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CalArts unleashes its Wild Beast

The new venue, already hosting classes, is set for its inaugural concert series.

October 17, 2010|Deborah Vankin, Los Angeles Times

"I am interested in how the wild beast lives in the jungle, not in the zoo."

— composer Morton Feldman

The beast lives. And it turns out it's wired with a 5.1 surround sound system and high-speed Ethernet connectivity to boot.

California Institute of the Arts' long-awaited state-of-the-art performance space, the Wild Beast, is up and running, "humming from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. with classes and performances," says David Rosenboom, dean of the institute's Herb Alpert School of Music.

Designed by architects Craig Hodgetts and Ming Fung, the building is cutting-edge in design and functionality. It can be used for classes, rehearsals, recitals or professional shows — for anywhere from a dozen students to 1,000 audience members, depending on how it's configured. The $4-million construction cost was made possible largely through private donations. Lead donor Abby Sher chose the name from a Morton Feldman essay that refers to the illusive and expansive nature of creativity. "If the wild beast could live anywhere, it would be here," she told CalArts.

Its inaugural concert season kicks off Saturday with the first of an open-air, four-concert series. The programs cover various musical genres, including classical, opera, jazz and percussion ensemble — in its way mimicking CalArts founder Walt Disney's original vision for the Valencia school — artistic diversity and a commingling of all the arts under one roof.

Rosenboom says the Beast, which broke ground three years ago and just opened its doors to students in May, sprung to life out of need, as the music school has more than doubled in size during his 20-year tenure. The new building was his idea, and he pushed for years to have the project greenlighted. Rosenboom hopes that the 3,200-square-foot venue will push interdisciplinary boundaries further than CalArts ever has, by allowing students from all departments to come together on productions where they can combine artistic sensibilities in a space that takes advantage of the newest technologies and optimized acoustics.

Interestingly, the Wild Beast was conceived not just to house students, performers and equipment but as a musical instrument itself. At quick glance it's an elegant, simplistic wedge of glass, copper and concrete. But inside, it's wired to the hilt and odd-shaped, with four uneven walls and a deceptively complicated infrastructure. Each bulging curve of wood or patch of glass serves a functional purpose: directing and reflecting sound. An electronic glass awning lifts to project music into the adjacent courtyard for outdoor concerts, its metal hinges resembling frets on a guitar. A wall of wood panels resembles individual bamboo reeds on an oboe or clarinet. The acoustic clarity is pristine.

Consider the building's flexible, multi-use capabilities, however, and it feels more like an ensemble of instruments than a lone musical device. With all its various doors and "hatches" closed, it's a tight, clean and modern student rehearsal or recital space or an intimate concert hall for 140 people. With its 44-foot "rolling wall" slid open, it transforms into an outdoor amphitheater that can accommodate up to 1,000 people sprawled out on the lawn. It's purposefully reminiscent of the outdoor venue Tanglewood, in the fields of Lenox, Mass., says Rosenboom, "or a mini- Hollywood Bowl."

The first of the Wild Beast's concerts, "Strauss, Mozart and Gabrieli Under the Stars," especially fits into the romance of Tanglewood — the evening's classical music program itself was chosen to highlight the experience of the open-air amphitheater as much as the performers or acoustics.

Chamber musician Mark Menzies, who curated the first two concerts, which he'll also conduct, says the first concert is "modeled on the idea of going back to the middle ages."

"We thought up a program that had that tradition of 17th and 18th century Western music, which was performed outside. They called it serenade music," says Menzies, who is also a viola and violin professor at CalArts.

He says that though the Wild Beast is "an ideal way to hear classical music" and the music chosen for the first concert has a long and respected tradition, the evening itself is meant to be "not so serious," he says.

"The idea is people can bring a picnic, there will still be some light early in the evening, and they can eat and enjoy their company. That was part of that tradition too."

Rosenboom and Menzies are looking forward to the second show in the series, the West Coast premiere of avant-garde composer Iannis Xenakis' "Oresteia," a contemporary Greek opera, on Nov. 7. "The entire action is told by the chorus;, but there are two very dramatic insertions suddenly brought to violent life by the vocal soloist [Paul Berkolds], a male singer playing multiple roles," says Menzies. "It's a very dramatic story — of endless revenge and sacrifice and betrayal and bloodlust, all together. But the drama is also squared by this unusual way of telling it."

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