ORLANDO – The long journey to build Steinmetz Hall, a first-class concert venue in downtown Orlando, finally reached its goal with a two-week opening celebration in January, including a stellar performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. The star of the occasion was London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, whose weeklong residency at the new hall was capped by the Ninth under the baton of Edwin Outwater in collaboration with Central Florida’s own Bach Festival Choir.
It was a rousing performance to celebrate the completion of the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, a two-block complex across from City Hall that houses Steinmetz Hall, which far surpasses the old Bob Carr Theater — the city’s longtime concert venue that has been shut since the pandemic began — and puts Orlando’s performing arts infrastructure on par with those of other metro areas in Florida. The center opened in 2014 with the Broadway-style, touring acts-oriented Walt Disney Theater (with 2,711 seats) and the Pugh Theater, an elegant black box. Originally planned to open along with the two other spaces, Steinmetz Hall was beset by cuts in funding, with the 2009 economic plunge and the pandemic threatening to cast the project into oblivion.
But with the city of Orlando, Orange County, the state of Florida, and about $200 million in private donations footing the bill, those obstacles were overcome to complete a $613 million public-private project that began nearly 20 years ago.
Designed by architect Barton Myers, theater designer Richard Pilbrow, and acoustician Damian Doria, Steinmetz Hall has the engineering and technology to shift its shape: A 62-foot-high, 500-ton shell is moved on train tracks beneath the stage; two movable, 53-foot-high stage towers can be placed at either side of the shell to frame the proscenium; and up to 22 rows of seats closest to the stage can be mechanically collapsed under the floor — a lustrous cherry-wood millwork. The theater can thus adapt for different kinds of performance, including orchestral, opera, recitals, dance, and special events. It will be the principal venue for the city’s flagship trio of professional performing arts groups, the Orlando Ballet, the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra, and Opera Orlando, which were inexplicably absent from the opening celebration.
The in-the-round concert hall configuration (seating 1,595), with the choir arranged in five rows behind and above the orchestra, brought out every bow stroke, subtlety in phrasing, and nuance from the Royal Philharmonic. Out of the seven concerts for the opening celebration, the Beethoven Ninth was the most “classical,” flanked by R&B sensation Jennifer Hudson and country singer Lyle Lovett, both of whom the Royal Philharmonic accompanied in amplified performances.
Steinmetz Hall is being touted as “one of the world’s most acoustically perfect spaces,” and the sound propagation is certainly a marvel: More than 400 rubber pads placed between the theater and its concrete foundation create an air gap that absorbs outside noise. A tuning system for the hall consists of 70 mechanized fabric panels within the ceiling that can be adjusted, plus six automated acoustical curtains that can be calibrated to optimize sound quality. There is also an adjustable acoustical reflector in the ceiling.
The result is worth experiencing: Silken trombones in Verdi’s overture to Nabucco gave way to an orchestral crash, with a glistening display of the full sound spectrum. From Outwater’s tightly woven fabric emerged a relaxed oboe solo — principal John Roberts, a star of the evening, achieving a perfect blend between the nasal and the sweet. The flutes and piccolo, along with pizzicato cellos, were transported across the hall with equal clarity. The hall creates a casing in which even the quietest dynamics are unobstructed, projected like light in a cloudless sky.
Outwater proved to be an expressive and charismatic leader for the beloved Ninth. Not to mention a good sport when an audience member’s spilled drink had ushers scrambling to help tidy up, which delayed the beginning a bit (it makes you wonder whether putting cup holders between seats was the best of ideas). Conducting with no baton, Outwater adopted natural tempos that let Beethoven’s rugged edges show, but he also molded exquisitely shaped dramatic gestures into stirring moments.
The ensemble was rounded to near perfection, with hefty strings supporting a mellifluous layer of horns and crystal-clear woodwinds. The call and response in the first movement was emphatic but not forced; it showed élan, but it also had a dark demeanor. In the second movement, the staggered entrances among the different instrumental groups were tapered with precision.
Outwater and the string section carved out wonderful moments in the third movement. There was delicate articulation and shaping of melodies from the first violins, accompanied by a serene flute and oboe duo (Harry Winstanley, with Roberts). A movement that could otherwise have been buried under the gargantuan choral finale affirmed its place in this performance.
In the finale, the horror fanfare lacked a bit of vehemence, and the appearance of the “joy” theme from the depths of the double basses was a little loud. But such quibbles were easily dispelled the moment bass Peixin Chen opened Schiller’s text with a penetrating tone that filled the hall. The appearance of the lone singer commanded attention even more than the exultant first “Freude!” from the 180-voice Bach Festival Choir. Tenor Jonathan Johnson, soprano Ann Toomey, and mezzo-soprano Lauren Decker were each skillfully poised and held their own, although there were some shrill moments between the latter two in the louder contrapuntal passages.
Sandwiched between the Ninth and the Verdi overture, Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini — a sure-fire crowd pleaser — warmed up as it progressed and won me over by the end. Russian-American pianist Natasha Paremski took the stage in a flashy blue dress and bright-red stilettos, though her piano entrance was rather lukewarm. She warmed up over each episode of the rhapsody, to be sure, and her synergy with Outwater resulted in sumptuous interplay between orchestra and soloist, particularly during slower tempos, which allowed her phrasing and subtle shading to be savored. The statement of the hummable romantic theme near the end built up slowly, with the strings coming in at the right dynamic level, giving themselves enough room to crescendo to the forte restatement in the climax.
A missed opportunity: Though the 60-page program booklet for all the opening celebration concerts with the Royal Philharmonic thanks and credits everyone there is to thank and credit (perhaps rightly so: there would be no new hall without donors), nary a paragraph was saved for notes on poor old Beethoven. Not even the tempo markings for each movement of the symphony were printed, as is customary, which might’ve helped guide neophytes through the 70-minutes-plus piece.
Still, it was a landmark event in Orlando’s history and a majestic celebration of this tremendous new concert space, with Handel’s “Hallelujah!” chorus as an encore. I anticipate the opportunity to see, and hear, the city’s own ballet, opera, and symphony orchestra at Steinmetz Hall. It was designed for them, after all — at least in part — and they’ve been waiting a long, long time to get there. Hallelujah, indeed.