The list of shows is hands-down one of the most impressive the university has offered in some time. As for the transformation, well, it's not sexy to mention this, but any decent discussion of the rebirth of the largest and most storied venue in Chapel Hill really can't be had without four simple letters: HVAC.
True, the backstage has been rebuilt and expanded to handle major theatrical production. Yes, the acoustics--which have never been all that bad--have been enhanced. Better and more, uh, facilities will certainly benefit the patrons and that large magnolia on the east side of the building. And the seats no long feel like they haven't had their springs and cushions replaced since the Davie poplar was planted.
But it is the HVAC--the dear, sweet, ever-cooling HVAC--that makes the $18 million renovation worth it and will allow Memorial to reach its potential as a major regional venue.
Rewind to 1987--a half-empty Memorial Hall is a sweltering mess of African funk as the legendary Fela Kuti and a massive band of musicians and dancers heat things up further. It is so hot, it's hard to see through the foggy viewfinder of my camera. Fast forward through almost every other summer, late spring or early fall rock show or major production and it's the same thing--put several hundred people in the place and it's a steam bath before the opener is finished or the curtain closes on the first act.
Any attempt to recondition the hall, built in 1931, without addressing that fact would have left Memorial in the position it's been in since the arrival of air-conditioning--pretty useless after May and before October.
The flooring was removed and the foundation dug out to make room for pipes and ductwork. It was expensive, time-consuming work. It'll be worth it, though, if it means the university can sustain the level of quality entertainment lined up in the first post-renovation season, one marked by some equally impressive pipes, starting with the opening gala last week featuring crooner and impressionist painter Tony Bennett, who opened the place with the help of the North Carolina Symphony.
Highlights for the year range from Los Lobos to DJ Spooky to the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis to the Russian National Orchestra to Ralph Stanley with The Red Clay Ramblers. For tickets and schedules, visit www.unc.edu/performingarts/season.html.
A rundown of upcoming events
Ronald K. Brown/EvidenceSept. 17
Jane Comfort and CompanyNov. 11
Mark Morris Dance GroupFeb. 24
World Stage Series
Los LobosSept. 25
Youssou NDours Egypt with Fathy Salamas Cairo OrchestraNov. 1
Handspring and Sogolon Puppet Companys Tall HorseNov. 5-6
Urban Voices Series
DJ Spookys Rebirth of a NationSept. 23
Carl Hancock Ruxs MycenaeanJan. 27
Vijay Iyer/Mike Ladd/Ibrahim Quraishis Still Life with CommentatorMarch 24
Dee Dee Bridgewater and Marian McPartlandOct. 27
Jazz at Lincoln Centers Afro-Latin Jazz OrchestraMarch 3
Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with Wynton MarsalisApril 29
Ian Bostridge, tenor and Julius Drake, pianoSept. 20
Midori, violin and Charles Abramovic, pianoOct. 25
Emanuel Ax, piano and Richard Stoltzman, clarinetDec. 10
Russian National OrchestraMarch 12
Brentano String Quartet and Elizabeth Keusch, sopranoMarch 30
The Academy of Ancient MusicApril 3
American Roots Series
Nanci Griffith with Tift MerrittOct. 7
Bonnie RaittDec. 7
Ralph Stanley with The Red Clay RamblersJan. 12
North Carolina Spotlight
UNC Symphony Orchestra & ChorusOct. 28
Carolina Ballets NutcrackerDec. 2-4
Carolina Ballets Swan LakeFeb. 4-5
North Carolina Jazz Repertory Orchestra SeriesOct. 14, Dec. 9, March 2, May 5
North Carolina SymphonySept. 29, Oct. 16, Nov. 17, Jan. 19, Feb. 8