Paine’s Performance Potential Restored

Helen G Zhao

“Music on the executant side is a noisy art, and the University sorely needs a well-equipped special building where singers, scrapers and pluckers of strings, blowers on reed or brass, and pounders of drums may enjoy themselves, undisturbed and undisturbing.” So wrote Walter R. Spalding, Class of 1887, a music professor at Harvard in the early 20th century. That devotion to student musical performance continues in the Music Department—renovations were recently completed on Paine Music Hall, the department’s main concert space, to enable an increased emphasis on practice and performance.

The hall’s official reopening will be celebrated Friday with a concert by the Portland String Quartet. The quartet will play pieces by John Knowles Paine, a composer and music professor at Harvard in the 19th and 20th centuries and Paine Hall’s namesake. The hall has been in use since the start of the semester, as have the classrooms and offices that were renovated concurrently. The refurbished practice facilities, located in the basement of the building, have been open since the start of the fall term.

Ideally, the new hall will house rehearsals, performances by student and professional musical groups, music talks, and master classes. “As it should be, the concert hall is ultimately the heart of the Music Department, as a lab is the heart of a science department,” says Federico Cortese, the director of the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra.

When renovations began last May, the hall, built in 1914, was in need of an upgrade. It lacked air conditioning and so could barely be used during the summer; more critically, soundproofing was minimal. “My office is directly below the concert hall, and before the renovations, if there was a performance in the concert hall, I could hear it clearly in my office; if I was playing the piano or having singers in my office, it could be heard in the concert hall,” says Director of Choral Activities Andrew G. Clark. The problem of sound pollution meant that while the hall was in use, students were not allowed to use the practice rooms, which had low ceilings and were not air-conditioned.

The renovations consisted installing additional soundproofing, outfitting the practice rooms with a state-of-the-art recording system, adding a noiseless air conditioning system to the whole building, and enhancing the lighting. “You can’t see the physical differences in the hall itself so much, but it’s quiet and comfortable,” says Nancy B. Shafman, the Music Department’s Director of Administration, on a tour of the building with Interim Music Department Chair Anne C. Shreffler. “You can feel the difference,” Shreffler adds.

The practice rooms have been expanded, and two of the rooms include “virtual acoustic environments,” which allow students to experience the acoustics of a variety of performance spaces and to record their playing. Though there are two fewer rooms now, the new soundproofing makes up the difference by allowing for simultaneous use of the hall and the practice rooms, thus increasing the number of hours the rooms remain available in total.

Some student music groups have eagerly awaited the hall’s reopening because the space uniquely fit their sizes and performance styles. Jesse C. Wong ’12, music director of the Bach Society Orchestra, says Paine Hall accommodates the group perfectly because it is not as big as Sanders Theatre and provides a more intimate setting. “The orientation [of Paine Hall] is really nice—you can feel that there are a lot of people in the audience when we fill up the house,” Wong says. “I’m excited to see how the hall will sound when we have our [next] performance.” During the renovations, the group had to play in locations like Lowell Lecture Hall and Sanders Theatre. “Sanders is a great space but really too big for an orchestra of our size, and Lowell Lecture Hall was an interesting concert because it is also a very intimate space but is not really made for an orchestra,” Wong says.

For Clark, the difficulty of securing space for his choirs was exacerbated by what he views as a lack of available facilities. “There’s not exactly an overflow of free space on campus for arts and for performance,” Clark says. “It made a pretty tight and challenging situation even more challenging, but everyone from my perspective seemed to have a good attitude about it and knew that it was the best thing in the long run.”

In the Music Department, some feel the renovated facilities may improve the caliber of instruction and the competitiveness of the program. “It may impact our ability to recruit students with strong artistic performance backgrounds when they see that the music building is not just a historical relic but rather a place that communicates something more dynamic, something more fresh,” Clark says.

The renovations are also seen as part of a trend in the Music Department toward placing a greater value on practice and performance. The Music Department has no performance branch, and students cannot earn degrees in vocal or instrumental performance. However, Shreffler says, “The department’s emphasis has shifted to being more welcoming of performance or more convinced that performance is an integral part of our curriculum.” More and more courses, she says, incorporate student performance or bring in guest performers. “With this new-ish emphasis on performance, we need space, and this renovation made us able to use the space we have in a much more efficient way,” she says.

Cortese sees the renovation as a sign that Harvard’s approach to music is changing for the better. “I think this can be an important piece in having music, as in playing, and not just theory or musicology,” he says. “Anything that has to do with attention to practice, attention to performance, attention to music-making, I think, as a musician, is a step forward.”

—Staff writer Rebecca J. Mazur can be reached at