A Civic, If Not Acoustic, Success

TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

A new concert hall is always exciting. Colorful banners dot the landscape. Shop windows, from dry cleaners to department stores, display symphony themes. Newspapers publish special supplements. Politicians jump on the arts bandwagon. Socialites go into high party gear. A city beams with pride.

Saturday it was Seattle's turn, and this contented, famously livable, latte-driven town seemed entirely prepared for nothing less than greatness with the opening of Benaroya Hall. Speaking to visiting journalists at the Space Needle on Friday, actor Tom Skerritt set the tone. Bathed in brilliant colors from an extraordinarily vivid sunset, he insisted that Seattle was now the arts capital of the West.

The importance of Benaroya Hall is not in doubt. This arts capital has never had a proper venue for its orchestra, and the Seattle Symphony has spent the last 35 years as a tenant in the Opera House, struggling with murky acoustics. However, Gerard Schwarz, the symphony's music director and a local hero for his indefatigable efforts toward getting the new hall built, describes Benaroya as "perfection." The acoustical consultant, Cyril M. Harris, maintains that the 2,500-seat auditorium is, without question, one of the top 10 halls in the world. And Seattle's critical press has weighed in with unqualified superlatives: "spectacular," "a triumph of superb sound."

In fact, Benaroya is imperfect, architecturally and acoustically. It is a hall of accommodations, which is probably the only way a modern city can proceed with a $118-million project like this in today's curious arts and economic climate. Some accommodations were to donors for artwork or the inappropriately gloomy, if well-intentioned "Garden of Remembrance," memorializing Washington state's war dead in front of the building.

The most important accommodation, and most admirable, was insisted upon by Schwarz, that the acoustician must rule. Consequently, the symphony selected the noted Harris to design the acoustics and a less-stellar local firm, LMN Architects, best known for convention centers, to design the building. The statement was to be the sound, and it is.

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The exterior is unobtrusive, meant to blend into the neighborhood. But the site, across the street from the new Seattle Art Museum and at a public transportation hub, is enviable. An area of urban blight a decade ago, it now has new restaurants; the waterfront, Pike Place and Pioneer Square are all within walking distance.

However little the building announces itself, the main auditorium named for the Southern California-based S. Mark Taper Foundation, a major donor, does nothing but. Answering (and evading) questions before the dress rehearsal Saturday, the octogenarian Harris--whose acoustical designs include the successful Metropolitan Opera and the unsuccessful Kennedy Center concert hall--dismissed the notion of tuning a hall over time as materials settled. Harris chose a conservative shoe box formation, with walls of rich, dark wood and tuned panels to reinforce different frequencies of sound; and he said it was all the result of calculations and experience. It wouldn't even seem much different without an audience than full with sound-absorbing bodies in the seats, he predicted.

The sound, at the rehearsal during which the press was allowed to roam at will, proved uniformly blaring, from top to bottom. It had presence and clarity, but the sonic energy was unrelentingly loud everywhere. Moving from seat to seat, I felt as though I were back at a hard-sell hi-fi shop at the beginning of the digital era, hearing one overworked loudspeaker after another.

Fortunately, the hall turned out to be far more reasonable at the gala Saturday night. Bodies did, indeed, cut the edge, although not entirely. Schwarz chose a sentimental program that was full of musical spectacle but that also exposed his orchestra mercilessly. It began with a cheery four-minute work, "A Gala Celebration," commissioned from David Diamond (the symphony's honorary composer in residence); Schwarz's orchestration of an early string quartet movement by Webern that had been discovered when the Webern archives were in Spokane in the early '60s; "The Firebird" Suite (which Stravinsky conducted to open the Seattle Opera House in 1962); and excerpts from "Gotterdammerung" (Seattle being a Wagner besotted city).

The Wagner was best-played (the orchestra participates in Seattle Opera's Wagner festivals), and as the evening wore on and the playing settled down, the hall became less intrusive. But not until Jessye Norman appeared at the end for the "Immolation" scene did this hall begin to feel special.

Norman understood the space and occasion. In the finest voice I've heard her in in years, she filled the hall but didn't overfill it, with sumptuous sound. She gave dramatic detail to her phrasing and to her tonal coloration, that you would expect to hear only with headphones. She and the hall were one, and finally it was possible to believe that this theater can be a partner in great musical experiences.

Harris is not to be believed in his pronouncement. Benaroya can be tuned and toned down. Both Kennedy Center and the renovation he did on Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center needed further work. Benaroya will probably require far less than that, maybe just some additional carpet and damping material on stage. The organ isn't yet fully installed and that can make a difference as well.

A small 540-seat concert hall that Schwarz fought for and that he opened on Sunday afternoon with members of the Seattle Symphony playing the last three Mozart symphonies will surely want more extensive acoustical attention. The orchestra sounded tubby and effortful. It is simply too soon to say how well this hall will succeed.

Still, the recital hall, named for Illsley Ball Nordstrom, is a resource for community groups and will bring new attention to them. In fact , the real benefit of Benaroya will inevitably be to force the city's musical establishments to live up to the hype. The Seattle Symphony, which boasts extremely interesting programming later in the season, can't help but get better in the Benaroya limelight.

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