By Lars Trodson
---- — The Music Hall in Portsmouth may have been born in the 19th century, but it very much has the vision and energy of a 21st century child.
This historic venue is one of the most popular and well-known performance spaces in the Northeast, and yet, it does not sit still. The people who operate The Music Hall realize that it’s not enough to wait for an audience to come to you. You also need to reach out to your audience.
Not so long ago the The Music Hall was considered a cultural gem, but this reputation was based more on its stature as a historic building than for anything happening inside. There were concerts and movies, but locals would tell you that the mission of The Music Hall was rather undefined.
In its long history, the venue had seen its ups and downs. Eight years ago the Board of Directors decided the hall needed some new energy and hired Patricia Lynch as executive director and lead curator. She had been in charge of two theaters in Minneapolis/St. Paul.
The board, she said, was looking for a “bold vision; someone who could bring us to the next place.”
The Music Hall had all “the right ingredients,” Lynch said: It was an outstanding regional performing hall located in a community oriented toward the arts and near the ocean (always an attraction). Also, The Music Hall could attract performers with more talent and stature than those who migh normally perform in a town of 22,000 people.
What The Music Hall needed to do was “to mix these ingredients together in the right way,” Lynch said. “I needed to mix it up, create some signature programs, and become very oriented toward the business side.”
When she came on board, The Music Hall was in a “very precarious situation.
“You can’t make good decisions if you’re freaked out about money all the time,” Lynch said.
In the past couple of years, The Music Hall opened The Loft, located on Congress Street, which showcases artists who might not be a good fit for the larger 900-seat venue, and also presents movies and produces plays.
A significant fund-raising effort helped renovate the lobby of the historic 1878 building located at 28 Chestnut St. The lobby was expanded and a lounge built that allowed patrons to relax inside The Music Hall before or after a show.
Lynch said the Board also recently passed a strategic plan that incorporates three core values: innovation, community outreach and a commitment, to help Portsmouth stay a strong arts community by contributing to the local economy.
She pointed out that The Music Hall injects $7 million annually into the Portsmouth area through “in-show related spending.”
Its community outreach involves such initiatives as a program for at-risk young women to meet artists backstage.
The Music Hall also wants to combine art with local culture, such as the time when the Soweto Gospel Choir participated in a candlelight procession to the city’s historic African burial ground where more than 200 African-American slaves are buried.
The acts that the venue has scheduled for the upcoming year are indeed more prominent than one would expect to appear in a small city by the sea. They include Margaret Cho, Rufus Wainwright, Justin Townes Earle, Bob Newhart, Salman Rushdie and others.
The authors are part of the Writers on a New England Stage program -- one of the many signature programs Lynch and her team has created in the past few years. Others are the Writers In The Loft series and Digital Portsmouth, where local residents can connect in person about what’s happening in emerging media.
“These are the kinds of events that make this town,” said Lynch.
As for the future, Lynch said the venue, which has a staff of about 20, a Board of Directors that has 23 members and volunteer force of more than 300, must stay nimble.
“This is all a team effort,” she said.
With Portland, Maine, up the road just a little bit, and Boston down the road not much farther, Lynch has answers as to why someone should come from out of town to see an act at The Music Hall in Portsmouth.
“They’re going to have a better experience,” she said. “There’s more parking here. There are great restaurants. You can walk everywhere. You can celebrate with one another in this wonderful, easy, small town atmosphere.”
Lynch mentioned that above all, Portsmouth is a safe place.
“You’re getting this incredible quality of life when you come to Portsmouth and see an artist in a venue where you’re so close you can kiss them,” she said.
And when the show is over, “You can leave,” Lynch said, “And then come back.”
ABOUT THE VENUEs
WHAT: The Music Hall.
WHERE: 28 Chestnut St., Portsmouth, N.H.
HOW: For more information on the upcoming season,call (603) 436-2400 or visit www.themusichall.org .