San Franciscans, who take earthquakes in stride, crumble in the rain.
Friday night, as some 6,000 patrons rushed at the same time to hear
either "Carmen" in the Opera House or Hilary Hahn in Davies Hall, the
rain-soaked traffic jam in the Civic Center turned into a nightmare.
One of those paying the price for the mess: Natasha Makhijani.
The San Francisco Conservatory of Music violin student is among the
first musicians to perform in the school's spanking new concert hall.
But, as cars, rain and wind congealed in the area, Makhijani's senior
recital unfolded before an audience of 18... in the 445-seat auditorium.
Her loss, my gain, these turn of events enabled me to hear two greatly
contrasting events: a solo violin (playing Bach, Tchaikovsky, and Ysaye)
in an empty hall and, the next night, the Conservatory Orchestra in a
sold-out concert hall. Here's the bottom line, up front: the genius of
Kirkegaard & Associates, acoustical consultants for the new building,
prevailed to a miraculous degree. Makhijani's violin on Friday, and the
90-piece student orchestra in the unexpectedly mesmerizing sound spectacular
of Holst's "The Planets" both came across with full-bodied, vivid
immediacy, similar to the extreme liveliness of the LA Philharmonic's
Disney Hall, a new standard in concert-hall excellence.
In fact, at the Conservatory, you don't get the sound of everything from
everywhere - coughs, shuffling feet, audience whispers - that's true in
Los Angeles. The sound here comes from the stage, not your surroundings.
Kirkegaard's task was made more difficult by the shape of the former
ballroom, taller than the wished-for shoebox frame: 111-foot long, and
50 feet wide, the hall's beautiful painted ceiling is 44 feet high at
the edge of the 40' x 50' stage, the raked floor sloping 7 feet in the
back of the room. Those dimensions may not be ideal, but architects and
acousticians collaborated well: horizontal ridges of white faux columns,
pilasters, cornices, and ceiling ribbons (preserved from the original
structure) combine to provide excellent sound.
It's a good thing that first impressions are not everything. The very
first sound heard in the new hall was the loud, noisy percussion
(reverberating from the wall in the back of the orchestra) of John Adams'
"Short Ride in a Fast Machine." Conductor Alasdair Neale held nothing
back, and the result was an involuntary movement to protect the ears,
and serious worry about what will happen when the bacchanalia of the
The good - no, great - news is that the first 30 seconds of the
concert provided the only negative experience during the entire evening.
Instead of noise, the Holst's turbulent opening movement, "Mars," was
musical/acoustic perfection, violin sections powerful, together, leading
the charge, Neale maintaining excellent balance, the hall filled with a
sound to be treasured. Subsequent quiet movements, the off-stage chorus
of 40, fortissimos, the "Mystic Neptune" finale all worked exceedingly
well. Concertmaster Claude Halter contributed beautifully played solos.
Just as lens can be judged by the very best pictures the camera takes,
a concert hall's quality is determined by performances in which everything
click. The bold gambit of offering "The Planets" with a student orchestra
paid off flawlessly.
And so, problems in the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3 are not to be
held against the hall. Neale, who raised the Holst to such heights,
did not lead a comparable performance in the concerto, and allowed the
orchestra to overwhelm the soloist repeatedly - not an easy task. The
Conservatory's Keisuke Nakagoshi is a powerful pianist, playing the
Prokofiev's fiendishly difficult passages with ease. Lacking the proper
balance, however, the concerto came across as if the piano were just one
of the instruments, not the reigning one.
The new concert hall sounds, looks, and feels good; it's warmly-lit,
and comfortable, and yet imparts a sense of being part of an "occasion."
There are some pecular aspects to it: there are only small, easy-to-overlook
side doors (on three levels, all leading to the same space), and no main
entrance at all. Audience-handling logistics are poor: there is no clear
path between the street entrance and the hall. Against the dramatic
three-story-high atrium, the actual floor space at the box office and
leading into the auditorium is more inadequate and chaotic than the
infamous elbow-combat venue of Davies Hall's narrow lobbies.
Good in major ways, if with minor problematic in its shakedown phase,
the concert hall is significant in being the final, crowning touch in
the Conservatory's $80-million move from the Sunset to the Civic Center.
Already graced with a City Hall sitting on rollers, the better to bounce
about in the next quake, San Francisco now has a music complex filled
with metal springs to counteract sound vibrations.
The building at 50 Oak Street, built by San Francisco's own SMWM
architectural firm, has hundreds of cylindrical metal devices embedded
in the walls with heavy springs to pull against the vibration caused
by sound. Kirkegaard & Associates used these spring mounts to assure
isolation between halls and practice rooms, which are fairly piled on
top of one another.
The Conservatory complex now completes the city's performing arts center,
right next to Davies Hall, the War Memorial Opera House, Herbst and
Orpheum theaters, and the Civic Auditorium.
Other facilities in the new Conservatory building include the 120-seat
Osher Salon, a 140-seat recital hall, the Kimball Green Room for artists
preparing for a performance, the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Student Lounge,
the Phyllis Wattis Atrium, the Milton Salkind Terrace, 44 studios, 14
classrooms, 33 practice rooms, a 6,500-square foot music library, the
percussion suite, the keyboard lab, recording and electronic music
studios, academic and administrative offices, a total of 100 Steinway
and Yamaha pianos.
Those facilities offer more than 300 concerts and recitals annually,
most of them free student and faculty music events. The school itself
is expected to go well beyond the Sunset census of 314 students in the
collegiate and 430 in the preparatory divisions, and about 400 taking
adult extension classes. Recent student bodies included representatives
of 21 countries and 31 states; the international publicity generated by
the new building is likely to increase both figures.
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