Thoughts on Oberlin's Performance Spaces & An Institutional Rift
››› March 31, 2014 | Posted By Aaron Wolff

Oberlin has seven official music halls as of fall 2013. The whole campus is a grab bag of architecture, ranging from the late 19th century chiseled cliffs of Peters and Wilder, to the neo-classical Allen Memorial Art Museum and Cox Administration building, to the state-of-the-art likes of the Science Center and Environmental Studies Building. Even the giant quadrangle of Tappan Square includes a tree from each of the fifty United States.

Disorienting enough? All seven of Oberlin's official performance spaces have distinct acoustics and ambiances that the performer and public must learn to navigate - differences they will come to love and hate. Let's take a look, shall we?

Warner Concert Hall is Oberlin's version of Lincoln Center's Alice Tully. Designed by Minoru Yamasaki, who also designed the World Trade Center, it's equipped with 645 plush red velvet seats and a high ceiling to make way for the beautiful, towering 44-stop Flentrop organ - 3,400 pipes in total. Despite being an indisputable gem of the conservatory, the only time it ever fills is at orientation convocations - a wall should be built where the giant soundboard sits. Was it perhaps an overly ambitious project?

Then there's Stull Recital Hall, the new hall on the block as of this past summer, and a cozy contrast to Warner, taking up the space of only two classrooms. The lack of a stage, though, makes it better for studio classes, lessons, or rehearsals than master classes or recitals. Crowds will bicker over the lost sightlines for years to come.

The last hall of the Conservatory proper is Kulas Recital Hall, a favorite for chamber music but really easy to fall asleep in even at an engrossing performance: the seats are super cushy and the absolute lack of natural light, not to mention what seems to be a problem with air flow, altogether create a dozy atmosphere.

Two chapels, the monstrous Finney and quaint Fairchild, are arresting inside and out. Finney holds the Oberlin Orchestra and Chamber Orchestra, but works better as an assembly hall: last spring, the convocation in response to a multitude of hate crimes was an overwhelmingly humbling experience. Packed to the aisles, students drummed and chanted from the chapel's wood balconies and pews, clamoring for peace, love, and understanding. 100 yards east of Finney is the intimate Fairchild, a skinny stone temple with sublime acoustics. "Fairkid" is perfect for Collegium Musicum, Oberlin's early music choir, or an organ recital on one (or more!) of its three organs.

Clearly, we've got a lot to offer to Oberlin at-large, but there's a disconnect between supply and demand: I've heard countless complaints from College kids as to the lack of publicity for Conservatory events. Oberlin prides itself on being a joint institution of College and Conservatory, but Concert Production gives no notification of goings-on beyond two bulletin boards within Conservatory walls.

Inside most of the academic buildings, posters abound for lectures, screenings, plays, and clubs. The Conservatory's presence is noticeably absent, leaving College students clueless as to what goes on over there unless they chance across the sound of the orchestra filtering out of Finney's open windows. If the College prides itself on learning continuing outside of the classroom, why shouldn't the conservatory do the same? If Oberlin is already a bubble within the world, why make the conservatory a bubble within the greater institution.

This isn't to say that musically-inclined College kids aren't allowed to take advantage of the Conservatory's facilities, not to mention the bargain $7.50 secondary private lessons, but if my generation, including the intellectuals and activists of Oberlin - a number of whom will help shape American culture and policy - isn't going to seek out classical music on their own, we can't deny that the art form will fall deeper into the societal margin it's already.

To bring the music to them, we don't have to change the music itself, but just change the context in which it's played. How can we know its potential or lack thereof if we don't? Music education is vital for performers, but what good is it to be able to analyze a piece and not analyze the world you're going to give it to?

For example, the jazz program brings the Conservatory closer to the College. Every Friday afternoon, their bands perform at forums at The Cat in the Cream, the campus coffeehouse embedded at the western edge of campus, and many College kids attend. Touring folk, world, and spoken word acts tend to come through here, and I've also seen a few bigger jazz bands at the Dionysus Disco, or The 'Sco for short, which hosts rock and hip hop shows, and acts as the campus nightclub.

A show's profile arises from its venue almost as much as its performers - the aesthetic of it counts for so much more than us musicians think: although the acoustic is important in the moment, we remember with greater precision what things looked like than how they sounded. What about chamber groups at The Cat, or contemporary music with visuals and drinks on tap at The 'Sco?

What about collaborations with the theater and dance departments in Warner Gymansium? What about open-air performances in Clark Bandshell in Tappan, Wilder Bowl, or the Arboretum? Or late night reading sessions at the Feve or Slow Train? The Beatles, for one, laid a foundation for greatness by playing for hours and hours on end at bars in Liverpool and Hamburg.

As an educational institution, the Conservatory is really just a nest for us musical kiddies. All of Oberlin is our playground.

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