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Seattle Lights Up a Sound-sational New Hall

The Seattle Symphony's new $118 million home - Benaroya Hall - now glitters in the heart of downtown Seattle, serving as a testament to the city's commitment to the arts.

For visiting performers, the new hall, which opened in September, makes playing the city a rare acoustic and aesthetic treat. It also fills a need for the growing performing-arts community here. More than 250 performances are scheduled for the inaugural season.

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Built next to the Seattle Art Museum, Benaroya Hall has helped create a downtown arts hub. It is expected to lure more tourists and touring performers to the Northwest. "Seattle will be on the musical map in a way it hasn't before," says the city council president, Sue Donaldson.

Benaroya Hall features a 2,500-seat concert hall and an intimate 540-seat recital hall for solo artists and smaller ensembles. The symphony's season will be packed with more than 130 performances, a 34 percent increase from last season.

Founded in 1903, the symphony had been seeking a permanent home that would allow expansion. "The symphony, ballet, and opera all shared one location. It wasn't adequate enough to meet any group's needs," Ms. Donaldson explains. "[Now] everyone is richer for it."

Real estate developer and philanthropist Jack Benaroya and his wife donated $15 million in March 1993 to jump-start the quest for the new hall. The City of Seattle contributed $48.7 million.

When lit up on performance nights, Benaroya Hall has a striking appearance. Inside the auditorium, wood paneling creates a warm and luxurious ambiance. The long rectangular shoe-box-shaped design gives a grand and elegant feel to the hall.

"It's perfect for Seattle," says resident Michelle Taylor-Harr, who attended the opening celebration. "It's obviously large enough for many people, but it still feels like a little intimate theater."

Acoustically, the hall is a masterpiece. The design of the interior is impressive, with its high-quality acoustics. Designers protected the main auditorium from external noises by making it a hall within a hall. Inside, different-sized wood panels each resonate with a different frequency of sound.

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When concertgoers enter the main auditorium, they cross a nine-inch air gap, called the "sound lock," that serves to block out external noises, which can disturb performances and recordings. The hall also rests on 532 large rubber pads, eliminating vibrations and noises from a railroad tunnel below the site and a nearby bus tunnel.

The Boeing Company Gallery, a block-long, glass-enclosed arcade, provides a pre-lobby mingling area offering food, art exhibits - and a subway stop. The adjoining Garden of Remembrance features half an acre of greenery and flowers, as well as granite-wall memorials bearing the names of 8,000 Washington State citizens killed in wars.

Benaroya Hall is also distinguished by its accessibility. While many concert halls can be intimidating, Benaroya opens its doors to the public every day.

In fact, on the first day the hall offered tours, 400 people arrived in the first two hours to see downtown Seattle's new jewel.

Some 30,000 people celebrated Benaroya Hall's opening in September with two weeks of diverse festivities, including a gala with soprano Jessye Norman, an all-Mozart concert, children's concerts, and performances by cellist Yo-Yo Ma and Motown artist Gladys Knight. The string of events concluded with a daylong open house for the community to explore the new hall, something especially enjoyed by families.

Now that performing artists have a spectacular home, they can do their job of uniting people and bridging divisions in society even better, Donaldson says. "Our hope is that young people will be inspired by the music they hear," she says.

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