Elegant New Home Frames California Festival In Promise

An all-star group of chamber musicians, plus 18 students, celebrate the opening of the Conrad Prebys Performing
Arts Center. (Xi Wang)
By Richard S. Ginell

LA JOLLA, Calif. – In 2012, the La Jolla Music Society, whose world-class chamber music festival Summerfest had been humming along for decades, suddenly had a problem. A big problem. They were told to vacate their leased home, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s Sherwood Auditorium, because the museum wanted to expand its facilities and tear down the hall. Not that the 492-seat multi-purpose Sherwood was any great acoustical treasure – it wasn’t – but the Society really had no viable place to go, despite being situated in a community that is loaded with money.

Guests gather before the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Baker-Baum Concert Hall.
(Richard S. Ginell)

Being evicted turned out to be the kick in the pants that finally dispelled the inertia preventing Summerfest from getting the home that it deserved. The Society raised nearly $82 million from private sources and held their final concert in the Sherwood on March 10, 2017. (Tafelmusik was the last group to perform there.) They then took refuge in the small Conrad Prebys Concert Hall on the nearby UCSD campus for the 2017 and 2018 summer seasons while waiting for their new home to be built.

On April 5, the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center – named for the late San Diego real estate mogul and philanthropist who contributed $30 million but didn’t live to see the result – opened with a gala concert that, like many gala concerts, attempted to offer a little something for everyone, and mostly succeeded.

The main hall has a horseshoe-shaped balcony and lots of wood surfaces.

The Conrad, as it will be colloquially called, actually consists of two rooms – the 513-seat Baker-Baum Concert Hall and a cabaret-style space known as The JAI (the initials of donors Joan and Irwin Jacobs) that is capable of holding 300 standees. In between the two facing halls is an outdoor patio space that serves as a lobby and platform for receptions.

The Baker-Baum is the product of the convergence of two star concert hall builders – Epstein-Joslin Architects, Inc. (Tanglewood’s Seiji Ozawa Hall, the Green Music Center near Santa Rosa, Calif., etc.) and more significantly, acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota (Walt Disney Concert Hall, New World Center, Elbphilharmonie, etc.). Epstein-Joslin designed a room in which a curved inner shell with walls consisting of wood grilles fits inside an outer shoebox. There were Toyota trademarks like the abundance of wood surfaces and the Alaskan yellow cedar stage floor. But unlike many of his halls, there is no vineyard-style surround seating; everyone faces the performers from the orchestra-level seats to the horseshoe-shaped balcony. The seats have cup holders, which I suspect will be an increasingly common feature in new halls as a way of possibly attracting new customers. The room was lit in cool mauve light before the concert, exuding subdued elegance.

The stage floor is made of Alaskan yellow cedar, a Toyota trademark.

The biggest difference between this Toyota hall and the others of his that I have heard is that Baker-Baum has a relatively short reverberation time, and as a result, the sound is somewhat dry. But that is not really a defect in a small hall that was built mainly for chamber music, and the timbres that come through are clear and true.

Hilary Hahn’s speedy rendition of the Preludio from J.S. Bach’s Violin Partita No. 3, which opened the concert, seemed tailored to the acoustical properties of the brand-new hall; you could hear the rasp of the bow hitting the strings from way back in Row N. There was no mistaking the timbral difference between incoming Summerfest music director Inon Barnatan’s idiosyncratic stabbing away at the Precipitato from Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7 and the richer, warmer tone of Jean-Yves Thibaudet in the Chopin Nocturne in E-Flat and Liszt Consolation No. 3 – all from the same Steinway piano. The hall aims to tell the sonic truth, which is good.

The interior of Baker-Baum during an early construction stage.

Every hall opening these days, it seems, has to have a newly commissioned world premiere on board, and this one had a seven-minute-long solo violin etude by Lalo Schifrin called Letters to My Father, as played by the departing Summerfest music director Cho-Liang Lin (better known to all as Jimmy). Every new hall also seems to require video capabilities, so Schifrin’s engaging pastiche of elements of Bach, Paganini,  and gypsy dances was accompanied by “creative technologist” Osman Koç’s collection of abstract bubbles and elliptical globules projected on a huge screen. Like most such video accompaniments, Koç’s light show didn’t hurt, nor did it particularly help.

Cho-Liang Lin, Heiichiro Ohyama, Wu Han, and David Finckel play Brahms full-tilt.
(Xi Wang)

There was a salute to Summerfests of the past by having all of its former music directors – Lin, violist Heiichiro Ohyama, pianist Wu Han and cellist David Finckel – unite onstage in a terrific, hard-charging rendition of the Rondo alla Zingarese finale of Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor. For Han, who lamented the inadequacies of the Sherwood when she and Finckel ran the festival twenty years ago, this must have been a satisfying moment. Later on, the Miró Quartet joined Lin, Finckel, Ohyama, and Hahn in the bracing first movement of the Mendelssohn Octet, a piece that string players will drop everything to play during the summer.

Jake Shimabukuro played whimsical versions of Queen and Beatles tunes. (Wikipedia)

With “something for everyone” in mind, the ukelele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro brought along his whimsical arrangements of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” He also brought a pedal board stocked with effects devices, but all I could hear was the straight unadorned feed of his ever-so-slightly amplified little instrument. Lil Buck (aka Charles Riley)  demonstrated his remarkably rubber-limbed dance moves in, among other things, a portrayal of Petrushka in Stravinsky’s “Danse Russe.” Finally, 18 young string players from the La Jolla Music Society’s Community Music Center, San Diego Youth Symphony Chamber Orchestra, and Bravo! International Music Academy joined Buck, Lin, Hahn, Shimabukuro, and the Miró in a rendition of “Over The Rainbow” during which the sound really bloomed in the hall for the first time.

The Baker-Baum stage illuminated in elegant mauve shades. (La Jolla Music Society)

The above suggested that the Conrad is not going to be exclusively reserved for chamber music – and a glance at the upcoming spring schedule, featuring performers as diverse as pianist Daniil Trifonov (April 17), sitarist Anoushka Shankar (April 18), mandolinist Chris Thile (April 24), Finckel and Han (May 10), and singer Storm Large’s “Crazy Enough” show (May 11-12) bears that out. The JAI across the courtyard, which appears to be a miniature version of the San Francisco Symphony’s SoundBox space (complete with bar and sofas), will be used for amplified jazz and pop. The whole complex, along with new developments at the San Diego Symphony and the recent resurrection of San Diego Opera, is another indication that this region is at last – and rapidly – becoming a musical center of action.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America. He also contributes to San Francisco Classical Voice and Musical America.