So that's what the Wallis sounds like.
It's been more than two months since Beverly Hills opened its swank Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. But until Wednesday night the multipurpose Bram Goldsmith Theater in the transformed historic post office building had yet to be purposed for unamplified music (with the exception of a few minutes of a tony gala). The St. Lawrence String Quartet did the honors by inaugurating the Wallis' classical music series.
A hall with many uses — music of all sorts, theater, dance, opera and children's shows — can be an acoustician's riskiest assignment. Amplified music, amplified voice, unamplified music, unamplified voice all require different degrees of reverberation. Music genres and the number of performers make a difference.
The size of the hall matters too, and at 499 seats, the Wallis should work for chamber music without too many problems. But this theater happens to be a sizable 499-seat venue, with a vast stage, roomy seats and generally lots of space. This is, don't forget, Beverly Hills, 90210.
The Wallis works. But first impressions must remain first impressions.
The St. Lawrence is not sumptuous. The players go in for a tight, slight vibrato. The ensemble tone is wiry, shimmering, electric. It's a modern string quartet that brings flexibility, dramatic fire and, on Wednesday's program, a hint of rock 'n' roll energy to Haydn and Beethoven and an effective heart-on-sleeve approach to Korngold's Hollywood-inspired Third Quartet.
The Wallis' acoustic, designed by the firm Jaffe Holden, is characterized by equally modern, clean, clear and uncolored sonic lines. If on the dry side (the typical compromise for multipurpose), it is not uncomfortably so, no extreme Santa Ana acoustical condition. There is just enough warmth.
From where I sat, on an aisle mid-hall, the St. Lawrence's crackling electrical energy was evenly distributed from the violins' top notes to the cello's bottom. Others, seated elsewhere, could have a different experience. I stayed put, but a friend said moving across an aisle made a slight difference in sonic warmth.
The Wallis may not actively draw a listener in, but it doesn't get in the way. Nothing distracted from the St. Lawrence.
Founded in 1989 and long in residence at Stanford University, the quartet has its admirers and detractors. Either you find first violinist Geoff Nuttall's highly expressive body language a turn-on or a turnoff. He is like an operatic character in his approach, a dancer and a rock star.
He is also an exceptional player, and while the other members — violinist Mark Fewer, violist Lesley Robertson and cellist Christopher Costanza — are less theatrical, they are on the same musical wavelength.
And on that wavelength, Haydn's trickery in his "Emperor" Quartet, his surprising twists and turns, proved riotously effective if also made perhaps overly obvious. Every moment was alive, the rhythmic propulsive astonishing.
Korngold's quartet has a local connection, which is the kind of thing the Wallis seems keen on emphasizing. Written in Hollywood in 1945 by the Austrian émigré composer who did much to create symphonic film scoring, this was Korngold's first attempt in some years to separate himself from the movie business, which he thought had become unsympathetic to serious composition.
Even so, he couldn't escape his cinematic glories. Troubled chromatic passages turn romantic. The slow movement is based on his score for the Edward G. Robinson 1941 epic, "The Sea Wolf." Material from the last movement found its way into Korngold's next (and next-to-last) picture, "Deception" (1946), starring Bette Davis as a music teacher and Claude Rains as a pompous composer.
Take this quartet too seriously and it too sits somewhere on the pomp to treacle spectrum. Play it for all its worthy, dramatically and rhythmically, as the St. Lawrence did, and it does Hollywood fine justice.
The final work was Beethoven's last "Razumovsky" String Quartet, Op, 59, No. 3, which the Emerson Quartet happened to perform in Costa Mesa last weekend. Where the Emerson was serious and understated, the St. Lawrence was playful and theatrical. The Canadians gave Beethoven the hard sell for modern audiences. They danced through the furious fugue at the end spectacularly, although no more quickly than the Emerson's. The timing was, to the second, the same: 5:50.
Even so, music in Beverly Hills may be a harder sell than $100,000 watches. The audience made too quick an exit for an encore. It was the coolest reception I've seen for any performer in a long while. Maybe, those acoustics will need to be warmed up after all. Or at least the air conditioning turned off.
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