San Antonio SO ‘Finally Home’ In New Concert Hall

The new Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, home of the San Antonio Symphony.  (Tobin Center photos by Mike Greenberg)
San Antonio’s new Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, home of the San Antonio Symphony, opens this month.
(Tobin Center photos by Mike Greenberg)
By Mike Greenberg

SAN ANTONIO — In an evening freighted with history, the San Antonio Symphony on Sept. 20 presented its inaugural concert in a new hall on the same site where it had performed for the first 30 years of its existence. The soprano Renée Fleming joined the celebration to sing Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs a few feet from the spot where Kirsten Flagstad had sung the United States premiere (minus one of the songs) on Nov. 25, 1950.

“We’re finally home,” Sebastian Lang-Lessing, the orchestra’s music director, told the near-capacity audience before the music began.

The balconies in the Tobin Center are strikingly lit.
The balcony fronts are anigre-veneer, perforated and internally illuminated.

This home, like the others before it, is just a multipurpose time-share, but it’s the first to be designed with the acoustical needs of a symphony orchestra at the top of the agenda. The H-E-B Performance Hall, the main theater in the new Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, also will accommodate Ballet San Antonio, the Youth Orchestras of San Antonio, and the larger productions of the newly established Opera San Antonio, along with a heavy schedule of popular touring acts booked by the Tobin Center.

The hall is a proscenium theater with four levels of seating, but with the classic shoe box plan of many dedicated concert halls. The main visual interest is on the balcony fronts, with anigre-veneer panels perforated to form halftone imagery of traditional scroll work and internally illuminated with LED lamps that can change color. For this concert, they matched Fleming’s gowns — blue in the first half, red in the second. On first impression, the acoustics for orchestra are partly pleasing, partly problematic.

The building also holds the Carlos Alvarez Studio Theater, a flexible space that can seat up to 230 for chamber concerts and theater productions. Tobin Center resident companies that will use that space include the Chamber Orchestra of San Antonio; the San Antonio Chamber Choir; the SOLI Chamber Ensemble, which specializes in new and recent music; the Attic Rep theater company; and, for small-scale productions, Opera San Antonio.

Both new theaters were built behind the preserved Spanish Colonial Revival facade of the 1926 Municipal Auditorium, a 5,000-seat hall that was home to circuses, boxing matches, high school graduations, and, from soon after its founding in 1939, the San Antonio Symphony’s concert seasons and grand opera festivals. The auditorium was an acoustical abyss, however, and in 1968 the orchestra moved to a 2,700-seat, acoustically decent theater built for the 1968 World’s Fair. That venue became increasingly commandeered for conventions, and the orchestra moved again in 1990 to a renovated atmospheric movie palace, the 2,200-seat Majestic Theater, shared with touring companies of Broadway shows. The orchestra’s rising performance standard under Lang-Lessing and his predecessor, Larry Rachleff, aggravated dissatisfaction with the Majestic’s dry acoustics, noisy air-handling, and virtually non-existent soundproofing. The cramped audience seating was no joy, either, though the Moorish-Spanish fantasy interior was an eyeful.

The orchestra in the H-E-B Performance Hall in the Tobin Center.
The orchestra in the H-E-B Performance Hall in the Tobin Center.

The Tobin Center was the product of a collaboration between the city of San Antonio, which provided the Municipal Auditorium site; Bexar County, which provided $100 million in construction funds from visitor tax revenues; and the Bexar County Performing Arts Center Foundation, created to own and operate the center and to raise private money to supplement public funds. The foundation raised about $44 million for construction and, thus far, about $8 million of the $10 million goal for a capital reserve. The foundation’s founder and chairman, J. Bruce Bugg Jr., is also chairman of the Tobin Endowment, a legacy of opera patron and art collector Robert L.B. Tobin. The endowment donated $15 million, earning it the naming rights.

The Tobin Center’s design team came with a strong track record. The prime architect, LMN Architects in Seattle, had designed the Seattle Symphony’s Benaroya Hall in collaboration with acoustician Cyril Harris. The acoustical consultant on the Tobin Center was Akustiks, a South Norwalk, Conn., firm that earned high marks for the Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville.

The Bexar County Performing Arts Center Foundation accepted the acousticians’ recommendation to hold seating capacity of the large theater to a modest 1,759 (the final count) in order to achieve the best results for the orchestra. The H-E-B Performance Hall (named for the city’s dominant grocery chain) is a proscenium theater with two pit lifts, but, as in many highly regarded concert halls, the side walls are parallel and covered with hard, acoustically reflective plaster.

Sound-absorbing curtains can be deployed when less resonance is required, as for opera. Side balconies are intended to add early reflections to the mix. The acousticians specified the ceiling height to achieve a resonance appropriate for an orchestra. The Wenger shell, custom-designed for this stage, has anigre-veneer walls etched with oversize versions of some of the scroll work depicted on the balcony fronts — an effect that is at once subtle and dramatic.

Renée Fleming performed Strauss's Four Last Songs.
Renée Fleming sang Strauss’ ‘Four Last Songs.’ (Javier Fernandez)

The program was familiar and, as is customary for galas, mostly light. The concert opened with the 1944 Suite from Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier. Together with the Four Last Songs, the suite was a nod to the orchestra’s founder, the Italian-German-Jewish émigré conductor Max Reiter, who had been befriended by Strauss in Europe and who led the American premieres of several of Strauss’ works in San Antonio. The closer was Ravel’s colorful Rapsodie espagnole.

In lighter textures, or when the orchestra was playing at mezzo-piano and below, the sound was admirably clean, well-balanced, and faithful to instrumental timbres. Orchestral solos had good presence and a bit of a halo. There was a brightness that brought the higher woodwinds and percussion forward, but the double-basses and contrabassoon also projected fundamental tones beautifully, giving the sound a solid foundation. Through much of the spit-shined performance of the Ravel, with textures that suited the space, one could almost believe one was sitting in a great concert hall.

But tutti passages at forte and above sounded boxed-in, especially in the densely scored Rosenkavalier Suite. From a seat in the mezzanine, a puzzling shortage of reflections from the sides made the sound lean and unenveloping, despite the room’s generous resonance.

Early reports from the musicians, including Lang-Lessing, indicate that the acoustics are excellent from their point of view, and Fleming voiced approval of the sound she heard from the stage.

Sebastian Lang-Lessing with his orchestra.
Music director Sebastian Lang-Lessing. (San Antonio Symphony)

Alas, her performance revealed an acoustical problem from the audience’s perspective: Much of her singing in the Four Last Songs sounded distant and was often submerged in the orchestra. (A symphony board member, who had similar observations about the performance, reported that Fleming’s voice had ridden easily above the orchestra in rehearsal, when the hall was nearly empty.) When she could be heard, she projected great warmth and deep understanding of the texts, and she had no trouble with the high tessitura of “Frühling,” which Flagstad had declined to sing in 1950. Lang-Lessing began “Im Abendrot” with a slowish tempo, and Fleming slowed it down further, but it would be beastly to complain about the lingering of such unearthly beauty.

The rest of Fleming’s contributions, calling for more-robust singing, projected better, though the hall continued to damp her presence. Her program included Leo Delibes’s vivacious Les filles de Cadix, two of Joseph Canteloube’s Songs from the Auvergne (“Malurous qu’o uno fenno” and “Bailero”), and three encores — George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” in an uncommonly fetching and convincing performance, Frederick Loewe’s “I Could Have Danced All Night,” and Leonard Bernstein’s “Take Care of This House.”

Read Mike Greenberg’s architecture review of the new Tobin Center for the Performing Arts at Incident Light.


Mike Greenberg is an independent critic and photographer living in San Antonio, Tex. He is the author of The Poetics of Cities (Ohio State University Press, 1995). He was a Knight Fellow at Stanford University in 1986-87. He served as managing editor of Chicago Magazine and was a critic and columnist for a daily newspaper for 28 years.