Rockport’s musical heart beats anew

Innovative interior makes Shalin Liu concert hall sing

The setting sun bounces off the 330-seat Shalin Liu Performance Center, the new home of Rockport Music. The setting sun bounces off the 330-seat Shalin Liu Performance Center, the new home of Rockport Music. (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)
By Robert Campbell
Globe Correspondent / June 6, 2010

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ROCKPORT — The new Shalin Liu Performance Center here is one of the best public gathering spaces to appear in years in the Boston area. It manages to be unpretentious but at the same time dramatic. It’s the new home for the concerts sponsored by the organization known as Rockport Music.

That’s the interior hall. The building’s street facade, by contrast, is forgettable to say the least. Avoiding the tiniest glimmer of innovation or daring seems to have been goal of the town of Rockport. It’s an attitude so timid it’s scary.

But in a music hall, it’s the interior that matters. This one is a joy. There’s a down-home kind of comfort, but there’s also an unexpected climax.

Sitting on one of the 330 audience seats, you feel swathed in an intimate tent of woven textiles. Warm wood tones of Douglas fir and walnut cover the floors and the balcony railings. The railings are made of thin wood sheets formed into, of all things, a basket weave. The walls are surfaced in an irregular, tweedy texture of thin flat stones, which remind you of the riprap of the New England coast without losing the sense of fabric. Seats are covered in patterned textile. And so on.

“We wanted to weave everything together, to wrap everyone, and to recall the colors of water and stone,’’ says Deborah Epstein. Epstein is a partner with husband Alan Joslin in the firm Epstein Joslin Architects, which designed the new building.

All that warm weaving of motifs might feel too comfy for a public space, if it weren’t for the big climax. That’s the back wall of the stage. This is one giant window overlooking the Rockport Harbor. It brings another metaphor to mind: You feel the hall is a dark camera, and you’re inside it focusing the lens on a seascape.

The architects took full advantage of the window, organizing the whole building so that the stage floor is at exactly the same level as the sidewalk out on Main Street. You can stand on Rockport’s main drag and look right through the building in one straight shot, from the sidewalk to the ocean horizon.

I thought the inspiration for the window must have been the long-ago Provincetown Playhouse on Cape Cod. That was a former wharf, where the rear of the stage was open to the bay, thus well suited for the seafaring early plays of Eugene O’Neill. Joslin and Epstein say they weren’t aware of Provincetown. Instead they cite the views of New York from the “Jazz at Lincoln Center’’ concerts at Columbus Circle.

The Rockport stage window glass is an inch thick, both to contain the music inside the hall and to resist hurricanes. The view is almost due north, so there isn’t a problem of direct sun glare on the stage. But seen against a bright seascape, the musicians and their instruments might still become dark silhouettes. To avoid that, during performances a set of screens can slide across the glass. Of course, the screens are done in basket-woven wood. I’m told that preview audiences have been applauding when the shades slide shut, and again when they open up.

Not all is what it seems. You’d swear those stone interior walls are painstakingly fashioned from many little slices of local granite in a variety of shades from warm gray to ocher. Not so: The walls are made of premanufactured panels from Vietnam. It looks like the typical product of a Cape Ann granite quarry.

The building has one other major feature, a handsome and generous reception space upstairs from the performance hall. Post-concert schmoozing is part of the social life of any community, perhaps especially in a small town like Rockport. It should work well in the new space, where rare triple-hung windows offer great views over the harbor.

In the case of a music hall, the acoustician is as important as the architect. At Shalin Liu, sound is the responsibility of the internationally renowned Larry Kirkegaard. It usually takes many months for a consensus to form about the quality of acoustics in a new hall, and early returns on Shalin Liu speak of a warm, clear, intimate sound.

Founded in 1981 as the Rockport Chamber Music Festival and renamed in 2008, Rockport Music presents classical, jazz, and other kinds of music, with its annual Chamber Music Festival held each year in June. The opening concert at Shalin Liu is scheduled for this Thursday. The hall will also be used for school graduations and other events.

OK, back to that exterior. A structure known as Haskins Hall stood here when Rockport Music acquired the site. It was a Victorian pile with a French-style mansard roof. Most of its ornamental detail had been stripped off over time. For many excellent reasons, it was impractical to save the Haskins. It would have to be demolished and a new building built on its site. The Shalin Liu is, in fact, an entirely new building from foundation to roof.

But the planning, zoning, and conservation boards that rule on these matters insisted that Shalin Liu replicate the shape and general appearance of the old building. As a result, the new hall, especially the side that fronts onto Main Street, looks like a cartoonist’s invention. It resembles the kind of stagy imitation Victorian you’d find in Disneyland.

I’m sure the architects would rather have done a contemporary building, just as Haskins itself was contemporary when first built, and I’m equally sure they’d have designed one that would have looked just fine once it weathered in and the novelty wore off. They’ve done what they can, adding some civic exuberance in the form of French balconies with double doors at the reception space, so concertgoers can share in the street life.

Every city and town possesses its own DNA. Maybe that’s the reason why the story of the Shalin Liu is so eerily similar to that of another Rockport landmark, the famous red fishing shack known as “Motif No. 1,’’ so often a subject for painters. When Motif No. 1 was destroyed by the blizzard of 1978, the folks in Rockport constructed an exact duplicate.

I guess that’s the DNA of Rockport. I don’t particularly mind it. People should have the kind of architecture they want. I’m speaking for myself, an outsider to the town, when I say I hope they don’t replicate too many other demolished buildings in the future. The result would be a town turned into a stage set.

Ignore the facade, but don’t miss the concert hall inside.

Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell can be reached at