Area musicians regard the Bastyr University Chapel as wonderful place to perform, not only because the sound quality, but because the chapel itself is so lovely.
As Heather Blackburn drew the bow across the strings of her cello, the tender, passionate notes of a Brahms sonata filled the space of Bastyr University’s chapel, soaring five stories into the rectangular nave.
This chapel, formerly part of a Catholic seminary, was designed 50 years ago for the purpose of communion with God.
But somehow — perhaps by accident, perhaps by design — the chapel also captured that most elusive of qualities: near-perfect acoustics.
Area musicians know it as a wonderful place to perform, not only because of the sound quality but because the chapel itself is so lovely. Recording artists have sought out its space.
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A half-dozen movie scores were recorded here, including “Brokeback Mountain,” “About Schmidt” and “Mr. Holland’s Opus.” Musician Dave Matthews used it to record the orchestral track of his album “Some Devil.”
“It has just enough reverb so performers feel confident,” said Blackburn, a cellist for the Oregon Symphony, who was rehearsing Brahms’ Sonata in F Major for a performance there earlier this week.
“It’s fantastic. Love it,” echoed Blackburn’s accompanist, freelance pianist Sandra Bleiweiss, of Tacoma. “It’s fun to play in here.”
Pam Vaughn, director of conference services for the university, is in charge of booking the long, narrow chapel, which seats about 400 people. She has often wondered just why the chapel is so acoustically stunning.
Architect Ralph Lund, who designed it in the 1950s and died in 1994, wrote an extensive description of his design. He wrote almost entirely about the artwork and the materials used to create a sense of “dignity, beauty, richness and warmth” in the sanctuary — but said not a word about the acoustics.
That has led Vaughn to conclude the acoustics are a fluke. “He built it for the artwork,” she said.
Of course, for musicians, the two qualities intertwine. The chapel’s jewel-like interior and soaring space can have a profound effect on performance, and not just because instruments sound good in here.
“What makes chamber music so special here is the surroundings,” said Joyce Ramee, who co-directs the Max Aronoff Viola Institute, an annual summer camp for high-school and adult viola, violin and cello players.
The chapel’s rich colors evoke the beauty of Europe’s great cathedrals, on a smaller scale. Both sides of the nave are decorated with a mosaic of the Stations of the Cross, by Italian artist Antonio Carlini.
The chapel contains 36 stained-glass windows, designed by Harry Clarke Studios of Dublin, Ireland. The chapel is adorned with Italian marble, oak pews and paneling, and gold leaf.
The viola institute, co-founded by Ramee, has met at Bastyr every year since 1997.
“It is a hall that audiences love,” Ramee said. “It is really special for listening.” When her students come into the chapel for the first time to rehearse, “they go, ‘Wow,’ ” she said. “It’s such a different sound.”
Aronoff was a violist for the Philadelphia Symphony and one of the most influential viola teachers of his time. Ramee, who studied under Aronoff, created the institute to honor his memory and teach with his methods, and it has taken root in the Seattle area even though Aronoff had no connections to this place.
Bastyr University is in the former St. Thomas Seminary, a Catholic seminary run by the Sulpicians, a teaching order of priests.
It abuts St. Edward State Park, which also contains a former Catholic seminary building, most of which is closed to the public and in need of repair.
The old St. Thomas seminary campus is fairly utilitarian and school-like, with its flat-roofed buildings made of yellow brick.
And so when Vaughn throws open the copper doors to the chapel, first-time visitors often let out a gasp at the sight of the exquisite interior.
“It’s a very special place,” she said, “and people know that when they walk in.”
Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or firstname.lastname@example.org