Two major problems always struck me when I reviewed concerts at Aycock Auditorium on the University of North Carolina Greensboro campus. The weirdest feature was a huge overhanging mezzanine that covered most of the orchestra seating. In addition, the absence of a true orchestra pit was felt when young singers, still developing vocal support, tried to sing over a full orchestra seated on the floor in front of the stage.

Corrections of these complications head the list of long-needed changes to be enjoyed by patrons during this first season in the modernized and restored hall after a two-year hiatus for construction.

Aycock Auditorium, with 2,200 seats, was the largest performance space in the UNC system when it opened in 1927. It was named for Charles Brantly Aycock, North Carolina’s governor from 1901-05.

In order to provide space for the new orchestra pit and wider seats, several rows were eliminated, and the distance between the remaining rows was widened. The current capacity is 1,621 seats. The sorely-needed addition of a public elevator makes the upper levels accessible to persons with disabilities. Restrooms have been added to all levels of seating.

The 1920s period look of the hall has been retained. Plush red velvet upholstery helps add to the sense of style. The original grand chandelier, which had been stored in pieces in the attic, has been returned to its proper place as a centerpiece. Refurbishment of decorative details helps make the main lobby a resplendent space. Comfortable benches will be welcomed by members of the audience waiting for the hall to open.

Behind the scenes, two small, inadequate dressing rooms have been turned into storage space, and four new dressing rooms equipped with showers have been added in the lower level. These can accommodate 46 performers.

The orchestra pit has been deepened and widened and will allow an orchestra of as many as 70 musicians to perform below the audience’s line of sight.

In an email exchange, Dean and Professor of the School of Music John J. Deal drew attention to “a new acoustical shell… provid[ing] the opportunity for a stage setup that has no gaps between (acoustical) clouds and the shell.” This is the third of the important improvements in addition to the dressing rooms and to the pit. Deal writes, “While the final tuning of the stage acoustics is not yet complete,” the September 6 Collage Concert “suggest[ed] that the acoustics are superior to the old Aycock.” This, the first of what will become an annual event, featured 14 student and faculty groups, ranging from choral and chamber music ensembles to a full orchestra, a jazz ensemble, a percussion group, etc., and it really “put the hall through its paces.” Deal notes, “Each could be heard with balance and clarity.”

Many famous artists graced Aycock Auditorium’s stage during its first 80 years. Among them were Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, Stevie Wonder, Maya Angelou, Mel Tormé, and the Feld Ballet. Three concerts stand out in my memory: Beethoven from the Emerson String Quartet, late Haydn symphonies from the early music orchestra, The Hanover Band, and a fiery performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony by the Bolshoi Orchestra. Classical music lovers have found a declining menu on the University Concert and Lecture Series in recent seasons. The renovation of UNC Chapel Hill’s Memorial Hall, combined with a strong commitment from former Chancellor James Moeser, led to a dramatic leap in artistic offerings in the Triangle. I hope the rebirth of Aycock Auditorium will stimulate a similar revitalization for the arts in the Triad.

Highlights of the current University Concert/Lecture Series include Lily Tomlin, the Capitol Steps, Phibolus, and the Moscow Festival Ballet. Most of the musical fare will be provided by the able faculty and students of the School of Music. This culminates in April 2009 with the world premiere of the opera Picnic by composer Libby Larsen. David Holley, UNCG’s Director of Opera Theatre, has written the libretto version of the 1953 Pulitzer Prize winning play by William Inge.

(Also see UNCG Video from UNCG Magazine Online (Summer 2008) here, and additional photos posted on CVNC website here.)