Calliope moves into Pittsburgh Center for the Art's new venue for acoustic music
September 24, 2009 4:00 AM
The Mavens open Calliope's new season in a new space at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts.
By Manny Theiner
In the past few months, contractors and technicians have been working steadily to transform a basement room in Shadyside's Pittsburgh Center for the Arts into the newest venue for acoustic music in the city. On Friday, the public will see the results for the first time in the "soft opening" of Simmons Hall, with the appearance of The Mavens, a local band specializing in honky-tonk, Western swing and roots-rock.
The force behind this debut is Calliope, a nonprofit organization with a subscriber base dedicated to the promotion and presentation of traditional folk music, from Appalachia and the Ozarks to the rolling green hills of Ireland. Founded 33 years ago by George Balderose -- still an active bagpipe instructor and booking agent -- in a house on the North Side, Calliope is known for many facets: songwriting nights around town, a school of folk music instruction, and the Smoky City Folk Festival (retooled for global warming as Rootz: The Green City Music Festival). Its most visible component is the Acoustic Masters performance series that attracts crowds to Carnegie Lecture Hall in Oakland (this season kicks off with The Klezmatics on Oct. 17).
But, despite decades of commitment, the group never ran its own venue since the days when both the offices and concerts were held in Balderose's Calliope House. That finally has changed, according to Calliope executive director Patricia Tanner ("Tricia"), whose 11-year tenure included the momentous move in 2004 to the PCA, which had merged with Pittsburgh Filmmakers.
"We have a history of collaborating with Filmmakers and the PCA, where we've been holding our local artist showcase and annual blues barbecue," explains Tanner. "But we thought it would be just wonderful to have a larger space, and Charlie [Humphrey, Filmmakers' executive director who came to the rescue of a bankrupt PCA in 2004] said, ' What about Simmons Hall?' So our boards met and approved it, but we knew it was going to take a lot of work."
Originally, Simmons Hall (named after a steel magnate, as many edifices seem to be around here) was just a room with mirrored walls and a polished wooden floor, suitable for dance classes and the occasional special event rental. "It looked like a dance studio, with a divider in the center," she says. "We used that space for some Calliope School classes."
But now, you'd be hard-pressed to recognize the room if you came for a concert. Able to contain 50 to 150 audience members, depending on the configuration, the venue has been transformed with decorative wainscoting, acoustic sound panels and ceiling baffles, with tasteful draperies covering the mirrors.
Unlike the Lecture Hall with its rows of seats, the Simmons will exude a club-like atmosphere.
"We'll have tables and chairs, cocktail rounds and bar stools, and other interesting arrangements like comfy contemporary furniture," says Tanner. "The PCA already has a liquor license, so there'll be a cash bar and, at some point, food may be available for certain events."
The sectioned stage allows volunteers to tailor it to the artists Calliope brings. "We might have a 12-by-12 stage for a band, or something much smaller if it's just a singer-songwriter on a stool.
"We'll put it up and tear it down -- It's a very portable system, so we don't anticipate any problems."
None of the extensive renovation would have been possible without some fortuitous financial assistance.
"After our Rootz festival in 2008, I was approached by an music enthusiast and longtime friend of Calliope about how exciting it would be to have concerts regularly on the PCA campus, and we started talking about how to make that happen. His contribution [the donor prefers to remain anonymous] really started the evolution of the whole project."
Except for the stage, the setup doesn't seem that different from several comparably sized venues in town that already cater to the folkie and Adult Alternative sets (including Lawrenceville's Your Inner Vagabond, saved from extinction last week by the owner of Istanbul Grille). But Tanner strongly believes that there aren't enough acoustic music venues and has the experience to back up that claim.
"I go to the International Folk Alliance conference, held in Memphis every February, where there are over 2,000 musicians showcasing, It would be great to be able to present some of the artists [whom] we've had the opportunity to hear live, but so far, we've been very limited. Also, we haven't been able to help when artists tour between large venues and need a [connecting] date in Pittsburgh. For example, if the Club Cafe or the Thunderbird Cafe has another gig that night, it would give the artists more booking flexibility."
Another advantage Simmons Hall has is proximity to a large portion of the Calliope subscriber base, concentrated in the city's East End.
Tanner adds that many university students live near the venue and can walk to it, while crossover between the compatible PCA, Filmmakers and Calliope audiences is inevitable as well.
"This Friday, the PCA has their annual Artist of the Year opening, which starts at 5 p.m. Then people can go downstairs and hear music at 7, so it's a full evening."
Such synergistic efforts bode well for the PCA's 10-year strategic plan, according to its executive director, Laura Domencic. "A lot of it is based on collaboration with other organizations such as Calliope. We want to be more of a destination spot, where you go to the Center and there's always something going on."
Domencic stresses that the renovation of Simmons Hall is just as much of a boon for the PCA as it is for Calliope. "By having a club atmosphere, we can host other activities and musical acts in the space [including] social events for our members. This past summer, we had resident artists performing music, dance and puppetry, so in the winter months we can bring them inside and make [Simmons] a social atmosphere -- a place to hang out and have that artistic environment."
Tanner concurs, noting that the space will be appropriate both as an intimate listening venue for singer-songwriters and lively dance club for upbeat bluegrass and swing bands, such as The Mavens, The Wiyos (scheduled for Nov. 19) and the Hot Seats (Dec. 17), as well as the grand opening Blues & Barbeque, headlined by Ernie Hawkins on Oct. 23.
And Calliope could benefit from a youthful injection of interest, given that its main supporters average at the upper range of the baby-boomer set. "This allows us to attract both a young audience and the young musicians whose stars are rising."
Some events Tanner has in mind include student showcases and community-oriented jam sessions led by teachers from Calliope's school, as well as offering the room to other regional music organizations.
"We hope to eventually program the space on a weekly basis, and look forward to collaborating with the PCA and Filmmakers, providing music on the days they have events. We're a small organization with only two full-time employees, so it'll be a while before we can increase that programming."
In the meantime, is an economic recession the best period in which to open a grand and ambitious music venture?
"People are really reaching out for more entertainment in these glum times. They're not spending on big-ticket items, so maybe they'll take their 10 or 20 dollars and go out to hear some music instead. It's better for the soul anyway."
Manny Theiner is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer.