Now this is something you have to hear

Soka's new facility provides terrific sound quality, a rarity in a multipurpose hall.

September 17, 2011|MARK SWED | MUSIC CRITIC

There is something new under the South Orange County sun.

The Soka Performing Arts Center, which opens Saturday night with a gala concert by the Pacific Symphony, may seem but a modestly budgeted $73-million facility at a small, little-known 10-year-old private liberal arts college The facility at Soka University of America, tucked away in the hills of Aliso Viejo, consists of a multipurpose hall of about 1,000 seats and a black box named Nelson Mandela Hall.

Certainly on the same weekend the high profile $414-million Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts opens in Kansas City, Mo., Soka is small potatoes in comparison. And Soka obviously pales next to glittery new concert halls in Helsinki, Finland, and Montreal, which have also opened this month.

But I can already envision arts administrators from all over driving their rental cars, eyes glued to the GPS, as they search for Soka's out-of-the-way marvel in hopes that they might build one of their own.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, September 23, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 Science Desk 1 inches; 54 words Type of Material: Correction
Soka Performing Arts Center: A Sept. 17 Calendar section article about the opening of the Soka Performing Arts Center referred to Soka University of America as a 10-year-old private liberal arts college. It is Soka's campus in Aliso Viejo that is 10 years old; Soka University opened its first campus in Calabasas in 1987.

From the evidence of the Pacific Symphony's dress rehearsal Tuesday night, Soka is the best concert hall of its size in Southern California (Ambassador Auditorium included) and most likely in a much greater area than that.

Were it a dedicated concert hall, Soka would be an exceptional accomplishment. For a multipurpose hall, it seems an exception to the laws of physics. Yasuhisa Toyota, the acoustician of Walt Disney Concert Hall (and also of the new venues in Kansas City and Helsinki), has produced a small masterpiece that is likely to have very large repercussions.

Soka can be configured as a 1,200-seat convocation hall, a 1,046-seat thrust stage, a 929-seat concert hall and a 723-seat proscenium stage. That is a recipe for acoustical disaster. The compromises for buildings that need sonic liveliness for unamplified music but a drier sound for amplified music and the spoken voice typically create dully unsatisfactory results for everything and especially for concert music ( pace, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion).

Tuesday night, I heard only the concert hall configuration. So the usual caveats after an early listen are in order. Maybe the hall will prove inadequate for all uses, but that is not very likely. Toyota's solution for scaling down reverberation is a split ceiling with a mechanism for applying dampening material. The electronics, which were not used at the rehearsal, are by Fred Vogler, the Los Angeles Philharmonic's sound designer.

But however the multipurpose part turns out, Soka is a great concert hall with all the right priorities. The building, designed by Doss Mabe of ZGF Architects LLP, is understated, airy, unfussy. It suits the mood of the serene campus' fountains, lotus pool and statue of the Mahatma Gandhi.

The hall itself is, like Disney, vineyard style (the Toyota trademark) but simpler. The interior, with cherry wood on the walls, has a Zen-like calm. The seats are similar to those of Disney in construction and material. Even the music stands are the same.

But at less than half the size of Disney, Soka is considerably more intimate, creating a powerfully immersive feeling for the listener. The front row of seats is actually on the stage floor itself for a you-are-there experience of being in the orchestra.

There can be pitfalls to this. Listening close-up could prove overwhelming to some. The players are not on risers -- a multipurpose hall needs a smooth floor -- and that makes instrumental balance and transparency more of a challenge. This was especially so at Tuesday's rehearsal, since the Pacific Symphony's music director, Carl St.Clair, chose a program of brilliant 20th century repertory: John Adams' "Short Ride in a Fast Machine," Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 (with Horacio Gutierrez as soloist), and excerpts from Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet" and Ravel's "Daphnis and Chloe."

The difference between seats near the stage and farther away can sometimes seem more exaggerated in smaller spaces than grand ones, where the sound has more room to move around. But Toyota told me Tuesday that the height of the ceiling makes the most difference, and Soka's acoustical ceiling, which is above the sound reflectors, is almost the same height as Disney's.

Still, even with the orchestra sound inevitably in-your-face upfront, individual instrumental colors remained distinct and textural transparency was excellent. The physicality of the timpani and brass proved incomparable. In the back and on the sides, the orchestra had more bloom but the physicality remained mostly intact. Wherever I sat, the big effects were ramped up to the knockout setting.

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