REVIEW: The La Jolla Music Society’s new $82 million performing arts center opened April 5, with a star-studded lineup and very big expectations.
Hello, Conrad! Goodbye, Sherwood!
Two years and 17 days after the La Jolla Music Society held its final concert at the now-defunct Sherwood Auditorium, a new era began Friday night, April 5 with the gala grand opening of the society’s state-of-the-art Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center.
The 49,000-square-foot center, otherwise known as The Conrad, was designed and built at a cost of $82 million, all but $700,000 of which had been paid for before its doors even opened. That is a formidable feat for any nonprofit arts organization. The fact that The Conrad was underwritten entirely by private donors, without a penny of public funding, is even more notable.
Or as Katherine Chapin, the society’s board chair told the sold-out audience Friday: “Tonight, we are standing in the future we dreamed of.”
Fellow board member Debra Turner spoke on behalf of her former partner, the late San Diego philanthropist Conrad Prebys, who — prior to his death in 2016 — gave $30 million to help make The Conrad a reality.
Reading from notes that Prebys had written several years ago, Turner quoted him as saying: “The journey has been exciting and, at times, frightening... I almost jumped up and down. Boy, did I hit a home run! I was like a teenager at a rock concert... I believe the best is yet to come.”
A few minutes later, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer hailed The Conrad as “a tremendous gift” to the city, adding: “The smiles and memories you create tonight will last for a generation. Art and culture are alive and well in San Diego.”
At Friday’s opening-night gala, the gown-and-tuxedo-attired audience responded with appropriate oohs and aahs before a single note of music had even been played. Their response was a testament to the excitement generated by the opening of a performing arts center that few could have imagined less than a decade ago.
But the key issue under consideration here is not the visual appeal of the elegant Conrad — which looks, in a word, fabulous — but how it sounds.
Friday night’s performance in the center’s 513-capacity Baker-Baum Concert Hall addressed that question, with some pomp and much circumstance. The 15 musical selections performed seemed designed to showcase the new venue as much as, if not more than, the music itself.
The lineup mixed such esteemed classical music artists as violinist Hilary Hahn, pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet and a stellar string quartet that featured four former music directors of the society’s annual SummerFest with genre-blurring ukulele star Jake Shimabukuro, the phenomenal jook dancer Charles “Lil Buck” Riley and “creative technologist” Osman Koc.
The various configurations of musicians showcased on The Conrad’s Alaskan yellow cedar wood stage included one trio, two string quartets, three duos and four solo performances. For the grand finale of “Over the Rainbow,” the evening’s 12 featured performers were joined by 18 members of the San Diego Youth Symphony Chamber Orchestra, the Bravo! International Music Academy and the La Jolla Music Society’s Community Music Center, its after-school music program in Logan Heights.
Some of the performers soared, while others were merely pleasant. But, really, the star of the show was the venue, which is a collaboration between Epstein Joslin Architects Inc. and legendary acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota, whose many credits include Disney Hall and Berlin’s Pierre Boulez Saal. The Conrad also houses a cabaret-styled theater called The JAI, rehearsal rooms, a courtyard that can host performances, and more.
Each component exudes a quiet elegance. But the Baker-Baum Concert Hall’s sleek lines, impeccable attention to detail and fuss-free aesthetics are especially impressive, underscoring Toyota’s recent observation that: “We are hearing the acoustics not only with our ears, but with our eyes.
The sound in the Baker-Baum Friday was uniformly dry and crystal clear — major attributes for the chamber music that the society built its name on.
This held true even when the music was performed at a hush, as it was during violinist Hahn’s pin-drop-quiet rendition of Bach’s Largo from Sonata No. 3 in C Major and Thibaudet’s similarly whisper-soft reading of Liszt’s Consolation No. 3.
Friday’s unamplified acoustic solo performances projected immediately and extremely well throughout the hall. Also projecting immediately throughout the hall was virtually any sound the audience made, be it someone coughing or accidentally dropping an item on the floor.
When one concertgoer in the balcony abruptly got up in the middle of the world premiere performance of the Lalo Schifrin-penned “Letters for My Father,” the sound of their wooden chair moving against the wood floor was jarringly loud and distracting. Adding carpeting in the balcony might be an astute move, assuming it wouldn’t be detrimental to the acoustics.
A bigger issue may arise Saturday night, April 6, when pop vocal star Seal performs — singing through a microphone and accompanied by a large, amplified band — in The Conrad. This is a venue that would appear to have little or no need for amplification (and, in fact, one in which amplification could prove detrimental, unless an especially skilled and sensitive audio engineer is at the controls).
Shimabukuro, who on Friday performed solo versions of Schubert’s “Ave Maria” and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” — minus a replication of Brian May’s ecstatic guitar solo on the Queen original — had an array of electronic foot pedals in front of him that seemed almost entirely unnecessary. The Hawaiian ukulele sensation fared much better when he teamed with Miro Quartet violinist William Fedkenheuer for a carefully calibrated and increasingly animated version of The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” during which the two traded bluesy lines and jazzy flourishes with infectious zeal.
Former SummerFest music director Cho-Liang “Jimmy” Lin teamed with “creative technologist” Koc, who is a member of the “visual performance” trio NOS Visuals. Lin performed with characteristic verve on “Letters for My Father,” which amusingly employed fleeting references to the high-pitched trill that opens composer Schifrin’s most widely known piece, the theme song to the 1960s TV series “Mission Impossible.”
Koc controlled and manipulated a series of fast-edited images that were projected onto a large screen at the rear of the stage. The images did little to enhance the music, but did serve — whether by design or not — to demonstrate just how large The Conrad’s screen is and how it can be deployed in a conert setting.
Lin provided one of the night’s aural peaks when he teamed with three of his fellow former SummerFest music directors, violist Heiichiro Ohyama, pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel. Together, they expertly performed the Rondo from Brahms’ Piano Quartet in G Minor, Opus 25, which covered a broad range of moods, tonal ranges and tempos.
That sense of expansiveness also applied to Lil Buck’s elastic dancing to new SummerFest music director Inon Barnatan’s solo piano rendition of “The Swan” from Camille Saint-Saens’ “The Carnival of the Animals.” Drawing from ballet, hip-hop and jazz dance, Buck was a marvel of kinetic movement, who — at the piece’s conclusion — assumed an improbably pretzel-like pose that perfectly emulated a swan about to sleep.
Some of Friday’s performers seemed a bit timid, as they tested out the unfamiliar new venue. Not so incoming SummerFest music director Barnatan, whose superlative delivery of Prokofiev’s Precipitato and Stravinsky’s Danse Russe were rousing tour de forces that showcased his musicianship and the Baker-Baum’s rich acoustics equally well.
As with any new concert hall, it will take time for performers and audiences alike to grow accustomed to the sound in this new La Jolla venue.
If Barnatan’s performance provided the best indication of what The Conrad can sound like, its musical future should be bright indeed.
IF YOU GO:
The Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center, 7600 Fay Ave., La Jolla. Box Office: (858) 459-3728. ljms.org/the-conrad/