At Ground Zero, A New Performing Arts Center Enfolds The Multitudes

The Perelman Performing Arts Center, designed by Joshua Ramus, is located at Ground Zero in Manhattan. (Photo by Iwan Baan)

NEW YORK — If you build it, will they come? This was the question hovering over the opening of the Perelman Performing Arts Center, inaugurated with great pomp in a ribbon cutting ceremony Sept. 13 as the final element in the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site, 22 years after the cataclysmic attacks on Lower Manhattan.

PAC NY now sits just across the street from the 9/11 Memorial, echoing the shape of the pair of water elements occupying the Twin Towers’ footprints. A cube hovering above ground level, by day its soft white marble matches Santiago Calatrava’s swooping white Oculus across the street. At night, the intricately matched, veined marble veneer glows in soft contrast to the purple light illuminating the adjacent One World Trade Center and the Oculus.

I won’t even try to summarize the design (by the architect Joshua Ramus) and engineering marvels of a performing arts center constructed above a busy transportation hub, which have been described at length elsewhere. Some impressions: The grand staircase into the lobby, sheltered by the wide edge of the building, reminds me of the Opéra Bastille’s broad outdoor staircase, now a scruffy hangout for local teenagers and their skateboards. By day, workers and visitors to the 9/11 Museum and Memorial bring activity to the surroundings, but approaching the building at night I missed a certain pre-concert buzz. Suffice it to say that it’s an inviting but slightly incongruous presence in a neighborhood that hosts high finance, memorial tourism, and luxury residences but hasn’t had much night life in more than two centuries.

While New York has long wanted a theater for music with a capacity smaller than the large halls at Lincoln Center, the civic leaders who spoke at the ribbon cutting — among them Governor Kathy Hochul, Mayor Eric Adams, and Board Chairman (and major donor) Michael Bloomberg — emphasized PAC’s primary role as a community center, a welcoming place for a diverse array of workers and residents, and a center for healing from 9/11. PAC was built with private money, and as such reflects particular design and artistic choices. In other words, this is not the long-hoped-for home for Mozart and Handel, at least not for now. Still, the building is beautiful and the mood is optimistic.

The interior of the Perelman Performing Arts Center, with marbled surfaces that draw light into the building. (Photo by Iwan Baan)

The opening series was titled “Refuge, A Concert Series to Welcome the World.” After Sept. 19th’s opening all-star concert (with Laurie Anderson, Angélique Kidjo, and MCANA Best New Opera Award winner Raven Chacon) titled “Tapestry: Home as Refuge,” the event Sept. 20 honored “Devotion: Faith as Refuge,” with six ensembles performing music of different religious traditions. Other themes for the week treated school, family, and memory as sources of solace. To draw the widest possible audience, tickets were pay-what-you-wish, with all concerts offering one or two free performances in the lobby before and/or after the ticketed show. The series was sold out, so the enticement worked.

The 8 p.m. concert Sept. 20 actually began with a 7 p.m. performance in the lobby; ticket holders were given priority for the limited informal seating, but the music was free for anyone who cared to wander in. This set was offered by the sublime 22-member choir of Trinity Wall Street, the 17th-century Episcopal church just a few blocks away that is pivotal in the cultural and social services life of Lower Manhattan. In addition to service music, this world-class ensemble is in demand for concerts ranging from Renaissance, Bach, and Handel (“best Messiah in town”) to contemporary opera. I unfortunately missed most of the choral program, but I heard several exquisite harmonizations of psalms, spirituals, and composed sacred songs. Their final number, drawing appreciative murmurs from listeners, was a sweet and comforting harmonization of “American Tune,” Paul Simon’s setting of Bach’s Passion chorale.

We had about 15 minutes to make our way to the Zuccotti Theater, which wasn’t as easy to locate as one might expect: The PAC lobby (itself two flights up from street level) lies two floors below the orchestra level of the theater, accessible by two elevators and an internal staircase.

Projections were flashed on a screen during one of the opening concerts of the Perelman Performing Arts Center. (Photo by Susan Brodie)

A point of pride for PAC is the flexibility of the three main performing spaces, which are fitted with state-of-the-art stage elevators, configurable seating, acoustic isolation, and sound and light equipment. Beyond the red upholstery, wood-paneled walls, and an early Manhattan map decorating the proscenium, the decor is black-box plain. These six concerts in the three spaces were combined into a traditional proscenium theater, with a lightly raked orchestra section, a ring, and two balconies seating an audience of about 950, the facility’s maximum capacity. Above the stage was a screen for titles and video projected during each number (scenic design by David Rockwell, lighting design by Jen Schriever, sound design by Mikaal Sulaiman, projections design by Tei Blow).

After the seraphic sounds of the Trinity Choir, the balance of the concert was a typical world-music showcase, with a mix of original and modernized versions of vernacular music from different spiritual traditions. Most of the performers on the series are New York-based, reflecting both the wealth of local talent and the city’s staggering cultural variety.

First up were the Klezmatics, a pop-rock purveyor of music from the Eastern European Jewish shtetl. Beyond their primary traditional repertoire, these six talented musicians have also collaborated with artists from Woody Guthrie to Itzhak Perlman. (Ironic disclosure: back in the 1980s, I met Klezmatics vocalist and accordionist Lorin Sklamberg in an early-music production of a medieval passion drama, where he was singing the part of Jesus.). The six members opened with a cheerful freilach, a rousing dance song that the audience happily clapped along to. While Sklamberg fronts the band singing in impeccable Yiddish, the other members also chime in on chorus in well-tuned tight harmony. The next (and last) song, “Holy Ground,” was a Woody Guthrie ballad with a distinctive American South flavor, about the sanctity of nature.

The Klezmatics, a pop-rock purveyor of music from the Eastern European Jewish shtetl, performed at one of the opening concerts. (Photo by Susan Brodie)

After the Klezmatics’ lively set, executive director Khady Kamara and artistic airector Bill Rauch welcomed the audience, tag-teaming their remarks, and introduced Chloe Breyer, executive director of the Interfaith Center of New York, a group that aims to make religious practice safe in this large and diverse city. There was quite a lot of talk between and during each act, with spoken introductions and explanation of the music’s relevance to the evening’s theme. One group even invited listeners to speak to someone they didn’t know about a personal epiphany in understanding someone else’s faith. Confessional listening seems to be having a moment, as I also experienced at Mostly Mozart, but it’s not clear that this will catch on in New York.

The violin duo of Arun Ramamurthy and Trina Basu created a calming contrast to the toe-tapping opening act. Beginning with an electric drone, they played an instrumental duet dedicated to nature, particularly Prospect Park, where the pair found solace during the isolation of the pandemic. The music gradually rose and fell in an arc embellished with a filigree of ornaments; the sound blended the flavor of Western chamber music into the tonality and phrasing of Indian music. They were then joined by North Indian classical singer Samarth Nagarkar, who is trained in several regional vocal traditions. As he sang, the intertwining violins sounded like the traditional harmonium that a singer would use to accompany a raga.

This serene, improvised-sounding set was followed by the vibrant Innov Gnawa, led by the quietly charismatic singer and instrumentalist Maalem Hassan BenJaafar. The group performs traditional music of Morocco’s Gnawa faith. The printed program described how Benjaafar, a spiritual leader, reads the energy of the audience to choose repertoire; his choices certainly got heads bobbing. Playing sintir (a kind of Moroccan guitar) and singing, he was accompanied in a call-and-response by four male singers who responded to his chants in unison chorus, keeping rhythm with krakebs (large paired iron castanet-like instruments), claps, or stamps, and often inviting the audience to clap along. At the end of the set, the men donned colorful robes over their loose pajama-like garb, Benjaafar switched to a drum, and the group led the audience, clapping along, out of the theater.

Innov Gnawa performs the traditional music of Morocco’s Gnawa faith. (Photo by Susan Brodie)

The entire second half of the program was performed by Damien Sneed and his Chorale Le Chateau, backed by piano, drums, violin, and bass guitar. The multi-talented Sneed has a resume packed with prime teaching jobs, recordings, tours, and awards, but clearly his pride and joy is this 13-member, hand-picked chorus, showcasing an array of distinctive singers. The music was modern gospel: fervently sung and richly harmonized psalms and praise songs, arranged and conducted by Sneed, who briefly interrupted the gospel repertoire by singing a Rosh Hashanna song and accompanying himself at the Steinway. The hour-long program seemed long after the more concentrated performances on the first half, but when one performer had to cancel, there was a time slot to fill. No matter: Sneed and his forces had plenty of material. Six singers soloed with powerful, individual voices and inspired expression; I had no doubt that their colleagues could have done just as well.

Leaving the theater, I wove my way through the lobby where ÌFÉ, NOLA-based Otura Mun’s “futuristic live electronic” Afro-Cuban-Yoruba-Jamaican fusion band, had drawn an enthusiastic crowd. I found a corner to enjoy their upbeat but mellow sounds — until an overwhelming, bone-shaking electric bass blasted me out of my seat. As I fled, one of the many cheery staff members allowed that it was easier to hear from outside the lobby doors (though I heard nothing from the street).

Marcus Samuelsson, whose lobby restaurant at the Perelman Performing Arts Center opens soon, with Joshua Ramus, the center’s architect (Photo courtesy of PAC NY)

After this opening run, PAC eclectic programming includes jazz, Native American stand-up comedy, Broadway stars, LGBTQ+ events, dance, holiday concerts (countertenor Anthony Roth Costanza is already sold out), one opera (Huang Ruo’s An American Soldier in May), and more. Free lobby performances will be announced throughout the year. If you’re looking for a string quartet, you’re out of luck (though I won’t be surprised if Kronos shows up in a future season), but it’s certainly worth trekking down to the new and much improved Ground Zero and taking a chance on a program. Time will tell how artistic choices evolve and how the Perelman PAC integrates into the neighborhood, especially after the new lobby restaurant from star chef Marcus Samuelsson opens in coming weeks.

Oh, the acoustics? Hard to tell, since every act was amplified, making me regret not having earplugs. The building was designed for maximum sound isolation between theaters and the equipment. A few equipment glitches suggested that the crew was still learning the ropes, but on the whole the music sounded balanced, without echo or feedback. Any kinks should certainly be smoothed out in time for the run of Cats next June.

For information on upcoming events and tickets, go here.