When the McKnight Center for the Performing Arts at Oklahoma State University officially opens to the public, it will put its first audiences into a New York state of mind.
The New York Philharmonic will be in residence at the center for the opening weekend, presenting four public concerts – including two featuring Oklahoma native and Tony Award winner Kelli O’Hara, and a young people’s concert for local first and second grade students – and numerous master classes for OSU music students.
“We’re going to have 20 separate events over the course of four days,” said the center’s executive director Mark Blakeman. “And that will, in a way, get us ready for the rest of the season, because this is going to be a very busy place.”
The McKnight Center is the newest addition to the OSU campus – a 65,000-square-foot facility that houses two state-of-the-art performance spaces as well as an adjacent outdoor plaza that sports a 32-foot LED screen and a surround-sound system that will allow performances to be simulcast in real time.
And the New York Philharmonic’s presence as the principal guest artist for the center’s opening weekend is an example of what sets this particular arts venue apart from similar facilities.
It is named for Ross and Billie McKnight, alumni of OSU and philanthropists who pledged $25 million to establish an endowment to provide programming for the facility. A fund-raising effort to match that pledge means that the McKnight Center has a $50 million endowment to use to bring world-class performers to Stillwater.
The center’s inaugural season is proof. In addition to O’Hara and the New York Philharmonic, the center will play host to such internationally recognized artists as New Orleans’ iconic Preservation Hall Jazz Band, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields with violinist Joshua Bell, opera star Sarah Coburn, and legendary pianist Andre Watts.
Other planned events include a chamber music festival featuring Anne-Marie McDermott, Edgar Meyer, Joshua Roman and the St. Lawrence Quartet, pianist Jonathan Biss performing the complete Beethoven sonatas, and touring productions of the musicals “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “The Buddy Holly Story” and “An American in Paris.”
“The programming endowment the McKnights established means that we will be able to bring in world-class artists that this university and community would ordinarily not have the chance to experience,” Blakeman said.
It also helped secure the participation of the New York Philharmonic for the center’s opening weekend.
“Mr. McKnight is a regular attendee of the Vail Music Festival in Colorado, where the New York Philharmonic is one of the orchestras-in-residence,” Blakeman said. “He met with the orchestra’s CEO and expressed his interest in having the orchestra be a part of our opening weekend.”
The relationship between the orchestra and the center has already been established, with several principal players with the orchestra coming to Stillwater in the past few months to work with OSU music students.
“Our goal is to have the Philharmonic here on a regular basis,” Blakeman said. “But we also are planning to bring in a major orchestra for each season.”
The center was designed by Beck Design, an architectural firm with offices in Tulsa, Oklahoma City and New York City. The company’s work includes the Kristin Chenoweth Theater at the Broken Arrow PAC and the offices of the Girl Scouts of Eastern Oklahoma in Tulsa.
“There aren’t a whole lot of right angles in this place,” Blakeman said. “The idea is that the curved walls, the patterns in the floor tiles in the lobby, are all designed to give a sense of forward motion, of drawing people into a performance space.”
The orange-tinted chandelier in the upper lobby, which served as the inspiration for the center’s logo, was designed to evoke the soundwaves produced by performances, said Jennifer Novak, the center’s director of marketing.
The main performance space seats 1,098, Blakeman said.
“Our stage area is comparable to that of larger facilities, like those in Oklahoma City and Tulsa,” he said. “So we’re able to accommodate large, complex productions. But we are presenting them in a uniquely intimate space that we think will created a heightened experience for both the audience and the performers.”
The hall has a sprung floor for dance performances, a mechanized orchestra pit, and two LED screens on either side of the stage on which can be projected images from robotic cameras to give patrons a more up-close-and-personal look at what is happening on stage.
The facility also has 217-seat recital hall that Blakeman predicts will be the most used venue.
“This is a real music room,” he said. “You can tell just by talking in here how lively the acoustics are. But we have a variable acoustic system, which is a series drapes that we can arrange to handle a wide range of performances.”
The recital hall will be the setting for a series of seven concerts by pianist Jonathan Biss, who will perform the complete cycle of piano sonatas by Beethoven. Biss will release his final recording of the cycle, a decade-long project, on Nov. 1.
Biss’ entire series of concerts has already sold out, but it will still be possible to see and hear his performances, thanks to the McKnight Center’s third performance venue.
That is the plaza, a greenspace on the center’s west side, which is equipped with a 32-foot LED screen and a series of pillars that house a surround-sound system that will allow performances within the McKnight’s interior venues to be simulcast in real time.
“One of the things we are always looking for ways to engage with the community beyond the campus,” Blakeman said. “The plaza is a great way for us to create a bridge to the larger community, to remove some of the barriers that might keep people from experiencing high-quality performing arts.”
Blakeman added that the majority of artists appearing for the center’s inaugural season have agreed to allow their performances to be simulcast.
“That includes all of the New York Philharmonic concerts,” he said.
Novak said the center will also be looking for ways to “go beyond the stage” with events, pointing to the center’s Halloween presentation of the 1925 silent film “The Phantom of the Opera” with live accompaniment.
“We’re going to have a trick-or-treat event prior to the performance,” she said, “and afterward we will invite everyone on stage for a costume contest.”
“This is one event I’m looking forward to the most,” Blakeman said. “We did this with an orchestra I worked with in the past, and it quickly became something of a Halloween tradition. And for me, I’ve always found it fascinating to hear someone basically improvised for the 90 or so minutes it takes for this film to be shown.”
And, Blakeman said, that enthusiasm is shared with the rest of the university and its surrounding community.
“(OSU president Burns) Hargis is a strong advocate for the arts, and it was his vision for a venue such as this, that would greatly enhance the university’s arts and culture,” Blakeman said. “The city definitely sees the center as a catalyst for economic development.
“And we’ve had some faculty members from the school of music tell us that a large number of this year’s freshman class decided to come to OSU because of the McKnight center opening and the chance to work with members of the New York Philharmonic,” he said.