By Glenn Rifkin
Once they experience the ambiance and the remarkable acoustics, Groton Hill Music Center will likely emerge as a regular tour stop for New England bound performers.
Out among the farms and apple orchards of Groton, a bucolic upscale community situated 35 miles northwest of Boston, a musical dream is becoming a reality. Rising like the Land of Oz out of the surrounding woods and meadows is the brand-new Groton Hill Music Center, a stunning, world-class performance and educational facility that will undoubtedly change the musical landscape of the region.
Groton Hill Music is the new name of Indian Hill Music, a popular regional music school and performance organization that has been around for more than three decades. The nonprofit organization has, in recent years, held classes in a small building in Littleton, and performances in the auditorium of Littleton High School. Needless to say, this bold new facility, which is set to open on October 21, will be a major leap forward in both size and scope. It is an order of magnitude more complex and daunting an organizational challenge.
The sprawling new 126,000 square foot complex sits on 110 acres of rolling hills, bordered by protected conservation and agricultural land that frames the facility in a warm pastoral embrace. Some of the land was once owned by the late, great J. Geils, the iconic rocker who died in 2017. Geils’s estate had nothing to do with the new facility, but it evokes an appropriate musical pedigree for the new center. In fact, the ambitious project was funded by an anonymous donor, a generous arts benefactor whose love of music, culture, and Groton resulted in a 2014 gift that is estimated to be somewhere between $50 million and $100 million.
According to Lisa Fiorentino, the CEO of Groton Hill Music, the gift was an unexpected windfall, an act of “tremendous generosity” that has taken the organization to an unimagined level. It took more than a year to find the land and even longer to finalize the ambitious plans with the architects and the town of Groton. Ground was broken in 2017 and continued through most of the pandemic.
There are two main performance spaces, a majestic 1000-seat concert hall (scheduled to open in January) and a 300-seat performance venue called Meadow Hall. They will host a variety of artists and musical genres including classical, jazz, and bluegrass. The glass doors at the rear of the still unfinished concert hall will open to a vast lawn seating area that, in good weather, will hold another 1300 patrons, emulating a much scaled-down version of the lawn at Tanglewood.
Groton Hill Music just recently announced a partial lineup for its inaugural season. Opening night in Meadow Hall, already sold out, will feature the organization’s own orchestra led by conductor and artistic director Bruce Hangen. Later shows will include Brian O’Donovan’s Celtic Roots and Branches; jazz artist Catherine Russell, the Bill Frisell jazz trio; and the Mike Block and Balla Kouyate Band.
The goal, Fiorentino explained, is to entice “exceptional quality” artists to grace the stages. She acknowledged that finding artists willing to travel to the outer geographic reaches of Boston audiences may be a problem as well as the challenge of affording top names while holding ticket prices in check.
“You won’t get household names, in most cases,” Fiorentino said, but as word gets out about the extraordinary performance space, she expects more and more popular artists to make Groton Hill Music a destination. Once they experience the ambiance and the remarkable acoustics, it will likely emerge as a regular tour stop for New England bound performers. The drive from Boston is under an hour, less than half the time it takes to get to Tanglewood, which has no trouble drawing crowds.
The complex was designed by architects Alan Joslin and Deborah Epstein, a husband-and-wife team that designed the Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood and the much-admired Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport. In fact, when one steps into Meadow Hall, the 300-seat performance space, it immediately conjures up the look and feel of the Shalin Liu.
As they did in Rockport, the designers have incorporated the ambiance and natural beauty of the surrounding landscape. It is all curves and natural wood, stone and glass. The dazzling concert hall feels like the interior of a massive ark, Noah excluded. In addition to the performance spaces, there are spacious recital and rehearsal halls and 35 state-of-the-art classrooms, all featuring large windows that offer stunning views of the countryside. The hallways and lobbies are wide and welcoming with the calming timbers of southern yellow pine evoking the feel of an interior forest or an orchard. Sunlight streams in from every angle. There is a dining hall for patrons who purchase a meal and ticket combo. The school, which already has 1,000 students signed up, opens in September. The educational aspect of the facility is one of its driving forces.
According to Fiorentino, the ambitious project is all about “accessibility” for performers, music lovers, students, educators, and the community. Among the offerings are free instrument lessons for students in underserved school districts in the region, which serves 79 communities in central Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire. “We want to be an organization that provides quality of life,” Fiorentino said.
For Fiorentino, a former tech industry executive who became CEO of the nonprofit organization in 2009, the challenges are clear. Marketing the facility and putting it on the map is a daunting task. Worries about thousands of patrons driving into Groton for a concert have been discussed extensively with town officials and everyone seems to be on board. She said that Groton residents and business owners are excited about the new facility.
Running a nonprofit organization of this magnitude will require a significant revenue stream and a large base of philanthropic contributors.
“We will be very methodical about how we grow,” she insisted. “We don’t want to do too much and not meet the high standards we have set. We will grow into this.”
That said, she acknowledges this is a major leap from the Indian Hill Music business model. As a relatively obscure regional music organization, supporters regularly referred to Indian Hill Music as a “hidden gem,” Fiorentino said. “I liked the gem part, but not the hidden part.” Once audiences get a taste of this new jewel of a performance venue, that should no longer be a problem.
Glenn Rifkin is a veteran journalist and author who has covered business for many publications including the New York Times for nearly 30 years. He has written about music, film, theater, food and books for the Arts Fuse. His new book Future Forward: Leadership Lessons from Patrick McGovern, the Visionary Who Circled the Globe and Built a Technology Media Empire was recently published by McGraw-Hill.