San Antonio Symphony shines in superb Tobin Center

January 30, 2015
The city of the Alamo and the River Walk has a dandy new attraction. At least for symphonic music, the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, opened in September, may be the finest such venue since Dallas' 25-year-old Meyerson Symphony Center.

Judging by a Jan. 24 concert, the San Antonio Symphony is in excellent shape, too, under its German music director, Sebastian Lang-Lessing.

Give the orchestra credit, too, for some programming imagination. The Jan. 24 concert was part of a month-and-a-half festival featuring music of Richard Strauss and also involving the city's opera company and other musical and ballet organizations. This concert included Strauss' familiar Don Juan and Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks as well as the rarely performed Josephslegende Symphonic Fragment. The Violin Concerto of Erich Korngold, a composer much influenced by Strauss, was performed by British violinist Daniel Hope. An unrelated I'm Sorry Texas, a San Antonio Symphony commission by Doug Balliett, opened the two-hour, 20-minute concert.

Having heard most of the new North American concert halls of the last 25 years, and some of the retrofittings, I'd nominate the 1,759-seat H-E-B Performance Hall as the sonic superior of any since the Meyerson and maybe even its equal. Adjustments of the hall's acoustical variables continue, but on Jan. 24 the sound projected boldly into the auditorium, with a frequency response even from top to bottom, with a perfect balance of clarity and spaciousness and a glamorous three-second "tail" of reverberation that never muddied the sound.

At least from the right aisle in orchestra row Q, the sound was more present, more holographic, less blended than at the Meyerson, where I sit in row S. That's not to say that one is better than the other. The effect is certainly more immediate than in Fort Worth's Bass Performance Hall, itself a fine venue for orchestral music. Both those halls, though, add about 250 seats to the H-E-B's capacity.

Credit the Connecticut acoustical consulting firm Akustiks, one of whose principals, Paul Scarbrough, was formerly a partner in the well-known firm Jaffe Holden Scarbrough. Jaffe Holden was responsible for Bass Hall, and Mark Holden did the acoustics for the Dallas City Performance Hall.

Like Bass Hall, and unlike the Meyerson, the H-E-B is a multipurpose facility. The orchestra shell can be easily removed and stowed for use of the complete stage house, with curtains and lighting equipment for dramatic productions.

The audience chamber is also adjustable physically as well as acoustically. In addition to the terraced concert-hall arrangement, the orchestra floor can be flattened and auditorium seats flipped underneath to make room for cabaret seating, which can expand the capacity to 2,100. Sound-absorptive curtains can be extended at sides and rear to dampen the acoustics for amplified speech or music.

Outmoded, then reborn

H-E-B Performance Hall is, along with the black-box Carlos Alvarez Studio Theater, one of two performance spaces in the Tobin Center. With separate lobbies, the two venues are set within, and expanded beyond, walls of the former Municipal Auditorium. Opened in 1926, with rounded limestone arches and turrets capped with mosaic tiles, the auditorium was a classicized version of Spanish colonial architecture, with 5,800 seats under a vast elliptical dome.

After a 1979 fire destroyed the interior, it was restored six years later, but the enormous space was of little use, and the acoustics were terrible. Neither the movie-theater-baroque Majestic Theater nor the more modern 2,300-seat Lila Cockrell Theater in the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center was well-suited to either the orchestra or Opera San Antonio.

With a combination of funds from a county bond election and private and corporate donations, the Municipal Auditorium was taken down to its outside walls and a couple of meeting rooms flanking the lobby. To a design by the Seattle architecture firm LMN, the $205 million project was designed specifically to meet the needs of area performing-arts groups as well as touring shows.

Inside and out, the Tobin is a lively play of curves and angles, at once elegant and engaging. Outside, a "crown" and extensions of variously cut and perforated aluminum panels carry on an active dialogue with the formal limestone walls and turrets. The H-E-B lobby is a brilliant white, with red passageways and stairwells. Inside the hall, red walls progressively darken on higher levels, with lower walls of red-stained cedar. The high ceiling is deep purple. Four levels of balconies are fronted with perforated panels whose curlicue designs can be variously tinted with LEDs.

Jutting out from the original walls, the lobby of the Alvarez Theater is a particularly appealing space, with one wall of those aluminum panels and another of glass looking out over the outdoor River Walk Plaza, also designed as a performance space, with a huge video screen.

About the orchestra

The San Antonio Symphony has had its ups and downs, the latter including a half-season shutdown in 1987 and bankruptcy in 2003. But the orchestra I heard Jan. 24, in a long and challenging program, was quite fine comparable, I'd say, to the Fort Worth Symphony, which is no small compliment. Violins weren't perhaps quite as polished as the FWSO's, but horns were impressively suave and secure in their prominent parts, both loud and soft, in Don Juan. Oboist Paul Lueders, clarinetist Ilya Shterenberg and concertmaster Eric Gratz contributed eloquent solos.

I've been impressed by Lang-Lessing's conducting of operas, most recently the Dallas Opera's 2014 Die tote Stadt, and the operatic background doubtless contributed to a fine sense of phrasing and dramatic propulsion. He couldn't quite redeem some longueurs in the Josephslegende, composed for a 1914 Diaghilev ballet, but the two tone poems were splendidly paced and projected.

The orchestra did its part honorably in the Korngold, and Hope spun out some silken high lines. But too much of his playing was marred by vibrato unrelievedly fast and throbbing, and virtuosic passages meant to be effortlessly tossed off were subjected to coarse, crude bowings. About the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink Balliett piece, the less said the better.

The Dallas Morning News
By Scott Cantrell
Photo by Scott Cantrell