A Stage Under the Stars

Date July 31, 2005 at 10:00 PM

Categories Art Markets & Galleries

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Finish this analogy: Santa Fe is to the Santa Fe Opera as Albuquerque is to ___? If you can't think of anything to fill in the blank, consider this. The Santa Fe Opera is a place where devotees of the arts, and general lovers of a good time, gather to worship on the altar of New Mexico's glorious summers. They picnic and strut in their finery, then experience world class singing, staging and music in a spectacular venue.

What would be the corresponding answer for Albuquerqueans? The Albuquerque Museum's new outdoor amphitheater, of course. Now we Duke City denizens have a place comparable in idyllic purpose, though perhaps not as grand in sweeping architectural scope. The Amphitheater, part of the Museum's $8.3 million renovation and expansion project, opened this summer to evenings of open air jazz, salsa and blues, as well as the occasional theater performance.

The celebration continues after summer's leaves have fallen, too, says Leslie Venzuela, a Museum spokesperson. "As the city celebrates its Tricentennial through next year, we've offered the amphitheater as a way for smaller community groups to perform on a stage and in front of an audience. These are groups who don't have a venue of their own. We're booked through the whole year already with flamenco, dance, music and other events!"€

The enclosed space, walled by stacked stone and industrial steel, contains flagstone paving on the terraces and grassy levels that lead to the covered stage. These give way to steps along the west wall to the roof overlook with its Federico Vigil mural. The angled steel canopy makes the performing venue user-friendly during wet weather in a city where few own an umbrella. During a short evening thunderstorm, jazz aficionados crowded under the overhang until the droplets dissipated, then danced away as if nothing had happened.

Following a larger national trend, the Museum's addition of the 1,000-square-foot amphitheater adds both revenue generating opportunities and a way to expose more people to the institution's impressive collection. The new venue sits in the location of its undersized sculpture garden, which was itself expanded and relocated to the former parking lot. Chairs and blanket-friendly grass hold 400, and when combined with the rooftop, can comfortably accommodate about 1,200 people. The patio and roof encompass a total of 6,000 square feet. During dance events, a wooden floor abuts the stage, to be removed for close-in concert seating.

A scattering of umbrellas and tables on both the amphitheater and upper levels encourages audiences to pick up snacks and soft drinks from area delis and restaurants or visitors can enjoy the full bar and food service provided by the Cooperage Restaurant during the series. The New Mexico Jazz Workshop's 13th season of its Jazz Under the Stars and Salsa Under the Stars go on rain or shine. The Jazz Workshop has also shifted its series of summertime blues concerts from Madrid's ballpark to the new space. Before the amphitheater, the sculpture garden was often crowded to overflow with urban dwellers eager for a bit of local talent and regional touring acts.

Over the past several years, the Jazz Workshop, the oldest and largest jazz organization in the state, has grown into a leading arts presenter in Albuquerque. Last year they boasted a total audience of over 25,000. The summer season at the Museum culminates with the September 4th Labor Day Blues Fest, and blues lovers won't miss the dust or near impossible parking of Madrid, or the fact that alcohol was a no-no. Because of the orientation of the amphitheater, it can be a bit hot during the height of the afternoon. "That's part of the reason we've moved the last two Blues Festival events to 4 to 8 p.m.,"€ says Ed Ulman, the Jazz Workshop's executive director. "In the evening as the sun sets, the entire complex becomes a shady, breezy oasis from the unrelenting New Mexico sun."€

Chantal Foster, editor of Albuquerque's hip city blog www.dukecityfix.com, keeps her finger on the pulse of Duke City sophisticates. She also has high praise for the new venue. "The new amphitheater is intimate yet dramatic. It's got a slick feel for those of us who like to have a glass of wine with friends while listening to music under the setting sun. And I like the nice wine and beer selection which goes beyond the standard merlot and chardonnay offered at other places in town."€

The American Shakespeare Project presented Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing at the amphitheater to packed houses over the July 4th weekend. My husband and I tucked a picnic into a basket and agreed that there could be no better venue for Shakespeare, which has become the equivalent of summertime baseball to performing arts fans. Barry Gaines, University of New Mexico professor and theater critic agrees, citing that matching the venue to the performance is one of the ways to appreciate the arts. "There is no better way to enjoy Shakespeare than in the open air."€

In explaining his experience of the amphitheater, he says, "The venue is utilitarian by design, but invites the audience to relax and stay awhile, especially because it's still light in the summertime when the shows start. There's a real sense of occasion and anticipation, enhanced by the attendance of eager theater lovers and politicos. (On the opening night of Shakespeare) the mayor spoke about the city's commitment to the arts. I love the idea of the city getting involved with the arts and inviting and welcoming the audience to a new venue."€

Ulman admires the amphitheater, too, in part because of the amenities that patrons can find by being on the Museum's grounds. "Primarily, it's great to have a stage. Food and drink is more accessible, and having the Museum open is great for ducking inside to cool off. Plus the intimate seats near the stage give the audience a chance to concentrate on the music or dancing while the upper deck provides an opportunity for intimate conversations with friends. What we find is that people can listen intently for a period of time, then venture inside or onto the rooftop for a break."€

Ulman recounts that the concerts are consistently drawing larger and larger audiences, which he attributes to the new space. "The sculpture garden is now more accessible, and we purposely schedule our concerts for three hours so people can explore the art as well as dance, mingle and listen to the music. It's fabulous to be outside celebrating the summer in the spectacular atmosphere, with Old Town right there, too."€ And because of the new venue, Ulman also says that the nonprofit has gained more business sponsorship and support from the community, always a plus for an arts organization.

Venzuela wraps it up nicely, "The amphitheater has opened up the Museum to an increasing and increasingly diverse audience. These are people who are totally new to the Museum and what it has to offer. By bringing them here to celebrate the performing arts, it creates interest in the exhibits, gift shop and other amenities the Museum has to offer."€

The Albuquerque Museum is at 2000 Mountain Road NW (near Old Town) For program information or tickets call 505.243.7255. Their website is www.cabq.gov/museum.

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