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Sunday, July 8, 2012 - Page updated at 06:00 p.m.
Smith Center aims to put Las Vegas on culture map
By ADAM NAGOURNEY
The New York Times
LAS VEGAS — It rises 2 miles from the flash and hustle of the Strip: a swirl of Italian marble, Indiana limestone, Venetian marble and zebrawood, topped by a 16-story campanile with 47 bronze bells.
There is an acoustically tuned stage designed for orchestras and Broadway shows, a warren of grand chambers with inlaid wood and sweeping desert views, and Art Deco touches meant to recall the last ambitious engineering feat in the Nevada desert — the Hoover Dam.
When the Smith Center for the Performing Arts opened in Las Vegas in March, Jennifer Hudson was on the program and Neil Patrick Harris was the master of ceremonies. But it was Joshua Bell, the classical violinist, who drew the most applause from the homegrown audience, cheering what seemed a moment of arrival for a city whose cultural association is more likely to be Liberace than Liszt.
"That was the defining moment for me: Yup, they got it," said Elaine Wynn, the former wife of Steve Wynn and a director of Wynn Las Vegas, recalling the emotion that swept over her as the audience applauded. "For me to go see Yo-Yo Ma and the Brazilian guitarists in Las Vegas — I mean 20 years ago, that was unheard of."
For more than 25 years, Las Vegas has laid claim to being the entertainment capital of the nation. But it has presented a very specific kind of entertainment — elaborate, mass-market, big-ticket showstoppers like Cirque du Soleil, Elton John, Celine Dion and Siegfried & Roy. And it has been aimed at a very specific audience: tourists who come to the Strip, as opposed to the people who live here.
Las Vegas had the unwelcome distinction of being the largest city in the nation without a major performing arts center. In 2010, The Daily Beast named it the dumbest of the 55 largest cities in America.
The Smith Center, with its dazzlingly ostentatious architectural ambition — very much in keeping with the nothing-is-too-extravagant spirit of Las Vegas — has set out to change that. The center cost $470 million and took 33 months to build.
A delegation of Las Vegas civic leaders toured concert halls around the world — La Scala in Milan, the Opera House in Budapest, Carnegie Hall in New York — in search of inspiration as they conceived what was in effect their dream hall to be built on this 5-acre plot on a former brownfield.
"In many ways, we've been the tale of two cities: the entertainment capital of the world and the city where people live with their families," said Myron G. Martin, the president of the Smith Center. "I don't think anyone would dispute that Las Vegas did its best job at taking care of tourists."
"This is a community that has been on the list of the largest cities in North America without a major league sports team, an academic medical center and a world-class performing arts center," he said. "We have now checked one of those boxes." Until three months ago, fans of classical music, dance and theater had to make weekend trips to Los Angeles, Salt Lake City or Philadelphia, or wait for shows to land at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
"There was lots of people who simply said, 'I don't want to play Las Vegas,' even though they might have been touring from Los Angeles to Denver to Salt Lake City," said Martin, who previously worked at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, performing center.
The Smith Center has opened with a diverse calendar that included the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and such Broadway transplants as "Wicked." Night after night, nearly all of the 2,050 chocolate-colored seats in the five-tier main hall have been filled.
The first hire by the Smith Center was not the architect, but an acoustical engineering firm. And that has paid dividends: The Cleveland Orchestra's performance of a program of Beethoven and Smetana drew raves for the acoustics in a review from the music critic of The Cleveland Plain Dealer. It ran with the presumably inevitable headline, "Cleveland Orchestra hits the jackpot in concert at Vegas' new Smith Center."
The project was born nearly 20 years ago in a meeting of 60 community leaders at the Golden Nugget, the Las Vegas war horse that can be seen from the balcony of the center. Even then, participants recalled, the meeting echoed with frustration over the absence of a cultural core for a relatively young city.
"Growing up there, the only time we could get any kind of cultural thing is when we went over to the university," Elaine Wynn said. "We were thinking it was really time for Las Vegas to have its own."
Donald D. Snyder, the chairman of the center's board of directors, said that from the start, the ambition was to build a hall that would rival the Hoover Dam as "the most important project built in our lifetime in Nevada."
"When we started talking about this 18 years or so ago," he said, "I don't think any of us had any idea that this was possible."
The financing of the project suggests the civic hunger: $150 million was donated from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, a philanthropic organization in Nevada whose president is Frederick W. Smith, a retired newspaper executive and for whom the center is named. Fifty-seven families and individuals wrote checks of at least $1 million. Another $150 million is to be raised through a tax on airport car rentals, approved by the state Legislature.
At the end of their visits to concert halls, the Las Vegas civic delegation was most impressed by the Bass Concert Hall at the University of Texas, Austin, and hired its architect, David M. Schwarz. But the center drew inspiration from everywhere, with a wish list of flourishes and materials coveted at other halls.
"We loved, loved, loved Venetian plaster," Martin said. "And now we have it."
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