathleen Horvath (above), director of the CWRU/University Circle Symphony Orchestra since 2000, conducted two rehearsals in Silver Hall before the ensemble’s first concert. She is delighted that her students “now have an appropriate place to showcase their talents.” Photo by Roger Mastroianni.

Horvath notes, however, that most members of her orchestra, and of the department’s other large ensembles, aren’t music majors at all. “My students are physics majors and biomedical engineers,” she says. “They’re going to be doctors and lawyers and everything else. And when they marry and have children, their children are going to have the value of music in their lives, because their parents have it. That’s what we do here. There’s a synergy between the sciences and the avocational pursuit of music that I don’t think exists in many other places.”

From her desk, Horvath picks up the score of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Festival Overture, another work she has programmed for the fall. “My feeling about music is that I’m looking at this score, and it’s great. But it doesn’t live in music until people actually realize what’s on the page. Music is a social art. There are 70 of us onstage, and we have to have a collective heartbeat in order to pull this off—particularly repertoire of this magnitude.”

Although Horvath focuses her attention on the student performers, she also prizes the larger contribution that music and the other arts make to the educational mission of the university. “Whenever students stretch themselves by going to something new—a poetry reading, a play, an art exhibit, a chamber music concert—those events are important,” she says. From this perspective, the Maltz Center’s potential for attracting new audiences may be one of its most significant characteristics.

Psalm for a Sanctuary

The CWRU Symphonic Winds, whose 85 members include brass and woodwind players, a pianist, a harpist and five percussionists, is the music department’s largest ensemble. For many years, this concert band, like the orchestra, performed in Thwing Ballroom, even though the stage was too small to hold all of the players and their instruments. The musicians sat on the main floor, on the same level as the audience. But Silver Hall, whose fully extended stage is 68 feet wide and 42 feet deep, accommodates these ensembles easily.

Gary Ciepluch, associate professor and director of bands, has led the Symphonic Winds since 1988, and over the decades he has been part of countless meetings and discussions about creating a major performance space for the university. “To see this happen in the last few years of my tenure is a dream come true,” he says. “Imagine finding a home after 27 years. That’s the best analogy I can give.”

This fall, for only the second time in his career, Ciepluch was on sabbatical. In his absence, conducting duties at the opening concert fell to Lecturer Ryan Scherber, interim director of the Symphonic Winds and director of the Spartan Marching Band, and doctoral student Elizabeth Tracy from the Music Education Program.

Ryan Scherber conducts the CWRU Symphonic Winds. Photo by Roger Mastroianni.

Early in the term, as Scherber was auditioning students for the concert band, they spoke of their excitement at the prospect of performing at the Maltz Center. A few weeks later, several of the players took part in the acoustical tuning. “The first time they walked in,” Scherber recalls, “they just looked up at the dome, and all of the phones started coming out.”

Performing in a new hall is always “a seat-of-the-pants experience,” Scherber says. The Symphonic Winds’ dress rehearsal began just two hours before the concert. While Tracy led the students through her portion of the program, Scherber moved from place to place on the main floor and the balcony, assessing the blend and balance of sounds from all sections of the ensemble. Every so often, Tracy turned around, scanned the house until she located Scherber, and conferred with him about what he was hearing.

“When you don’t know how the hall responds to your ensemble, it’s good to get a report of what’s coming across to the audience and compare it with what you’re hearing onstage,” Scherber explains.

From left: Darby Hickson, Malcolm Reitmeyer and Celena Hsiung perform with the CWRU Symphonic Winds. Photo by Roger Mastroianni.

One of the hall’s acoustical features was tailored to the concert band’s needs: door-like panels mounted on the walls flanking the stage, with a sound-absorbing surface on one side and a reflective surface on the other. For the concert band, whose brass and percussion can overwhelm some venues, the panels were set with their absorptive side facing out. For the orchestra, they were flipped to their reflective side.

As he thought about the program for that first concert, Scherber kept both the occasion and the character of the hall in mind. The first piece he selected, by 20th-century composer Vincent Perschetti, is titled Psalm for Band. “I think it’s a beautiful piece, I’ve loved it for years, but I’d never had the chance to conduct it,” Scherber says. He knew that a resonant space like Silver Hall would be ideal for this music, which includes “big, ringing chords” as well as lightly scored passages and solos for several different instruments. Other works Scherber added to the program, including Edward Gregson’s Festivo, had a celebratory appeal.

The Symphonic Winds shared billing that day with two jazz ensembles directed by Senior Instructor Paul Ferguson. Like Ciepluch, Ferguson has been a faculty member in music education since 1988. He takes his ensembles to a variety of venues, including the Nighttown jazz club in Cleveland Heights and the Barking Spider Tavern in University Circle. Now they had a gig in Silver Hall.

The program included several of Ferguson’s own compositions, alongside pieces by Wayne Shorter and Victor Young. In addition to the current members of his brass and rhythm sections, Ferguson welcomed John Borsi (CWR ’15), a recent graduate who majored in mathematics and music performance. Borsi is now a data scientist at Explorys, an IBM company based in Cleveland. In his spare time, he plays with the Lakeland Civic Orchestra and with an informal group of fellow trombonists.

“It’s always exciting to perform in a new venue, and it’s even more exciting when it turns out to be as good a one as the Maltz Center,” Borsi says. “Lots of the venues I was used to as an undergraduate were cramped or boomy, so the acoustics always required some adjustment on the musicians’ part. The Maltz Center was a pleasure to perform in because there was sufficient space for performers and audience members. And the acoustics seemed very tuned to me.”

Paul Ferguson conducts Jazz Ensemble I, most of whose members are third- and fourth-year students at Case Western Reserve. Some of Ferguson's students also play in other music department ensembles. Photo by Roger Mastroianni.

Paul Ferguson conducts Jazz Ensemble I, most of whose members are third- and fourth-year students at Case Western Reserve. Some of Ferguson’s students also play in other music department ensembles. Photo by Roger Mastroianni.

Once the concert was over, three of Ferguson’s players—bassist Isaiah Simons and trumpeter Dan Brandt from Case Western Reserve, and pianist Gabe Novak from the Cleveland Institute of Music—formed an impromptu trio at one end of the stage and launched into a jam session.

“It was nice to have a bit of extra music at the end, as people were happily conversing after the concert,” Ferguson says. “They were just having fun. And they sounded pretty good.”

A Vital Presence

David Rothenberg, associate professor and chair of the music department, was on hand for the concerts and for the rehearsals and tuning session that preceded them. “It is tremendously exciting to finally have a large concert hall,” he says. “Our large ensembles finally have a performance space worthy of them.”

The music department, however, is not the only beneficiary of the Maltz Center’s opening. The facility has already become a signature space for the university. In October, philosopher Martha Nussbaum accepted the 2015 Inamori Ethics Prize in a ceremony in Silver Hall. The building is also the host for Think Forums, a free public lecture series formerly known as Town Hall of Cleveland.

Following the success of the inaugural events, the university is continuing with planning and fundraising for Phase Two of the Maltz Center project. The vision for this phase involves expanded facilities for theater and dance as well as for music. The new performance spaces will include a proscenium theater and the black box Fowler-Green Studio Theater. Preliminary plans also call for rehearsal studios, practice rooms, and costume and scene shops. Once these facilities are in place, the Maltz Center promises to become an increasingly vital presence in the cultural life of Case Western Reserve and Greater Cleveland.

Page last modified: February 9, 2017