New Club-Like Venue Unites Campus and Community

March 22, 2017

Erich Burnett

The William and Helen Birenbaum Innovation and Performance Space

Oberlin Conservatory has added a distinctive new performance venue in time for spring semester: The William and Helen Birenbaum Innovation and Performance Space, a club-like, subterranean structure in the Hotel at Oberlin, officially opened in late January with a performance by Oberlin voice students. The space was formally dedicated in early March at a celebration with Oberlin trustees.

Operated by the conservatory, the Birenbaum will serve as an entrepreneurial space for Oberlin College and Conservatory of Music students by day and an intimate, 100-plus capacity concert club by night, hosting everything from student recitals to conservatory ensembles to guest artists and special events.

Benefiting from its location at the heart of downtown Oberlin, the Birenbaum is intended to connect campus and community life through its programming and amenities—most notably a sleek and stylish bar that extends along the east side of the room, which will be open to the public most nights from 7-11 p.m. The space boasts a contemporary vibe, with polished concrete walls and floor, exposed ceilings, and flourishes of cork incorporated in the bar top and the walls and floor of its Kulas Stage.

For student musicians, the Birenbaum offers a performance setting that is distinct from campus venues and closely resembles nontraditional locales many musicians are now exploring in their professional lives. In only its first few weeks of availability to Oberlin’s classical, jazz, and TIMARA students and ensembles, the venue was completely booked for the spring semester.

“The Birenbaum was conceived and designed to be a place of intersection—a place of connected learning,” says Dean of the Conservatory Andrea Kalyn. “In both modes, this is a space designed to inspire our students to make connections across the curriculum and to imagine—and even more critically, to practice—the ways in which their education can live beyond Oberlin, in the community, the profession, and the world.”  

The Birenbaum is named for the parents of attorney Charles Birenbaum ’79 of San Francisco, chairman of the Northern California offices of Greenberg Traurig and an Oberlin College trustee. Birenbaum’s daughter, Julia Birenbaum ’17, is a student at Oberlin. The venue was dedicated March 3 in a ceremony that featured three generations of Birenbaums, including Charles’ mother, Helen. Oberlin College President Marvin Krislov and Dean Kalyn spoke at the event.

Hours later, the Birenbaum played host to a performance by the Oberlin Sinfonietta, conducted by Timothy Weiss. The eclectic program included works by Beethoven, 19th-century Danish composer Emil Hartmann, and Oberlin faculty composer Jesse Jones, and featured side-by-side performances of students with faculty flutist Alexa Still, oboist Mingjia Liu ’10, clarinetist Richard Hawkins, and French hornist Roland Pandolfi. (The first official performance in the Birenbaum was a winter-term project called Words into Sound, which took place January 27. Coordinated by voice faculty member Lorraine Manz and conductor Joseph Mechavich '92, it featured conservatory singers performing works by Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer, with Scheer in attendance.)

The Birenbaum was designed by the Cleveland-based firm Westlake Reed Leskosky, which has led recent renovations of the Apollo Theatre and the conservatory’s Bibbins Hall, and designed the Bertram and Judith Kohl Building, home to Oberlin’s jazz program. Accessible from College Street or via the hotel lobby elevator, the Birenbaum welcomes guests in a vestibule gallery space that features artwork by Oberlin students.

Like the new Hotel at Oberlin, which opened in spring 2016, the Birenbaum is part of Oberlin’s Green Arts District, a plan for building and renovating a 13-acre city block at the corner of East College and North Main streets to be energy self-sufficient and carbon-neutral, providing a model for sustainable construction everywhere.

The Birenbaum represents the ninth performance space on campus used by conservatory musicians. It is the first new space since the creation of Stull Recital Hall, part of a 2013 renovation of Bibbins Hall. Stull Hall was named in honor of David H. Stull ’89, dean of the conservatory from 2004 to 2013.

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