Last Friday marked the gala opening of Stanford University's new Bing Concert Hall. It's one of three new Bay Area concert spaces: Weill Hall at Sonoma State opened last fall, and the new SF Jazz Center opens later this month. Combined they've cost about $318 million. All are likely to become big draws for artists and audiences for decades to come.
KQED's Cy Musiker took an acoustical tour of two of the halls to learn what makes a premier concert experience.
Weill Hall, Sonoma State
Larry Kirkegaard designed the acoustics for Weill Hall in Rohnert Park, a big shoebox of a room with a great pedigree. It's modeled after Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood, the music mecca in western Massachusetts.
Kirkegaard designed the room to have "a sound that is really full and full bodied in character, that's articulate so you hear absolutely every subtlety of attack."
Last September, Lang Lang played a Chopin ballade at Weill's inaugural concert. The music sounded crisp, but not shrill, warm, but not muddy. That's basically the goal for Kirkegaard and the other sound designers.
Weill Hall features hard surfaces — wood floors and walls backed by hard masonry to better reflect the sound waves. And it features acoustical banners — like curtains – a common feature these days in many halls that can be extended to soften the sound if it's too bright.
So far, musicians are praising the hall.
"It was very exciting, it wasn't completely finished, and everybody loved it," said Steve Dibner, the associate principal bassoon player for the San Francisco Symphony.
Dibner and a few other musicians tested out the room while it was still under construction, and Dibner says it sounded even better when the whole orchestra returned for a concert in December.
"We are expected to make a huge range of sounds, and so I felt this hall responded to the quite intimate whispers and the huge blasts that are possible from a symphony orchestra," Dibner said.
Bing Concert Hall, Stanford University
Bing Concert Hall was designed by Yasuhisa Toyota, who collaborated with architect Frank Gehry on the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. He favors what's called a vineyard design, with the seats on a series of rising tiers, like terraced vineyards. On the walls are 10 huge convex screens with a nubby coating designed to both reflect and diffuse the sound.
"We call them sails. Above there's another enormous elliptical shape. We call that a cloud," says Toyota. "And the stage is like the valley around which all the people of the community cluster to listen to the musicians."
Executive Director Wiley Hausam demonstrates one of Bing's most eccentric features.
"This is the Alaskan cedar stage. And go like this," he says tapping the floor just off the stage. Then we go out to the stage and tap our feet again. We're greeted by a reverberating boom! boom! boom! and Hausam laughs
"There's a big cavern of space underneath the stage that creates all that resonance," he says. "Why do you want that? Because it makes a great sound, the softer the sound is here almost the more wonderful it is. "
That resonant stage is one aspect of the Bing Concert Hall that worries Geoff Nuttall, violinist with the St. Lawrence String Quartet. The quartet's members tend to dance a bit as they play.
"You have to be careful because footsteps are loud. I mean you bang your foot it's part of the show almost more than any space I've ever been in," Nuttall says. "We should just play barefoot it would be great."
All the quartet members are Stanford faculty, and have been helping fine-tune the concert hall's acoustics for months.
"One of the great things about Bing is you hear each other really well, and that's not often the case in halls that are that warm," Nuttall says. " So it's a great combination of clarity on stage and creating this real beautiful bloom in the sound for the audience."