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Palm Beach Unveils First-Rate Arts Center

The $51 million complex boasts an acoustically impeccable concert hall, playhouse, and outdoor amphitheater

SOCIETY and the arts do not always go hand in hand. Witness the scene in Palm Beach, winter playland of the wealthy and socially connected: For years, the concert hall in this mecca of affluence was a section of a sports arena, with the seating area cordoned off by heavy velvet curtains. It was an insulting venue for opera and symphony concerts, laughingly referred to as the leaky tepee, yet it remained the place to go to hear music for too many years.

Palm Beach has finally made amends in a conspicuous and dramatic way with the $51 million Raymond F. Kravis Center for the Performing Arts - an architecturally handsome, acoustically marvelous building that affords an important new home for many area institutions. It includes the 2,200-seat Dreyfoos Concert Hall, the [as yet unfinished] 300-seat Rinker Playhouse, and the outdoor Gosman Amphitheater, which can accommodate 2,300. The center should also serve as a catalyst for redevelopment of the rundown a rea of West Palm Beach in which it sits.

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Originally, the center was going to be on the Lake Worth campus of the Palm Beach Community College. It was finally moved to West Palm for various considerations. Executive Director Judith Shepherd notes that "most people feel it was probably the wisest decision in the history of the project, and that it really was a catalyst for everything else."

The city of West Palm had not finished the major road that passes in front of the hall in time for the Gala Grand Opening Celebration (Nov. 2 to Dec. 6), even though the Kravis has been in active "previews" since September. A nearby plot of land that was to have been developed into a shopping mall is in bankruptcy limbo. The adjacent bandshell is still in need of acoustical fine-tuning. For now, the Kravis presides over its neighborhood like a proud pioneer. Architect Eberhard Zeidler's attractive, open- looking glass, metal, and concrete structure echoes south Florida architecture, right up to the twin towers that mirror those on the historic Breakers on Palm Beach itself.The building seems to invite any and all into its peaceful interior.

Once inside, the patron is greeted by large staircases and ample lobby spaces that make for comfortable conversations at intermission times. Dreyfoos Concert Hall is an art-deco showcase of reds, golds, and ivories. Its three tiers are anchored by floor-to-ceiling columns crowned with golden light fixtures that resemble gigantic ceremonial torches.

Because the theater is multipurpose, its seating is traditional, with modified horseshoe balconies and excellent sightlines. And unlike some newer halls, the appointments do not cheapen the closer you get to the top tier: The last row of the uppermost balcony is as comfortable as the 10th row in the orchestra.

Robert Essert, the Artec company acoustician for the Kravis Center, has created an adaptable acoustical environment that relies on chambers overhead, much the way Artec's president, Russell Johnson, did for the sensational Meyerson Hall in Dallas.

Mr. Johnson was here for the opening week, and in a brief conversation noted that "it is more of a challenge to be working on a facility that must house opera, symphony, ballet, musical comedy, popular music. And not only is it more difficult, but at the end of the line, you usually don't end up with ... a near-ideal acoustical environment for symphony, or a near-ideal for opera. But you have to remember: our standards are very high, and you have to factor all that together."

Johnson need not have worried. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concert I heard during the official opening week proved the hall to be fundamentally remarkable. For orchestral programs, the ensemble plays on the elevated orchestra pit, in front of the proscenium arch. The permanent canopy vanes overhead deflect the sound into the auditorium, and behind the orchestra are a series of architectural columns that act as a kind of acoustical shell.

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The backstage housing acts as a reverberation chamber to give the hall a strong sense of presence and tonal decay. (The overhead reverberation chamber hidden behind a mesh dome will be closed for orchestra concerts but open for operatic and other musical and theatrical events.) Symphonic textures are as clear as the conductor chooses to make them, and the only small problem I could detect from my seat in about mid-orchestra, was the hint of a retort off the back walls in sharp repeated-chord passages. Ha lls take time to settle, and Johnson notes that it will take at least a season to fine-tune the hall. (He monitored the Meyerson Hall for nearly 18 months after the opening.)

The hall is full of high-tech features to aid in changing the acoustical properties, such as motorized sound-absorptive panels that unfold to cover all the back and side walls of each tier. These were particularly useful for the "Evening with Ella Fitzgerald," which was amplified and needed the sound-dampening qualities the panels afforded. The proscenium can be made large or small, tall or short, with movable portals - burgundy-colored panels decorated with gold and silver, but with the edges faced in w hat looks like industrial yellow-and-black-striped warning tape you can buy in hardware stores.

This was one of the few openings I have attended where the hall was really finished. The glitches were few and fixable - such as ushers talking to patrons and to each other, and concertgoers engaging in spontaneous conversation, throughout a performance!

The Ella Fitzgerald concert was marred by poor stage management: The curtain came down on her in mid-sentence to summarily end the first half. As she was finishing her last song of the evening, it was dropped for good, the houselights were turned fully up, and Miss Fitzgerald, who was cheated out of her well-deserved ovation, had to thank the exiting patrons over the public-address system.

Ms. Shepherd is justifiably proud of the Kravis Center and its potential to attract more cultural events into the area.

"We have an extraordinary number of arts-presenting production organizations: We've got Ballet Florida, Miami City Ballet, the Florida Philharmonic, the Palm Beach Opera, Regional Arts - Clyde Fyfe's extraordinarily successful classical music series - and then there's the Broadway series, all renting from us.... Plus we are a major presenter. And then we have a number of smaller groups desperate to get a date because they believe that presenting their work in the Kravis Center will provide a better showc ase to help them develop audiences...," she says.

"There is certainly a degree of territorial concern [among local arts groups] that the great big old Kravis Center doesn't come in and absorb everybody and suck up all the donor bases and all those kinds of things. We're very sensitive to that. We're very mindful of that, and we try to reflect that concern in our programming and in our making the hall available to them," Shepherd says.

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