Promising preview: Bing Concert Hall to open
Stanford's nearly completed concert hall draws advance praise
David Harrington was practically on the edge of his seat. "I can't wait to play here," the Kronos Quartet violinist said recently at Stanford University's new Bing Concert Hall.
"To walk in here and know that music has been valued in this way, it's really beautiful," he said.
His emotions were in concert with many others recently, when a small, enthusiastic crowd gathered for a media preview of the hall before its official opening in January. Violinist Geoff Nuttall of the St. Lawrence String Quartet called the 842-seat venue "devastatingly good," and Stanford music department chair Stephen M. Sano said, "We're absolutely thrilled to have this kind of space."
Large student ensembles have been rehearsing in the new hall for about a month, and Mr. Sano is already finding it excellent for teaching and learning, thanks to its acoustic design and its relatively intimate size and layout. One violinist, he said, reported being able to see — and hear — a faraway bassoonist breathe, which makes for fine interorchestra coordination.
With the opening-night concert approaching on Jan. 11, the $112 million venue looks nearly finished, scented with the perfumes of fresh paint, wood and carpets. In the oval-shaped concert hall, the soft yellow Alaskan cedar on the stage is as bright as promised. Seats rise away from it in the separate terraced sections that give the "vineyard-style seating" its name.
"We face each other. I think this is very important. We see other audience faces," said Yasuhisa Toyota, whose Los Angeles-based Nagata Acoustics firm is responsible for the hall's acoustics.
He worked closely with architect Richard Olcott and others at the New York-based Ennead Architects to create an intimate feel inside a state-of-the-art space. One goal was to get all audience members as close to the stage as possible, Mr. Olcott said. The farthest seat is 75 feet away from the conductor, and the closest seats, in the center section, begin at stage level.
Mr. Nuttall said his quartet enjoys these types of theater-in-the-round venues, noting that the experience is "more like inviting people into your home." He added, "The only choice you have to make as a performer is where to face."
Hanging above and around the stage are acoustic curtains that look like sails, and a double-curved ceiling reflector with lighting and other technical equipment housed behind it. The effect is grand, drawing the eye upward.
The lobby surrounding the concert hall feels spacious as well. High windows let in lots of natural light filtered through trees, and bamboo plants grow in picturesque atrium spaces. Tables and chairs dot the patios outside. On Nov. 27, two construction workers with hard hats were already enjoying the al fresco seating. Though a dump truck temporarily blocked the view, soon visitors will be able to stand at the hall's front entrance and look across to the Cantor Arts Center.
The venue also houses artists' suites, a music library, rooms for practice and instrument storage, a recording studio, and restrooms with a touch of high-tech (26 women's bathrooms, 16 for men, and four family facilities). Green lights over the stalls go red to show that stalls are occupied; the color change happens when a visitor locks a stall door.
On another tech topic, it seems difficult if not impossible to get a cellphone signal once you leave the lobby and enter the concert hall. Some people, of course, may like this. Rick Warren, patron-services manager at Stanford Live, said that signals are not purposely blocked. (The phenomenon may have something to do with the fact that the hall is acoustically isolated from exterior sounds by a 12-inch-thick concrete enclosure.)
Mr. Warren said that officials will look into possibly allowing wireless access during student performances. As for "tweet seats," where some theaters allow patrons sitting in a special section to post to Twitter during a show, the jury's still out. "Those are controversial," he said in an understatement.
Stanford Live (previously named Stanford Lively Arts) begins its arts-presenting season on Jan. 11 with the concert hall's opening concert. The sold-out event will feature the San Francisco Symphony and the St. Lawrence String Quartet. A free community open house on Jan. 12 has also sold out.
While Stanford Live has presented many dance and theater performances in the past, Bing's inaugural season will focus on music. Stanford Live artistic director Jenny Bilfield said the organization plans to bring back visiting dance companies and other types of performers in future seasons. "We're learning how to use the space," she said.
The university broke ground in May 2010 on the concert hall, which is named for alumni donors Peter and Helen Bing and built on 5.5 acres. The site housed the Stanford Men's Gym before the 1906 earthquake. A photo mounted outside depicts the grand gym in black and white, all triangular pediments and columns.
Visit binghall.stanford.edu for more information about the Bing Concert Hall and the Stanford Live and student events planned there. The author, Rebecca Wallace, is arts and entertainment editor of the Palo Alto Weekly.