Sold-out Bing Concert Hall was a happy place Friday night, when the 90 members of the Stanford Symphony Orchestra streamed onstage to kick off "The Beethoven Project." It was a colorful opening to an ambitious undertaking: In a series continuing through June 1, the orchestra and its conductor, Jindong Cai, are performing all of Beethoven's nine symphonies and five piano concerti at Bing -- plus a Mass, overtures, and a commissioned work. It's a dramatic way to help inaugurate this handsome and exciting hall.
Appropriately, Friday's program -- featuring Symphony No. 5 and Piano Concerto No. 5, the "Emperor" -- began with "The Consecration of the House" Overture. Composed in 1822 to mark the renovation of the Josefstadt, a venerable theater in Vienna, it begins with several heroic chords, dramatically cued here by Cai. The orchestra was off and running: crisp timpani, weaving strings. A thrumming energy soon circulated through the ensemble.
The orchestra wasn't always polished; someday, Stanford may decide to fund (and recruit for) its music program the way it funds its football team. But there's still a lot of talent here, and the students clearly were inspired by their dynamic, Beethoven-loving conductor -- and by their guest (for the next piece), pianist Jon Nakamatsu. A Stanford graduate (bachelor's degree in German studies, graduate degree in education), this celebrated musician from the South Bay has signed on to play all five "Beethoven Project" concerti at Bing.
His "Emperor" was exceptional: pristine geysers of notes, his phrases tapered and thoughtfully shaped. Nakamatsu lingered here to emphasize a certain turn of phrase, or there to set the stage for something dramatic. Often, he pulled back from the sustain pedal to achieve subtle effects: The opening movement's music box sonorities were magical, aided by delicate pizzicato in the strings.
In the Adagio, Nakamatsu, with his ascending trills, sounded as if he were gliding through orchestral moonlight. Cai's control here was impressive -- guiding his players through the many tricky entrances, holding back the tempos to fill a well of passion. As the horns sustained their final notes in this slow movement, the timpanist put his ear to his drumheads, quietly re-tuning them for what was to come: Nakamatsu's breakout into the finale, with its dancing rhythms. This was something to witness. The pianist's lines were clear and speedy -- like those of a figure skater circling a fresh expanse of ice after the Zamboni machine has been through it.
As an encore, Nakamatsu played the opening to Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata. It was patient and lovely -- and made for an intimate moment in this chamber-sized concert hall, with 842 seats. Being in Bing is like sitting in a small valley, with the stage at its bottom; everything is close-in, with great sight lines.
But, as I've been reporting since Bing opened on Jan. 11, the acoustics (designed by Yasuhisa Toyota, who also designed the crystalline sound at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles) are somewhat idiosyncratic.
This was my third concert at Bing. I've heard choral performances, a string quartet and two orchestras, and have found that the sound quality varies for ensembles of different sizes and types. It also depends on where one sits in the hall, which is true at many venues, though one would hope for more consistency in an intimate new hall like this one.
During the San Francisco Symphony's performance on opening night, I sat midway up in the center section, on the right-hand aisle. The sound was bright and popping, and I could vividly hear the basses and cellos.
Friday night, as the Stanford Symphony played the Overture and Concerto, I was again midway up, but on the left, and the sound was different. It lacked bottom, favoring the treble contributions of violins, winds and brass. The six basses and 13 cellos were often lost in the mix.
Nakamatsu suffered, too: His left-handed lines in the bass register, typically etched throughout his performances, were not as clearly audible as his right-handed passages. The same was true during his solo encore, playing the "Moonlight." Having seen Nakamatsu perform many times, I would lay bets that this was a matter of the hall, and not his playing.
For Symphony No. 5, when I moved to the left-side terrace, slightly elevated, the sound was noticeably lusher, with more bottom. Especially when the orchestra played at moderate volume, the cellos and basses re-gained vividness. Their sound emerged in waves, though it was again submerged during the orchestra's loud tutti passages.
I suspect the players were getting tired. Cai had a hard time achieving a true pianissimo during the Andante. By the finale, taken at a brisk tempo, the performance was threatening to fly apart -- but it didn't. Conductor and orchestra tapped into Beethoven's drama and forward thrust, driving through those final triumphant chords, and the audience jumped to its feet to cheer this first "Beethoven Project" event.
The Beethoven Project
Stanford University orchestras, conducted by Jindong Cai, performing Beethoven's nine symphonies and five piano concerti, with pianist Jon Nakamatsu
When: 2:30 p.m. Jan. 20 (sold out)
Where: Bing Concert Hall, 327 Lasuen St. (at Campus Drive), Stanford University
Tickets: $20, $10 non-Stanford students, $7.50 ages 17 and younger, free Stanford students; 650-725-ARTS, http://stanfordlive.edu
Also: Remaining series programs Feb. 2-3 (sold out), Feb. 22-23 (sold out), March 15 and 17 (tickets available), April 26-27 (tickets available), May 10 and 12 (tickets available) and May 31-June 1 (sold out)