Sunday, March 9, 2003

Schuster's acoustics remarkable

Dayton's new hall sounds beautiful

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

DAYTON - You have to hear it to believe it.

When the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra inaugurated its new home Thursday in the gleaming new Benjamin and Marian Schuster Performing Arts Center, you couldn't miss the sense of pride as Daytonians thronged into their new hall through its block-long crystal Wintergarden.

Architecturally, the Cesar Pelli-designed space is breathtaking. But the real test was whether the sound in Mead Theatre, the orchestra's new home, would live up to its $121 million price tag.

By the conclusion of Thursday's concert of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Vaughan Williams and Stravinsky led by music director Neal Gittleman, it was clear: this is one of the most stunning acoustical spaces in Ohio - perhaps in the nation.

"The thing that struck me the most tonight was how much fun it was. Everyone seemed to be having a good time," said a beaming Gittleman at a crowded post-concert reception. Said principal bass Deborah Taylor: "The musicians are pinching themselves."

The orchestra's stage was extended 25 feet into the hall, an effect that made the performance intimate for the sold-out crowd of 2,155. Sitting on the main floor, "you really feel like you're part of the show," said Jo Helen Williams of Dayton, who had also attended a gospel show there this week.

The ceiling spirals upward to the "sky" as it was a century ago, when the Wright Brothers made their first flight. (The twinkling stars are fiber optic lights.) The orchestra sat beneath an undulating acoustical canopy, surrounded by gently curved walls - similar to the treatment in Cleveland's newly renovated Severance Hall, designed by the same Norwalk, Conn., firm, Jaffe Holden Acoustics Inc.

"We feel that works well for clarity, presence and articulation," says acoustician Mark Holden.

Indeed, the sound compares favorably with some of the best halls in the world. As the musicians entered one by one like the Vienna Philharmonic and launched into Beethoven's Consecration of the House, the sound was clean and sonorous; with enough reverberation to add richness. Gittleman kept the work's Beethovenian bursts of energy wonderfully balanced.

The Mendelssohn Violin Concerto starring violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg was a test of another kind. One could hear every nuance of her throbbing phrases; even the extreme pianissimo that she achieved in her highest harmonics had a glistening, pristine sound.

Salerno-Sonnenberg, dressed in striped sequined pants, brought an introspective mood to the concerto's lyrical phrases, and her virtuosities crackled with electricity. In the first movement coda, she grinned and took off, as if daring the orchestra to catch up. The finale was both impish and brilliant, as she stamped her foot and drove to the finish.

Gittleman was with her every inch of the way, and balanced the orchestra beautifully. A cheering standing ovation resulted in an encore: "Bess, You Is My Woman Now" from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, a display of Ms. Salerno-Sonnenberg's extraordinary range.

After intermission, the strings created organ-like sounds in Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. Solos by concertmaster Lucas Aleman and principal violist Sheridan Kamberger, enhanced the performance, which had an almost mystical feel.

Concluding the evening, Stravinsky's Firebird Suite (1919) showed off not only the hall, but also what this orchestra could do. Now in his eighth season, Gittleman has brought the DPO to a new level. He captured the Firebird's magical sweep while illuminating details with a sure hand, and his musicians responded with a high degree of precision. There were many fine contributions from principal players, such as the singing tone of principal cellist Andra Lunde Padrichelli in the "Lullabye," and the broad French horn theme in the finale (Richard Chenoweth). But what stood out was the effortless quality of their playing.

"You don't have to work hard," confirmed violist Colleen Braid. "It's a pleasure to play in a hall instead of just a room."


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