Music wants to be democratic; and the Kennedy Center wants to be all things to all people, while signaling a nod to grandeur. Its new Terrace Theater, unveiled this week after a 16-month renovation, manages to carry out this confusing mandate. Where once there was a dizzying descent along sharply raked stairs toward a narrow proscenium, there is now a feeling of spaciousness, with gleaming walls, undulating wood (mimicking the sound waves they reflect), wider aisles and curving balconies swelling from the side walls.
"We're 98 percent done," said Deborah Rutter, the Kennedy Center's president, standing in the lobby before the first Fortas Chamber concert in its new home, on Thursday night. How is the new space, with its flexibility — a proscenium that can be set up and removed with ease, acoustical curtains behind the paneling that can be drawn to absorb more sound for amplified performances — going to affect programming? "It hasn't yet," said Rutter; this season's events were planned while the hall was under construction. "But it will."
The prime mandate was "acoustics," says Leora Mirvish, the architect who supervised the Eisenhower Theater renovation in 2008 and now the new Terrace. Whatever its wider uses — the opening weekend featured rap and comedy performances — its main function remains acoustic music. Jenny Bilfield, president and chief executive of Washington Performing Arts, a frequent renter of the hall, finds that the new Terrace "feels more intimate, elegant, flexible, and has better sightlines and amenities for visitors." That steep descent or ascent to one's seat, though, is still a factor. "We're trying not to be the first casualty in the new Terrace Theater," quipped one woman helping an unsteady man navigate the stairs.
Concert halls are reopening all over the place. This weekend, the Freer and Sackler Galleries of the Smithsonian are reopening after an extensive renovation. Its new theater has undergone less a reconfiguration than a facelift, with new carpeting and upholstery, A/V technology, and theatrical lighting. Like the Terrace, the theater is multipurpose; Michael Wilpers, the museums' performing arts programmer, says there are no more than 20 live performances there a year.
The Terrace, by contrast, is one of the main small theaters in the city — and the Fortas series broke it in lovingly and at considerable length. Patrons got a jolt at the start with two trumpet fanfares (executed with aplomb and agility by Brandon Eubank and Amy McCabe) that demonstrated the hall can be almost too live. The program, called "2-4-6-8," was designed to show the hall in different configurations of instruments, from four-handed piano — Joseph Kalichstein and Lisa Emenheiser in enthusiastic Slavonic Dances by Dvorak — to the Mendelssohn Octet, with the Emerson and Dover Quartets representing the old and new guards of American chamber music. But the groupings weren't really varied enough — no winds, no voices — to put the hall fully through its paces, though they added up to almost three hours of energetic music.
In general, the space seems more warm and vivid, with a clarity — and good sightlines — from every corner of the room. It was easy to zero in on the details, from the ping of a broken E string from the Dover's violinist Joel Link in the Brahms G Minor Piano Quartet and the various bobbles of the Emerson's waning violinist Eugene Drucker, sounding a little sour in some romantic passages from Schoenberg's "Verklärte Nacht." None of this mitigated the goodwill in the room, or the impression that the new Terrace Theater remains the Kennedy Center's most pleasant.
Washington Performing Arts and the Fortas concerts will jointly present the Sphinx Virtuosi at the Terrace Theater on Sunday afternoon. The Freer and Sackler Galleries are celebrating their reopening with a festival of Asian food and cultures on Saturday and Sunday, including pop-up performances by members of the Silk Road ensemble; there will be one in the new auditorium on Sunday morning.