A renovated Bass reopens to a world much changed in the 20 months the venue was closed
Remember back when there was another large concert hall in town?
Yes, before the Long Center for the Performing Arts opened, Austin had this 3,000-seat venue that regularly played host to touring Broadway musicals; world-class classical musicians and dance companies; marquee pop, jazz, and world music acts. University of Texas campus. Big brown brick bunker. Does the name Bass Concert Hall ring any bells?
If it's been awhile since Bass registered on your cultural radar, that's only natural. The UT Performing Arts Center facility has been shuttered 20 months, getting some needed upgrades to its physical plant – $7.6 million in fire and safety improvements to bring the 1981 venue up to 21st century code – along with a substantive revamping of its exterior and interior. Well, that's all been completed, and this week Bass roars back onto the scene with a concert by R&B superstar John Legend, to be followed next week by the musical extravaganza World of Sound, which brings together 150 musicians from various University of Texas ensembles with mezzo-sopranos Frederica von Stade and Barbara Conrad and baritone Samuel Ramey headlining, and a concert by Broken Social Scene.
As makeovers go, the concert hall's can't begin to compare to the exorbitant one of its pigskin-palace neighbor. (Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial is so bulked up on stadium steroids now that the once-monumental Bass comes off as a modest cottage in its shadow.) The $14.7 million spent on Bass – less than one-tenth of the cost for the stadium's north end-zone expansion – didn't purchase much in the way of structural alterations to the auditorium: no new aisles breaking up the wide sea of seats downstairs, no lessening of that dizzyingly steep pitch of the balconies. Still, you'll definitely be able to see some changes in the old hall, starting with the building front, which has been stripped of much of that drab brick and recovered with a five-story glass-and-steel facade that really lets the sunshine in and, when day is done, radiates an inviting glow to nighttime patrons, luring them like moths to a candle. New windows on either end of the upper-level lobbies and an outdoor balcony on the sixth level add to the new openness of the venue – a priority for BOORA Architects of Portland, Ore., the firm that's been at work on this project since 2003 and hoping to do for Bass what Lake|Flato did for the bunkerlike Harry Ransom Center a few years ago. In addition to making the Bass facade transparent, the BOORA team has bumped out the building's front by 5 feet, a modest amount that nevertheless gives the lobbies on all five levels substantially more breathing room and space for bodies to circulate. And those dead-end bars that locked patrons into long lines at either end of the third level? Gone, to be replaced by mostly floating concession stations, some of which will dispense not just liquid refreshments but also real food, making it possible to make an early curtain for a concert or show without missing a meal. You'll see swanky new furniture adorning the lobby areas and almost a dozen works of mid- to late-20th century sculptures on long-term loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, part of the new Landmarks public-art program at UT. And not to be too reductive, but it can be a practical matter when you're at a show: You should also see shorter lines at the women's restrooms; the number of facilities for females has been bumped up from 33 to 53.
Perhaps more significantly, you'll be able to hear changes, as well. Sound has been an issue in Bass from its earliest days, with the cavernous space and hard surfaces sending sound bouncing around the auditorium, spawning numerous aural hot spots and dead zones. Jaffe Holden Acoustics, the internationally noted design firm that worked such wonders with the sound in Dell Hall at the Long Center, has been engaged to do the same for Bass. A forestage canopy and ceiling openings will aid sound flow and projection, with new adjustable acoustic curtains along the walls helping distribute the sound more evenly. And a half-million dollars has been invested in a state-of-the-art sound system. That bodes well for the visits of von Stade, Conrad, Ramey, and Legend, but the truest test of the new Bass sound may not come until Legally Blonde: The Musical sits down for a week in early February. Touring theatrical musicals may have consistently suffered the worst sound glitches in the past, and as they have become much of Bass' bread and butter, a sound sound setup is more crucial than ever.
So Bass is clearly a changed hall, but during its downtime, the world around it changed, too. For starters, there's now that other concert hall in town. For the first time in its 28-year history, Bass is looking at a comparably sized venue with comparable programming in town. So is the Long Center more a companion or competitor to the university concert hall? According to April Holmes, who's steering the UTPAC while a search for a permanent successor to retired Executive Director Pebbles Wadsworth concludes: "Maybe there is some competition – I think that's inherent in almost any music venue in Austin – but we also support each other, because we're doing the same thing. Our missions are very similar, so you don't want either one of us to fail in any way. We're trying to work as collaboratively as possible, and we are really trying to work together to make sure the public knows that."
Certainly, it's good to have a friend in tough times, and times are considerably tougher today than they were in the spring of 2007. Bass reopens with the economy having changed, too, for the worse. Is it possible that just when Bass has returned to the cultural fold, bigger and better and boasting a schedule of stellar shows, its audiences can no longer afford to come see them? That doesn't appear to be the case so far, says Holmes. "Subscriptions are higher than they've ever been before. And the economy was bad when subscriptions went on sale. Ticket sales have been great so far. Our opening-week shows are getting close to selling out. So are people excited about the Performing Arts Center? Are people really spending their dollars on entertainment, and we're going to be okay? Who knows? But we monitor ticket sales daily, and we're really scrutinizing shows that come through and making sure that we're not going to lose money on those shows."
In fact, though the UTPAC can't claim to have been prescient where the current economic crisis is concerned, it had already scaled back on its fine-arts programming because of the long, dark period during the renovation. That's making its adjustments for next season less traumatic than they might have been otherwise. Holmes reports that the schedule for 2009-2010 is almost complete, and while the fine-arts bookings may be slightly slimmer than some seasons, the center's commitment won't be compromised. "We're still running full force with our '09-10 plan," she says. "Part of our mission is to bring these artists here, and thankfully we do have an endowment that helps us to bring those."
So get used to seeing Bass' blip on your cultural radar again, now and for a long time to come.
Public tours of the spruced-up Bass are being offered Sunday, Jan. 25, 2pm, and Tuesday, Jan. 27, 6pm. Doors open approximately 30 minutes prior to each tour, and the tours will last about 30 minutes. Bass Concert Hall is located at the corner of 23rd Street and Robert Dedman Drive on the UT campus.