N.Y. arts center on long road back to success

Julie Sherwood

Bring Willie Nelson back and interject a little more variety — Latino, a cappella, maybe Dylan again. Mix things up more. That's the advice from local people in the entertainment business but with no ties to the CMAC, officially called the Constellation Brands-Marvin Sands Performing Arts Center.

This past season at the rebuilt auditorium, Willie Nelson and Ricky Skaggs drew a crowd of nearly 6,000 — close to double the average attendance for the 10 concerts this past season at the CMAC.

Apart from such acts as Alison Krauss or the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, the bulk of the shows were retro — such as Liza Minnelli, Eddie Money and the Moody Blues — or performers who are not quite household names yet — animal-tamer Jeff Corwin, talking head Glenn Beck or  jazz singer Diana Krall.  

The Hopewell shell was never in the top tier of auditoriums — such as the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, which back in the '60s and early '70s attracted such mega-groups as The Who — but it drew the likes of Sting, Whitney Houston, the Pointer Sisters, Jackson Browne, Neil Young, Hootie and the Blowfish and Dave Matthews when those performers were still current.

This summer was the second season since $13 million was spent rebuilding the facility, which opened in 1983, and it was a marked improvement over the first season, which featured such forgettable acts as Hippiefest. Willie Nelson was definitely more than a few steps up from such booked '06 acts as Larry the Cable Guy (actually a no-show).

"We knew it wouldn't be instant, overnight — it takes a few years to get to where you want to be," said Don Jeffries, president of the Rochester Broadway Theatre League, which manages and operates the CMAC.

Though it's too soon to pinpoint specifics for next season, Jeffries said, RBTL is "looking at more acts, and a bigger variety of acts."

Local fans had some suggestions. 

Professional musician Frank Meyer of Canandaigua isn't surprised the Willie Nelson concert topped the charts at the concert arena this year. It wasn't just the middle-aged crowd that turned out to hear the legend, said Meyer, of the duo Meyer & McGuire. Meyer saw quite a few teenagers and 20-somethings at the concert.

So timelessness is good, said Meyer. Along those lines, he'd like to see Bob Dylan back — a great, like Willie Nelson, who "transcends the generations."

And politically charged acts wouldn't be bad, either, he said, suggesting the Dixie Chicks, also, in his opinion "solid musicians."

Mary Shannon, a singer-songwriter from Naples, said she would love to see more international music. The Gypsy Kings, with their Latin sound, or the Irish music of Clannad, could go over big, she said. Shannon said she also thinks a cappella groups and Baroque music would round out the CMAC's usual mix of jazz, rock, folk and alternative concerts.

What variety there was seemed to pay off this season. Next to country singer Nelson, the biggest draw was bluegrass singer Krauss and her backup group Union Station, followed by torch singer Krall and horn player Chris Botti, then retro rockers Moody Blues and contemporary rockers O.A.R.

For the entire year-two season,  total attendance was the highest it has been in five years: 44,025. That includes figures for the four Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra concerts: 12,854 in total, or an average of 3,214 per concert, the best crowds for the orchestra's summer series since 1998.

"We saw some growth this year," said RBTL's Jeffries.

Jeffries said he sees the jump in attendance at the four RPO concerts as particularly telling. Unlike the other concerts, which draw audiences based on individual taste, RPO-goers are looking for the same type of entertainment, Jeffries noted. So it appears those larger crowds are responding to the new facility. The CMAC offers 5,000 covered seats, twice as many as its predecessor, as well as updated sound and lighting technology.

"It's a long-term process to get back on the radar with promoters," said Jeffries.

Julie Sherwood can be reached at (585) 394-0770, Ext. 263, or at jsherwood@mpnewspapers.com.