Monday, June 28, 2010

I'm late with my opinion on the new Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport (above). But that's because, I admit, I've been thinking about it quite seriously, and for some time.

Which is what it deserves. The new hall is an obvious game-changer for the Rockport Music Festival, although that's not really one of my famous "predictions;" the game has, in fact, already changed - the Festival seems to have vaulted from the regional to the national stage, attracting performers like Garrick Ohlsson and Midori. Moreover, every single performance in the new hall this summer has already sold out.

Which makes criticism a bit superfluous doesn't it. Still, it's easy to see why the hall has been such a smashing success: its interior is both subtle and stunning, with a stage "wall" that's actually a huge window onto the open harbor - a masterstroke in and of itself - that's only the centerpiece of a lovely interior beautifully appointed in walnut and Douglas fir.

And it's easy to hear why, too: the hall has a transparently clean acoustic unlike anything else in Boston. I'm not sure I've ever heard, in fact, a hall with as sparkling a top and as rumbling a bottom - this building gives great bass, guys.

What's also remarkable is the connection the Shalin Liu somehow makes across the "footlights;" something about the rake of the seating and the carefully calibrated height of the stage seems to dissolve the distance between performer and listener. There's no "proscenium" in the Shalin Liu; perhaps not even a "stage." The hall is intimate in the most literal sense: you feel as if you were rubbing elbows with the musicians.

This, however, leads to the one catch in acoustician R. Lawrence Kirkegaard's design; the space doesn't blend or cast a warm "halo" over the sound; at least on the floor, the hall seems to be simply transmitting the sonic data with unparalleled accuracy to the listener. But what that means is that when a large ensemble is playing (I heard Boston Musica Viva), you hear the music with something like the same balance issues that the actual performers experience onstage.

I'm sure that with soloists and quartets there'd be no problem - and alas, I'm not sure how, precisely, larger groups could address the issue. And to be honest, in any hall, when you sit in the first few rows, you're in a similar situation; Symphony Hall doesn't really sound like Symphony Hall until you're almost halfway back in the first section of the orchestra. So my advice is: if you're hearing a large ensemble at the Shalin Liu, think about the balcony.

Trust me, you won't mind sitting there - the view from above may be even more gorgeous than it is on the floor. Who thought of that giant glass aperture onto Rockport Harbor? Whoever did deserves a Pritzker. (I assume it was architect Alan Joslin, who worked on Seiji Ozawa Hall, but actually surpasses it here.)

Just don't let the Pritzker committee see the hall's exterior. Here a raft of good intentions have pretty much paved a road to you-know-where. The town of Rockport didn't want some chilly chunk of modernism louring over its lovely village square, so it insisted on a neo-nineteenth-century façade - much like what stood on the site before. But the results look a little Disneyfied, à la "Main Street U.S.A.," as this kind of thing often does. My only thought is that the maroon accents of the paint job don't help matters - while a subtler palette could.

Inside, however, things almost couldn't be more subtle. Indeed, the whole thing is to die for, my friends, from the chipped-granite sea-cliffs making up the opposing walls to the lovely, rippling panels that roll into place before the back window. (Don't do that, though (please), unless the glare from the sunset is really too intense!) The circulation is squeezed a bit here and there, I suppose, but at least it always makes sense (and if you're used to Jordan Hall, you'll think it's spacious!). Overall, the hall is a dazzling achievement - and not merely a new venue, but a new standard of what a local venue can be.

Oh, yeah - what about the concert? Well, I heard Boston Musica Viva do a set of early-modern to contemporary works - everything from Ives to Cage to Gunther Schuller, who was there to offer some opening remarks - but I'm afraid this venerable ensemble wasn't really ready for prime time with this particular program.

The concert opened smoothly enough, with Michael Gandolfi's Grooved Surfaces, a set of nearly-whimsical rhythmic aperitifs that the group brought off with panache. It may have been merely standard academic post-minimalism, but it was nice to listen to. Things began to slide a bit, however, with John Cage's Credo in US, a dance score for then-closeted boyfriend Merce Cunningham, which I'd never heard before, actually, but somehow sensed wasn't going too well even though much of it consisted of people literally banging on tin cans.

Composed in 1942, the piece includes not just that canny percussion but also a pre-recorded sound loop - here a scrap of Dvořák's From the New World that seemed to be being broadcast from the surface of Mars. Which was a pretty witty meta-comment on the piece, if you ask me, by Boston Musica Viva (Cage merely asked for "something like Beethoven or Shostakovich"). After all, the work's cheeky conceit is that as European high culture collapsed in World War II, anarchic American force would triumph - by literally banging on cans. Actually, this is a little dumb - a lot of Cage, beneath the music-of-chance smoke and mirrors, is a little dumb. And alas, sometimes conductor Pittman seemed to be cueing effects that just didn't happen - the "radio" operator often looked a bit lost, and the pianist, slightly panicked. Then again, if a Cage piece is played "incorrectly," does it really matter? At any rate, the percussionists generally seemed to know what they were doing, and stayed in synch, and said pianist, Geoffrey Burleson, soldiered on heroically, kind of like the Russians at Stalingrad.

But alas, if Charles Ives is played incorrectly, you can tell, and if anything, the Ives "Five Street Songs" that followed were more ragged than the Cage. I've been lucky enough to hear these performed by the likes of Dawn Upshaw, so maybe my expectations for the performance were a little unrealistic. But mezzo Pamela Dellal simply didn't have the power to cut through the ensemble, particularly when conductor Richard Pittman exacerbated the hall's balance issues by playing the opening number from the aisles. And at any rate, when you could hear her, she couldn't project Ives's distinctive blend of bitterness, rue, and longing. Nor could the rest of the group, actually. At their deepest level, these songs are about the facets of disillusion, but while Pittman had re-ordered them to possibly interesting dramatic effect, he seemed content to coast on their raucous surface. And his players were happy to ham everything up, too. Oh, well.

Next came the Schuller, "Four Vignettes," with titles like "Atmospherics" and "Found Objects," and the usual reliance on such formal devices as complicated rhythms and prettily alienated effects. At least it was short and sweet - although in his remarks, Schuller mentioned he had composed the piece with Liszt in mind. Which only made me wonder what he'd been smoking at the time (I'd like some of it). Fortunately the instrumentalists recovered their composure here, although there still seemed to be a missed cue here and there.

Finally came "Boston Fancies," from Steven Stucky (a favorite of BMV) who's even more of a formalist, and even more in love with "miniatures" - this time of two types, called "Ritornelli" and "Fancies," which were supposed to be strikingly different, but weren't really. Then again, this piece too was short and sweet - and you got the impression Stucky would be doing another one just like it in six months' time. The concert closed with a witty postscript from Bernard Hoffer’s Ma Goose (a work commissioned by BMV for its family programs) which conflated Old King Cole and Nat King Cole to amusing effect. It was probably the most ingratiating performance of the evening, and closed the concert on a high note. But to tell true, the audience left singing the praises of the hall, not the program.