ESCONDIDO — This city in northern San Diego County put itself on the cultural map Saturday with a preview opening of the resonant concert hall that is part of the $74-million California Center for the Arts scheduled to open Oct. 1. The sound within the new 1,524-seat hall is splendid but may take some getting used to.
Officially, the hall opens Oct. 2 with a (sold-out) recital by Cecilia Bartoli. But the San Diego Symphony, which probably will become a frequent visitor, was invited in early to give a gala preview program. Guest conductor JoAnn Falletta led works by Brahms, Rachmaninoff and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. Colleague Karen Keltner led choruses by Wagner and Verdi.
The sound at the gala was paradoxically vibrantly "present" and indeterminate, at least as heard from a central seat about midway back on the orchestra level. The sound was widely dispersed and arrived already well-blended, possibly too well-blended, with the top and bottom of the spectrum most favored except in lightly scored passages.
Even then, however, although the sound was typically larger and fresher than life, the location of an instrument could be hard to pinpoint.
It was exciting, involving, disconcerting. Call it, for lack of a better term, a "fishbowl" sound.
Perhaps it changed in the higher-lying seats. There are a small mezzanine and three shallow balconies above the orchestra section. Seating on the floor is mostly continental-style, but there are two aisles in the area behind Row P. The seats are burnt orange and the hall is an attractive lemony white.
The late architect Charles Moore of Moore Ruble Yudell in Santa Monica designed the facility so that no seat is farther than 100 feet from the stage. He created a bright, airy, friendly space for the audience.
Yet, it is a somewhat elliptical space, and to conform to it, the stage is wide and shallow. This causes the musicians to play toward each other and across a wider expanse than is commonly encountered, which creates new sonic displacements as well as the characteristics already noted.
A series of polished, dark, wooden half-cleaved pillars, vaguely suggesting Pharaonic design, stands at the back and sides of the stage. Presumably they were sanctioned by acoustician Rick Talaske of Illinois.
Falletta was taking over for San Diego Symphony music director Yoav Talmi, who was on assignment in Carnegie Hall, according to an orchestra spokeswoman. Falletta, music director of the Long Beach Symphony, opened the program with an affectionate, authoritative account of Brahms' "Academic Festival" Overture.
She then turned to the premiere of Zwilich's "American Concerto," composed for and performed by trumpeter and television personality Doc Severinsen.
Lasting about 15 minutes, the concerto unfolds in one tightly constructed movement, built out of possibly no more than three or four ideas, which recur in various guises in the episodic, thoroughly serious work.
It allows Severinsen abundant power notes but also opportunities for subtle and sustained playing. The piece was commissioned by the California Center, the San Diego Symphony, the Virginia Symphony, the Buffalo Philharmonic and Severinsen. Zwilich was on hand to accept a bouquet at the end.
Falletta then turned over the baton to Keltner, who led the orchestra and the San Diego Master Chorale in brisk performances of choruses from Wagner's "Tannhauser" and Verdi's "Nabucco" and "Aida." Alas, she pushed Verdi's heart-rending "Va, pensiero" through the hurdy-gurdy sausage grinder.
At intermission time, there was lots of predictable bustle as people scurried about the new facility to locate restrooms and water fountains. Those who just wanted to sip coffee or other beverages could find attractive nooks and crannies to hang out in, offering ample and comfortable seating.
The concert hall shares with the whole complex a visual style that combines De Chirico-like unadorned arches with rail-station open efficiency, all softened by light, bright colors.
To close the program, Garrick Ohlsson appeared as soloist in Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2, replacing Alexis Weissenberg, who is ill and has canceled all his remaining 1994 concerts. The hall gave great forward prominence to Ohlsson's playing, which could be heard in detail at its poetic and powerful best. The collaboration with Falletta was not always ideal, however, and here the orchestra sometimes sounded like a huge amorphous rumbling.
Clearly, Escondido has asked for more than striking visual design for its concert facility. It has built a hall that advances a particular kind of sound, one that impresses with vibrant presence at the cost of some clarity and even of credibility. Well, there are always trade-offs. Still, it is an impressive achievement and a grand beginning.