Up On The Roof, An Old Venue Gets New Look, Sound

It’s a new look for Terrace Theater at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., following a 16-month renovation.
By Joe Banno

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Kennedy Center Terrace Theater has always been something of a world unto itself. Tucked away in an unassuming corner on the Center’s rooftop level, its spare design and dryly focused acoustics have seemed in sharp contrast to the plusher look and sound of the large auditoriums downstairs. Since opening in 1976, the Terrace has been an oasis of calm, far from the ground-level hubbub – a venue of ideal intimacy for enjoying chamber music.

The Terrace Theater is tucked into a corner at the Kennedy Center’s rooftop level.

While the rest of the Kennedy Center has received much-needed cosmetic surgery in recent years, the Terrace had remained something of a throwback in terms of its design. But a week ago, after a 16-month facelift, the Terrace reopened with a dramatically rethought architectural and acoustical plan, and with full ADA compliance. Working with Quinn Evans Architects, in collaboration with the theater design firm Schuler Shook and the acoustics team at Jaffe Holden, the Kennedy Center has created a new Terrace Theater with added side balconies, improved lighting, amplification (for music requiring it), a flexible proscenium arch to change the shape of the stage portal from event to event, and more audience-friendly access to different levels of the space. Most significantly for music lovers, the Center has addressed the auditorium’s clinical acoustics, which benefited some musical genres more than others.

New to the Terrace Theater lobby, a Chihuly chandelier.

Walking into the lobby of the new Terrace is admittedly an underwhelming experience. Considering the pains taken to revamp the interior of the hall, little has been added to the lobby – with the exception of a dazzling chandelier commissioned from Dale Chihuly – that would suggest a sense of occasion.

But entering the auditorium is a whole other story. Where the audience once was greeted by a boxy, unexceptional space, made distinctive only by an oddball paint job of nursery pink and glam-rock silver, there now stands a gorgeous concert venue clad in stacks of richly hued, curved wood panels.

There’s a newly-minted feeling of warmth and comfort, and of expanded size and sweep – despite a reduction from 512 seats to 485. (Unfortunately, available photos of the renovated theater fail to do the beautiful design justice. It’s one of those halls that should be experienced live.)

The Terrace has packed its re-opening month with everything from jazz and hip-hop to Baroque opera and Japanese dance. But given the theater’s central position in D.C.’s chamber music life, the Fortas Chamber Music Concerts season opener Oct. 12 was of particular interest. Titled “2-4-6-8! A Chamber Music Celebration,” it featured pianist (and Fortas artistic director) Joseph Kalichstein, pianist Lisa Emenheiser, trumpeters Brandon Eubank and Amy McCabe, and the Emerson and Dover string quartets.  The recital added instrumental layers by twos, starting with a pair of trumpet duets and working up to Mendelssohn’s Octet. The program was cleverly assembled to help listeners gauge the retooled acoustics, though it stopped short of answering a few key questions.

On hand for the opening, the Dover Quartet (Carlin Ma)

So, what about those new acoustics? The good news was apparent in the opening trumpet duets (an antiphonal Capriccio by 17th-century composer Johann Vierdanck, and Stravinsky’s Fanfare for a New Theater): The music pealed forth with rounded fullness and immediacy, without a hint of stridency. In a selection from Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances for Piano, Four Hands, the Steinway sounded balanced, cogent, and richly detailed, thanks in no small part to an exuberant and affectionately molded reading by Kalichstein and Emenheiser. Hitting the interpretive sweet-spot between trenchancy and sentimentality, Kalichstein and members of the Dover Quartet played Brahms’ G Minor Piano Quartet, Op. 25, with a lived-in naturalness of phrasing, and the acoustics allowed for a beautiful timbral blend, but at the same time, you could still hear the unique sound of each instrument and pinpoint its position onstage.

A performance of Schoenberg’s string-sextet Verklärte Nacht, drenched in atmosphere, and a bracing reading of the Mendelssohn Octet closed the program. Both works featured equal complements of musicians from the Emerson and Dover quartets and both ensembles benefited from the clarity and depth of the Terrace’s sound in bringing out illuminating details in their playing.

The Emerson Quartet offered earthy engagement in Verklärte Nacht. (Lisa Mazzucco)

Most arrestingly, in Verklärte Nacht the Emerson played with an earthy engagement and febrile intensity that betrayed their occasional fallibility — a slip in intonation here, an unevenly held note there, an expressive slide that didn’t fit comfortably with the phrasing of the other players — in each case nudging Schoenberg’s chromaticism toward a queasy moment or two of atonality. The Dovers, on the other hand, may have missed some of the Emersons’ heat and old-soul insights, but balanced emotional engagement with scrupulous attention to detail and finish. Taken together, the qualities both ensembles brought made for some memorable music-making.

The Terrace offered sound all evening that was impactful yet never harsh, clear but not desiccated, and full-bodied in the most satisfying way. This is a hall that seems a decided improvement over its old self. I say “seems” because of the acoustical tests not accommodated at the Fortas recital. The Terrace always did a nice job with pianos and small ensembles, though there’s clear improvement even there. But how will the auditorium treat the exposed upper strings of a chamber orchestra, or the sound of musicians positioned in the (currently covered) orchestra pit, or operatic voices that need a hall’s bloom and resonance to make their full effects? These were the problematic areas in the old Terrace. We’ll have to wait and see, as more varied programming is presented in the space. Still, based on what was heard on Oct. 12, the prognosis is good that the nation’s capital has a formidable new concert hall.

Joe Banno is a freelance classical music critic and an award-winning theater, opera and film director, based in Los Angeles, CA.