PERCHED IN THE second balcony of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s gleaming new performance space, museum director Anne Hawley confessed it was all something of a surprise to her. “Frankly,’’ she said, “I never dreamed we would be building a concert hall.’’
Over a decade ago, a task force of conservators and museum leaders noted the long-term wear and damage to the Gardner caused by an annual 10,000 listeners filing through the galleries to attend concerts and other programs in the Tapestry Room. The recommendation was to move the concerts off-site or stop them altogether. “But because music was such a part of the history of the building,’’ Hawley said, “the trustees decided to bite the bullet and do this.’’
The new Calderwood Performance Hall is an airy, sleekly modern space that feels worlds away from the cloistered confines of the Tapestry Room. Its shell is essentially a concrete and steel cube, its perimeter lined on four sides with three levels of balconies, each featuring only a single row of seats. There is no stage; the musicians play on a floor made of Alaskan yellow cedar, with two rows of audience seats surrounding them on all sides for a total capacity of almost 300. The space is capped with a skylight, a touch that is not to be taken for granted. One of architect Renzo Piano’s earliest ideas was to build the entire hall underground.
Besides the expense of dealing with a high water table, Hawley didn’t think an underground hall sounded “very Gardner,’’ so Piano suggested a hall with a stage and very steeply raked seating. Gardner music director Scott Nickrenz had strong opinions on that, too. “I didn’t want raked seats,’’ he recalled, “I didn’t want people lined up and staring at the artists. The feature I kept hammering was that I wanted the audience to share the musical experience - to look across and see the other people. I also said I want the artist to feel embraced, to feel hugged. Then one day I woke up at 3 in the morning and said, ‘Oh, I got it! I want a concert hall without a stage. You will be sitting on the stage.’ ’’
Piano’s team ran with the request and came up with the visually striking cube-shaped design. Of course the most crucial detail of any concert space is how it sounds. After decades of performances in an acoustically challenged location - the tapestries stole from the sound what they gave to the atmosphere - the museum now finally has a space designed for the performance of music. Working closely with Piano was the Japanese acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota, whose other halls include the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and Suntory Hall in Tokyo.
Toyota’s acoustic touches include fitting the undersides of the balconies with egg crate-like indentations, and lining the walls with white oak panels that have been laser cut with small notches. Behind these panels lies a fabric curtain that can be adjusted to fine-tune the reverberation of the sound. Expectations are high for the first public concert, Jan. 22, featuring the Claremont Trio.
The opening of the hall will mark the newest chapter in a history of musical programming at the Gardner Museum that dates back to its very first day, Jan. 1, 1903, when Isabella Stewart Gardner opened her museum with a concert by members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and singers from the Cecilia Society. That performance of works by Bach, Mozart, Chausson, and Schumann took place in the building’s original Music Room, a two-story space with its own waiting area in which a listener might peruse Gardner’s collection of autographed scores, photographs, instruments, and a cast of Franz Liszt’s hand.
Gardner’s love of music, as with art, was idiosyncratic and flamboyant, but it was also deep. Before the building of Fenway Court she had a music room in her Beacon Street home, where she once hired the Polish pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski for a private recital. She was famously generous toward a few lucky musicians she knew well - she loaned Ferruccio Busoni $1,000, gave the violinist and composer Charles Loeffler a Stradivarius, and presented the Australian soprano Nellie Melba with a large yellow diamond - but she also fed her musical interests through travel. In Europe she visited the Wagnerian shrine of Bayreuth no fewer than five times, heard the Joachim Quartet in Berlin, and found a way to meet Cosima Wagner, Johannes Brahms, and Johann Strauss Jr. In Boston she was a fixture at BSO concerts, where she once had herself carried to her seat in a hammock, and at the Boston Pops, where she sometimes smoked Turkish cigarettes.
In 1914, Fenway Court’s original Music Room was demolished to create space for several additional galleries, including the Tapestry Room, where concerts continued long after her death in 1924. Through the years, the Gardner Museum’s programs have aimed at catching young musicians on the rise, and recitalists have included a teenage pianist named Leon Fleisher and a violinist in his early 20s named Isaac Stern. The pianists who performed there in one two-year stretch in the early 1960s included Glenn Gould, Alfred Brendel, and James Levine.
Nickrenz took over the Gardner’s programming in 1990, and since then he’s built a loyal following for the museum’s Sunday afternoon chamber-music series. He’s also expanded programming with a contemporary music series called “Avant Gardner’’ and jazz evenings, now slated to take place on the first and third Thursday of the month, respectively. Sunday afternoon programs will continue with a familiar mix of local ensembles (Borromeo Quartet, A Far Cry) and out-of-town visitors (the coming weeks will bring appearances by Anonymous 4, New York Festival of Song, and Musicians From Marlboro, among others).
New halls always generate their own initial burst of buzz, but it should be fascinating to see how Calderwood Hall affects the long-term ecology of Boston’s musical life, since there’s nothing quite like its combination of size and location. Interest in the space from non-affiliated ensembles will surely be high, but as of now the museum plans to make the hall available only for private rentals - not for concerts by outside performing groups of the sort that often rent Jordan Hall or Sanders Theatre. As for the Gardner’s future music commitments, Hawley said she hopes the new hall will bolster a push toward permanently endowing the museum’s music programming, which would allow the Gardner to present more concerts.
I have not heard a note of music to report on the hall’s acoustics, but musicians involved in early sound tests seem to have already formed a clear opinion. “I think it’s an awesome, awesome space,’’ said violist Sarah Darling, who plays in A Far Cry. “It’s going to be an incredible gift to Boston’s musical community.’’