Stanford University's $111.9 million Bing Concert Hall opened Friday with free champagne for the sell-out crowd, a TV-actor master of ceremonies (Anna Deavere Smith of "West Wing" and "Nurse Jackie") and a superstar conductor (Michael Tilson Thomas, leading the San Francisco Symphony). The hall is visually striking, with its beachy colors, its terraced "vineyard-style" seating, its 10 acoustic sails high overhead, circling the audience, which circles the stage.
The setting is spectacular. But we already knew that; the place looks cool. So, let's cut to the chase: How is the sound?
Its acoustics are designed by Yasuhisa Toyota -- the man behind the famous, crystal-clear sound of Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles -- and much has been said about Bing's potential. Still, any new hall goes through a test period. It requires tweaking. Performers must learn to adjust to its acoustic personality. In other words, it's too early to pass absolute judgment on the new hall's sound quality, but impressions are in order.
The 100-piece orchestra sounded great.
Tilson Thomas led his musicians in a performance of Debussy's "La Mer," and the sound popped like champagne from a bottle. It was bright, warm, fizzy, alive. One could feel the nerve endings of the music: This "La Mer" was physical, rolling through the bowl-shaped hall, a mid-sized venue with 842 seats.
There was the clear ping of the harps, the brilliance of the trumpets. Crescendoes had body, and when the conductor brought some massive passage to a swift cutoff, there was no distracting echo in the hall, just the slightest tail of sound, and then silence. Impressive.
During quiet passages, when the cellists and bassists plucked their strings, one could feel the pizzicato vibrations emanating from the wood of the instruments. Big unison tutti passages were dazzling, though not always balanced; strings sometimes were overrun by the brass, while the winds were buried more than once in the oceanic rumble. But this may have had more to do with the on-the-fly nature of the performance -- the orchestra had arrived only moments before, and had no time to rehearse or feel out the hall -- than with Bing itself.
It was a treat to witness a great orchestra from up close. One could see the faces of all the musicians; sight lines are excellent. (No one in the audience is more than 75 feet from the stage; most are a lot closer). The seats are wide and comfortable, with plenty of legroom.
"This is exciting, right?" Tilson Thomas asked the audience.
It was. When the orchestra played "Short Ride in a Fast Machine," the fanfare by John Adams, it, too, sounded great. Zipping flutes. Boogie-ing pulse. The audience (which included acoustician Toyota and Bing architect Richard Olcott) cheered as Tilson Thomas waved to the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, who lives in Berkeley and drove down for Bing's inaugural run.
The first half of the concert -- the orchestra performed after intermission -- was less acoustically persuasive.
When the Stanford Chamber Chorale, conducted by Stephen M. Sano, sang a new work by Stanford composer Jonathan Berger, the voices were generally clear, but the acoustic verged on icy. That impression repeated when the St. Lawrence String Quartet -- the university's quartet-in-residence since 1998 -- performed Haydn's String Quartet in F major, Op. 77, No. 2. Collegial, if a little draggy, the performance felt somewhat remote, the sound more icy and thin than warm and deep; strange, as this terrific quartet is known for its rich, tactile sound.
Halls are quirky; maybe that's just how it sounded from Row J, center section. And undoubtedly the St. Lawrence will adjust to Bing through the rest of this first season. Still, the quartet looked lonesome, sitting in the middle of the 3,190-square-foot stage. One wondered if there were not enough bodies on stage to warm up the sound before it went flying into the hall, whose seating capacity is mid-sized but overhead space voluminous: 680,000 cubic feet, with an acoustic cloud hanging about 48 feet above the St. Lawrence.
Until the arrival of the San Francisco Symphony, this opening night bash felt tamped-down, without a lot of buzz; chalk it up to that Stanford reserve, I guess.
There were brief remarks from Stanford President John L. Hennessy and from Peter Bing, the class-of-'55 philanthropist who put $50 million into the construction of the hall. (Trollope moment: Bing's speech from the hall's 2010 groundbreaking was set to music by Berger in the aforementioned choral piece.)
And we shouldn't forget Deavere Smith, who used to teach in the school's drama department. Reading from a script -- all sorts of aggrandizing remarks about the university's commitment to community and spiritual uplift through the arts -- she was amiable but superfluous.
The concert had a heartfelt finish, when revered mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade stepped out to sing "Take Care of This House," from Leonard Bernstein's musical "1600 Pennsylvania Avenue." Performed with Tilson Thomas and the orchestra, it was lovely, haunting, uplifting. One expects there will be many more such performances in this house: cellist Yo-Yo Ma soon is coming, as are violinist Midori, performance artist Laurie Anderson, the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain and much else. Jazz. Beethoven. Opera. World music. Be there, as this handsome new hall becomes an important musical hub for the region.
Bing Concert HalL Opening WEEKEND
Next events: 12:30-5 p.m. Jan. 12, open house and free ticketed performances by community music groups; 7 and 9 p.m. Jan. 12, Los Lobos (sold out); 2:30 p.m., Jan. 13, St. Lawrence String Quartet
Where: 327 Lasuen St. (at Campus Drive), Stanford University
Tickets: Prices vary by event; 650-725-2787, http://live.stanford.edu