Nearly ten minutes of thunderous applause brought the reclusive Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel back to the stage for one more encore. He finally re-emerged and quietly began to sing and play his guitar un-amplified on the edge of the stage. As all 1,166 of us slowly joined in, it seemed as though you could pick out each individual voice in the crowd, Mangum’s above all. Each voice bounced gently off Sanders Theatre’s vast vaulted ceiling, falling together in an eerie and beautiful chorus that sounded more like a prayer than a song. To see a musician like Mangum in a place like Sanders Theatre feels sacred – simultaneously solemn and joyful. Sanders’ long pew-style benches contribute to the religious experience, as do the tremendous stained glass windows throughout the hall.
While the theatre’s amazing acoustics make it an ideal setting for serious choral and orchestral performances, Mangum is only one example of the numerous less traditional acts that are booked there as well. In late September, for example, the theatre provided a home for the 2011 Nobel Prize Ceremony, honoring improbable research (“research that makes people laugh and then think.”) The ceremony included the world premiere of a mini-opera called “Chemist in a Coffee Shop,” an appearance by a 2007 winner who co-authored a study on the side effects of sword swallowing, and many other curiosities.
Sanders’ Theatre’s intimacy is remarkable: any seat puts you close to the stage A sold-out show puts you extremely close to your neighbors as well, but it’s easy to tune out your surroundings and hone in on the music, which is perfectly amplified due to the meticulously designed acoustics. The extraordinarily large chandelier might bring about some anxiety if you’re familiar with The Phantom of the Opera, but nonetheless, it’s a lovely piece of decor.
Sanders Theatre’s design is modeled after the Sheldonian Theatre at the University of Oxford in England, and the building was intended to be a lecture hall and a spot for commencement ceremonies. Lectures and college courses do still take place in Sanders, although it’s a hard podium to fill: Sanders’ history includes lectures by Theodore Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Winston Churchill, among many other notables.
Eclectic but above all beautiful, Sanders Theatre has a rich history of music, theatre, and academics, which continues into the present. See for yourself: among other upcoming events, the renowned yearly Christmas Revels will be occurring throughout the second half of December.
Sanders Theatre at Harvard University
Rachel Leah Blumenthal is a Somerville-based writer, photographer, and musician. She writes about food on her blog, Fork it over, Boston!, and runs Boston Food Bloggers, a networking community. For more information, visit RachelBlumenthal.net.