A lucky group of Texas Public Radio (TPR) supporters and a few other special guests had the pleasure of being the first audience to experience a live performance at the nearly completed Tobin Center For The Performing Arts on Thursday evening. “The Science of Sound” featured a short program of classical selections performed by the extraordinarily talented Youth Orchestra of San Antonio (YOSA), joined by a few alumni as well as members of the San Antonio Symphony.
There were at least 500 in attendance between TPR ticket holders and family and friends of YOSA members, as well as the Tobin team. A distinct glimmer of wonder could be felt in the air as everyone filed into the structure which has been under renovation and construction since groundbreaking ceremonies in May 2011. This public and private partnership, administered by the Bexar County Performing Arts Center Foundation, is coming down to the wire on time and on budget. Click to see where we were this time last year.
Before the performance began, I had an opportunity to chat with Nathan Cone, TPR’s Director of Cultural and Community Engagement. Many of us know Nathan from the popular summer film series, Cinema Tuesdays. We discussed how this very unique opportunity arose for TPR supporters.
“We first started meeting early in the year, back in the winter, and The Tobin leadership at that time remarked that they were going to be doing this acoustic testing here. So, our CEO Joyce Slocum — who came from NPR — remembered how much the acousticians at NPR had enjoyed sharing the science of how they had made the new NPR building sound the way it did for reporters. We thought it would be great to replicate that experience where the acousticians come out and talk to the audience about what they are doing here. How they tweaked the hall to make it sound the way it is going to in about a month from now.”
As Tobin CEO Michael J. Fresher has noted on several occasions, the Tobin will be the most state of the art concert hall in the Americas on the day it opens. Not only is the space to serve as a classical concert and opera venue, but it will also host ballet, popular music concerts, theatrical productions, stand up comedy — you name it and the Tobin expects to accomplish the task flawlessly. The H-E-B Performance Hall seats a capacity of 1,759 people, determined to be an acoustically optimal size for the hall.
“A multi-purpose room used to be a ‘no purpose’ room,” stated Chris Blair, principal and tuning conductor for the Akustics consulting firm. This is the reason that Blair and his team of acousticians and engineers have been brought in to fine-tune the space to make sure the Tobin has the best sound quality possible under a variety of conditions. “The ideal thing is that you feel like a participant in the performance,” says Blair.
As he points out, “Creating silence is hard.” It was a casual gathering and it took a few minutes to encourage everyone to silence their devices, stop chit-chatting, and be still. And then it was silent. Not even the sound of the massive HVAC system responsible for cooling the hall on this muggy summer evening could be heard.
YOSA and the team of acousticians had worked together the previous evening, taking measurements with sophisticated computerized equipment. Making adjustments to the space with a nearly infinite range of panels and curtains gives the Tobin the ability to literally tune the space to the type of performance being presented and the number of bodies actually in the hall.
Blair took the time to inform and educate the gathering regarding our role in the science of the evening: “This is the first step in a long tuning process. Our mathematics can take us to 90 percent, but the rest requires a live audience.” This relationship will be ongoing.
Now, this was all very interesting, but the revelation of the space came down to performance. There were 75 musicians onstage, including the very well regarded organist Robert Brewer. Yes, there were a few pros in the group, but the vast majority were YOSA members. In the past, I have had the pleasure of hearing small chamber groupings from YOSA performing at various community functions, but never in a concert hall, full orchestra environment. To reduce the experience to a word? Gobsmacked!
Under the baton of YOSA Music Director Troy Peters, these young musicians delivered the goods. They began with Dvorak’s Carnival Overture, Op. 92. Since this was a mixed group and many were playing these pieces together for the first time, I quite frankly expected a squeak and a squawk here and there. My indulgent skepticism was taken to task and punished with their masterful performance. By the time they launched into excerpts from Saint-Saens’ “Organ Symphony,” I was nearly in tears — from joy! The program finished out with Mussorgsky’s “Pictures At An Exhibition.” Hearing these familiar favorites performed so very well and with immaculate sound reproduction was the proof of success. The very appreciative audience members rewarded the performance with a standing ovation. We continued to be serenaded by Brewer on the organ as everyone exited the building.
This was but one more step in bringing this vision home to the people of San Antonio. The sound quality was impeccable, something that we are unaccustomed to in our city, and we are still in the tweaking phase. This is the first time that we have ever built a facility like this — one specifically with symphonic and opera music in mind. We will be proud to host the best performers in the world. Because of the quality of the presentation, we should be able to draw arts aficionados from all over Texas and beyond. I had goosebumps, and I know that I was not alone. I tell you, one could become addicted. I believe Sir Paul McCartney will enjoy his gig in San Antonio.
The official opening is scheduled for September 4, 2014. At the Celebration of the Arts, for the first time ever, Ballet San Antonio, OPERA San Antonio, and members of the San Antonio Symphony will perform together on the H-E-B Performance Hall Stage. It is an evening not to be missed. I suggest you get your tickets now. They are available online through the TOBI ticket site or at the Tobin box office, 115 Auditorium Circle. You can also call 210-223-8624.
*Featured/top photo: Recently installed lettering proudly proclaims the Tobin Center. Photo by Page Graham.