Stanford Bing Concert Hall: First Impressions


Designed by architect Richard Olcott (Ennead Architects) and sound designer Dr. Yasuhisa Toyota (Nagata Acoustics), the Bing Concert Hall is stunning. Robert Campbell (Fisher Dachs Associates) was on hand during the second sound check (along with Richard and Dr. Toyota) to discuss the philosophy behind the building, a bit of history, and where they hope it will be in the future. This post is my impressions of the place along with notes from their interview.

Bing Concert Hall interview with Richard Olcott, Dr. Yasuhisa Toyota, and Robert Campbell, the architect, sound designer and program manger, respectively. (photo taken from my samsung galaxy SIII)

Sebastian Pechmann, a postdoc in Judith Frydman's lab who I'm working with during my rotation, is a violinist in the Stanford Symphony Orchestra (SSO). He invited me to a SSO sound check/rehersal/performance at the Bing Concert Hall. No, this isn't a Microsoft sponsored hall (to my knowledge) but the child of Peter Bing, a generous Stanford donor. It is situated at Stanford's Palm Drive and Museum Way opposite the Cantor Arts Center. Designed by architect Richard Olcott (Ennead Architects) and sound designer Dr. Yasuhisa Toyota (Nagata Acoustics), it was conceived from the inside-out, which allowed for a focus on the interior and sound. Robert Campbell (Fisher Dachs Associates) was on hand during the sound check (along with Richard and Dr. Toyota) to discuss the philosophy behind the building, a bit of history and where they hope it will be in the future. This post is my impressions of the place along with notes from their interview.

Bing Concert Hall is a welcome sight and glows at night. Source

The visual style both inside and out is quite stunning and is a nice contrast from the sandstone of the Quad and other buildings (history). According to Richard and Dr. Toyota, it took nineteen iterations to arrive at the final design, most of which apparently had a completely different feel until the last several mock-ups. The low entrance area is contrasted with the high center that contains the hall itself. Both, though, carry a sense of being in the woods or with nature, with their orange, browns and off-color whites. On the north side is a seating area and what appears to be housing for visiting musicians. Walking up to the building you pass by trees (sycamore, pines and oaks) and are greeted by an airy, spacious interior that soaks in light, in contrast to some of the other halls around the country. The get to seating, you pass through an obstruction-less, curved opening to either side of seating, simple. There isn't any going through a door-here or a door-there and the feeling is one of entering through a canopy.

Bing Concert Hall entrance soaks up lights and is quite beautiful. Source

Once in the main hall, you are greeted by a curved seating, a lofted 'cloud' for a ceiling, and seven large 'sails'. The sails are made of Fiberglas-reinforced plaster sprayed with Baswaphon (to absorb sound). While they appeared smooth at first glance, on closer inspection they are seen to be quite rough and granular. This was later revealed to be a mechanism to both soak up the sound and reflect it in random directions. Seats, all 842 of them, are arranged in a vineyard style, in which the audience surrounds the stage on all sides. This increases the intimacy and from my walking around the hall, appeared to offer the advantage of no 'bad' seats being present. Though, the hall still has a preferred orientation and sitting behind the orchestra or other performers might not be optimal. And while the performers feel close and within a certain personal space, the hall itself–once you look around and absorb the place–is voluminous. The ceiling soars up and the sails are intimidatingly large–I would have enjoyed seeing how they inserted them into the hall.

Another view of the entrance. Source.

The front of the seating, the back walls (Fiberglas-reinforced polymer and Portland cement) and the ceiling 'cloud' all have an undulating, wavy form to them. The architect noted that these were composed of several (upwards of seven) sine waves and sufficient randomness added to give each a unique pattern. This was, like the roughness of the sails, supposed to increase the diffusion and random bouncing of the sound. For performances with more echo, there are curtains between the sails and behind the walls to help absorb sound. Also, it appears that the hall contains a full electronics sound system and a large screen TV/projector to accompany other performance styles (e.g. those in the CCRMA program). However, it is obvious that the chief purpose of this hall is to play more classical pieces.

The stage itself is pretty neat. Composed of unvarnished pale-yellow cedar wood and a (supposedly) hollow underside, it reverberated beautifully when the SSO played, especially for low-pitched instruments like the bass violin. Dr. Toyota, the sound designer, showed this effect dramatically by stamping on the ground while on- and off-stage, the difference was obvious. The stage was raised (i.e. stepped, see pictures) during the performance but conversation with a usher revealed that it could be lowered to allow for normal dance and other performances. Another unique aspects is that the front audience members are at the same level as the performers. This will no doubt be exploited by more interactive performances.

Bing Concert Hall interior is both intimate, due to its vineyard style, and . Source.

The Stanford Symphony Orchestra's was lead by Jindong Cai, who once performed for the wife of Mao Tse-tung. The performance was quite good, they played a number of pieces: Ravel Daphnis et Chloe Suite No. 2; movements from Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.3, in C minor, Op. 37; and Beethoven: Symphony No.5 in C Minor, Op. 67. I lay no claim to being a musician, and as such cannot judge whether errors were made, but the pieces were faithful reproductions and sounded great. The cedar wood really showed its quality when the bass instruments played, the sound rumbling through the floor, off the walls, and in my chest. Talking to people who sat in other parts of the hall, it became apparent that you got a different performance, in terms of the sound, depending on your location. It will be interesting to see how this bears out when the hall opens in January.

Several pieces involved a piano. Eric Wu (class fo 2013) was chosen to perform and, reassuringly, neither he nor the orchestra dominated each other. It turns out that the hall has four grand pianos; though, we only got to hear one. It did not have its cover, but sounded great. Looking forward to hearing the others as well.

The Bing Concert Hall is having its first performances starting January 11th, 2013. Judging from the great design, wonderful sound, and central location on campus, this should be a popular alternative to the current choices: Dinkelspiel Auditorium and Campbell Recital Hall (both within the Braun Music Center). To celebrate the Bing hall opening, the SSO and Stanford Philharmonic Orchestra will perform all nine Beethoven symphonies during the opening season, part of the Beethoven Project. I look forward to seeing those, and other, performances in the coming months.



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