Arts / Performing Arts

Fort Worth’s Performing Arts Jewel Turns 25 — A Closer Look at Bass Hall With City-Changing Architect David Schwarz

A PaperCity Interview Exclusive

BY // 05.11.22

Fort Worth’s city lifting Bass Performance Hall is celebrating 25 years, having opened back on May 1, 1998. Officially named in honor of Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass, it has held sway as the cultural center for performing arts in Fort Worth for a quarter century.

Bass Hall serves as the home of four resident companies ― Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, Fort Worth Opera, Texas Ballet Theater and the quadrennial Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. The 16th Cliburn Competition will once again hold its finals at the hall in June. Bass Hall also hosts traveling Broadway productions, which means shows like Cats, Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen.

On the occasion of Bass Performance Hall’s 25th anniversary, who better to discuss its design and legacy than the architect of this epic concert hall?

David M. Schwarz, founder and chairman of his eponymous David M. Schwarz Architects, with its home office in Washington DC, has left a lasting imprint on many parts of Texas. American Airlines Center in Dallas and Southlake Town Square are among his projects. But Schwarz’s real legacy may be found in Fort Worth with projects that have reshaped the city.

Schwarz is the man behind the design of the still relatively new Dickies Arena, Sundance Square and several key Fort Worth buildings. The expansion of Cook Children’s Medical Center and The National Cowgirl Museum among them.

The Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth was the Schwarz firm’s very first performing arts commission. Since then, the company has gone on to design many other notable concert halls, including Severance Hall, home of the renowned Cleveland Orchestra.

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“It was the start of something important for us,” David Schwarz tells PaperCity Fort Worth. “But, in the beginning, I felt that our consultants knew more about concert halls than I did. So I spent three weeks in Europe, touring between 50 to 60 concert halls and attending performances. About three a day. I learned an enormous amount.

Bass Hall brought a touch of European elegance to Fort Worth.

“Now it’s one of my hobbies to visit concert halls wherever I am in the world. There are some surprising ones in out-of-the-way places. They represent the highest artistic and cultural aspirations of the community — at the time they are built.”

That speaks highly of Fort Worth’s own artistic aspirations.

“One of the most difficult things for any architect,” Schwarz notes, “Is that point where you have to let go of your children, and trust the owners or the community to take good care of them. I am very pleased with the amount of care and affection that has been shown to Bass Hall.

“I get to see my buildings when life brings me in contact with them, and I’ve been in close contact with Bass Hall over the years, working so often in Fort Worth.”

Throughout his career, Schwarz has had a true patron in the client of Ed Bass. Their partnership has endured for decades resulting in a prolific body of work in once little ‘ol Fort Worth. The duo’s most recent triumph was the opening of Dickies Arena.

“It was in the works for over a decade and I was so sad that the arena had to be closed due to COVID, so soon after its debut,” Schwarz says. “I am glad it is now reopened and being enjoyed by Fort Worth.”

Classical Concert Hall Design

The most notable feature to grace the white facade of Bass Hall are its iconic 45-foot tall trumpeting angel sculptures. Crafted of Cordova crème limestone, mined from Texas quarries, they are the work of sculptor Márton Váró.

The remarkable angels on Bass Hall overlook downtown Fort Worth.

“There aren’t that many buildings that deserve to be a landmark. That building was meant to be a landmark for the Fort Worth community,” Schwarz says.

Three original drawings of Bass Performance Hall are now included in The Royal Institute of British Architects Library’s prestigious Drawings and Archives Collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. They were placed into the permanent collection in 2017, to be made available for generations of architects, historians, students and tourists alike to enjoy. Or study.

Schwarz’s Bass Hall vision now resides along with other preeminent original architectural drawings, including the work of Inigo Jones and Sir Christopher Wren.

Of the Bass Hall auditorium’s classical opera house design, Schwarz says: “It is very European. We pride ourselves in what we call contextual design, taking into account the purpose of the building. Bass Hall is related to other concert halls meant to play music ― the European opera houses, symphony halls, and spaces intended for music and dance ― just like those built hundreds of years ago.”

Inside the theatre, you’ll find the grand lobby capped by a soaring two and half story vaulted ceiling. A central staircase leads to the mezzanine lobby.

The Sweet Sound of Success at Bass Hall

Bass Hall has been widely touted for its impressive acoustics. Performers from Yo-Yo Ma to Tony Bennett have offered their praise. The performance hall’s multi-use adaptability ― transforming seamlessly from opera house to Broadway stage ― has been achieved without sacrificing the highest quality acoustic environment for each performance mode. Bass Hall is capable of seating 2,000 to 2,100 people depending on the configuration.

“People tend to relate the building to the music for which they are designed,” Schwarz says. “I’ve heard it said that the most important instrument is the building itself.”

That being said, acoustic materials and applications have come a long way in the past 25 years. Yet Bass Hall stands up. Schwarz set out to learn what made the great halls of Europe sound so good, even though they were constructed hundreds of years ago. Aside from the curvature of the walls themselves, Schwarz found that much of it lies in the ornamentation and details of a hall.

Bass Performance Hall was brought to life through the partnership of its architect David M. Schwarz and its backer Ed Bass.

“We used many of the same tricks of those historic concert halls,” Schwarz tells PaperCity. “The columns, for instance, reflect high frequencies ― the most treble of notes. Everything in the room is doing something acoustically. But it also looks beautiful.”

Inside the hall itself, your eye is immediately drawn to the coffered and domed focal point ceiling. Feathered wings encircle what Schwarz calls the rooms “quote-unquote window to the sky” painted by Fort Worth artists Scott and Stuart Gentling ― the brothers so well known for their Audubon-esque masterwork known as Of Birds & Texas.

“We used the angel and feather motif throughout the design, from the angels rising on the exterior to design elements in the wood paneling and, of course, the ceiling,” Schwarz says.

“I had a great partner in Ed Bass. I always share the credit with him. Working with him on this project was a real joy. You can only build wonderful structures if your client also wants to build something wonderful.”

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