Benaroya Hall was built as a temple of the immaterial muse, but its lobby celebrates materiality: Downtown Seattle has never looked more urban, and urbane, than it does through the Benaroya's wraparound curtain wall. As one mounts the staircase from main floor to tier above overhanging tier, the view gets airier, livelier, more exciting. You almost don't want to leave the lobby, though the proper business of this building is within.
As befits a place of worship for a deity whose power is still unchallenged, the Benaroya's main hall (named after Los Angeles arts patron Mark Taper) is plain, even dowdy: There's nothing in Mark Reddington's design, all warm brown wood and matte plaster, to distract from the object of your visit: the 80-odd people in archaic black-and-white evening dress assembled on the stage.
The orchestra was so assembled even at 10 in the morning for the open rehearsal preceding Saturday's gala grand-opening concert. KCTS was recording the event for posterity in HDTV, and was grabbing every second of tape possible for cover shots. So maybe it was the sense of high occasion in the nearly empty auditorium which made it seem at first as if Terpsichore (muse of sacred song as well as the dance) had gotten severely short shrift, considering the $130 million expended in her honor.
The first work on the rehearsal docket was an early piece by the Austrian composer Anton von Webern: the slow movement for a never-finished string quartet arranged for string orchestra by SSO conductor Gerard Schwarz. Even allowing for the tendency of such arrangements to come off congested and lumpish (think of the frequent examples at Dmitri Sitkovetski's International Music Festival), the sound of the work from row X on the Benaroya's main floor was remarkably congested.
It was as if the space between stage and auditorium were hung with a curtain of invisible cheesecloth, confining the sound, emulsifying it into an undifferentiated aural gel: a monaural sound, sumptuous enough but essentially no different whichever direction one faced. For some music and some tastes this may be a desirable state of affairs; for music that benefits from a strong sense of focus, it's deadening. You can admire music which sounds like this, but your body can't feel it.
Moving toward and away from the orchestra, one discovers that there's a smooth but definite transition between rows Z and T: Forward of T the sound is much more "present," without gaining much in the way of juice. Forward of row H—too close for comfort in most halls—there's even a degree of directionality. But smack dab in the middle of the premium subscriber seating, muffle is the order of the day. Notes appear to lack any definite attack, and attack is 90 percent of an instrument's timbral nature: Without that clue to the ear, it's astonishing how much a violin and an oboe playing the same note sound alike.
Moreover, without attack, very brief sounds don't register. In the Webern, you could see the basses pluck their instruments and even hear a sort of sound, but their pitch had to be guessed at from the harmonic context. Similar plucked notes in the higher strings all but vanish—but they don't vanish enough to obscure when the players' coordination is less than perfect. Benaroya Hall is going to insist on perfect ensemble; anything less is cruelly exposed.
It's going to insist on exemplary behavior from audiences, as well; a mere clearing of the throat is audible from the back of the hall to the rear of the stage. A noisy bracelet, a dropped program, a cellophane-wrapped throat lozenge instantly become public events, even during high-volume musical passages.
As soon as one leaves the main floor for higher tiers, virtually all the difficulties disappear. The sound from the side boxes of the first, "founders" tier is a little squashy, but nowhere near as stuffy as the central main floor. And at the rear of the first tier, and all round the horseshoe-shaped upper tiers, the sound simply goes from good to better.
It's not the kind of warm, throbbing, body-penetrating sound one gets in some great halls old and new. The hall's reverberation time is too short for that: only a little over two seconds, with a sharp, immediate drop-off. But "dryness" has its good side: The room's sound is clear, differentiated enough to spot the location of every section of the orchestra with closed eyes, yet blended enough to produce an agreeable illusion of sound pressure emanating from the stage, even at low volume levels. It may not penetrate: but it's sumptuous enough to produce a shiver in the spine and prickle behind the eyes at luscious moments like the final chorale of Stravinsky's Firebird.
Returning to the main floor for the beginning of Wagner's "Rhine Journey" excerpt from Siegfried, I learned that even dead center in the main hall can afford some lovely sounds. Individual wind instruments speak with considerable clarity, even whole sections; it's only when the texture becomes complex and the volume level high that the muffling occurs in a big way. It may well be that, after years of over-playing simply to punch through the deadly Opera House acoustic, the conductor and orchestra are going to have to learn not only to play with more reserve but more deliberate transparency as well.
Toward the end of the Saturday rehearsal, I overheard one player remark to another, "We're going to have to learn to 'play' this hall." She could say that double for the Benaroya's 540-seat second auditorium, named for the late Illsley Ball Nordstrom. Sunday's debut concert there revealed an even drier acoustic than in the Taper. In a concert comprising the last three Mozart symphonies, the wind players, accustomed to shaping every note and phrase as soloists, had no difficulty, but the strings found themselves cruelly exposed, not only in every lapse from perfect ensemble but in consistency of phrasing and beauty of tone as well.
In the Opera House, conductor Schwarz's insistence that the strings produce a steady flow of sound, without a lot of internal articulation of the line, covered a multitude of sins. In the Nordstrom, nothing is covered; you hear every inconsistency in the length of rapid notes in a run, every sag in bow-pressure at the end of a phrase.
Above all you hear how rarely the Seattle Symphony strings simply make agreeable sounds: Every high passage in the first violins sounds thready when soft, painfully edgy when loud. It isn't just the hall emphasizing high pitches; on Sunday the violas played with admirable finesse, as did the double-basses, while the cellos played with a hoarseness as disagreeable over the long haul as the first violins' knife-sharp attacks.
The Nordstrom won't be used primarily for chamber-orchestra concerts, which is probably just as well, but it will be an invaluable test course for the SSO players as they re-learn how to play, as individuals and as a group. I look forward to seeing how they rise to the challenge.