The Cleveland Museum of Art's Viva and Gala series is that rare program that gives a sense of how big the world is. Performances cross political and stylistic boundaries, with ensembles big and small, both acoustic and electrified. Programmers Massoud Saidpour and Tom Welsh keep it anchored with the big umbrella known as "world music," which is broad enough to be a production challenge unto itself, but they also include classical and modern sounds, as well as what you might reasonably call "world movement": everything from the drama of tango to the startling athleticism of the Shaolin Warriors of China.
The ambition to present that range of performance is what Saidpour says motivated the museum's decision in 2005 to renovate Gartner Hall — the once and future venue for Viva and Gala — as part of the museum's massive renovation and expansion. Designed by Marcel Breuer and built in 1970 as part of the last significant addition, Gartner was never a great hall for such a varied series. It had difficulty even managing the differences between amplified and acoustic music, let alone offering enough space for dance or proper acoustics and ambiance for its many other uses, which range from movies to spoken-word performances.
In a sense, it took closing Gartner to show what Viva and Gala could be. Freed from the constraints of the hall, Saidpour took the show "around town" to Cleveland's extravagant range of venues — from the theaters of PlayhouseSquare to a variety of neighborhood churches, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History's Murch Auditorium and even the Cleveland City Hall rotunda. He and Welsh took great advantage of the opportunity, choosing venues to fit specific performances. Remember Goran Bregovic's Weddings and Funerals Orchestra, with its gypsy brass section, chorus of women, percussion and Bregovic's electric guitar, performing at the State Theatre? Both the band and the crowd were too big for Gartner. Remember Arvo Pärt's Passio, a choral setting of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, presented on Ash Wednesday at the Shrine Church of St. Stanislaus? Describing that as "performance" would fall far short of the religious and cultural significance it took on. Those experiences were made possible by taking the series on the road.
From Saidpour's perspective, taking their cultural adventure into the neighborhoods had the additional benefit of bringing Clevelanders into corners of the city many of them had never visited before. Audience surveys told them this. They also say the experiment has brought new patrons.
This week, Viva and Gala comes home to Gartner Auditorium, renovated to accommodate a variety of sounds and a lot more movement than before. Saidpour says he and audiences may miss aspects of the "around town" years, but the easier logistics of having a home hall, combined with its new acoustic flexibility, will make it a pleasure to come back to University Circle.
The Museum hired Westlake Reed Leskosky as architects to handle the renovation. Acoustician Paul Scarbrough — the same guy who engineered acoustics for the renovation of Severance Hall and the Cleveland Institute of Music's Mixon Hall — shaped its sound. Their goal was to respect Breuer's visual design but to make the space acoustically "tunable." So they added an adjustable, sound-absorbing curtain to the walls, behind a screen of wood battens that maintain the visual rhythm of Breuer's original design but allow adjustment for more or less resonance. They added a dropped ceiling to create resonant air space above it. Paul Westlake says it's the most acoustically tunable hall in the region, bar none.
They also added four feet of depth to the stage — about 20 percent more space for dancers or larger bands. They also replaced the old seats with new, wider ones, taking the hall's capacity from 765 down to 680 in the process.
The hall reopens with a gala on Sunday featuring a cocktail reception and performance by the nostalgic, genteel and witty Max Raabe and his Palast Orchester. The German big band performs dance music of the Weimar Republic — Germany in the '20s and '30s, before the rise of Adolf Hitler. Raabe is also known to cover more recent pop hits, including Brittany Spears' "Oops! ... I Did It Again" in the early-20th-century big-band style.
The big event is followed by a series of free concerts Saidpour says will bring "around town" back to the Museum. In eight weeks, they'll present 22 Cleveland-based groups, including members of the Cleveland Orchestra, the new professional singing group Quire Cleveland, the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra and former Plain Dealer publisher Alex Mac__haskee's cross-cultural, Eastern European band, the Continental Strings Tamburitza Orchestra. Watch Scene's Get Out! section for details.