By Glenn Rifkin
Groton Hill’s stunning new venue is a beautifully designed and acoustically brilliant music hall that is certain to become a desired destination for artists touring New England.
By the time maestro Bruce Hangen and the Vista Philharmonic Orchestra reached Respighi’s Pines of Rome, with its rousing four continuous movements, the sold-out crowd inside Groton Hill Music’s magnificent new 1000-seat concert hall was ready to stand and cheer. They realized they had witnessed something special throughout Hangen’s audacious program and now, having pulled out all the stops, the Vista’s brilliant performance reached a crescendo. The music didn’t just fill the room, it owned the cavernous space, sending shockwaves of rapturous sound that brought tears to people’s eyes. The auditorium at Littleton High School, the orchestra’s previous home for three decades, was never like this.
It was opening night at Groton Hill’s stunning new venue, a beautifully designed and acoustically brilliant music hall that is certain to become a desired destination for artists touring New England. Eager patrons had been waiting years for this night, having supported this nonprofit music organization, formerly known as Indian Hill Music, for decades. When a generous anonymous donor gave a massive gift to Indian Hill in 2014 for the construction of this 126,000-square-foot music center in the farmland and apple orchards of rural Groton, it was clear that the organization had been reborn at a whole new level.
The center opened its 300-seat Memorial Hall this past fall, along with its ambitious music education program. Supporters got to experience the spectacular interior of Southern yellow pine, stone, and glass that bespoke the natural surroundings of the complex. The crown jewel, however, would not be ready until late January.
And the wait was clearly worth it. As audience members entered the hall, there was a buzz of excitement for the coming evening. In an interview days before the concert, Hangen expressed the elation he was feeling.
“It is definitely dreamlike,” said the veteran conductor and music educator. “Who’d a thunk 25 years ago, when I started with this organization, that we’d be at such a moment in our history.” The experience of rehearsing in the new hall was cathartic. “It just feels spectacular to me,” he added. “There’s room to play for the musicians. They can hear each other. Much like Symphony Hall, the sound carries out into the audience. For all the thousand seats in there, it’s so intimate. Wherever you are sitting, you feel like you’re really part of what’s going on on stage. I told the players, just let the hall carry the sound.”
There was no doubt that Hangen was going to test the venue to its limits on opening night. He chose pieces that represented five centuries of music and a refreshing variety of styles.
The program opened with Richard Strauss’s Don Juan, a raucous, romantic piece that gave the 80-piece orchestra an opportunity to fill the new hall with a dynamic and expressive sound that quickly fulfilled the promise of its acoustic superiority. Audience members, wide-eyed, mouthed “Wow” to their companions.
The Mozart Divertimento that followed was originally written for a string quartet but it was played beautifully and melodically on this night by a chamber orchestra.
When Hangen introduced the next piece, Gabrielli’s Canzona, written in 1584, he explained that there were no orchestras at that time and the innovative composer placed several brass choirs at various points inside the churches in which it was performed. Onstage with Hangen were just four brass players, but offstage, in the balcony overlooking the audience, were two more brass choirs on opposite sides of the hall. The result was a stunning performance of interwoven rounds that echoed back and forth above the audience. “This is something we had never been able to do in the past,” Hangen said.
After intermission, Hangen really let loose. He introduced Tan Dun’s Passacaglia: Secret of Wind and Birds, and noted that Dun was the only living composer on the bill that night. Incorporating Asian and Western techniques, the piece crossed oceans and boundaries, with orchestra members whispering, snapping their fingers, and even playing their cellphones at various points in the unique piece. The ovation at its conclusion was loud and sustained.
It all dovetailed perfectly with Respighi’s Pines of Rome, a piece written in 1924, with its famed grand ending that nearly blew the roof off the hall and spawned an immediate, lengthy, and much deserved standing ovation.
Hangen clearly intended the program to highlight the orchestra. For the players, many of whom are part of the Boston Pops, orchestras in Providence and Portland, Maine, and other ensembles, “this is one huge door being opened for us,” the conductor said. Indeed, the doors that opened on Saturday night are likely to remain open for a long time to come.
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.