Orchestra Pit Takes One Step Closer To Reality At New Middle/High Schools

Photo: Arto Asadoorian, director of fine & performing arts in Belmont.

It may not be Broadway but its looking likely the theater in the new Belmont Middle and High School will have a professional-designed orchestra pit after the school’s building committee OK’d moving forward with a basic design on Thursday, Oct. 10.

After a nearly unanimous vote to move forward on designs and installing piles where the $150,000 pit will be constructed, supporters – including Parents Of Music Students, Parents of Performing Arts Students and the School Department’s Arts department – committed to a fund raising effort to improve even more the space’s functionality.

“It is a good night for the arts,” said Arto Asadoorian, director of fine & performing arts who helped spearhead the effort to include the orchestra pit into the theater.

“As an artist, I think [a pit] should be part of every auditorium” as it “really affects the number of kids who can be part of the theater department,” said Asadoorian.

The push for a pit started month before after architectural drawings revealed no dedicated area for musicians in the front of the stage. “We didn’t anticipate it,” said Bill Lovallo, chair of the Belmont Middle and High School Building Committee, noting that the Massachusetts School Building Authority – which the town is partnering with on constructing the new school – does not mention a pit as part of the educational program.

A pit will allow a greater number of student musicians – up to 16 to 20 – to be part of arts programs such as playing in the annual musicals for both schools, reducing the need for professional musicians.

The pit’s educational aspect caught the attention of many members of the committee.

“This [building] project is about growing our programs to better serve our students,” said Lovallo.

Supporters also noted a pit can not be retrofitted into a completed theater; it’s either add it now so it can be part of the building’s construction or abandon having a dedicated space.

For the most part the building committee members were supportive of adding a pit to the theater although it came with a “Jerry McGuire” caveat: “Show me the money!”

“I don’t want to be kidding anyone, it’s going to cost us to add a pit,” said Lovallo. After having conducted at times a painful value engineering process of cutting just over $19 million of cost overruns in the past month, committee members said their approval would be contingent on funding.

Lovallo said the committee will know if the funding is available within a month after a review of the project’s expenses with 90 percent of construction design is completed.

But even with funding still up in the air, the committee appeared ready to give a thumbs up to the addition.

“I think it’s a worthwhile add,” said Jamie Shea, the Foundation for Belmont Education representative and a Belmont High teacher. “I think it has a direct impact on programming, a direct impact on our students.”

And while pointing out that a pit allows the school to leverage the theater space to accommodate more students and programs, “but we should be thoughtful about how we move forward,” said John Phelan, Belmont School Superintendent. With many aspects of the building’s design already put on hold, “we must decide whether this is where the money needs to go or to other [areas] that we put on hold.”

One member, Bob McLaughlin, pondered out loud that since High School musical productions are not “professional” quality that a pit was more a luxury than educational necessity.

“If we start to find money at the 90 percent, there’s still time to put some of those things that were so painful to cut back in the budget” that are of a greater priority than an orchestra pit.

But for the head of the Belmont arts education, while the performances are by students, “[w]e take this seriously,” said Asadoorian. Saying he never once heard in his 14 years anyone in the community describe an arts program as “just a high school” event, Asadoorian said standards for performances at Belmont school’s “are way higher than that.”

“What we’re asking for is that you give us a space where we can put our students in a position where they can be successful,” said Asadoorian, who added that due to the new theater being more compact than the existing site, the absence of a pit will not allow for the status quo of musical performances in the future.

With the knowledge that a price point for the pit would be asked by the building committee members, Perkins+Will’s Elizabeth Dame presented four design scenarios of which the most expensive – a pit with a mechanical lift for more than $650,000 – and the existing “no pit” plan were quickly set aside.

In the end, the committee coalesced around the less costly of the two remaining designs; a 27-inch deep pit with no infill panels and a movable ramp and guard rails. Construction and design costs is estimated at $152,200. And it is anticipated that one or a combination of arts supporter groups will fundraise in the future so the pit will include infill panels.

While they will not make a firm decision until next month, the committee approved spending $25,000 to commit to initial site work and setting piles as the project is beginning the critical concrete foundation work and prepping for steel erection.

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