Philip Lewis,
Artistic Director


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CMI in the Dallas Morning News: Eisemann stage is set for success ... Arts groups cheer center for boosting image and income

July 20, 2003...By SCOTT CANTRELL, The Dallas Morning News

Ten months after it opened, the Charles W. Eisemann Center for Performing Arts and Corporate Presentations is getting sustained applause from arts groups appearing there. Their leaders say the Richardson complex has given them better facilities, improved images and increased ticket sales.

The Plano Symphony Orchestra sold 63 percent more tickets for its two Eisemann Center concerts last season than for two concerts at its old home, Fellowship Bible Church North in Plano. Chamber Music International went from selling about 400 tickets per concert at St. Barnabas Presbyterian Church in Richardson to between 500 and 650 at the Eisemann.

And Bruce MacPherson, the Eisemann's managing director, considers it a real success that the city of Richardson will have to subsidize the facility's first season to the tune of only $1 million.

By general agreement, appearing in a sleek, modernist facility designed especially for the performing arts, as opposed to makeshift arrangements in churches and a high school auditorium, has done a lot to raise profiles and self-esteem.

"We have lost the stigma of performing in a high school auditorium," says Carol Reim, director of marketing for the Richardson Symphony Orchestra, which moved to the Eisemann after 40 years at Richardson High School. "It gives us more of an aura as a performing arts organization.

"Our patrons are happy to bring people to the Eisemann Center. It instills a pride in the city of Richardson and in the orchestra as well."

Anita Schmidt, general manager of Chamber Music International, says the new setting is drawing new audiences.

"It's brought new people who may be curious about the Eisemann Center to come see our concerts, and they're coming back. At our last concert a lot more people bought preseason tickets than in the past."

The Plano Symphony had to swallow some local pride to move to a Richardson facility. But after presenting two concerts last season at the Eisemann, the orchestra is moving all six of its classical orchestral concerts there starting this fall.

The Plano Symphony had to move somewhere, though. Its former home, Fellowship Bible Church North, had an increasingly busy schedule of its own and couldn't spare the dates the orchestra needed.

Alice Hobbs, executive director of the Plano Symphony Orchestra, credits the Eisemann Center's eponym, a Richardson businessman who made a $2 million donation to the complex, with smoothing the way.

"Charles Eisemann personally extended a welcome for us to come down there," she says. "I think that helped us overcome any uncomfortable feelings about moving to Richardson.

"And Mr. Eisemann invited all of us to apply to his family foundation to receive money to help with the added expenses. So for each of the next two years we'll be receiving $2,000."

Moving to the Eisemann has raised costs for virtually all the groups. Ms. Hobbs said renting the Eisemann costs about three times what the Plano Symphony was paying at the church. The Richardson Symphony raised ticket prices "substantially," according to Ms. Reim, to cover the higher costs. But both Ms. Hobbs and Ms. Schmidt say additional ticket sales have covered much of the added expense.

For virtually everyone, the Eisemann represents an improvement on physical arrangements in their previous homes. The huge stage in the Eisemann's 1,550-seat Hill Performance Hall gives orchestras far more elbow room than they had in either a church chancel or a high school auditorium. Dancers of the Chamberlain Ballet have more space than they had at Southern Methodist University's McFarlin Auditorium.

"We like choreography that is very large and expansive," says Kathy Chamberlain, the company's artistic director. "Given the additional space, it was very joyful for the dancers to get out there and perform."

And, with one reservation, the fan-shaped Hill Hall has great sightlines. No seat is more than 90 feet from the stage.

"I think it's one of the very nicest spaces in the area for dance," Ms Chamberlain says. "If the Eisemann was really brilliant, they would really showcase that as a place to go see dance. They had Paul Taylor's company there last year, and it looked fabulous."

Hill Hall's acoustics, designed by Dallas-based PMK Consultants, get more mixed reviews. That's not surprising for a multi-use facility whose acoustical adjustability is limited to reconfiguring the stage shell.

For orchestral music, in particular, the room lacks the sonic richness of either Dallas' Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center or Fort Worth's Bass Performance Hall. Even for chamber music, the Mesquite Arts Center has far livelier sound.

"I think they're wonderful," Phillip Lewis, artistic director of Chamber Music International, says of the acoustics. But not perfect, at least not yet.

"We've been working with the shell at different levels, different distances from the front of the stage, to try to find an ideal place to put it. We're advancing fairly well with that."

Anshel Brusilow, music director of the Richardson Symphony, says, "I like the overall sound of the orchestra now, as opposed to the way it was previously. It's taken us a while to get used to playing there. But I don't know of any bad places in the hall."

The Eisemann is working to correct one design flaw that virtually everyone discovered in the opening weeks: view-obstructing railings on stair landings in the balcony.

"We're demolishing and reconstructing those three stair units," says Bruce MacPherson, the Eisemann's managing director. "All those railings will come down a good 16 inches. It doesn't eliminate all the sightlines issues – what hall doesn't have some? – but it improves the view for almost two thirds of the seats that had problems."

Physical glitches apart, a priority for the future will be increasing the center's income and lowering the operating subsidy from the city of Richardson. Mr. MacPherson says the five-year plan is to cut the subsidy, around $1 million for the first year, to about $400,000.

"They realize that you don't achieve that in year one," he says of the city government. "For the first year, I think we've done real well.

"Come the end of September, we will easily be well over 400 events for the first year ... Somewhere around 150,000 people will have come through the doors. That's not bad for year one.

"From that we'll make adjustments to improve upon what we have. That's just laying a foundation, and we'll build off that. I expect year two and year three to be growth years."
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