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Finely Tuned

Hailed for its acoustics, Bing Concert Hall is also seen as an instrument for changing Stanford's profile in the arts.

Joel Simon

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By Cynthia Haven

With the right lighting, the sturdy, fez-shaped building appears like something from another world, an outlier amid the sandstone-and-tiled architecture that dominates the Stanford landscape. And it would not be hyperbole to say there has never been anything like it on the Farm.

After decades of yearning for a world-class performing arts venue, years of planning and two years of construction, the Bing Concert Hall has finally arrived. It has been heralded as a transformational step forward in Stanford's efforts to elevate the arts, and celebrated for exquisite acoustics.

Perhaps no other single building in Stanford's history has carried with it so many dreams and expectations. Its location just off Palm Drive and an easy walk from the Cantor Arts Center positions the hall geographically and symbolically near the front of campus—a landmark meant to signal the importance of the arts at Stanford. Hopes are high that the building will foster a flourishing of teaching, learning and performance.

Officially, the Bing Concert Hall opens January 11 with a concert and attendant fanfare. But first comes that moment of anticipation—like the dramatic pause when the conductor raises the baton, and the audience collectively draws its breath—where everything, expected and not, can happen.

In Egypt's ancient Alexandria, the Odeum, a theater from the Roman occupation, was renowned for its mysterious "sweet spot": an otherwise unremarkable coordinate on the dusty stage where you could speak quietly and yet be heard in the uppermost row of the surviving marble seats. One step to the left or right and the effect is gone.

Two thousand years later, the fickle variability of acoustics holds the same fascination and still governs theater design. Harnessing the miracle of 21st-century sonic engineering was a major goal of the Bing Concert Hall, and why its planners refer to it being built "from the inside out."

The auditorium was designed by acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota, whose earlier work includes the New World Center in Miami (the Washington Post called its sound "astonishing") and Bard College's Fisher Center for the Performing Arts (the New Yorker hailed its "exceptionally crisp brilliance"). In Los Angeles, longtime Stanford benefactors Peter, '55, and Helen Bing had watched Toyota work his magic on the 2,265-seat Walt Disney Concert Hall.

About the same time the Disney Hall was being finished, Stanford had begun deliberating about how to enhance arts education—conversations that coalesced into the Stanford Arts Initiative. The Bings announced in September 2006 an initial $50 million gift that would start the building that bears their name and provide a linchpin for an envisioned "arts district."

The building was expected to be a game-changer, which meant it had to be remarkable. That started with the sound. "[Peter] had this vision from Day One that we had to have the best acoustician we can," says Kären Nagy, assistant vice president for the arts, now emerita. "Everything would answer to the acoustician."

Designed in a vineyard style in which the audience is seated on all sides of the stage, there is hardly a straight line anywhere in the 842-seat arena. Architectural features and materials choices aimed to create an "ideal environment" that enables "a more dynamic and immersive experience for both performer and audience," says Stanford Live artistic director Jenny Bilfield. "At last, our new arts buildings have caught up with the programming."

Wiley Hausam, executive director of the hall, hesitates to discuss the acoustics before audiences have a chance to experience it for themselves, but adds, "It's incredibly sensitive in the best possible way. The floor of the stage is like the sounding board of a cello or a violin, so really the whole auditorium is a musical instrument." (See PDF.)

Getting the acoustics right is as much art as science. Every space is filled with pockets of sound and has its own character, acutely felt by those who perform. The shape of the space, how reflective a surface is as sound bounces off it, can make sound unpredictable, even chaotic. Visiting artists have struggled for years playing in campus venues that frustrated them and cheated audiences in subtle ways.

"We rely on our ability to hear each other play," says Chris Costanza, cellist for the St. Lawrence String Quartet, Stanford's ensemble in residence. "Tempo, shifts of musical motion, a mood shift, a color change—a lot of that is rehearsed in a performance space. How do I sound in relation to a person I can't hear?"

The hall's acoustic fidelity will enable better teaching, too. Stephen Sano, director of choral studies and chair of the music department, notes, for example, that if students seated in the violin section can't hear what the bassoons are doing, "you can't train people how to listen." Now, faculty can "teach students how to listen, and what to listen for, and what solid orchestral playing is." And he's excited that the hall will be "an absolutely terrific resource for recruiting."

Stanford senior Wesley Dunnagan agrees. A music and German major, Dunnagan feels lucky that the facility will open before he graduates. He predicts the Bing Hall "will change the student landscape at Stanford. We've always had a lot of artists, but it's not always been easy. The attention at Stanford is more on the side of science and engineering. This is one of the things that will help the arts become a more respected field as an area to study. In 15 or 20 years, Stanford will be much better known for the arts than it is today."

Bing Concert Hall is, by design, small enough to be intimate, but grand enough to be memorable. Soaring ceilings and elegant, supple lines give the place an aesthetic that might be described as California contemplative. "There's a grandeur and theatricality to it that I think is going to be really breathtaking," says Hausam.

The hall's spaciousness is enhanced by its setting. The glass-walled lobby holds as many people as the auditorium, so intermission won't feel crowded. The large glass panels roll open, bringing the outside in.

The appointments are first-rate: Artist lounges offer private bathrooms and showers, and an adjacent garden patio; the men's and particularly the women's bathrooms (26 stalls!) feature glittering finishes; an array of instrument rooms provide musicians with ample storage and rehearsal spaces; a recording studio brims with state-of-the-art technology. In the auditorium, the width of the seats and the distance between the rows offer extra comfort. It's a tiny example of how "everything is considered from the patron's point of view," according to Hausam.

What that means, practically, is that your evening's experience with the arts begins before the first notes hit your ear—before you even walk into the auditorium. It begins, says Hausum, when you get your first communication from Stanford Live. It continues when you buy your ticket, park and arrive at the "fez."

"Peter Bing has said, if you're having trouble finding parking, you're rushing and you're late, and you can't find a bathroom, it ruins the first half of the concert experience," says Hausum. "You're experiencing all of it. It may not be [foremost] in your consciousness, but it's there somewhere." In that light, one of the most obvious advantages is that the 112,000-square-foot hall is findable. Drive down Palm Drive and hang a left on Museum Way—or, alternatively, continue from 101 down Palo Alto's Embarcadero Road onto Stanford's Galvez Street. Adjacent Galvez Field was paved and landscaped for permanent event parking across the street from the back entrance to Bing.

The location wasn't chosen only for convenience, though. Sitting at the east end of Museum Way, Bing faces the Cantor Arts Center, forming a kind of arts axis. "Walk out of the concert hall, you see the museum; walk outside the museum, and you see the concert hall," says Nagy. "It will encourage people to explore other aspects of the arts."

Its positioning on campus presages the powerful cross-fertilization offered by the proposed arts district, a land plan that incorporates the Thomas Welton Stanford Art Gallery, Memorial Auditorium and Pigott Theater; the planned Burton and Deedee McMurtry Building, new home for the Department of Art and Art History; and the soon-to-be-constructed building that will house the Anderson Collection, one of the world's top collections of 20th-century American art.

For all its promise, building a world-class performance hall isn't without some risk. Audiences nationwide have declined in recent years, causing financial hardships for even the most venerable institutions. (The Philadelphia Orchestra filed for bankruptcy in 2011.) "The first year or two is critical," says Mario Garcia Durham, head of the Washington, D.C.-based Association of Performing Arts Presenters. He adds that Stanford is moving into the time of "tweaking it, feeling it out, seeing how performers react to it. It's a wonderful time to get to know the facility. It's like a living organism."

The January 11 opening notwithstanding, the first performance was held without fanfare on an afternoon last June. Stanford's Laptop Orchestra donned goggles, helmets and bright yellow safety vests to perform for the construction workers amid the scaffolding in the unfinished auditorium. It characterized the ebullient entrepreneurial spirit that extends to artistry these days, and the growing interrelationship between music and technology, a Stanford specialty.

Durham says that blend of science and art may suggest a niche for Stanford's new performance hall. "These conversations between artists who are looking at science, scientists who are looking at the arts, are going on all over the country. It's interesting. Stanford is poised as an organization to continue that. It could tie in the resources and great thinkers at the University with great artists."

A March 8 performance by student group Chocolate Heads, which combines dance, music and visual arts, is an example of the role undergraduates will have in the hall. "It's an absolutely gorgeous place," says dance professor and choreographer Aleta Hayes. "The space itself, the architecture, is so incredible, it doesn't need a set."

The three-year award of $500,000 by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation was a vital first note. The 2011 grant was, in part, to support the development of new works and artist residencies, such as music professor Jonathan Berger's experimental operas about hallucinations and the brain, which will be combined with a symposium in April. "I think that the challenge is how to keep the space exploratory, experimental, with Stanford-like entrepreneurship, and financially viable," says Berger.

Hausam is understandably ambitious: In the past five years, artistic works developed under the Stanford Live aegis have received more than 400 performances nationally and internationally, along with Grammys and other awards, but Hausam hopes to make an even greater splash. "It will take a little time—but this is Stanford, and our objectives are lofty."

Cynthia Haven is associate director of communications for Stanford Libraries.

Comments (3)

  • Ms. Carmela Bosko

    A standing ovation for all who kept the dream alive and advanced the reality of the place of  the arts at Stanford resulting in the current completion of the Bing Concert Hall. I am very much looking forward to coming to performances in 2013 and beyond even as I remember when.......only 50 years!
    Carmela Bosko, B.A., M.A., 1963

    Posted by Ms. Carmela Bosko on Jan 23, 2013 4:17 PM

  • Mr. Martin Puryear

    Enormous kudos to Peter, Helen, Karen, Wiley, and everyone else that contributed to the creation of the Fez.  As mentioned, this has been an acute need for many, many years.  Looks absolutely gorgeous, and I cannot wait to experience it firsthand.  What a truly thoughtful combination of artistic and functional, toward the optimal audience (and performer) experience.  Stage as sounding board -- brilliant!  
    -Martin Puryear, A.B./B.S. '89 Music / E.E.
    (Chorale, Fleet Street, etc.)

    Posted by Mr. Martin Puryear on Jan 23, 2013 4:33 PM

  • Ms. Celine Larkin

    A wonderful building that will host amazing concerts! It is no surprise that Yasu Toyota has designed another acoustic masterpiece, but who is the architect? Surely they also deserve some of the credit?

    Posted by Ms. Celine Larkin on Jan 24, 2013 11:07 AM


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