The science of acoustics is daunting for us lay people: all the discussion of wavelengths and vibrations, all those mathematical formulas. Yet in the end, a concert hall's acoustic character depends on a little bit of luck, which is hard to figure into a formula. You can build a palace, hire the greatest acousticians -- and then still wait with baited breath for opening night to hear the results.
On Friday, Stanford University opened its Bing Concert Hall, a $111.9 million palace, a gorgeous place. Sunday, after more than a decade of performances in musty Dinkelspiel Auditorium on the other side of campus, the St. Lawrence String Quartet played its first full program at Bing. One can imagine how excited the quartet
But Sunday's program tested the new hall's acoustics with mixed results. You can take my words with a grain of salt; people respond subjectively to audio quality (whether on CDs or in concert halls), much as they respond to different wines. Still, I'm not certain Bing flattered this terrific quartet's sound, which often lacked bloom and richness. It felt as if the hall was masking the low frequencies in the St. Lawrence's blend, making it trebly and thin-sounding, like a radio with the dials mis-set.
And yet. There were too many moments when the low end of the group was indistinct. Christopher Costanza's cello, again, sounded thin; strange, as he normally exudes richness and breadth. Lesley Robertson's viola was at times nearly inaudible.
The St. Lawrence undoubtedly will make adjustments to help improve clarity and projection -- perhaps experimenting by stationing itself in different spots on stage at future performances. It's a huge stage: 3,190 square feet, larger than most homes. Sunday, I wondered if bringing part of the audience onto the stage for chamber performances would improve matters by surrounding the group with additional bodies -- warming up its sound and increasing the intimacy.
Bing proved far more suitable for the program's next work, String Quartet No. 3 by R. Murray Schafer, granddaddy of the Canadian avant-garde and a beloved figure to the St. Lawrence, which has Canadian roots. Schafer is famous for building his soundscapes into environments: forests, train stations. In this piece, composed in 1981, he asks the performers to treat the concert hall as an instrument -- as a fifth member of the band.
It went like this: The house lights came up on Costanza, pressing through droning chords and slides with his cello. Alone on stage, pushing his instrument through this intense rhapsody, he sounded splendid; every pizzicato note resounded. Gradually, the rest of the group materialized, playing from afar. Violist Robertson arrived from stage left. Down the stairways from opposite sides of the mezzanine came violinists Nuttall and Scott St. John. Finally, with all four musicians seated onstage, their statements coalesced into a great buzzing -- like bees with a sense of melody and drama.
The second movement was wild: thrashing chords, plus screams and cackles from the group, like karate shouts, perhaps, or Inuit throat singing. It was tribal, primal as punk rock, and funny.
The final movement was about muted sonorities and unstable harmonies, with the group playing in quarter-tones, the notes between traditional notes. To a droned and fluttered accompaniment, Nuttall began to intone a quiet, descending melody: a repeating sequence of just three notes -- notes that would fit into either a pentatonic scale or a blues scale, creating an ambiguous and beautiful effect. As Nuttall left the stage, still playing, the lights went out, and the audience sat in silence.
It was awesome.
The program's final work was a bust, though. Composed in 1901, Ludwig Thuille's Piano Quintet in E-flat major is badly derivative of Brahms, and as earnest as it is long (about 45 minutes). And what a muddle of sound: thin and unclear, once again, with an added problem -- the rumble of Stephen Prutsman's piano often buried the cello and viola. Did anyone listen to the quintet during rehearsal, offering guidance to help it achieve some balance? And why was the lid of the booming piano wide open?
Bing Concert Hall OPENING
Next events: Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, 8 p.m. Jan. 16 (sold out); Stanford Symphony Orchestra, with Jindong Cai conducting and Jon Nakamatsu, piano soloist, 8 p.m. Jan. 18 and 2:30 p.m. Jan. 20 (sold out)
Where: 327 Lasuen St. (at Campus Drive), Stanford University
Tickets: Prices vary by event; 650-725-2787, http://live.stanford.edu