Over the weekend, a few days before the official public opening of its new wing, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum presented a set of performances in its brand new Calderwood Hall. Intended as a chance to thank its donors and supporters, the concerts also offered a sneak preview of the new 300-seat concert venue. My first impressions were that the visuals are stunning, and that the acoustics are a bit complicated. But let’s start at the beginning.
That this new hall exists at all is a testament to the museum’s admirable commitment to music, which is not to be taken for granted. The new wing might easily have included no concert space, or just a standard-issue auditorium. And consider how few classical concerts of any distinction take place around the corner at the Museum of Fine Arts.
The Gardner now has one of the most visually striking small halls you will come across. Architect Renzo Piano and acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota have designed a space that is essentially a stageless cube with the musicians performing in the middle of the floor and the audience seated on all four sides, both on the floor and on three levels of balconies that line the cube up to vertiginous heights. Each of the balconies has only a single row of seats.
Plenty of performance venues have seating in the round, but that usually means just a small section of seats placed behind and alongside the orchestra. Here there is no obvious front or back of the hall whatsoever, nor is it clear necessarily where a conductor or soloist would stand, or even how to angle a piano. I hope ensembles will have fun exploring this unusual orientation, and sure enough it seemed the experimentation has already begun. On Saturday night, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and A Far Cry chamber orchestra performed the Haydn Cello Concerto No. 1 with Ma facing inward toward the orchestra, as if closing a circle. The performance became chamber music of the highest caliber.
From a listener’s perspective, facing so many of your fellow audience members lends the hall an appealing living room-like intimacy. On the flip side, listening itself feels like more of a public communal activity rather than a quasi-private affair. At Calderwood Hall, the audience is on display almost as much as the musicians.
Unfortunately, what makes the hall visually unique also makes it acoustically complex. I heard three different programs this weekend from three different locations, each yielding radically different impressions of the hall’s sound. At all points the acoustic was impeccably clear, and I could hear Ma’s quietest pianissimos effortlessly. But from the first balcony on Friday and Saturday nights, the sound was also much drier than I expected. The reverberation of big string chords seemed to die away quite quickly, and the string instruments themselves did not seem very flattered by the acoustic.
In Schoenberg’s Second Quartet, performed Saturday by the Borromeo String Quartet and soprano Mary Elizabeth Mackenzie, one wants to hear strings and voice supporting each other through the composer’s final two movements of surging expressionistic music, but from the first balcony I heard mostly individual instruments with Mackenzie’s voice only lightly blended into the mix. Then I slipped up to the very top balcony to hear Mendelssohn’s Octet played by the Borromeo and Jupiter string quartets.
The sound seemed better up high, especially when one leaned slightly over the banister. The railings on all three balconies are themselves supported by glass, allowing you to view what’s happening below when sitting back in your chair. But that same glass also appears to deflect the sound, acting almost like an acoustic shield. That’s why you will see lots of balcony-dwellers leaning forward on the railing as they listen.
On Sunday afternoon, I sat on the floor of the hall, about 12 feet from Finnish pianist Paavali Jumppanen playing two Beethoven sonatas on a Steinway positioned at a diagonal angle, with its lid removed. The sound was gloriously full and reverberant, so loud in fact that the pianissimo range seemed all but unavailable. I don’t know how the piano sound carried to the upper balconies, but certainly of all the instruments I heard in the hall, the piano seemed most flattered by the acoustic. Or was that merely a function of where I was sitting for that concert?
These are of course only first impressions of a space where the sound seems affected by so many variables of both musician and listener location. Ultimately, it’s a thrill to have a new venue in Boston, a small modern hall near the Huntington Avenue axis to complement the grandeur of Symphony Hall and the midsize elegance of Jordan Hall. In the coming weeks, as the city’s music lovers stream in to see the new Calderwood Hall, the musicians will continue exploring the space and hopefully learning to make creative use of its distinctive layout. Perhaps the hall itself will continue to be “tuned’’ acoustically. Then before long the acoustics discussion will recede and people will listen once again not to the hall but to the music. Which, by the way, begins for the public on Thursday.