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Abbott Concert Hall renovations seek to increase historic facility for music advancement

November 29, 2017

Chancellor Dean Van Galen gives an update during the Rising to Distinction scholarship benefit, in Abbott Concert Hall on the UW-River Falls campus in 2014. Photo by Kathy M Helgeson/UWRF Communications

Abbott Concert Hall has been on the UW-River Falls campus since 1973 and has been home to numerous choir and band performances ranging from UWRF students to world-famous musical acts. However, the historical structure is beginning to show its age. According to music department chair and professor Kristin Tjornehoj, basic functionality problems have become an essential target for improvement.

“It’s more of a necessity than a luxury,” Tjornehoj said. “If you have the lights on for more than two hours, you will be able to hear and feel the temperature increase, which is not a good thing. The circulation and lights are a key problem.”

The department has deemed the lights and recording equipment of the facility as insufficient for what they are trying to accomplish due to the age of the facility.

The hall is still in a completely original state, which means the color and quality of seats and equipment are set for a 1973 level, not 2017.

However, a recent $1.2 million renovation was approved in October by the State of Wisconsin Building Commission. The renovation will replace aging and obsolete building services, fix lighting and electrical systems, replace all seating and improve upon a new orchestra pit and acoustics, according to a press release from governor Scott Walker’s office.

“We are grateful for the support of the State Building Commission for this exciting renovation project at UW-River Falls,” UWRF chancellor Dean Van Galen said in a press release. “Abbott Concert Hall is an important venue which supports academic programs and student experiences, and enhances the cultural vitality of the entire St. Croix Valley.”

Funds for the project were initially requested from the state in 2014, with the first funding approved a year later. The recent approval means the work can now be planned, with construction expected to begin in August 2018. The renovation is scheduled to be completed in time for the spring semester in January 2019.

In a time when the music department has significant fiscal constraints, which even includes difficulties in buying new music, Tjornehoj hopes it can be a springboard for the department.

“To have this kind of spark or reinforcement of our activities and an acclimation that we have value on this campus, we are celebrating,” Tjornehoj said.

David Milne is a music professor in his 28th year at UWRF. He is especially excited for the opportunities the improvements will give to the academic department of the music program. Ensembles, bands, choirs and other groups all use the concert hall for recitals in their major’s curriculum.

“It’s required that they are performing in a professional concert space,” Milne said. “Groups and touring artists that have performed on our concert stage love performing on it as it is. We’re hoping to preserve the acoustics as much as possible because the acoustics are very well respected.”

With the renovations taking place for at least a semester, the department is currently looking at ways to work around the problem of relocating performances.

“We’re working with Production Services because we have to move our concerts,” Tjornehoj said. “We want to keep them on campus as much as possible, so we will have to use any space we can get. Acoustics are a significant issue in playing in different places around campus. It’s much different playing in a gymnasium than a concert hall.”

Jonah Conway is a junior music education major who has had plenty of performances for choir in the concert hall. He said the music department is resourceful and will continue to find ways to make music.

“I think that’s the beauty of what we do, that you don’t need a specific place to do it,” Conway said. “We will power through and that short amount of time (of renovations) will be outweighed by the longevity we will get out of the new renovations and the semester we have to miss.”

Abbott Concert Hall isn’t only a product for the UWRF campus, but for the entire River Falls community. While the facility is “the premier facility for all things in music” at UWRF, according to Tjornehoj, the city of River Falls and surrounding areas also find ways to utilize the concert hall.

“Community members can rent the hall and (they) attend a lot of our concerts,” Tjornehoj said. “The music department is one of the major outreach vessels for this university. The concert hall will be appreciated by many in the valley and beyond.”

Tjornehoj and Milne used terms like a community “magnet” or “cultural center” as ways to describe Abbott Concert Hall.

“One of our strategic initiatives is globalization, and that concert hall is absolutely a beacon for globalization,” Tjornehoj said. “We’ve had six guests from other countries this year and we really do serve the whole university.”

Conway also said these necessary renovations will continue to help build the music department for the future.

“It reflects on what we are trying to do as a music program,” Conway said. “I think it will be an awesome draw for new people looking to study music at River Falls and a great thing for the department and campus as a whole.”

One high-profile performance coming to Abbott Concert Hall is the musical duo Doux, featuring cornet player Harmen Vanhoorne and composer Stan Nieuwenhuis. Their new album “Ellis Island” has already been a huge hit in Belgium a month after its release, and they’ve already gone to #7 on the billboard pop charts for Europe. The versatile musicians will be performing in Abbott Concert Hall on Tuesday, Dec. 12 at 7:30 p.m. as a part of the Frances Cohler Coffee Concert Series.