Friday, December 7, 2012

Music I'm Listening to: The San Francisco Symphony's Inaugural Concert at the Green Music Center (December 6, 2012)

Last night I attended the first performance of the San Francisco Symphony in the new Green Music Center. I had seen the main concert hall at the Center twice before--once before the seats were installed and a second time when Santa Rosa Symphony subscribers were given an opportunity to see the finished hall, a few months back. This was my first experience of a performance there. The new complex is in Rohnert Park, only about 20 minutes south of where I live. I'm used to seeing the San Francisco performers at their home base, Davies Symphony Hall, in San Francisco, a much longer drive. Naturally, I was most curious about how the main hall sounds--and I was looking forward to better sound than at Davies, which seems to have some unfortunate dead spots, but I was also curious to see how people moved in the new space, to test the seats for comfort, to check out the sight lines, to get a feel for how the audiences and performers felt there.

On the program were Richard Strauss's tone poem Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, the world premiere of Mark Volkert's Pandora, and Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5, Yefim Bronfman soloist.  Michael Tilson Thomas led the orchestra. Mark Volkert is the San Francisco Symphony's Assistant Concertmaster--and a composer, which was news to me.

Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas appeared very pleased to be at the new venue. Following the opening piece, the Strauss tone poem, he addressed the audience briefly. He spoke mostly about the Mark Volkert composition, but also suggested that the San Francisco Symphony was excited to be performing at the Green Music Center. He referred to it as an historic night at "your new concert hall" and then corrected himself, calling it "our new concert hall."

I found the seats comfortable enough, although the arm rests are rather narrow and I wouldn't call the seating inviting, beautiful as it is to look at. The seats aren't ones you sink into a little for a feeling of pampered support. They are merely solid. I sat dead center in Row O, which has no seats immediately in front of it, so it was hard for me to get an idea of leg room or of the sight lines from the center portion of the main hall (I was wondering how easy it is to see over people's heads, as the pitch of the floor seems quite gradual), but a perfect location for attempting to judge the sound quality. During intermission, the central gathering area outside the performance hall proper felt decidedly cramped. Patrons lined up to get a glass of wine or coffee and a cookie filled the entire center of the room in two rows, making it difficult to walk across the space--or anywhere at all. There was no room to stroll about or watch people come and go (intermission's greatest pleasure), although on warm evenings it will be possible to enjoy the presumably less crowded entrance area outside the building, which is lined with rather impressive old olive trees.

I wish I were an acoustician. I can't make a professional judgment of the sound quality, but I noticed a few things of interest. In a word or two, the hall sounds immediate and clean with very little reverberation (to my ears, anyway). The result is that the sound has real presence but feels a trifle cold. The reflections are mostly lateral (with very little seeming to come from the very high ceiling) and very quick, which gives the sound great clarity and quite an amazing sense of dimensional precision--if that's the right phrase. What I mean is that you can very clearly hear where the sound of each instrument is coming from. Its position to the left or right side of the stage is quite apparent. For the most part, these seem to be good things.

However, the spatial clarity created a slightly disconcerting effect I've never experienced in a concert hall before. There was a disjunct between the actual and apparent sources of the sound of Bronfman's piano, for example. The actual origin of sound radiating from a piano, I suspect, lies in a small, somewhat diffuse range defined by the midpoints of the strings being struck by the piano's hammers at a given moment. I may be wrong. I'm not a physicist. It may be a range defined by the points of contact between the hammers and the piano strings. At any rate, it's inside the "box" of the piano, not at the pianist's fingers on the keyboard, which is where I think we expect it to be--however wrongly. In other words,  the actual sound source is about two and a half feet behind the keyboard, or, from the perspective of a listener with the piano placed at right angles to the seats in a concert hall, about two and a half feet to the right. Sitting in the fifteenth row (plus the aisle in front of me), I was perhaps 50 feet from the piano. The time difference between sound arriving at my ears from the apparent point of its origin (the keyboard) and its actual point of origin (to the right, somewhere inside the box) must be very small indeed. Ordinarily in such situations the brain easily tricks us into hearing the sound coming from where we expect it, which is at the point of the activity we see (fingers at the keyboard). The result of the very precise sound of the new hall was that Bronfman's playing was unambiguously radiating from inside the piano box, to the right, while his fingers seemed to be doing something entirely unrelated off to the left. That is, the acoustics are so precise that the brain has trouble connecting the dots. The effect was particularly remarkable when the pianist's left hand (further away and often not visible on the lower keys) was running up the keyboard in quick scales while the more visible right hand was playing a different line on the higher keys. The scales seemed like the singing voices of creatures alive inside the black piano case, quite independent of what Bronfman was doing at the keyboard. I regret I was unable to attend the pre-concert tour yesterday led by one of the men that designed the hall.

I imagine my position exactly at the center of the space had something to do with the effect. By pointing it out, I don't mean to criticize, necessarily. I mean it rather as a comment on the qualities of the new concert hall, which, generally speaking, I liked. It's certainly a huge improvement over the sound at the old Luther Burbank Center for the Performing Arts. It will require more visits to our new concert hall to get a real sense of the place, but, so far, I'm encouraged to think the experience there will be good. I deeply resent, however, being asked to pay $10 to park in one of the ample, immediately adjacent Sonoma State University parking lots that normally cost $2 to park in. Parking was free at The Luther Burbank Center. I believe it bad policy to do anything that supports the notion that the arts are for rich people only. Charging for parking helps make live music less accessible to people of ordinary means. It's bad enough having the name of Sanford Weill on the new hall.  

As for the performance, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas led the orchestra in what seemed a clean, correct reading of Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks (the French horns stood out for their warmth and their fine unison playing), and Bronfman handled the Beethoven concerto with seemingly effortless aplomb. I wouldn't call Mr. Bronfman portly, but he's not a small man. Words like "nimble" are not the first that come to mind as he walks on stage, yet his playing is wonderfully quick and agile. I very much enjoyed his interpretation of the concerto.

The highlight of the evening, however, was Volkert's Pandora. Pandora is written for strings only and Volkert takes full advantage of the aural possibilities stringed instruments offer, using a range of extended techniques. The piece reminded me of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra--not because of any melodic resemblance, but because of the way soloists and small ensembles within the larger group are momentarily given a leading role before the flow of the piece is handed back or passed to another group or soloist. Although this is "program music" based on the story of Pandora unleashing myriad woes upon the human race, it can be enjoyed without any thought about the narrative content--like any good program music. All in all, an enjoyable evening.

Photo of Yefim Bronfman by Dario Acosta, courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony.

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