New hall means a new day for music in San Francisco

With the advent of the Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco will be undergoing a cultural revolution. Both institutions will be able to have longer , more varied seasons.

For years, the San Francisco Opera and the San Francisco Symphony shared the War Memorial Opera House, as well as sharing orchestras. When major symphony orchestras were on US tours, if the opera was in residence, there was no place for them in San Francisco.

One senses a fierce amount of civic pride in the reality of this new hall, and the cultural center it will eventually be a part of. (Rehearsal halls and additional space will be built next door so both the concert hall and the opera house can centralize professional and bureaucratic needs.)

Architectural critics will have to pass judgment on the merits of the hall visually, outside and inside. One writer has already declared it haut bourgeois. From the outside, the building is a mixture of elegance and kitsch, at least for this pair of eyes.

Its most notable feature, aside from the sweeping semicircle of glass that constitutes much of the facade, is a pair of balconies (dubbed ears) incorporated as an extension of the tubular-looking trim that runs around the hall. Below that "tubing" the look is rather classical; above, pure wedding cake. And one can only imagine just how dated it look 10 years from now.

Inside, the lobbies do not lend themselves to easy access or egress. The Grand Staircase is awkward, and too high for comfortable climbing.

For two days last week, San Franciscans were celebrating the opening (though not the completion) of their new concert hall. It was quite a party and, happily, the city has something worth celebrating.

There is always the temptation to give an instant assessment for any new concert hall. But even in two concerts, it is well nigh impossible to render any sort of definitive judgment.

To begin with, a new hall needs to season a bit. There is a good deal of plaster here, which requires a good deal of concrete underfoot, more an acoustical than an aesthetic requirement. Already criticism of the cement floors has been noised about, however, though even on a $27.5 million budget some touches of elegance must be sacrificed.

The painting had gotten only as far as primer in many areas of the auditorium. The seating, while comfortable, is aisleless (continental style) -- splendid in concept for increasing seating capacity, but an utter nuisance for anyone near the center of any large hall.

The opening night program was designed as a celebration, and something of a test for the varieties of sounds the hall can encompass. Berlioz's "Roman Carnival Overture" was followed by David del Tredici's new piece, specially commissioned for the event, "Happy Voices."

Rudolf Serkin then joined the orchestra in a performance of Mendelssohn's First Piano Concerto, and the program closed with Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. The Berlioz crackled along brilliantly, revealing that certain over-resonant sound that verges too often on the tubby side of clarity.

The del Tredici, another of his evidently endless series of "Alice in Wonderland" inspired pieces, is engaging, if hardly representative of his most imaginative work.

How a grand piano will sound in Davies is still a grand mystery. Serkin's piano did not sound in the best of condition, and as positioned down by the apron of the stage, it was as if the instrument had been swathed in wet army blankets. Nevertheless, his performance of the concerto was a marvel of grandiose excitement, energy, and poetry. And de Waart's reading of the Beethoven Fifth was straightforward, majesterial, and tremendously dignified.

As it turns out, Edo de Waart's Mahler Eighth proved more of a showcase for the acoustics than the opening night gala. For the Mahler runs the gamut from slender orchestral playing to massive perorations from full orchestra, chorus, and organ.

Perhaps because huge speakers had been lowered behind the orchestra for the electronic organ, or perhaps because I was sitting nine rows farther back than the night before, the sound was just a bit drier for the Mahler, much more revealing, and considerably more pleasing. Voices rang free, the chorus sounded rich and full, and the orchestral balances were always clear and precise.

The Mahler is no easy piece to pull off -- requiring a huge chorus, three sopranos, two mezzos, a tenor with endless top notes, a baritone, a bass, and a tremendous concert organ. In the case of the latter, the nasty, thin, electronic smear that passed for organ sound was dramatic proof that electronic instruments will not do, even when they are better than this noise-box. In San Francisco, at least, there will be a grand pipe organ within two years.

De Waart's Mahler was mightily impressive. His orchestra is beginning to come together as an ensemble instrument (though the strings need work on luster, and the winds on blends). Flashes of the orchestra's potential were heard in the Berlioz and Beethoven on the first night, and throughout numerous sections of the Mahler the second night.

This is not Mahler's finest effort, but de Waart almost made us overlook the faults, and the last 15 minutes of the score -- the slow buildup to an exquisitely rousing finale -- were eloquent proof that the San Francisco Symphony is in the hands of a sensitive musician who delivers performance of substance that comes from a secure, deeply felt sense of tradition.

Soprano Judith Blegen was in particularly good voice, Janice Taylor handled the low-lying lines of her contralto part with solidity, Kenneth Reigel seemed a bit ill at ease in the high-lying tenor music (thankless stuff, that).

Mezzo Katherine Ciesinski and baritone William Parker contributed meaningfully, while bass John Cheek over-emoted and soprano Esther Hinds had conspicuous problems managing her altitudinous music. Elizabeth Knighton was the offstage Mater Gloriosa.

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