Diane Penning performed last month in West Michigan Symphony's The Block, giving patrons a more personal show than those offered in the main performance hall.
At the tail end of its 2012-2013 season, West Michigan Symphony opened its new performance space in the newly developed Russell Block building in downtown Muskegon at 360 W. Western Ave., where its offices also now are located.
Known as The Block, the new space will accommodate audiences of up to 148 people and will further highlight WMS’ Masterworks and Pops Series guest performers through solo performances. The Block held its first performance in June with pianist Alessio Bax, who performed works by Rachmaninoff and Mussorgsky.
“We ask all of our performers, ‘Tell us who you are, talk about the pieces of music that you are playing — anything you would want to share with us about that piece of music,’” said Carla Hill, WMS president and CEO. “When Alessio did that, it just worked so beautifully. People were charmed by him because he was so open and honest about himself and his music.”
Hill noted many audience members had attended one of Bax’s performances at the Frauenthal Center for Performing Arts that weekend and were able to enjoy a very different experience at The Block.
“That is what we are looking for — that intimacy,” Hill said. “Particularly, you see a guest artist and you think they are fabulous: Wouldn’t you like to see them do something else? Wouldn’t you like to see them in a solo performance? That is resonating with people.”
In addition to solo performances by Masterworks and Pops Series guest artists, The Block will offer concerts by other guest performers and by WMS musicians. For the 2013-2014 season, Hill said several WMS musicians will put together special performances in The Block space.
“Again, this is an opportunity to get to know our West Michigan Symphony musicians,” she said. “Sometimes it will be them with some of their colleagues who may not be with WMS. … People always love to get to know our musicians.”
The Block also will allow WMS to expand the types of performances and guest artists it brings to the lakeshore in the hope of reaching a broader audience and creating a complementary relationship between the two venues.
“Our vision is to bring music of all kinds to The Block — an intriguing, cross-pollinated mix of music that can be intimate or explosive, but always entertaining,” Hill said. “With the digital availability of music anytime and anywhere, we are trying to reach a more empowered customer who has a wide range of music interests.
“Our programming will reflect that, allowing us to present timpanists who perform on cardboard boxes and terra cotta pots, to klezmer-meets-Bollywood-with-a-splash-of-bluegrass, to jazz and Broadway-influenced cabaret performances.”
To market the new space, Hill said the first concert was billed, “Alessio. Piano. Oreos.” and additional concerts have been billed, “Cabaret. Diva. Meatballs.” and “Broadway. Soprano. Pizza.”
“We wanted to intrigue people, so we started this device where we added food as the third bullet point,” Hill said. “We set the food up in our office and we had people hanging out in our office and lobby eating pizza.”
An added benefit of offering food with The Block performances is that it gets audience members talking with each other in the hour prior to the performance so that, by the time the musician takes the stage, the audience members have become acquainted in a way that isn’t possible in a larger venue.
“It is achieving one of the other things that we wanted: an opportunity for our audience members to get comfortable in the space, instead of just coming in, sitting down and bam! There’s the concert,” Hill explained.
The Block is just one upgrade WMS has made in the past year. The organization also relocated its box office to the Russell Block building to increase convenience for patrons. Masterworks and Pops Series tickets can still be picked up at the Frauenthal box office on performance nights.
“It’s now open, functioning, and right at street level, so people can just park right outside the door, run in and get their tickets for a Block show or for any of our concerts at the Frauenthal,” Hill said.
Rather than standing at a box office window, ticket buyers can sit side-by-side with the ticket services manager, who provides views of the seating options. “It is kind of concierge service in ticketing. We want people to see the seats and know where they are going to sit,” Hill said.
The new location is conveniently situated between a new coffee shop and brewpub, which Hill hopes will create a synergistic energy in the building.
“If you come in to buy a ticket, you might say, ‘I’m going to get a cup of coffee,’ or the brew pub might be open and you can get their latest brew,” she said. “We are hoping that their customers will notice the ticket office and pick up literature that we will have available for all of our concert series. That kind of synergy between retail, I think, will be interesting for people to experience when they come in.”
Adjacent to The Block performance space is an outdoor deck that is still under construction; once completed, it will offer space for another 70 people.
In addition to concerts, WMS is making The Block available to businesses and the community for meetings and special events. Hill said the room has been equipped with a “smart cart” and projectors for business meetings.
“The space is available for rent, and we’ve already had some Christmas parties booked in here, a couple of business meetings, lunches, an open house for a law firm,” Hill explained. “We are starting to see some activity.”
With all the focus on The Block, Hill wants to highlight the quality of the WMS orchestra and the work of conductor Scott Speck. She promises an exciting season.
WMS will open its eight-concert season with “Cirque de la Symphonie” Sept. 27-28.
Block performances are listed on the WMS website and will be updated throughout the year as concerts are added.