GROTON — When Rockport’s Shalin Liu Performance Center opened in 2010, it was lavished with honors for its innovative integration of the grand ocean backdrop.
Now the principal architects behind that destination, the husband-and-wife team of Alan Joslin and Deborah Epstein, have envisioned another dramatic music venue on a former apple orchard here in Groton. Set to open in fall 2022, the Groton Hill Music Center will be the new home of Indian Hill Music, a leading community music school founded 36 years ago as an offshoot of the Groton Center for the Arts.
A 300-seat performance hall reminiscent of Shalin Liu will anchor one end of the massive, 126,000-square-foot building. The other end will feature a 1,000-seat concert hall with a huge shed door that can open onto a lawn for seasonal indoor-outdoor events. It’s inspired in part by Tanglewood’s Seiji Ozawa Hall, which Joslin also designed.
In between the two main performance spaces, the music center will manage various configurations of music studios and rehearsal spaces to accommodate a community that grew to 1,400 students before the pandemic. CEO Lisa Fiorentino says the school hopes to meet a goal of 2,000 students after the center opens.
“The whole idea is to make this a gathering space centered around music,” Fiorentino says. The new facility will include a spacious lobby in which parents waiting for their children can order a cup of coffee and spread out with their laptops, or just sit and talk.
The impending move also provides a seamless opportunity to change the name of the music center, she says. It was time to retire the Indian Hill name.
Unlike so many cultural institutions, music education centers have weathered the pandemic relatively well. Fiorentino says that about 85 percent of Indian Hill’s students, both children and adults, continued their studies during the Great Interruption, many of them shifting to virtual lessons with the center’s 70 faculty members.
For those students who remained enrolled, “it actually provided a connection during isolation,” Fiorentino says, walking through the new building on a recent afternoon after the construction workers had gone home for the day. “In school, these kids never got that one-on-one time with an adult.”
For many, music education has been a lifeline during these lean months. When Robert Cinnante arrived to take over as the new president of the South Shore Conservatory last February, he was impressed that the organization had been open for in-person lessons since the previous September, much sooner than most.
“They were offering in-person while also offering the flexibility of the hybrid option,” says Cinnante, who comes to the 50-year-old conservatory with locations in Hingham and Duxbury from the Waterbury Symphony Orchestra in Connecticut. “They were taking every step when it comes to keeping the campus safe, from masks, social distancing, and contact tracing to making sure the air purification is up to date.”
At Indian Hill, Kenny Zuckerberg’s daughters have been taking music lessons since the family moved to Acton a few years ago. Evelyn, who is 11, had been in a youth chorus in Chicago and wanted to continue. Athena, whose ninth birthday is just around the corner, takes drum lessons.
“She likes to bang on stuff,” says Zuckerberg.
Signing up for chorus at Indian Hill helped ease the transition into a new community for Evelyn, he says. She took advantage of the music center’s “Bring a Friend” days, inviting several classmates, some of whom signed up for lessons themselves.
During the pandemic, Athena continued her drum lessons on Zoom. Not ideal, her father says, but better than the alternative: “It was nice that we didn’t have to give up something she loved.”
After retiring from the Plymouth school system a few years ago, Kathy McMinn joined the faculty at Indian Hill to teach Youth Chorus. While individual lessons continued online during the pandemic, she was unable to keep the chorus going due to the limitations of Wi-Fi connections.
Though the school arranged remote “driveway choir” singalongs, McMinn says, there’s nothing quite like the feeling of in-person ensemble singing. In early October, she taught her first Youth Chorus class since the beginning of the pandemic.
“It was such a combination of emotions,” McMinn said afterward. “I couldn’t wait to see the kids again and make music with them.”
Protocols were strict. The children wore specially designed singing masks, which allow for better breathing and projection. (“The kids think they look like bear’s noses,” McMinn said.) The students were seated 6 feet apart, and they shuffled their seating arrangement every 15 minutes.
“That was exhausting,” she said. “But it was really fun to get back together.”
Over the years, Indian Hill grew from home lessons and rented schoolrooms to a former farm in nearby Littleton. The new music center in Groton was made possible by an anonymous donor who came forward in 2014, Fiorentino says.
“We lucked into this, to be honest,” Fiorentino says. After an extensive search, the organization came across a parcel of land that the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts was looking to sell.
Fiorentino, who lives in Groton, says the town is planning a promotional campaign, Destination Groton, to capitalize on the opening of the new music center.
“I never imagined this would happen in my lifetime,” says Susan Randazzo, who preceded Fiorentino as executive director and now serves as a senior adviser. She was one of the six original founders.
She still pinches herself every time she visits the new facility, Randazzo says.
“But at the same time, I have to say there’s a through-line and a vision that was there at the very beginning, and it has not wavered. We always were about music education and performance, always giving back to the community, even in the earliest stages.”
The Groton Hill Music Center is designed with an abundance of curvature: a rolling rooftop, huge arcs of Southern yellow pine. The 300-seat performance hall lends a feeling of being inside the bow of a ship.
“There are not a lot of right angles in this building,” Fiorentino says.
The wavelike ceilings in the rehearsal studios and smaller performance rooms have acoustic as well as aesthetic merits, says Joslin, the architect.
“There’s more room for the sound to bloom around the audience,” he says.
He and Epstein are undoubtedly proud of all their achievements, of which there is a long list. But the connection with the Rockport venue, and the community that supports it, is especially meaningful, he says.
“We wish we could bottle up that community and sell it to others,” he says.
They may be poised to make a similar connection in Groton.
“We’re the same organization at heart that we always were,” says Randazzo. “We’re just manifesting that in much bigger ways.”