By William Shannon & Sarah Imboden
Bard College is cheerfully celebrating a decade of delight in its performing arts center, designed by one of the world’s most famous architects.
The Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, which took four years and $62 million to build, has been a staple on the northern end of campus since it opened in April 2003. It is named for the former chairman emeritus of the Bard College Board of Trustees.
For the most part, architectural critics have been charmed by architect Frank Gehry’s whimsical steel canopied exterior. And musical design critics have been mostly impressed by the interior acoustics, done by acoustics designer Yasuhisa Toyota.
In April, Bard kicked off the 10th anniversary celebration with a month-long series of events featuring the art forms that the center was designed to showcase: theater, music, and dance. The American Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Bard President Leon Botstein, as well as the Conservatory Orchestra, which he began six years ago, have become fixtures at the Fisher Center and were featured in the performances, as were student and faculty groups.
“Ten years ago, through the vision of the late Richard B. Fisher, Bard College opened a performing arts center designed to make a difference both to the Hudson Valley and to the role the arts play in our society,” Botstein said in a release announcing the celebration. “Bard is proud of all that has developed in the Fisher Center over the past decade.”
Botstein also recognized the center’s role in fulfilling Bard’s teaching mission, noting that it “acts as an incubator for performing artists both young and established, giving them a home in which to create, and giving audiences a rare opportunity to witness the birth of many extraordinary works.”
Bard continued its 10th anniversary festivities with a gala on July 20 titled “Celebrate the Sensational!” The event included cocktails and dinner from the well-known New York City restaurant Daniel and a special performance in the Sosnoff Theater that included actor David Strathairn, singer Roberta Flack, a duo from the Bard Conservatory, an excerpt of the 2013 SummerScape opera “Oresteia,” and an appearance by Frank Gehry himself.
Eleanor Davis, Bard’s media and marketing manager, said the center has helped start a trend in the area.
“The Hudson Valley is growing as a cultural destination in general, with more small theater companies and things cropping up, and I think it’s good for all of us,” she said during an interview and walking tour through the Fisher Center in February. “I think all these audiences help each other, like a rising tide lifts all boats.”
The complex of performance and rehearsal space, including the two theaters and two dance studios, is 107,612 square feet in all and is equipped with geothermal heating. On the outside, the large roof is a canopy of brushed stainless steel panels—chosen for the way they reflect the sky and surrounding scenery. The curvaceous canopy is attached to the building by steel girders visible from inside the main lobby.
The center piece of the center is the 900-seat Sosnoff Theater, where Elvis Costello, Natalie Merchant and the Carolina Chocolate Drops, among others, have appeared and where the American Symphony Orchestra and Bard College Conservatory perform regularly.
The interior walls are concrete, the ceilings high and wooden with the 80-foot-by-40-foot stage framed overhead by a removable sound shell, all designed by Toyota and Gehry for acoustic reflection. An orchestra section, parterre, two balcony sections, and an orchestra pit complete the venue.
In a move Gehry used to incorporate Bard history into the design, the names of members of the Bard Class of 2003 are woven into the theater’s seats.
Another smaller theater, called Theater Two, is a black box theater designed as a more flexible performance space for dance and drama productions. It seats an audience of approximately 300 on movable platforms that allow for a variety of stage configurations.
Two dance studios are also housed within the center: the Felicitas S. Thorne Dance Studio, which, according to Bard’s history of the Fisher Center, is “a soaring, light-filled space in which students take class and attend workshops,” and an additional rehearsal studio. Both spaces are equipped to handle “full-scale” production rehearsals, complete with lighting grids, so that performers can work out most of the technicalities of a performance.
Together, the studios provide a home for Bard’s dance, theater, and performance programs. And Davis said the two state-of-the-art theaters and Gehry’s unique design has been a selling point in attracting talented students in recent years. The theater and dance programs at the college have grown over the past decade, she added, and, about six years ago, the Bard Conservatory of Music, led by Botstein, was formed.
Those programs have helped entice high-level artists to study at the Annandale-on-Hudson center, Davis said. “The Fisher Center has been a big part in that,” she added. “We recruit kids from all around the world—these are people who go on to become professional musicians.”
The bulk of publically attended performances at the Fisher Center are held during the summer months, when Bard’s SummerScape, including the Bard Music Festival and Spiegeltent, gets underway. Davis said the crowds in the summer have been big for years, due largely to people from New York City attending on weekends. “But, increasingly, we have a big audience (at shows) all year round, and those are people who live here,” she added.
In its first decade, the Fisher Center has also grown into an international cultural destination. Large tour groups from Europe and Israel often book group tickets for performances at the center, Davis said.
Gehry, a Canadian-born architect, is widely recognized as the designer of some of the most notable works of architecture in the modern day. In an interview produced by Bard College in 2003, Gehry described the intent of the newly opened Fisher Center:
“It’s not a traditional theater building. It has a park-like setting. As you approach, you see the building glistening. It’s welcoming. Its scale is user-friendly and inviting. Its façade at the end of a meadow looks out onto an expanse of green that will stay green. Its entry canopy is not a marquee; it’s more like a covered porch, a place for visitors to mingle, to enjoy a sense of community inspired by the performing arts that the building celebrates.”
Davis told The Observer that it is common to find event attendees “mingling and enjoying the evening as [Gehry] predicted we would. I see a very similar scene at almost every performance, throughout most of the seasons and so I think in this regard, as well as all others, his vision for the space succeeded.”
For more information on the Fisher Center and SummerScape 2013, visit www.fishercenter.bard.edu or call 845-758-7900.