The Sound of Money: The Palladium Rises Up in Carmel

Ambitious, extravagant, expensive—Carmel’s $160 million performing arts center seems a fitting addition to the state’s most affluent community. Its cost has struck a sour note for some audiences, but the state-of-the-art concert hall will forever change the tune of Central Indiana’s cultural scene.

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It’s November 10, 2010, and the Palladium, the showpiece concert hall of Carmel’s new Center for the Performing Arts, finally has an audience. Officials, dignitaries, media, and curious Carmelites have gathered for a show billed as the “first notes” in a series of ad hoc performances called, collectively, the “Tuning of the Hall,” and the occasion marks the first time musicians will play the building. Unofficially, the event is an unveiling, a chance for the public to see what all the fuss was about.

The center’s new artistic director, acclaimed singer and pianist Michael Feinstein, tops the bill, along with Carmel’s mayor, James Brainard, the son of a school band director. Brainard strides triumphantly onto the stage, a French horn under his arm. In the muted steel-gray suit and red tie of a public officeholder, he looks rather plain next to Feinstein’s impeccably tailored tuxedo and the gleaming grand piano Feinstein recently hand-selected at a New York Steinway plant. The mayor is red-faced and beaming, like a schoolboy who has just won a spelling bee. Feinstein may have the Broadway credentials and Grammy nominations on his resume, but Brainard will not be upstaged. He has trumpeted the need for this venue for years, and tonight is the payoff.

“I was trying to remember the last time I was talked into playing, with the Carmel Symphony,” he says. “It was billed as a ‘rock concert,’ in the Martin Marietta quarry, because we did not have this beautiful hall to play in.” Brainard seats himself at a music stand and charges into a rendition of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust.” He bleats and squeaks, is often flat and sometimes sharp. (One of the detriments of an acoustically refined concert hall, it turns out, is that bad notes are as audible as the good ones.) Feinstein, seated at the Steinway, gamely plays on; Brainard carries the tune and seems to have gotten most notes right—an impressive feat for a mayor playing a temperamental instrument from which coaxing even a single agreeable sound can be difficult.

“He was telling me he was rehearsing two hours every day,” Feinstein tells the audience, “but that it really takes eight hours every day. I said, ‘That’s fine, but if you were rehearsing eight hours every day, you wouldn’t be a very good mayor.’”

The checks have been written, the mortar poured, the roof raised, but Brainard still takes the opportunity to sell the place, as though there might be a chance, however slight, that the naysayers will somehow take it away from him. “This building was built to last through the ages,” he says. “If properly taken care of, the builders, architects, and engineers tell us, it will be here a thousand, two thousand, three thousand years from now.” Feinstein has played with better musicians. But it’s safe to assume that he has never played with a better salesman, one who exerted more sheer political will than Carmel’s four-term mayor. After all of the campaigning, politicking, argument, and hype, Brainard has prevailed in erecting the grandest public building project in Carmel’s history. And this concert feels like a kind of last word—a chance to remind everyone who opposed him, who complained about the cost ($126 million-plus), that he built this place in spite of them, and, for good measure, he will be the first to fill it with music.

To call the Palladium Brainard’s “pet” is an understatement. He has invested nearly all of his political (and a great deal of Carmel’s financial) capital in it. It is more than the focal point of Carmel’s new City Center, a redevelopment effort built with hundreds of millions of dollars in public and private investment; it is the embodiment of his vision of Carmel—refined, cultured, wealthy, and ambitious. It is the kind of quality-of-life amenity, he promises, that will continue to attract the high-earners who have made Carmel not just a bedroom community, but an upscale destination in itself.

Set to celebrate its grand opening this month, the Palladium is already being touted as one of the most finely tuned concert halls in the United States. And with three additional venues—a 500-seat proscenium theater, a 200-seat studio theater, and an outdoor amphitheater—currently under construction, the Center for the Performing Arts constitutes an unparalleled and impressive addition to the cultural landscape. It means, ultimately, that Carmel is now a major player in the arts. What that means for the rest of Central Indiana—and whether the enormous expense will be justified—is still anybody’s guess.

The Palladium is either grand or big, classical or dated, monumental or ostentatious. One term you will never hear used to describe it, though, is “inconspicuous.” Ten years ago, a vacant, blighted strip center occupied the lot where the Palladium now sits, at the intersection of City Center Drive and Third Avenue. Now, this once-neglected corner of Carmel has reshaped the city’s skyline. (The fact that Carmel, long a bastion of single-family homes and low-slung retail buildings, even has a “skyline” is in itself worthy of note.) The 154,000-square-foot Palladium stands four stories above the ground, its facade composed of 23,500 tons of Indiana limestone. The exterior’s Renaissance design is based on the nearly 500-year-old Villa Capra, or “La Rotonda,” near Vicenza, Italy, whose architect, Andrea Palladio, gave the concert hall its name (although the scale of the Palladium might have given the proportion-obsessed Palladio cause for alarm). The Palladium’s classical profile and surface detailing make it something of an anomaly in this modern era of glass and steel. “On the surface it appears they were designing to people’s expectations,” says Bruce Frankel, a professor of urban planning at Ball State University. “Maybe not the more sophisticated person, but just the average person. It’s like they said, ‘Let’s build something that looks like a concert hall.’”

The term itself hints at the building’s highest aspirations. It is a concert hall, and justifying that designation required an exceptionally high level of interior acoustic refinement. Suspended from the ceiling is a 90,000-pound canopy that technicians raise or lower to adjust the reflection of sound from the stage; unlike the panels affixed to canopies at most venues, these are glass, which allows audiences to see the rotunda soaring above them. To eliminate the infiltration of outside noise, the entire chamber and its 1,600 seats are enclosed in grout-filled concrete-block walls and 2½-inch-thick steel doors. Heating and cooling equipment is located off-site. The Palladium’s interior is inspired by traditional influences, and as it turns out, its neoclassical detailing, based on 18th-century architecture, is actually good for the acoustics. “We’ve never had this much classic architecture to work with,” says Damian Doria of Artec Consultants, the New York–based company that designed the Palladium’s acoustic blueprint. “It’s great because it breaks up sound and diffuses it with architectural elements. Most contemporary buildings are very flat and clean, without a lot of fenestration, so we often have to add funny-looking bumps.”

The interior of the Palladium, Doria says, “is essentially a shoebox, which is traditionally a good concert-hall space. The narrowness of it, and the length, tend to give strong lateral reflections from the side ledges, which is very important to clarity. We hear sound laterally, probably because we were originally hunters. Psycho-acoustically, that lateral energy is a source of clarity and intelligibility in what’s being performed. The balance of that with reverberance is really what we’re looking to solve with all of the adjustable components.” In other words, music in the Palladium sounds good. Really, really good.

Before the Palladium, Indianapolis had a few decent halls, but nothing designed with this level of attention to sound. (Hilbert Circle Theatre, for instance, was a movie house in the era of silent film.) The Palladium is, in fact, one of only a handful of such facilities in the country. The reward for erecting such an extraordinary building, according to Steven Libman, now the Center for the Performing Arts’ president and CEO, is that not only will it attract audiences who want to hear music that sounds good—it will attract world-class performers who want the music they play to sound good, too. “What I’m hearing is that people already think of this as one of the great concert halls in America,” he says.

The Palladium’s opening-season schedule, which includes renowned ensembles such as the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, Vienna Boys Choir, and Cleveland Orchestra, seems to bear out the claim—so it seems almost impolite to point out the ongoing, severe decline in audience for such offerings.

If the benefit of building the Palladium is the ability to attract top-flight performing artists, the cost is—well, the cost. And if Carmel city leaders’ experience is any indication, state-of-the-art amenities like the Palladium are more expensive than you think—and say—they are going to be.

The question of cost came up during a recent interview with Brainard at City Hall. He promptly reached into his back pocket, pulled out his wallet, and removed a small slip of paper. “My crib sheet,” he said. “I want to give the same numbers to everybody.” He unfolded the paper and started reading. “Palladium and site work: one-twenty-six, one-seventy-nine…million. One-two-six, comma, one-seven-nine, comma, zero, zero, zero. I’m rounding. Main stage theater: thirteen-and-a-half million dollars. Studio theater: three million dollars. Amphitheater: one-hundred-and-fifty thousand. The Center Green: Two million, five-hundred-and-fifty-thousand dollars.” In case you’re not counting, that comes to $145,379,000—rounded. At press time, additional expenses for peripheral items such as parking, stormwater drainage, project management, and so forth brought the total cost of the Center for the Performing Arts to nearly $160 million.

“There’s been a lot of inflation since the earlier numbers,” Brainard says, although “inflation” is something of a euphemism. He was first elected mayor in 1995. In 1997, he announced his plan to transform the rundown stretch of land north of City Hall into what is now known as Carmel’s City Center, which was to include a performing-arts and community center at a reported cost of $17 million—money that he hoped would come from private-sector donations. By 1999, the plan called for a $30 million performing-arts center and museum, to be funded by a special taxing district that would levy revenue from businesses in the area. In 2003, when Brainard ran for the mayor’s office a third time, the election was essentially a referendum on his proposed City Center project and what he described as a “world-class” concert hall. (He won the election by an overwhelming margin.) The following year, the proposed cost of the performing-arts center had ballooned to a reported $60 million, and had increased to $80 million by 2005, when the Carmel Redevelopment Commission approved a bond issue to pay for it. Soon after, Brainard said he wanted to raise another $40 million to $60 million in private donations to fund upgrades. But the donations didn’t materialize, and Brainard returned to the Redevelopment Commission to request $45 million more in bonds.

Given that the proposed cost has nearly doubled since the Redevelopment Commission first voted on the project in 2005, at least one former commissioner feels like he fell for the old bait-and-switch. “While I remain a supporter of the concept, it’s the evolution of the project, and the management of the project, that I have questions about,” says Rick Sharp, currently president of Carmel’s City Council. “It almost became a case of mission creep.” When Brainard requested the additional $45 million, Sharp says, the mayor told the commission that the $80 million they’d initially approved had only been enough to pay for the shell of the building. “We were faced with a Hobson’s choice,” says Sharp. “Either you provide the additional funding and we complete the hall, or you don’t provide the additional funding, and the exterior of the building is gorgeous, but the interior of the building is unfinished and unusable for its purpose.”

Grudgingly, Sharp voted for approval, then grew increasingly frustrated as the commission subsequently approved nearly every upgrade proposed, including 500-year granite floors for the main lobby. “There have been a lot of explanations,” Sharp says. “There have been PowerPoint presentations by the administration that alluded to increases based on inflation and material cost and such, but if you could even get a hold of all the documents and trace it through, you would see that the cost increases were actually the result of management decisions that incorporated design elements into the concert hall for which there was insufficient money.” His difference of opinion over funding eventually led him to resign from the commission, and the experience left him with a new perspective on why Carmel sometimes gets a reputation as the kind of place where only the best—and priciest—will do. “I know it’s kind of fun to pick at Carmel, and sometimes, quite frankly, we bring it on ourselves,” he says.

Frankel, the urban-planning expert, sees the Palladium as a showy display of civic pride. “Carmel is by far the richest community in the richest county in the entire state of Indiana. I believe they can do it, so they do do it, to display their wealth.” In some regard, though, the largesse seems to symbolize the general profligacy of America in the 2000s, when big spending on borrowed money was the norm. As Sharp is careful to note, Carmel’s ability to repay the bonds issued for the Center for the Performing Arts depends on projected business-tax revenues, and Brainard has insisted repeatedly that no residential tax dollars will be used. “Let’s go to the underlying premise that this is all going to be paid for with business taxes and no residential tax dollars,” says Sharp. “That’s not a fact. That’s a hope.” He explains that if business-tax revenues fall short, then, as the bonds are written, money to repay the debt will come either from a county option income tax or from a special-purpose tax on real-estate property. In short, if the businesses of Carmel can’t pay the bill, ultimately, the people of Carmel will. “The Palladium certainly is grand in appearance and finish,” he says. “It should be, for the amount of money that we’re spending on it.”

Still, the appearance is not as grand as it could be, as far as Brainard is concerned. On a recent tour of the building, he pointed out the building’s highlights but was just as quick to call attention to the corners cut to keep costs down. The carpeting in that hallway? Should have been marble. The iron chandeliers? Upgraded lighting would have been nice. He ran his fingers along a set of steel railings topped with a brass handrail. “This whole thing was supposed to be brass,” he said.

Brainard has been irked by the nitpicking. “It’s important to look not at the cost, but at the return,” he says. “Building a city is expensive, but we’re putting our money into infrastructure that brings business here. As a result, we’ve got the fifth- or sixth-lowest taxes, I think, out of 126 cities in the state. Investment in infrastructure reduces taxes. We’re able to attract businesses because of that investment. And in our case, not only do we attract businesses, we attract very upscale housing, which keeps our overall rate of taxation very low. But it’s doing things like good parks, good schools, good libraries, concert halls, that attracts those things.”

It is perhaps fair to question the viability of a niche facility geared toward niche genres of music that peaked in popularity decades ago. But in the end, cachet, and not viability, might be a truer measure of the Palladium’s success. “It’s a trophy,” says Frankel. “It’s prestigious to have one. It’s a statement that Carmel has arrived, that it’s on a different level. It has gravity to it. Even if they don’t go to the concerts, people are attracted to it.”

The Center for the Performing Arts can already boast some impressive “gets.” Libman, the president and CEO, was a rising star in arts administration who earned a reputation as a fundraising Svengali at the La Jolla Playhouse in California. Carmel beat out venues in New York, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas to become the home of the Michael Feinstein

Foundation for the Preservation of the Great American Songbook, which oversees an impressive historical archive, including an original notebook of unpublished songs by George Gershwin. “When I was approached by Jim Brainard, I thought, ‘Sure, I’ll take the meeting,’” Feinstein says. “And when I saw what has been accomplished in the city of Carmel, and the vision of the people who have supported the integration of the creative arts with the other fundamentals of life, it attracted me in a way that I had never thought about before. I mean, I’ve never thought about urban planning, or cities, or any of that stuff. But this clearly is a unique community that is so mindful of fundamental issues about comfort, lifestyle, and education. It has a sheen to it that’s almost too good to be true.”

When Brainard first raised the idea of building a performing-arts center, the intent was to fill an immediate need: to give homeless arts organizations such as the Carmel Symphony Orchestra a place to play. It was a nice thought—quaint, really, considering what the city has now. “We looked around and realized that downtowns need to have not just beautiful architecture, but public buildings that help define a city,” says Brainard. “We wanted to be very careful not to compete with public amenities that already existed. We eliminated most potential sports complexes, because Indianapolis has already built almost every sports complex known to man. Where could we contribute to the regional basket of amenities? We realized that Indianapolis had two good theaters but didn’t have a good purpose-built music concert hall.”

As the project grew in scope, it took on an imposing aspect for many observers outside of Carmel. Indianapolis had already been losing high-income individuals and relocating businesses to Carmel. Now, it seemed, Carmel was gunning for the Circle City’s claim to cultural supremacy as well. If Carmelites anticipated the sweet sound of music, many in Indianapolis heard a giant sucking sound. “When the plans for the Palladium were first announced, there was a lot of fear, and there was a lot of distrust,” says M. Travis DiNicola, executive director of Indy Reads and co-host and producer of the program The Art of the Matter on WFYI 90.1 FM (the latter of which, it should be noted, has received underwriting support from the Center for the Performing Arts). “A lot of people were thinking, ‘They’re going to be competing with us, and they’re trying to pull our audiences away.’”

Frank Basile, a prominent Indianapolis arts patron and an Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra board member, acknowledges what he calls “the initial negative impression” many had when plans for the Center for the Performing Arts began to take shape. “It was like, all of a sudden, Carmel sprang this on the area,” he says. “‘We’re going to have this new thing that we’re going to call the Palladium, and that’s how it’s going to be.’ There wasn’t really a sense of ownership among other organizations and people. So there was an initial hesitancy: ‘What is this going to do to the rest of us?’”

But when supporters of the Center for the Performing Arts reached out to Basile—as they have to many leaders in the Indianapolis arts community—he quickly converted. He and his wife, Katrina, who sits on the board of the Indianapolis Opera, donated $500,000 to name the cafe in the Palladium, and Frank agreed to join the board. “It isn’t like, here is this behemoth in the north that’s trying to put downtown venues in Indianapolis out of business,” he says. “Had this been done when Circle Centre mall was a hole in the ground, it would have been a different story. But now we can support outlying venues, because it only helps to strengthen the entire metro area.” He is confident that programming at the Center for the Performing Arts will help build audiences rather than cannibalize them, and as for donor money, he points to himself as an example of why Indianapolis arts boosters shouldn’t worry. “I’m still giving the same thing to other organizations as I always have,” he says.

“Is there anxiety?” asks DiNicola. “Yes. But it’s mostly based on not knowing how this is going to play out. I don’t think anyone really knows at this point. It’s the elephant in the room.” Some groups, such as the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, which will play a limited number of gigs at the Palladium this year, seem to be hedging their bets. Indianapolis arts advocates who fear the worst can point to the Indianapolis Civic Theatre—recently renamed the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre—which will move to Carmel when construction of the proscenium theater is complete.

Ultimately, deciding whether to embrace Carmel’s emergence in the arts or just tolerate it seems to depend on point of view. Certainly the city of Indianapolis, which struggles to fill potholes and keep libraries open, has reason to be concerned about a shrinking tax base. On the other hand, if it makes sense to take a regional approach to planning mass transit or funding a football stadium, why should promoting the arts be an exception? Maybe Central Indiana–versus-the world is now a more useful premise than Indianapolis-versus-Carmel. Maybe Indianapolis, beyond just learning to live with the ascendancy of its northern neighbor, should be grateful. After all, Carmel spent close to $160 million for the chance to hear world-class musicians play a world-class venue. People from Indianapolis can just pay the price of a ticket.

The day after Brainard’s performance, Feinstein, accompanied by a retinue of handlers, was back at the Palladium, posing for photos to accompany a recording he recently made with Carmel’s orchestra. It took an over-the-top facility, the kind of place Indianapolis doesn’t have, to get him to relocate to Central Indiana, and when he’s out on the road, it’s Carmel he calls home. “Every interview I do, regardless of where I’m playing, I get questions about Carmel,” he says. “‘Car-MEL?’ they ask. ‘What are you doing in Car-MEL?’ So I get to talk about it. Every time I’m in New York, at a club, hanging out with friends who are performers, inevitably they’ll say, ‘I want to come to Carmel. I want to see what it’s about.’”

This article appeared in the January 2011 issue.

 

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