Wednesday, November 28, 2012


(This is a review of a concert hall that hasn't even opened yet, so it's both long and esoteric)

Because it was built on its founder's ranch, Stanford University has, geographically, the largest and most spread-out college campus in the US, and probably the world. Its music facilities, however, are gratifyingly compact. About 35 years ago the music department offices and library moved from a ramshackle mansion on a hill down to a purpose-built building right in the heart of campus, where they have a tiny recital hall, called Campbell, busy with performances of obscure or academic interest; and it's right next to the university's small concert hall, Dinkelspiel Auditorium, much used also by the university's public performances agency, which recently changed its name from the straightforward "Stanford Lively Arts" to "Stanford Live", which reads like something Igor would say to Dr. Frankenstein.

Unfortunately, Dinky, as we call it, has problems as a venue. It's old and bland, in a dull postwar composite-modern architectural style, the bathrooms are tiny and cramped, and parking availability in the heart of campus can be nonexistent at worst. The hall is in amphitheater shape, broader than it is deep, and while sightlines are good, acoustics are very spotty. (The larger hall, Memorial Auditorium a few blocks away, is in WPA style and even duller acoustically.)

So Stanford undertook a few years ago to build a new small concert hall, to replace both of them, and to be suitable for Music Dept. everyday use as well as concerts by both the department and Stanford Live. Because there's no more room in the center, it's over on the other side of campus, in the fringes of the arboreal greenbelt separating Stanford from the city of Palo Alto. It's called the Bing Concert Hall, for a wealthy alumnus donor whose name was already speckled over campus. It's opening in January. And yesterday was a press preview of the facility, to which the always-solicitous Stanford Live staff kindly invited me. At least that's how it was billed: I doubt that more than 15 of the 80 or so guests were press; the rest appeared to be mostly from other Stanford departments, with a few I recognized representing other local arts organizations, like Music@Menlo.

Strangely, although rehearsals are already going on there and we were told it sounds great, we didn't get to hear any music. There was a reception with coffee and noshables in the lobby, an hour's panel in the hall, and an opportunity to wander around the building, both auditorium and backstage. The panel included administrators from both SLA and the Music Dept., the architect and acoustician, a music prof whose opera will be premiered here this season, and two noted violinists, Geoff Nuttall of the St. Lawrence Quartet (Stanford resident ensemble) and David Harrington of the Kronos Quartet (frequent SLA performers). They ought to have been encouraged to bring along their violins and give us maybe a little unaccompanied Bach or something, but no.

Everyone involved in creating the place was so pleased with the accomplishment, and with the support from Stanford during the recession that proves the university's commitment to the arts. They spoke of a long-term plan to turn this isolated patch of campus into an arts center - there's already a nice new visual art museum some distance away, with more buildings to come. I don't think the music department will be moving any time soon, so its facilities will be far away, and I'll miss not being able easily to drop into the music library after concerts to look things up. At least there's lots of instrument lockers for student musicians to use here.

Bing is less conspicuous on the outside than it looks impressive from the inside. (The conceptual drawings on its website are wholly misleading.) The lobby is austere, high-ceilinged, and faces the outside with glass walls. There's plenty of room to sell CDs, upcoming tickets, or intermission snacks. The warm-looking auditorium, though much smaller than Disney Hall's in LA, resembles it so much that I was not surprised to learn that they were designed by the same acoustician (though not the same architect). I once described Disney Hall this way: "the auditorium inside consists of interlocking shells and resembles a symmetrical glass candy dish - except that it's made of wood - with the performers down in the base where the candy crumbs go." And that's what we have here, except that it has only 2 1/2 levels of seating areas as against Disney's five or more, and carries just 842 seats (Disney has over 2200). It turns out that this is called "vineyard" design, because the look reminded someone once of terraced vine cultivation [some folks like wine; I prefer to think of candy], it was invented half a century ago for the then-new Berlin Philharmonic hall, and a lot of blither was emitted at the panel about how it maximizes closeness to the performers, immediacy of the music, and intimacy and equality with your fellow audience members.

The wood at Bing, by the way, is textured beech against the walls, and yellow Alaskan cedar in the stage area, a wood so reverberant and soft that you can feel that quality from just walking on it. It looks fine now, but it's going to get badly scuffed up real fast.

There's one other big difference between the halls: Although the performing area at Disney looks like it's down in the middle, it's actually neither quite the lowest spot nor quite centrally located. Only about 15% of Disney's seats, I'd guess, are actually behind the performing area. At Bing, it really is the bottom - the first row of front seats are right on the same level as the stage - and it really is in the middle, which means that half the seats are functionally behind the performers, and it's that which counters the fact that the seating capacity is actually greater than Dinkelspiel's, by about 130 seats. (And once the ticket tiers were revealed, we know that, in any sold-out concert, the folks you're looking at across the way are either paying a quarter what you are, or three times as much, depending which side you're on; so much for audience equality.)

Geoff Nuttall mused over the possibility that his quartet could sit in a square, all facing each other, instead of in the usual semi-circle facing the audience, and I hope they'll try that here. Somebody else mentioned rehearsing a chorus here that decided to sing in an inward-facing circle. Orchestras can't sit that way, but I suspect that won't make much difference here: the hall is small enough and looks reverberant enough that I doubt there'll be much differential acoustics for a large ensemble. The sound here is very exposing, Geoff said: whether that means the student orchestras will sound worse or learn to play better remains to be seen; probably both. What worries me most is pianists (who wants to sit behind the raised lid?) and, as my SFCV collegue Jason Serinus pointed out during the Q&A session, solo singers. I've sat behind solo singers, and, even at Disney, the muffled sound emerging from the backs of their heads is not artistically edifying.

The Kronos Quartet is planning a spring concert including work by Laurie Anderson with projected video accompaniment. This goes on the back wall, so nobody in the back half would be able to see it. A staff member I spoke with speculated that they'll just not sell tickets to that half (the ticket-biz term of art turns out to be "kill the seats"). What I tried to point out to him, but didn't seem to get across, is that, since Kronos concerts at Dinky are always sold out, killing the seats in Bing will create the problem that you're effectively moving them to a much smaller hall instead of a marginally larger one, while not killing them will prevent half the audience from seeing the visuals that they could have seen in the other venue.

I predict trouble over the seating here, lots of trouble, especially in the trying-out phase over the next couple years. Again, the bright-eyed staffers on the panel emitted a lot of blither, less about how all the seats will be equally good than about how different folks will prefer different seats. Maybe (and I've been known to enjoy sitting behind the SFSO at Davies - even though the sound is very different back there - but I don't want to sit there all the time or even most of that time), but I suspect it'll slant strongly in one direction. But I hope, more than expect, that the sound will be awesome and, for large groups, even more overwhelming than it can get at Dinkelspiel. We'll see.

Other amenities: I hope they put up more directional signs before the opening: it's slightly rabbit-warreny in here. The dressing rooms are pretty spacious, and have windows that open over a private courtyard. The public restrooms are merely slightly larger than the ones in Dinky, but there's three of them per sex, not just one, so lines should be mitigated. More alarming is that they're computerized. The stalls have green lights above them that are supposed to turn red when the door is locked, except that they don't. As the briefing indicated that they were already functional, someone ought to look into that. I didn't dare actually to use a toilet or urinal yet, but after trying several of the laser-operated sink faucets, I finally found one that worked, so I don't know if they're not quite functional yet either, or merely the kind that require users to wave their hands around futilely trying to get the faucet to turn on. (The soap dispensers are laser-operated too: lordy.)

One other amenity I do expect to be better besides the restroom lines is the parking. There's a new parking lot across Campus Drive, rather farther away than the Tresidder lot is from Dinky, which will be a bit of a pain when it's raining, but it looks larger and Bing will have less competition for using it. However, it exits onto Lasuen, which is a one-way alley that empties onto a busy artery without a light, so I predict that exiting after a full concert will be a mess of congestion, at least as bad as at Tresidder.

But I'm really, really looking forward to hearing the music here, come January and the spring. This is going to be a fun place to attend concerts.

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