Can the Smith Center connect the cultural dots?

It’s built and paid for. Now, Downtown’s performing arts centerpiece opens its doors

The Smith Center for the Performing Arts as seen during a media preview Friday, March 2, 2012.
Photo: Sam Morris

You can almost hear timpani rumbling and horns ablaze when the Smith Center for the Performing Arts is mentioned in the Valley. Clouds part. Angels sing. People who were lost are found. A new cultural element, nurtured by donors with deep pockets and culturally altruistic hearts, is entering daily conversations.

Not even a multibillion-dollar casino, promising new jobs and more tourists, can elicit such emotion within locals who are pinning community hopes on Downtown’s stately limestone centerpiece.

The Symphony Park campus, which tips its architectural hat to Jazz Age modernity, has been more than 10 years in-the-making. Its very existence says of Las Vegas that which the rest of the Valley does not: education and cultural enrichment are important here. Additionally, it offers locals bragging rights to toss at the rest of the country, so quick to dismiss Las Vegas as a chintzy American landmark.

Smith Center board members have long touted the facility, opening March 10, as a world-class performing arts center that can rival any in the country—educationally, architecturally and acoustically.

“Carnegie Hall or better,” Smith Center President and CEO Myron Martin said of the goal for the acoustics of the main room, Reynolds Hall.

First Look at the Smith Center

That might prove true, given the research and expertise poured into the $470 million project. Even the harsh criticism from local architects over the selection of Washington, D.C.-based David Schwarz—who is devoted to traditional, rather than contemporary architecture—might be drowned out by residents awestruck by the Grand Lobby’s Italian stone and Reynolds Hall’s overall opulence.

Schwarz’s dedication to the past is what dazzled Smith Center representatives, fawning over the architect’s Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth, Texas, whose interior bears a striking resemblance to Smith’s 2,050-seat Reynolds Hall. Critics argued that a Schwarz building wouldn’t be 21st century enough for a city dedicated to experimental and contemporary architecture. But board members, too, were more interested in historic opera houses and traditional concert halls, and they traveled the world, making stops in Paris, Vienna and Milan.

Martin says the board wanted something timeless and elegant, words that could easily describe the grandeur of the horseshoe-shaped Reynolds Hall, with its terrazzo floors, dark-brown mohair seats, art deco motifs and five stacked balconies wrapping earth-tone walls. Schwarz designed the building in the art deco style of the Hoover Dam, after finding the theme of the architectural landscape here to be challenging: “What stumped us [in Las Vegas] is that there are two versions of the Paris Opera House”—the Paris Las Vegas exterior facade and the inside of the Phantom theater at the Venetian, he said.


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The resemblance to architectural yesteryear is uncanny in nearly every space on the Smith Center campus, including Boman Pavilion, where the light fixtures and even the air vents reflect pre-WWII styles. The Pavilion, home to the Elaine Wynn Studio for Arts Education, includes Cabaret Jazz—a 3,800-square-foot, cafeteria-style venue with mezzanine seating, large windows and wood flooring. Filled with tables and chairs, Cabaret Jazz was designed as a nightly cabaret space that can offer dinner shows.

Troesh Studio Theater, on the first floor of Boman Pavilion, is a nearly 3,000-square-foot space that will serve as more of a black-box space.

The Smith Center’s first public performances arrive this month, including Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the SFJAZZ Collective and a March 18 community open house in Symphony Park—a grassy swatch bookended by an Albert Paley sculpture and local artist Tim Bavington’s colorful steel pipes, which interpret the melody of Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.”

In terms of programming, Martin has long emphasized Broadway, insisting that the community deserves a venue to bring these touring companies to town. Some critics argue that Broadway is the last thing local audiences need, but Martin says strong ticket sales for the Broadway Las Vegas Series, which includes The Color Purple, Memphis and Million Dollar Quartet, have proven that the community wants it.

Some Smith Center performances were taken directly from the UNLV Performing Arts Center’s repertoire: tap dancer Savion Glover, cellist Yo-Yo Ma (performing with the Assad Brothers, who have also played at UNLV), a capella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock and violinist Joshua Bell. Comedian Lily Tomlin, scheduled for May, has been to Las Vegas and bluesman Buddy Guy (also scheduled for May) has performed all over town, as has singer Clint Holmes, who begins a monthly performance at Cabaret Jazz starting in April.

While much of the talk is focused on imported performances, two resident companies are gearing up for their debuts at Smith. The Las Vegas Philharmonic, which tuned the hall in February, performs Mahler’s Second Symphony on March 24. Nevada Ballet Theatre’s “Words on Dance” and “The Studio Series” take place in the Troesh Studio before the company heads into Reynolds Hall for its 40th anniversary Gala Performance May 5.

“We will take our position in the world and be recognized as a world-class city because of this facility,” says Nevada Ballet’s artistic director James Canfield, who added that his company—long performing to recorded music—will play live with the Philharmonic when it “can afford to.”

Symphony Park in Downtown Las Vegas

Affordability has been an issue for NBT and the Phil, challenged by slashed budgets during a recession that has killed peer companies across the country. Both have been raising funds for the move to the Smith Center—at a time when most large individual and corporate donations were being poured into the Smith projects themselves. In addition, quality national acts like the Cleveland Orchestra, which stops at the Smith Center on April 21, have the Philharmonic reconsidering its own marketing campaign, launching the season—“We Play in Vegas. We Stay in Vegas. We are your Las Vegas Philharmonic”—as a way to encourage the support of musicians who live in the community.

The Las Vegas Contemporary Dance Theater is another Smith Center artist-in-residence. The ensemble, led by founding artistic director Bernard Gaddis, has performed mostly at the West Las Vegas Arts Center, but will debut Downtown on May 29.

Martin says the $50 million endowment provided by the Reynolds Foundation allows the Smith Center to underwrite partial operating expenses for performances by local resident companies. Asked whether the endowment will go toward performances by smaller Valley companies hoping to perform at Cabaret Jazz, Smith Center VP Paul Beard said, “We’re open to that. There are a few conversations going on with artists on the local front. We’re able to facilitate any project that has merit.”

Even with its endowment, fund-raising events will be ongoing, board chair Don Snyder says, adding that these kinds of performing arts centers aren’t big moneymakers, and that ticket sales account for only 75 to 80 percent of the bottom line.

Opening with an endowment is rare and almost didn’t happen. Snyder approached the Don Reynolds Foundation twice regarding the performing arts center and was twice told that it wasn’t a project the foundation was interested in backing. The Reynolds Foundation ultimately came around after public funding was secured through a 2 percent rental car tax and the city’s contribution of land and environmental cleanup for the former rail yard.

“Each one reinforced the other,” Snyder told the Las Vegas Weekly in 2010, adding that the Smith Center board couldn’t “go out to the general public and ask them to support a dream.”

The $50 million donation allowed Fred Smith, chairman of the Reynolds Foundation, to put his name on the building. Smith and his wife, Mary, who died in 2010, offered $1 million of their own money to the Founders Club, joining more than 50 other members who collectively gave $76 million. Later, the Foundation gave another $100 million to fund the second hall (which has since been scrapped) and the education complex.

The Smith Center is not just an entertainment venue in a city full of entertainment venues. Some foresee it aiding efforts to diversify the local economy by helping sell Las Vegas to the sorts of businesses that have dismissed the area because of its minimal cultural and community offerings for families.

The Center’s partnership with the Kennedy Center and the Southern Nevada Wolf Trap Early Learning Through the Arts preschool program is all about children. Additionally, the view from the windows of the Elaine Wynn Studio for Arts Education looks out to the new home of Discovery Children’s Museum, scheduled to relocate from the Cultural Corridor in November.

As to whether the Smith Center will elevate the arts experience in Las Vegas, one can argue that it already has. In addition to Smith Center educational arts programs already working with the Valley’s youth, the Philharmonic’s vast improvement in performance is directly related to the new facility: The four candidates vying for the job of conductor in 2006 named the Smith Center as one of their reasons, including David Itkin, who was selected. Musicians and staff with the Philharmonic are already touting the much-improved acoustics at Reynolds Hall and will likely have a bigger platform for audiences—old and new—wanting the Smith Center symphonic experience.

And the Smith Center will be an experience. As for how much the community will experience it, we’ll just have to wait and see.

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