People Get Ready, There’s a Train a-Comin’

Almost ready to roll. Looking up into the dome of Baldwin Auditorium.

Almost ready to roll. Looking up into the dome of Baldwin Auditorium.

“People Get Ready” opens the great Curtis Mayfield song released in 1965, but I always hear it in my mind as sung by North Carolina bluesman Sonny Terry with fellow Piedmont bluesman Brownie McGhee. For years I thought it said “there’s a change a-comin’.” Well, in Durham, there generally is a train comin’ down the tracks, but recently it’s a train of change that has jumped the rails and is running uptown, downtown and all over Duke. “You don’t need no baggage, you just get on board.” For one of the big, grand changes, you will, however, need a ticket–or, preferably, season tickets–because if you love music, you will want to visit a venue you’ve been shunning.

Aaron Greenwald, whose connoisseurship has made Duke Performances very special, helped guide the renovation.

Aaron Greenwald, whose connoisseurship has made Duke Performances very special, helped guide the renovation.

Baldwin Auditorium, which so gracefully closes the north end of the long quad of Duke’s East Campus, was built in 1927, and ever since, it has been a pretty terrible place to hear music. Even after a renovation in the mid-1980s, the sound quality was poor, and the room uncomfortable. As Scott Lindroth, Professor of Music and Vice-Provost for the Arts noted, drily, “What we’ve not had at Duke is a world-class performance venue.” Those days are OVER. A $15 million train run by acoustical engineers, passionate architects, demanding musicians and an outstanding impresario has passed through Baldwin and rendered all beautiful. This morning, Duke faculty and staff opened the almost-ready hall for a media tour, and they had every right to their proud and happy faces. Baldwin, which connects to Duke’s music building, will be the music department‘s performance home, and the venue for Duke Performances‘ classical music offerings. The Ciompi Quartet will perform Sept. 21, and an amazing variety of classical, jazz and vocal music will follow, with an exciting program featuring the great Dianne Reeves coming up on Oct. 4.

Eric Pritchard played a little Bach.

Eric Pritchard played a little Bach.

Scott Lindroth enjoying Pritchard's performance.

Scott Lindroth enjoying Pritchard’s performance.

In case the naturally skeptical reporters doubted the acoustic quality of the room, Eric Pritchard, Professor of the Practice of Music and first violin in the Ciompi Quartet, was on hand with his violin to demonstrate. Even before the acoustical fine-tuning that will occur over the next few weeks, the music was astonishing. Sitting 5th row center, under the dome, I felt like I was inside the violin. I can still feel the music quivering on my skin. With all the changes that have been made, the hall is wonderfully resonant, and completely lacking in the echo bouncing off the balcony that had previously muddied all music. The vibrancy of the room makes you realize that Reynolds, for all its attributes, is a little muffled, and that it is not just the chairs in Nelson Music Room that are a little hard. The new Baldwin is also a visual treat. The warm-toned wood covering many of the theater’s surfaces is figured anigre, an African wood, cut from a single large tree (even without this knowledge, you feel the ineffable harmony of wholeness). The 1/16th inch veneers were bent and applied to the  vacuum-pressed plywood substrates built up in layers to as much as an inch thick by Apex-based Woodpecker Industries. The wow factor is very high in the lovely complex curves, which swoop above and around the 685 seats with their pale beech arms and (surprise!) Duke blue upholstery.

Ray Walker, Duke staff architect, showing off the results of six years of work.

Ray Walker, Duke staff architect, showing off the renovations.

Ray Walker, a staff architect at Duke for 39 years, who coordinated the Baldwin make-over, explained some of the mysteries of acoustics as he led the walk-through. Because the auditorium was square, which is bad for sound, they built a box within its box, creating side lobbies around a rectangular hall. They broke up wall surfaces to increase resonance. They installed all sorts of shades and curtains that can be pulled to soften sound when needed. They engineered all those wonderful curves so sound could flow. They corralled the HVAC equipment in an underground vault outside so there will be no vibration or hum. Working with Jaffe Holden acoustical consultants, and Pheiffer Partners Architects, Duke seems to have thought of nearly everything.

The only thing missing from the new Baldwin is a coat check room. Sigh.

Here are a few details of the interior.

Looking from the stage, through the sound baffles to the dome.

Looking from the stage, through the sound baffles to the dome.

A side balcony, with view through the new wall and out an original window.

A side balcony, with view through the new wall and out an original window.

Even the oculus underwent acoustical alterations.

Even the oculus underwent acoustical alterations.

All the rich detailing was carefully preserved.

All the rich detailing was carefully preserved.

An original Corinthian capital on a pilaster.

An original Corinthian capital on a pilaster.

Sometimes classical is just the best.

Sometimes classical is just the best.

Wouldn't believe it if there weren't 'before' photos.

Wouldn’t believe it if there weren’t ‘before’ photos.

Angels of NIGHT: Tift and Simone at the First Presbyterian

Tift Merritt. Photo: Duke Performances

Tift Merritt. Photo: Duke Performances

Tift Merritt, rocking Americana singer-songwriter from Raleigh, and Simone Dinnerstein, spell-weaving classical pianist, had met briefly during a Gramophone magazine interview, but it took Duke Performances‘ impresario Aaron Greenwald to coax the two musicians into a collaborative project. The two passionate and exacting women found a shared sea of music beyond the borders of their madly different worlds, and created Night, which premiered in Duke’s Reynolds Theater in January, 2011. I was lucky enough to be there, and you can read my review of the premiere in full here.

Tift and Simone (I’m sorry, I just can’t maintain news-style formality for these musicians who are practically family around my house, we have so many albums by both of them) continued to work the piece, a flow of music and song, of energy, love and curiosity, into a something a little more manageable, and the refined version was released last month on Sony Classical, Simone’s label (Tift’s on Yep Roc, uh huh). They’re now touring the show, and Duke Performances brought them back to Durham with it–but not to Reynolds. Instead, they performed at the beautiful and acoustically vibrant First Presbyterian Church, where I was lucky to attend the first of two shows on April 4.

Simone Dinnerstein. Photo: Duke Performances

Simone Dinnerstein. Photo: Duke Performances

Well. The 7 p.m. show was sold out, and on a night teeming with icy rain, it appeared every one showed up–from Duke music honchos to dudes in cowboy hats, and lots and lots of women from a spectrum at least as wide. It was an exemplary audience, unusually quiet during the music, and unrestrainedly appreciative between and rapturous at the concert’s conclusion. You rarely feel that much love in the room…maybe it’s Tift who brings it. The last time I remember so much love bouncing around the venue was at her first big local concert, at the NC Museum of Art Amphitheater many years ago.

Thursday was  another of those magic nights, when the music is beyond sweet and all expectations are surpassed. This is partly due to the wonderful sound in the church–the huge glossy Steinway has never sounded so clear in Reynolds, and a singing voice has all the room it needs to soar–but more to the greater intimacy between the performers. They were so aware of each other, so connected emotionally, that the music poured out with unusual beauty. The joyous wonder on their faces when something difficult went so very right increased the pleasure of hearing it.

Night has changed a bit over the last two years, and the stage show is a little different from the album. The album is very fine, but it does not begin with Simone playing the lovely Robert Schumann piece, “In the Evening,” which is a shame. She opened the first “set” with that elegant composition, then the set alternated between her and Tift, with her beat-up guitar and scuffed boots. There were no awkward pauses this time: the last piano note merged seamlessly into the first guitar strum.

Tift has gained so much control over her voice in two years that calling her a pop singer doesn’t seem quite right. Maybe we can call her a chanteuse. One of the more thrilling songs was the pair’s rendition of Nina Simone’s arrangement of the Billie Holiday classic, “Don’t Explain.” Compared to her singing of it in the 2011 performance, Tift has become more powerful, her voice more definite–and Simone has loosened up to find the jazz in the piano accompaniment. It was also flat wonderful to hear harmonica + Steinway.

On “Wayfaring Stranger,” Tift let the sound billow up to the rafters, giving us just enough of the coffee-cigarettes-whisky burr in her voice to keep it real. Another surprise was her taking the piano bench and belting out a song from there as she “pawed” the keys. “It takes a special kind of courage” she said, to play piano around Simone. I guess so. But you could hear that Tift has brought out a new fearlessness in Simone, too, when she sat back down and totally rocked out on some Bach. Even she looked a little surprised.

She also played Daniel Felsenfeld’s The Cohen Variations, based on Leonard Cohen’s haunting “Suzanne.” This was where the acoustic quality of the room made such a noticeable difference. I had remembered this piece as slightly muddy, and had wondered why such a demanding aesthete had chosen it. Now I understand–the hard surfaces in the church sanctuary gave it the ringing clarity and crispness it needs. The Elizabethan song “I Gave My Love an Apple” was also well-served. With Tift strumming and singing (without the microphone, so nice), Simone reached into the piano and plucked the strings, and the sound was breathtakingly lovely.

Night ends with the promise of day, as Tift lets loose on her and Simone’s arrangement of the great Johnny Nash song from 1972. “I can see clearly now the rain has gone/I can see all the obstacles in my way…it’s gonna be a bright bright bright bright sunshiny day!” The ladies left the stage, but the roaring, stamping crowd demanded an encore. Before they purred through a Gabriel Faure art song (maybe they”ll record an album of French songs!), both artists admitted they had no idea how they were going to repeat the show in 45 minutes, let alone top it. It was a great one, no doubt about it, and every heart was bright with the music. But outside, it was still night, and another eager audience poured in to receive the blessing of song.

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