ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, New York - With its undulating canopies of stainless steel that mirror the nearby Catskill Mountains, the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College is a dramatic addition to this small liberal arts college in the Hudson River Valley. As proven by the gala inaugural concert in its 900-seat Sosnoff Theater Friday night, this Frank Gehry-designed facility for music, theater, and dance has gleaming acoustics to match.
The sole work on the program was Mahler's Symphony No. 3, performed by the American Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Leon Botstein, Bard's president and the music director of that ensemble. The epic, 90-minute symphony heralded a building that Bard hopes will enhance the college's public profile and revitalize the tourist economy of this bucolic, tree-lined region 90 miles north of New York City.
Indeed, the $62 million center represents a triumph for Botstein, who has been an important crusader for the role of the arts in academia. Nearly fourteen years ago, he founded the Bard Music Festival, a summertime staple that concentrates on a particular composer through two weekends of concerts and symposia.
While the festival has become a choice weekend destination for intellectually curious New Yorkers, it has sorely lacked a suitable concert space (concerts were held in an acoustically problematic outdoor tent). In his vision to change this, Botstein set the bar high.
Making Vision a Reality
In 1997, Botstein enlisted Gehry, before the noted architect had finished the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, acknowedged as one of the world's great modern buildings. Then, he went about raising the cash, which included $25 million from Fisher, chairman emeritus of Morgan Stanley and a Bard board member. New York State invested $5 million, to be distributed over five years by the Empire State Development Corporation
Botstein also stipulated that the main theater be flexible, accommodating everything from intimate chamber concerts to expansive opera productions. There had to be room for rehearsal studios, support facilities, and a black box theater to house student productions of dance and drama. And if that weren't enough, the hall's acoustics had to be adjustable so major symphonic works didn't overwhelm the listener while a solo recital or lecture could still fill the room.
To a large extent, these requirements have been achieved. With its shallow and wide layout, the Sosnoff Theater is a handsome, inviting space that draws the listener in to the performance on stage. The bare concrete walls and floors are balanced by two rows of balconies paneled in Douglas fir. Playful decorative squiggles loop the walls. The wooden proscenium is retractable to accommodate the staging of opera and theater works.
Acoustically, the modest theater favors treble instruments like trumpets and flutes, at least in Mahler's brilliant sonorities. Botstein reportedly delayed the opening for two months while he worked with acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota in some last-minute modifications. These certainly paid off: when deployed in full, the orchestra enveloped the listener with a halo of deep, resonant, and a bit forceful sound.
Mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby, the Concert Chorale of New York and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, the latter positioned in the upper balcony, contributed rich and sonorous performances Friday. If there was any obstacle to full appreciation of the hall, it was Botstein's hulking tempos, which depleted some of Mahler's dramatic tension.
Nevertheless, there will be many other opportunities to experience the facility in the months to come. A second weekend of inaugural events will take place from May 1-3, and feature performances by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and the Kronos Quartet, the Ballet Hispanico, and the Charles Mingus Orchestra with Elvis Costello as special guest.
In July, Bard will inaugurate Summerscape, a festival which incorporates both the old Bard Music Festival, as well as theater, drama, and dance. This year's festival will focus on the works of Czech composer Leos Janácek, which will include the composer's neglected opera Osud; Botstein will conduct the American Symphony and a cast of 40 in five performances of this rarity.