Opportunities crescendo with new Cedar Rapids concert cafe

$3 million renovation project provides new concert, reception, office space

Orchestra Iowa has expanded into the former Bruegger's space.
Orchestra Iowa has expanded into the former Bruegger's space.

With Saturday night's opening of the Opus Concert Cafe, Orchestra Iowa has taken a paramount step in its ongoing flood recovery.

The new street-level facility at 119 Third Ave. SE also will provide a doorway to the Paramount Theatre’s Hall of Mirrors when that historic facility reopens in the fall of 2012.

The Opus jewel is the new concert cafe, a multiuse performance space where patrons can hear chamber music, recitals, jazz and other small combos in a cabaret setting, or socialize during Paramount performances or hold meetings in an acoustically sound, beautifully appointed setting.

The 6,100-square-foot space also features a beverage bar, catering kitchen, reception area, future Paramount/Orchestra Iowa ticket office, coat check and restrooms.

The $3 million expansion unites the Fawcett and Naibert buildings, encompassing the former Bruegger’s Bagels shop and Dieman-Bennett Dance Studio upstairs. That acquisition brings an added attraction: the longtime studio’s wooden dance floor where in the near future, budding ballerinas can again explore the lyrical art of dance.

A new generation of musicians already is being shaped in the second-floor Orchestra Iowa School, which moved back downtown in September 2009, but is gaining new rehearsal and recital spaces through the current renovations. The third floor has housed the 90-year-old orchestra’s administrative offices since June 2009, high above the line where 8 feet of fetid floodwaters decimated the first-floor offices and Symphony Center one year earlier.

The project “is probably the most tangible indication that the crisis we’ve had to endure since the flood is coming to an end,” Timothy Hankewich, the orchestra’s music director, said. “It’s as much about closing the chapter on the flood as it is the orchestra’s rebirth, that we can come back stronger and better.”

The facility was the brainchild of Robert Massey, the orchestra’s CEO.

“I had the idea to do this right after the flood, especially when rumor hit the street that Bruegger’s Bagels wasn’t gonna return, the little light went in my head --  ooh, we can get that building, connect to it and really enhance our footprint and increase programming,” Massey said. “What we had before was all of the administrative offices on the first floor and in half that corner was the recital hall, which was very limiting in what we could do.”

So now the orchestra’s roving chamber series has found a new home in the Opus Concert Cafe, more akin to the way chamber music was presented in the 1800s, but with uptown twists. Two audiences were treated to that experience at Saturday night’s inaugural concerts, featuring Orchestra Iowa strings, clarinet and percussion players performing the music of Beethoven, Mozart and Cedar Rapids native Michael Daugherty.

The chamber series was on the move long before the flood, performing regularly in area churches, as well as the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art.

“Culturally, chamber music gravitated to churches nationwide, usually because of better acoustics,” Hankewich said. “That divorced itself from its original intent to feature music in people’s homes in intimate settings. Those events also included socialization. The fact that we can now enjoy a lovely hors d’oeuvre and cocktail during a performance is in line with a chamber music experience in the 1800s.”

Hankewich and Massey realize that sitting at cabaret tables and chairs will be a departure for patrons used to a more formal church setting.

“We’ve changed the atmosphere a little here. We’re making classical chamber music a little more cool than it’s probably perceived to have been,” Massey said. “As an art form, we’re about growing audiences and giving them the amenities they’re looking for.”

“People might initially scratch their head about coming to a chamber orchestra concert and having it formatted somewhat like a nightclub,” Hankewich said. “What’s so attractive about this is it fits the way we need to revolutionize our concerts so people can have a great time.”

The facility offers a new world of opportunity Hankewich can’t wait to explore.

“I’m so looking forward to the variety of music and performances that are going to be featured in this space,” he said. “It’s so important that orchestras throughout the country are not just pigeonholed into one type of music. This is our opportunity to diversify our audience.

“It’s for people comfortable listening to classical, Brubeck or cabaret. It’s a music space. No style has a monopoly, and that is perfectly in line with the orchestra’s mission to broaden our audiences.”

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