Davies Hall RenovationThis article appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on September 10, 1992

Davies Hall Renovation Applauded
Symphony Opens With Glorious Sound

By Robert Commanday
Chronicle Music Critic

Davies Hall reopened last night with the new sound that everyone has been waiting and hoping for. The acoustics, which were the controversial issue for the first 12 years of the hall's life, have been remade to provide an excellent and exciting symphonic sound.

The excitement of the preparations, the buildup and the celebratory activities were more than matched by the response of the hall itself to the sounds of the San Francisco Symphony playing Beethoven's Ninth Symphony under Herbert Blomstedt's direction.

Members of the glittering crowd, those who attended the gala dinner in the pavilion tent next door and those who came early for the promenade through the building, were obviously pleased. Once in the hall, they became and absolutely attentive audience, taking in the warmer new elegance around them.

The increased sense of intimacy or togetherness that the redesigned interior brings to the eye is reflected in the immediacy and resonance of the sound.

It is not simply a question of the right reverberation time, the sustaining of the sound that is so important, as it is a question of increased clarity and immediacy that brings the listener into the music - and the music around the listener. This was the result of the five years of planning and study by the acoustician who made this possible, R. Lawrence Kierkegaard.

Although this is first response to a well-known work of one composer, and with all kinds of music waiting to be tested, the results last night augur extremely well.

Beethoven's Ninth, opening hushed and mysterious, let us hear the violins and cellos playing delicately, and the sound moving about on the edge was of the great moment that launches us into this monumental work.

Wall of Sound

At the crashing entrance of the timpani, the sound was too much - booming in fact. But this turned out to be an effect Blomstedt was demanding rather than a flaw in the acoustics.

During the intensive and turbulent development of this first movement, there is every possibility of the instrumental sections canceling each other out and the texture becoming muddy. This did not happen. It was possible to define the design inside that texture, and so it continued through the movement in its incrementally powerful course.

Reverberant Tone

One quality of the new Davies Hall that became evident very early was the deepening of the bass response. The basses and cellos together produced a reverberant tone that has extended the dimension of the music that will be heard in this hall.

The second movement scherzo, with the timpani leading the way, revealed that the precision of attack would be sharply evident, and that impression was strengthened when the lightest pizzicato notes in the soft passages came across crystal clear.

The Adagio, which is the real heart of the Ninth Symphony and the test of the performers' inspiration, found the woodwinds in the new seating configuration exquisitely balanced and playing to each other as never before.

The quiet lyricism of the work came across. If there was a wish for more, it would have been for more violins. Indeed whether this is the continuing problem with the hall or something the violin section and Blomstedt can develop more effectively, that sound did not sing as it must in a great symphonic ensemble.

'Ode to Joy'

The recitative-like prelude to the finale was a special instance of that ensemble, in that the cello and bass unison performance of the "Ode to Joy" melody was beautifully unified, 20 playing as one.

Enter the baritone solo, sung by Tom Krause - actually over-sung, as he reached out in a stentorian fashion that seemed outside the interpretation that was to follow.

Blomstedt had ranged his four soloists behind the orchestra and in front of the chorus standing on the terrace. From that position, their sound was easily projected.

Benita Valente, soprano, Diane Curry, mezzo-soprano, Jerry Hadley, tenor, and Krause were excellent individually and in match, although the final quartet was not well integrated or rhythmically unified.

Vance George's Symphony Chorus sounded marvelous. It opened the evening singing the national anthem a capella in George's brilliantly voiced arrangement. To be sure, their voices, sopranos in the lead, rang around the house.

Stirring Performance

In the "Ode to Joy," singing from memory, the choristers have a stirring performance - the conviction, the energy, the vitality supporting the thrust of that inspiring work.

In a little touch of theater, the new "up lights" that illuminate the new side walls around the stage were brought up.

Blomstedt's interpretation was solid, and the precision he got from orchestra and chorus was striking. There have been more emotionally probing and electrifying interpretations, but this one produced the promise for this orchestra's future that had to be the goal of the evening.

After the audience's enthusiastic response to the Ninth, there were some encores, but not from the orchestra. Drummers from various student organizations stationed around the hall started up, Val Diamond from Beach Blanket Babylon sang "San Francisco," a barbershop group from Stanford University sang and the Cal Band paraded down the new aisles as a capper.

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