It is a rite of spring as familiar as Swan Boats bobbing in the Public Garden and lofty commencement speeches drifting over the Charles River.
Each year in early May, Symphony Hall is transformed overnight from the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s concert venue, where Beethoven and Brahms fill the air, into cafe-style seating for the more relaxed and youthful energy of the Boston Pops.
Seating capacity drops from 2,625 to 2,365, as tables and chairs replace old leather seats in a process not unlike TD Garden workers turning an ice hockey rink into a basketball court in a few frenzied hours.
For the 2013 Pops season, which began Wednesday with a guest performance by Vince Gill, and is continuing Saturday and Sunday with a concert of Disney’s “Fantasia,” special lighting and sound systems have also been installed, along with a large movie screen to accommodate this year’s celebration of Hollywood film music.
How does a large-scale makeover like this happen so quickly? By employing many hands to do the work — and by utilizing a design feature as old as the 113-year-old hall itself, yet one that remains hidden from public view.
This year’s makeover began last Sunday afternoon, following a Handel and Haydn Society concert, which ended at 5:45 p.m. By 7 p.m., the transformation had kicked into high gear. A 38-person crew rolled up swaths of carpeting, unbolted rows of fixed seats, and disassembled pieces of the hall’s winter-season flooring, a massive jigsaw puzzle that will be put back together in September when the BSO returns.
Once workers cleared space in the center of the hall, a concealed lift rose from the basement as if conjured from a Vegas magic show where tigers vanish in a puff of smoke.
Rows of seats were then stacked onto aluminum dollies, and the loading, and unloading, began in earnest. For nine more hours, the lift remained in constant service, transporting carefully numbered racks to basement storage areas. In return, stacks of tables and chairs were hauled up and arranged to face the stage.
“The engineers thought this all out when the building was designed,” said Charles Cassell, the hall’s facilities compliance and training coordinator. A 33-year veteran of hall-conversion exercises, he called the building itself “a modern marvel, way ahead of its time.”
Symphony Hall was designed by architects McKim, Mead and White and commissioned by BSO founder Henry Lee Higginson. Opened in 1900, the hall featured both classical and Pops-style music from the outset, which is why the built-in freight elevator has made seating and flooring changes much easier to pull off year after year, decade after decade.
Pointing to the lift, which originally ran on hydro-hydraulic power (it was converted to electric in 1987), Cassell smiled. “You know winter’s over when this happens,” he said.
Earlier in the week, Pops music director Keith Lockhart recalled seeing the makeover for the first time years ago and wondering how it happened.
“I always breathe a sigh of relief when I walk in that Wednesday morning for that first [Pops] rehearsal,” Lockhart said, “and note that the hall is ready to go.”
Symphony Hall carpenter Mike Frazier has helped supervise these makeovers for 30 years and counting. The springtime removal process is easier than fall’s reinstallation, he said, but no matter what, the puzzle always gets solved.
“We know how it all goes back together.”