Western New York Heritage

Kleinhans Music Hall and the BPO: A Story in Stereo

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Kleinhans Music Hall celebrated its opening night on October 12, 1940. This stunning image of the Hall appeared on the cover of the dedication booklet.

Courtesy Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra

Pride in Greater Buffalo derives largely from the achievements of our major institutions, especially in education, healthcare and the arts. The usual suspects come quickly to mind — the University at Buffalo and Canisius, Roswell Park Cancer Institute, Buffalo General and Millard Fillmore hospitals, the Albright-Knox and Burchfield Penney Art Center, and the BPO and Kleinhans, among significant others. Each has a big story to tell, and the mutual heritage of the BPO and Kleinhans is best told in stereo.

It all began back in 1827, when James D. Sheppard filled a big need by opening Buffalo’s first music store, which ultimately became Denton, Cottier and Daniels. From that time, Buffalo’s population grew exponentially to more than 350,000 by the turn of the century, becoming the eighth largest American city. By far, the greatest influx came from Italy, Germany and Poland, and these new Americans arrived with their musical traditions intact.

By the mid-1800s, Buffalo was on the tour schedules of many fine artists, including the Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lind, and piano virtuoso Hans von Bülow, also known as Richard Wagner’s greatest maestro. The city was also visited by the Theodore Thomas Orchestra and the U.S. Marine Band under John Philip Sousa, and later by the Pittsburgh Symphony under Victor Herbert.

As for Buffalo’s own self-brewed music, apart from amateur ensembles of every variety — dance bands, banjo bands, and community and church choirs — large singing societies sprung up in our local German and Polish communities. At the same time, Buffalo needed a suitable concert stage, or rather, an opera house that also served as a venue for orchestras. The very first concert hall in Buffalo was the Eagle Street Theater, built in 1840 at Washington and Eagle streets, followed by the Academy of Music in 1852 at Main near Seneca and the Opera House at Main and Washington in 1862. At Edward and Main, the large Music Hall made its debut in 1883, but had to be rebuilt and reopened in 1887 after a devastating fire.

Through the late 1800s, Buffalo’s visiting artists and orchestras gave wings to the idea that the city should have its own professional orchestra. By then, New York City, Boston, Philadelphia and Cincinnatti had each established a fine orchestra to bring the world’s greatest music to life in their communities. Locally, sincere efforts were made to test the waters, as diverse symphonic ensembles began to appear with names like Buffalo Symphony Orchestra, Buffalo Civic Orchestra and even the Beethoven Philharmonic Orchestra.

Until about 1934, all the musicians for those orchestras were hired on a freelance basis by various presenters and conductors. Many of those same players later found themselves on stage for the official debut of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra at Elmwood Music Hall on November 7, 1935. On the podium that fine Thursday evening was the BPO’s first music director, Lajos Shuk, who began the concert with Beethoven’s heroic “Egmont Overture.”

The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, as it appeared during its inaugural season, 1935-36, with Maestro Lajos Shuk conducting.

Courtesy Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra

For Buffalo and the country at large, it was a propitious time, though full of hazard. While the United States worked its way out of the Great Depression, war machines made ready to the East across the Atlantic and to West across the Pacific. The era was also marked by the inception of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, intended to stimulate the economy through several federal work programs like the Works Progress Administration. After the BPO’s successful first year, the WPA provided the orchestra limited, but significant, funding from fall 1936 through the spring of 1938. In addition, the WPA gave supplemental funds for the construction of Kleinhans Music Hall. Still, we should make clear that the BPO was conceived and initiated entirely at the local level, and not born of the WPA.

After its opening night, the BPO did not skip a beat in its effort to bring great music to young and old alike. Within weeks, Maestro Shuk directed the BPO’s first youth concert on December 17, 1935 for the Buffalo Public Schools, also performed at Elmwood Music Hall. The Hall itself, however, was in tenuous shape, to put it mildly.

Elmwood Music Hall, at the corner of Virginia Street and Elmwood Avenue, was a multi-purpose facility, hosting everything from concerts to sporting events. Built in 1885, it served as the city’s primary concert venue for more than 40 years.

Courtesy Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra

Buffalo's Crying Need

For the Pan-American Exposition of 1901, a marvelous, but temporary, concert hall was built not far from the present-day Albright-Knox Art Gallery, known as the Temple of Music. Though it was razed as scheduled after the exposition ended, memories of the Temple of Music still lingered and set the tone for dreams to come of a new concert hall.

At that time, the only permanent concert venue in the city was a multi-task arena known as the Convention Hall, originally built in 1885 as an armory at the intersection of Elmwood Avenue and Virginia Street. The spacious building was converted into Buffalo’s Convention Hall around 1900 and served as the city’s primary auditorium for orchestral music for nearly 40 years. The Hall was hardly pretty, but had a spacious stage, a modest balcony and an open main floor that accommodated about 1,800 patrons on moveable wooden chairs. However, the yellow-brick edifice, later known as Elmwood Music Hall, also had a not-so-secret other life: It hosted almost any kind of indoor event, including professional boxing matches and college basketball games. There were also practical problems, the most critical of which was the loud rumble of passing electric trolleys. Indeed, when the great Enrico Caruso performed on May 8, 1908, he became indignant and threatened to walk out in the middle of an aria.

This interior view of Elmwood Music Hall, taken during a summer concert ca. 1932, shows the building’s robust construction, including open ceiling joists above the stage.

Courtesy Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra

Despite such limitations, Elmwood Music Hall hosted Buffalo’s start-up orchestras as well as several world-class ensembles, including the New York Philharmonic under Gustav Mahler and the La Scala Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini. At the same time, Buffalo strained to welcome touring recitalists, including Maurice Ravel, who performed in the ballroom of the Statler Hilton Hotel. Clearly, the need for an appropriate concert venue was compelling.

Just four years after the Pan-Am Exposition, the Buffalo Express recognized the strong message delivered by the Temple of Music’s brief tenure. In a long article on September 2, 1905, titled “Buffalo’s Crying Need for a Hall,” the Express noted, “Liberal patrons of the arts have been talking of erecting a Hall which should be a fit ‘temple of music’ — a consummation so devoutly to be wished.” The dreamers of that era would have been heartbroken to know that a great local shrine to music would not be consummated for another 35 years. And as each new effort emerged to establish a professional orchestra in Buffalo, the lack of a fine concert hall was restated and rephrased in many news articles and concert reviews — lots of talk, lots of ink, but few results. Finally, it was a man from Michigan, Edward L. Kleinhans — a successful menswear entrepreneur, who established the Kleinhans Men’s Store at Main and Lafayette — and his wife Mary Seaton, who together gave their life savings to erect a new concert hall in Buffalo.

In 1893, Edward Kleinhans (left) opened a high-end men’s clothing store in Buffalo with his brother Horace. Upon his death in 1934, he and his wife Mary Seaton (right) left their life savings for the construction of a new music hall in Buffalo.

Courtesy Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra

The Kleinhans Gift

Vital to the Kleinhans’ bequest were a small group of community leaders of exemplary dedication and perseverance. Some, like Edward H. Letchworth, were already distinguished by years of civic leadership, while others were new to the scene, including young Cameron Baird, who was a key player in the BPO’s establishment as well. In fact, Baird was named chairman of the Kleinhans Committee.

The Kleinhans entrusted the money for the construction of a music hall to the Buffalo Foundation, managed by civic leader Edward H. Letchworth (left). The Kleinhans Committee was headed by Cameron Baird (right).

Courtesy Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra

From the moment the Kleinhans’ gift became known around town, they had the foresight to entrust their combined estates to the Buffalo Foundation, which Letchworth scrupulously managed. The program book from the night Kleinhans Music Hall was dedicated on October 12, 1940 contains a letter Letchworth wrote, summarizing the Hall’s funding, from the Kleinhans bequest through its first year of operation. According to Letchworth, the Kleinhans estate left just over $750,000 for the initial design and construction, while the federal government contributed about $583,000.

 Far more revealing is the 39-page historic account of civic and bureaucratic “red tape” Letchworth encountered just before the Hall was completed: To say that Letchworth and his associates were heroic in patience and perseverance would be an understatement. Among many salient points in the letter, Letchworth quotes from Edward Kleinhans’ will: “I direct that the corpus thereof be used to build and erect a suitable music hall in the City of Buffalo, New York, to be known as ‘The Kleinhans Music Hall’ in memory of my beloved mother and wife, which at such time as shall be deemed proper and suitable, shall be turned over to the City of Buffalo, New York. Such music hall shall be for the use, enjoyment and benefit of the People of the City of Buffalo.”

The Kleinhans’ bequest contained not a word about a favored location in the city, nor is there even a hint as to what architectural style might be preferred. Both issues generated intense debate and rivalry as the project emerged. Moreover, knowledge that WPA funds would supplement the Kleinhans’ gift added a big dose of politics to the equation. And, to make matters worse, the project became more urgent when the city condemned the stalwart Elmwood Music Hall in February 1938.

Undaunted, the Buffalo Foundation performed minor miracles almost every day. First, it reduced 26 possible hall locations to 13, and finally to just three, including Humboldt Park near the Museum of Science and Delaware Park near the Rose Garden. Finally, after much ado, the group decided to erect the new hall at “The Circle” at the intersection of Richmond Avenue and North Street, known appropriately today as Symphony Circle. At the time, the site was occupied by the Avery Mansion, which was purchased and razed by the city.

The site chosen for the construction of Kleinhans Music Hall was located on “The Circle” and occupied by the Avery Mansion. In 1938, the heirs to the estate of Mrs. Truman Avery offered the mansion to the city, and it was razed to make room for the new hall.

Western New York Heritage

Afterwards, the challenge became agreeing on the practical function and style of the new hall and finding an architect to design it. The latter became a briar patch of thorny opinions Letchworth described in detail. “Our subsequent employment of Saarinen and acceptance of his beautiful design for the Hall would never have occurred except for the vision and persistence of Esther Link,” he commented. A music teacher at Hutchinson-Central High School, Link served on the advisory panel for the planning of Kleinhans. Realizing there were strong reservations about the Greco-Roman design styles under consideration, she convinced Letchworth and the planning committee to consider the modern and elegant work of Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen. “I knew that any design Saarinen would give us would be in a different class from any of those which had been submitted to us,” Letchworth noted. “We are often asked why we did not adopt a classic Greek style of architecture, like the Albright Art Gallery and the Historical Society building. Saarinen himself replied, with a twinkle, ‘Because we are not Greeks.’”

In addition to the main auditorium, the Buffalo Foundation decided that the grand design should also comprise a separate large recital hall (the 800-seat Mary Seaton Room) and a smaller recital room, spacious enough to function as a rehearsal room (the 150-seat Mary Livingston Room). Moreover, the proscenium of the large concert stage would function as a theater pit, to be lowered or elevated as needed by electric power. Saarinen also suggested a contoured reflecting pool, adding a sense of natural serenity to the site overall.

Eliel Saarinen, designer of Kleinhans Music Hall (left), chats with the great Serge Koussevitzky, ca. 1941, during Koussevitzky’s tenure as conductor of the Boston Symphony. Koussevitzky opined that Kleinhans Music Hall was “the dream of a lifetime — perfect and complete.”

Courtesy Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra

Chronology can seem surreal at times: Saarinen was commissioned to draw up plans for a new concert hall on October 19, 1938 — two days after the formal groundbreaking for Kleinhans Music Hall. But Saarinen worked quickly and the cornerstone was laid on September 12, 1939, positioned at the northeast corner of the Hall and clearly engraved, “The Kleinhans Music Hall 1939.” Letchworth and about a hundred hearty citizens attended the event in a pouring rain. A few short years after the Hall was dedicated, Polish and Italian community groups expressed their pride by erecting sculpted monuments of Frederic Chopin and Giuseppe Verdi on the grounds adjacent to the reflecting pool, east and north of the cornerstone, respectively.

A Vintage Venue, Par Excellence

Following a cue from Saarinen, Kleinhans Music Hall may be appreciated as a musical instrument unto its own. Of particular importance is the overall form of Kleinhans, emulating the fan-shaped proportions of amphitheaters from Greek and Roman antiquity. There are just two other general shapes on which most concert halls and theaters are conceived: the rectangular “shoebox” and the cylindrical “oatmeal box,” most often with a horseshoe floor plan. Saarinen revealed both savvy and courage in his design choice for the main auditorium in Kleinhans because, at the time, there was not a single celebrated example of the fan-shaped design at any major concert venue in the world. By contrast, successful shoebox or oatmeal-box designs were everywhere. Fine examples of the shoebox style include Vienna’s Musikverein and many larger copies, including Boston’s Symphony Hall. (The BPO has performed at both venues.) The oatmeal-box style is found in many opera houses, like La Scala in Milan, and concert halls, the most famous of which is Carnegie Hall in New York City, where the BPO has performed 22 concerts.

This plan view of Kleinhans Music Hall clearly shows the fan-shaped design of the main floor, with the stage and pit — or proscenium — that can be raised or lowered as desired.

Courtesy Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra

An architect’s model of the Hall, showing the Mary Seaton Room and reflecting pool (left) as well as the larger main auditorium.

Courtesy Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra

Beyond the formative design, it was simply a leap of faith when Saarinen decided to integrate the curved proportions of a violin into his architectural plan for Kleinhans. “The shape of the violin has derived from its own function as a musical instrument,” Saarinen wrote in an essay on the Hall’s construction. “As a concert auditorium in its inmost nature is a musical instrument, its formation must derive accordingly. The shape and character of the main auditorium were conceived as a ‘musical instrument’ where the solution had to grow from within in accord with the demands, both spiritual and practical, of such an instrument.”

Concert hall design has always been a paradoxical science. Although the fundamentals of auditorium acoustics have been understood for centuries, getting the parameters just right remains a game of chance — not quite a roll of the dice, but close. Despite the best efforts of modern science, we still don’t know how a hall will sound until opening night. In that regard, we admire Saarinen's poetic gambit to blend antiquity with the lyrical curves of the violin as the primary element of his design.

The metaphor of a “vintage music hall” might best describe the very real science behind Kleinhans’ phenomenal acoustics. When musicians describe the sound of a particular concert hall, a curious jargon emerges, as if the subject were about wine — words like body, richness, color, bouquet, lively, sweet, dry, robust, mellow and so on. There are even legends, like the story of La Scala in Milan, where workers there believed in 1778 that the broken wine bottles they mixed into the concrete gave the great opera house its warm, mellow sound.

To achieve the desired tonal ambiance or flavor of a concert hall, designers lose sleep over just three elements of sound propagation:

1. Reflection and diffusion — uniformity of sound throughout the hall

2. Reverberation — the persistence of sound, measured in seconds

3. Absorption — how well sound maintains with or without an audience

 By convenient analogy, wine makers likewise are concerned with just three natural elements as they hope for a “vintage” year — sunshine, rain and temperature. And whether the objective is a vintage harvest or a vintage hall, timing is everything. In both instances, what happens exactly when brings the final result.

Finally, in terms of size, Kleinhans ranks among the largest concert halls in the world, with 1,575 seats on the main floor and 1,264 in the balcony, for a total capacity of 2,839 people. By comparison, Cleveland’s Severance Hall seats 1,890 while Vienna’s Musikverein accommodates just 1,680.

Never have I performed in such a beautiful auditorium.”  — Sergei  Rachmaninoff

Courtesy Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra

The Budding BPO

As the BPO and Kleinhans Music Hall developed in stereo, plans for this new concert hall provided a big lift to the musicians and board of directors during the orchestra’s first two seasons. The reality was doubly highlighted when it became known that the new hall would also serve as the BPO’s permanent home — complete with a locker for each player!

Since the dedication of Kleinhans, both the Hall and the BPO have shared a creative relationship that has been mutually invaluable. The mere presence of Kleinhans Music Hall, for example, helped the BPO survive three or four acute financial crises during its 76 years of artistic life. At those rather dire intervals, the fact that Buffalo’s beautiful shrine for music might go silent and dark had a rallying effect for the orchestra's dedicated supporters — patrons, political leaders and musicians alike — who locked arms and found ways to ensure that the heart of Kleinhans continued to beat with the sound of great music.

With superb acoustics to the fore, Kleinhans has been an ideal home for the BPO and its audiences. From within Kleinhans’ embracing walls the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra has performed more than a thousand education and youth concerts, and hundreds of Pops programs as a showcase for dance, Broadway musicals, film music and rock ‘n’ roll. Moreover, the Kleinhans stage has hosted more than 2,600 BPO Classics concerts, featuring hundreds of the finest performers in the world. Beyond live concerts, Kleinhans provides a fine environment for broadcasts and recorded music, adding its unique “singing silence” to the timbres of the BPO. The vibrant blend can be heard even in recordings of the orchestra’s NBC radio network broadcasts from the 1940s, currently preserved in the Library of Congress. The orchestra has released albums on such record labels as Naxos, SONY, Nonesuch, Turnabout-Vox, Columbia and Beau Fleuve. The BPO even recorded the soundtrack for the 1979 Woody Allen film Manhattan, featuring the music of George Gershwin, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. In 2008, the BPO was awarded its first two Grammy Awards for its release of John Corigliano’s Mr. Tambourine Man, conducted by music director JoAnn Falletta.

An elevated view of Kleinhans Music Hall, ca. 1941, taken from the spire of the nearby First Presbyterian Church.

Courtesy buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra

I have always said that sitting in Kleinhans is like sitting in the body of a beautiful cello — one is embraced and enveloped from every direction by gorgeous sound. The BPO has developed its extraordinary warm and generous sound from having the privilege of playing on this stage every day.” — JoAnn Falletta

Courtesy Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra

Kleinhans Music Hall was recognized as a National Historic Landmark in 1989. The basic construction of the Hall is outstanding, erected with the highest quality materials and techniques. One can tour the catacombs under the stage and auditorium to find immense concrete pillars that look like they were poured last week — no sandy flaking, cracks or water evidence, simply superb. Like the gothic cathedrals designed 900 years ago, if we are vigilant about maintenance, Kleinhans Music Hall will stand for a very long time as the home of a great orchestra in a great community.

Kleinhans Music Hall under construction, as it appeared in late October 1939, looking towards the stage. Note that the bases for the seats have already been installed. Bordering this image are the ten individuals who have acted as music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra since its inception.  Surrounding the photo are the maestros of the Buffalo Philharmonic, along with the dates of their service.

Courtesy Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and University at Buffalo

The full content is available in the Spring 2012 Issue.