For all the intelligence and adventurism of its musical offerings, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum has never had a proper venue in which to present them. A large number of outstanding musicians - including many young artists who would later become stars - have played in the low-ceilinged Tapestry Room, visually sumptuous but acoustically flat.
With the unveiling this week of the museum’s new Renzo Piano-designed wing, that era is over. A gala concert last night offered a group of donors, trustees, and other VIPs a first look at, and a first listen to, Calderwood Hall, the elegant and smartly designed 296-seat venue that will be the epicenter of the Gardner’s musical activities. (Similar events continue through Sunday.)
Visually, the Calderwood is a marvel. The stage, ideally sized for chamber music, is set in the middle of the floor and surrounded by two rows of chairs. Above it are three balconies, each of which has 60 seats in a single row, creating unobstructed views on every level. The aesthetic is bright, clean, and dramatic.
CALDERWOOD HALL GALA CONCERT
Given the ceremonial nature of last night’s event, one could have forgiven the Gardner for putting on an evening of crowd pleasers. Instead, Scott Nickrenz, the museum’s music director, constructed a thoughtful, challenging program that was exactly the maiden voyage it deserved.
Pianist Jeremy Denk opened with Bach’s Fifth Partita, played with unusually clipped phrasing and an interesting variety of textures. But the real revelation was the sound. From where I sat on the floor, it had a power, warmth, and resonance that the Tapestry Room could never achieve. The sonic richness seemed to make the room come alive and give the hall an almost tactile presence.
Another Gardner alum, flutist Paula Robison, gave an urgent and dramatic performance of Edgard Varèse’s “Density 21.5,’’ where each microscopic change in the flute’s sound registered with pinpoint clarity.
Luciano Berio’s “Sequenza VII,’’ for solo oboe, was on the program as a nod to Piano and to the hall’s acoustician, Yasuhisa Toyota, who is an oboist. In contrast to the Varèse, the piece - brilliantly played by Stephen Taylor - uses the note B as a center of gravity - darting away, splattering into multiphonics, but always returning. I had moved to the first balcony and was pleased that the sound remained almost as vivid as on the floor.
It remained so on the second balcony, where I heard soprano Kiri te Kanawa, accompanied by the excellent Vlad Iftinca, finish the evening with a brace of songs and arias. The plush, creamy legato that was once te Kanawa’s calling card is no longer fully there. But she can still be a powerful presence, as she was in the two most affecting numbers of the evening - Strauss’s “Morgen’’ and “Marietta’s Lied’’ from Korngold’s opera “Die tote Stadt.’’
But, at least for one concert, the evening belonged not to the performers but to the hall. The Calderwood has a bright future ahead in Boston’s musical life.