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Uplifted by sound from down in the depths

September 15, 2003|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — The opulent results of a concert hall and opera house building boom, fueled by the money-falling-out-of-trees-for-the-arts-1990s, is suddenly upon us. Forget, for a minute, the shimmering big one soon to open its doors in Los Angeles. Doors are opening practically everywhere.

The subject of this report is a descent two stories down into the bedrock of Manhattan: Zankel Hall -- a 644-seat new addition to, and directly underneath, Carnegie Hall -- which had its first public concert Friday evening. But it is first worth noting that Seattle Opera consecrated its extensively redesigned and rebuilt opera house this past summer.

Later this month architecture buffs will flock to Tenerife, on the Canary Islands, for the first concert in a new opera house by the famed Spanish architect Santiago Calatravia. The Detroit Symphony moves into its rebuilt home early next month. One could go on. Last year, Rome got a new performing arts center, as did Shanghai. Even the current economic climate has not halted plans for new or restored halls in Atlanta, Miami, Montreal, Costa Mesa, Boston, Beijing, St. Petersburg and elsewhere.

What makes the Judy and Arthur Zankel Hall -- the new Carnegie stage's full name -- significant is not the structure itself.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday September 16, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Architect's name -- An article in Monday's Calendar about Zankel Hall in New York misspelled the last name of architect Santiago Calatrava as Calatravia.

It's perfectly nice quality goods. But what exactly will go into new halls at a time when arts budgets have suddenly become depressed and audiences for serious culture seem unusually fickle is a major concern. These are the days for rethinking, reinventing and renewing programming, and with Zankel, Carnegie assumes a leadership role.

The spunky, uplifting concert Friday set the tone. No fancy-schmancy gala this. John Adams conducted the Zankel Band -- 21 participants in Carnegie's recent Professional Training Workshops. The music was quirky and mainly of our time.

The players were not formally dressed; Adams wore a bright orange shirt. With pieces by Lou Harrison and Esa-Pekka Salonen comprising about half of the program, there was no mistaking a West Coast bias. The other works were by Ives and the young British sensation, Thomas Ades. All seats were priced at $25.

Although there were private previews earlier in the week, Carnegie insists that every event in its two-week, 24-program, generally low-priced opening festival -- which ranges from Pierre Boulez to Randy Newman -- is an opening night. After that the hall will remain just as busy and eclectic, with its first season divided into new music, world music, jazz, pop, spoken word, chamber music, cabaret and recitals.

The innovative Nonesuch records has been brought in as co-presenter of many of the label's acts, and the New York Times has coined a new word to describe what is happening to Carnegie -- Nonesuchification. Hip works just as well. Call it anything you like, it is a dream season that includes a great many of the most important and effective musicians before the public today.

The first thing a visitor familiar with Zankel in its previous incarnation notices while descending the escalator is the missing popcorn smell.

Originally built for chamber music, the space had most recently been a dingy art house cinema. Carnegie spent a small fortune -- $72 million -- on the renovation, digging deeper underground, adding insulation against the noise of the nearby subway, equipping the theater with a complex hydraulic system that allows the seats and stage to be configured into different shapes and sizes.

Designed by Polshek Partnership Architects, the theater itself has the feel of a posh black box. Along its walls are attractive slatted wood acoustical panels that are like airy, Asian appointments, although they are not fully integrated visually with other plain wood panels. The seats are elegant, lightly cushioned wood. The ceiling is made up entirely of utilitarian light panels. There are two narrow upper tiers along the sides of the hall.

Zankel fits into the Carnegie acoustical aesthetic. As in the famous Isaac Stern Auditorium and the small Weill Recital Hall, the sound has a pleasing warmth and fullness. Zankel is not perfect. It doesn't make a vigorous sonic statement and the bass is a little weak. But these are not glaring defects, and all concert halls get a break at first as materials and musicians settle in.

Adams' concert ended with cellist Anssi Karttunen as soloist in Salonen's "Mania." When this great Finnish virtuoso performed the virtuosic one-movement chamber concerto in Los Angeles, at the slightly smaller and more acoustically immediate Zipper Auditorium, there was more impact and hence more excitement to his playing.

But Jaffe Holden Acoustics, Inc., has done its job well enough that this listener could, nonetheless, spend the concert enjoying the music without worrying unduly about missing anything crucial.

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