Photos by Tad Simons
Well, the University of Minnesota’s Northrop Auditorium celebrated its grand re-opening this weekend after a 38-month, $88.2 million makeover. Bereft for years of quality mid-sized performance spaces, the Twin Cities is now awash in “state-of-the-art” über-venues. (Next up in our hit parade of awesome new spaces: the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s 1,100-seat concert hall, due to open this time next year.)
Those who pretend to have fond memories of the old Northrop will hardly recognize the place. The old Northrop was a massive cavern of 4,847 seats, some of them so far away from the stage that Voyager II had to send radio transmissions to those seated in the far back. The sound, too, was legendarily awful, with acoustics designed to mimic a bathroom in an elevator shaft at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. It was an “auditorium” in every sense of that hideous word—which, roughly translated from the original Latin, means “sound flushed down the toilet.”
Faced with the task of dispensing with the bad of the old Northrop and keeping the good, the architects of this project wisely elected to gut the entire building and start fresh—with the exception of the Memorial Hall lobby, which has been lovingly restored. Everything else is different, and that is a very good thing indeed.
In terms of amenities, there is roughly twice as much of everything in the new building: elevators, bathrooms, concession stands, ticket windows, coffee bars, etc. In addition to the main theater, there’s also the new Best Buy theater, a nice little 168-seat theater for films, presentations, and other events where the crowd isn’t really a crowd.
As for the main theater, now dubbed the “Carlson Family Stage,” it’s state-of-the-art-ness has been achieved by getting rid of 40 percent of the seats (there are now 2,700), and going vertical with three-tiered balconies. The architects are proud of the fact that 2,160 of these seats are within 100 feet of the stage. What they’re not telling you is that many of those seats are pretty much straight up. Anyone with the slightest bit of vertigo might want to reconsider sitting in the third or fourth deck, because that’s queasy stomach territory now, suitable only for rock climbers, base jumpers, paratroopers, and college students who are not yet aware of their mortality.
The stage itself is about a third smaller, too, which is a mixed blessing. For most events, the old Northrop stage was way too big, and the new stage is far more size-appropriate. Ironically, what the old stage worked well for was ballet—the art form chosen to christen the venue on Friday night. New York’s American Ballet Theatre performed Giselle, which sometimes features 30 or 40 people onstage, many of them moving all at once. Things were a little cramped up there at times, but they did fit, and the 60-person orchestra in the pit sounded superb. The acoustics—for classical music, at least—are excellent, as advertised, and the feeling inside the space is generously open, mainly because the ceiling goes up to the stratosphere.
The original arch over the proscenium has been preserved, which looks great and odd at the same time, given that the rest of the room wouldn’t look out of place in a Star Trek movie. All things considered, however, the new Northrop is an exciting addition to local performance scene, with roughly 500 more seats than the State Theatre, the next largest venue below it, and 800 more seats than the Ordway.
In theory, this means that the Northrop should be able to attract some major artists that have given the Twin Cities a pass in the past—though only time will tell. It’ll take a year or two for the Northrop to get into the booking cycle for major acts; in the meantime, the lineup will be a mix of lectures, humor, dance, and—the big event on May 2 and 4, when Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra will recreate the first classical concert ever performed at Northrop.
Here’s hoping there are many more to come.