Soka Performing Arts Center: Tuning a young concert hall

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The unlikely locale of Aliso Viejo may have just become Southern California’s most obliging host to orchestras coming our way.

Tuesday night’s performance by the St. Petersburg Symphony in front of more than 600 at the new Soka Performing Arts Center, the second appearance by an orchestra at the hall, confirms initial impressions that the Orange County venue welcomes all musical comers.


Yasuhisa Toyota -- largely acknowledged as the world’s leading acoustician -- has bestowed an acoustic alchemy that makes orchestras playing here sound nigh on splendid. And while there was a noticeable schism in Tuesday night’s program -- the St. Petersburg ensemble seemed more assured delivering Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony vs. Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto -- the hall itself again delivered sonic luster at almost every note.

Leaving aside the ups and downs of the performance under the baton of conductor Alexander Titov, and with guest pianist Xiayin Wang, the continuing revelations about how music sounds here are worth exploring.

Three years in the planning and two years in the construction, the acoustic design comes from Toyota, who most famously did Walt Disney Concert Hall. If anything, the sound here in this more intimate, multi-purpose hall has an even warmer sound.

The key is found in 10 velour draperies hidden from view, seven in the ceiling and three behind the back and side walls. Cut to different sizes and weighing 28 ounces per square foot, these can be opened or closed with stops in between with no more effort than pushing a button on a remote control that “tunes,” if you will, the hall to the amount and kind of sound likely to be generated. For orchestras, the drapes have been completely opened. Soka’s general manager, David C. Palmer, the man on site making the calls, anticipates that for smaller ensembles, such as string quartets, “we will probably deploy the draperies so that they are 25% closed. This will reduce reverberation, and better display a smaller sound.”

Tuesday night’s bigger sound profited from breathing full. One of the most startling facets of experiencing an orchestra at Soka is that while the sound can be as large as a composer ordered or a conductor wants, there is an almost unprecedented level of clarity among the instruments.

For instance, in Tchaikovsky’s Fourth, from a seat behind and elevated above the orchestra, the intimate interplay between the oboe and flute in the Adantino passage -- often obscured by the acoustics of other venues -- emerged as a nuanced, auditory conversation between the two instruments. In the piece’s familiar Scherzo movement, the strings’ pizzacato playing was not just delineated by the different ranges from the sections, but could be experienced at points on an instrument versus instrument basis.

So far, Russian romanticism has been front and center at Soka in works by Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky and the less-often-heard Shostakovich contemporary Mieczyslaw Weinberg. The hall on the Soka Unversity campus has seemed capable of delivering the often brass- and rhythm-heavy components of these composers, while showcasing the more subtle qualities of orchestration in their works.

All in all, Tuesday’s all-Russian program was memorable for this attention to detail -- just what one hopes to receive from an ideal host.


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Photos, from top: Conductor Alexander Titov, with guest pianist Xiayin Wang, and the St. Petersburg Symphony at the Soka Performing Arts Center. Credit: Mitsu Kimura, top, and Justin Kunimoto, bottom.