Constructive Criticism for a Pitch-Perfect Tobin

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The San Antonio Symphony performs at the Tobin Center. Photo by Scott Ball.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

The San Antonio Symphony, led by conductor Sebastian Lang-Lessing, performs at the Tobin Center.

When the San Antonio Symphony Music Director Sebastian Lang-Lessing, gave the downbeat for the National Anthem last night at the newly completed Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, the much anticipated grand opening of the performance center officially opened its musical doors to a grateful public.

And what an opening. This observer can say that the reaction was unanimous – a triumph and success for Ballet San Antonio, Opera San Antonio and the San Antonio Symphony. To their credit each of the three performing arts organization intermingled with the other: ballet dancers with opera singers and orchestra players with opera singers. And to loosen up all on stage, the saucily dressed in red soprano sang her “Carmen” aria while flirting with Lang-Lessing’s hand and shoulders as well as other male principal orchestra members. The audience loved it.

Billed as “A Celebration of the Arts” the two-hour program was very warmly received by a full theater. Applause lines were well deserved and generous. But I’ll leave the arts review for another writer.

The San Antonio Symphony at the Tobin Center for opening day celebrations. Photo by Scott Ball.

The San Antonio Symphony at the Tobin Center for opening day celebrations. Photo by Scott Ball.

The question everyone wanted to know was: “So how does the hall sound – was it worth it?” Or better yet, “Can you really tell any difference from the Majestic Theater?”

The answer to the first question:  Great. To the second: You bet – absolutely. The H-E-B Performance Hall’s acoustic is a home run for San Antonio’s arts organizations. Many friends and associates with whom I talked after the performance were unanimous in their verdict. The sound was stupendous.

Three Firsts

First #1: On a grand stage, Ballet San Antonio played to its largest audience and to many who were not acquainted with the high quality of dance in San Antonio. Dancing in front of the Symphony the company and its talented principals filled the stage.

First #2: San Antonio Opera gave the audience a taste of what is to come. With the recent agreement to exclusively perform only with San Antonio Symphony members, singers and orchestra had a most pleasing debut in the Tobin. Following the semi-staged performance of Dvorak’s “Rusalka” earlier in the year at the Majestic Theatre’s smaller stage, no restrictions inhibited the combined performance last night.

First #3: The San Antonio Symphony was heard in its fullest manner ever. This is now the Symphony’s very own venue – it’s “home sweet home.” And every musician was most appreciative.

So hats off to these managers and principal artists whose future successes in the Tobin are just around the corner:

Ballet San Antonio Artistic Director Gabriel Zertuche who has attracted three wonderful dance principals, namely Ian Morris, Sarah Pautz and Jayson Pescasio. The Ballet’s season includes Dracula, Nutcracker, Romeo & Juliet and a to-be-announced sampling of ballets of choreographed by the master: George Balanchine.

Opera San Antonio Chairman Mel Weingart and Artistic Director Tobias Picker have also announced a most ambitious, interesting and challenging first season including Picker’s own opera composition, “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” Later and to highlight the Symphony’s Strauss Festival, the biblical story of “Salome” will shock and awe a new south Texas audience just as it has been doing for the past 109 years across the globe.

A quick primer for the uninitiated: “Salome” surprised audiences and censors (imagine) with its dissonant musical colors, its famous “Dance of the Seven Veils” (yes, she “dances” for Herod) and its dénouement – at Salome’s mom’s request – John the Baptist’s severed head delivered on a silver platter. I am not making this up – read the story in the Bible, Mark 6:21-29.

San Antonio Symphony Chairman Denny Ware and President David Gross. Their season is varied, ambitious and most pleasing. The challenging repertoire will also include the highlighted Richard Strauss Festival. This follows previous festivals for Tchaikovsky, Brahms and Dvorak.

Final thoughts and suggestions on removing five aggravating distractions at future Tobin events:

  • Since there was no intermission, the parade of patrons heading to the bathroom seemed endless and was (1) distracting.
  • Ushers need a “teaching moment” concerning the etiquette of when to seat late patrons and when not to seat them. That was (2) distracting as well. One lady felt compelled to reach her seat in the front row of theater during the orchestra’s performance. She was 20 or more minutes late and a distraction to all 1,750. And so was the 10 year old little girl who wanted a bottle of water during another segment. She returned undaunted to her seat bothering all during the music.
  • The darkened hall was interrupted on a few occasions when the backlit loge panels were illuminated with different colors which then raced around the audience with the pace of the music. Two musicians thought it (3) distracting. I agree. I enjoy that kind of light show in the AT&T Center with Tim Duncan nearby, but not during a concert. Cheesy comes to mind. I found it embarrassing that someone thought to add this unsophisticated light show to an otherwise sophisticated program.
Illuminated panels inside the packed house during the Tobin Center's opening ceremony. Photo by Scott Ball.

Illuminated balcony panels inside the packed house during the Tobin Center’s opening ceremony. Photo by Scott Ball.

  • Here’s another suggestion to enhance the effect of a darkened hall. Change the light bulb to match the wall color in each and every exit door so that when patrons depart in the midst of a concert one does not see a white light upon each exit. It’s (4) distracting.
  • Rethink placement of TV monitors which some audience members can see of the conductor. It’s (5) distracting to the eye. Both need to be relocated and redirected so as to be seen by onstage artists only. More than two audience members were distracted by the two monitors enough to bring up the subject afterwards. Note: I could see the monitors partially from my seats in row Y.
  • The two-hour performance was a smashing success and should be the model for the opening launch of each season from now on. I heard that good idea from a number of patrons and an enthusiastic head nod from those who heard the idea for the first time.
  • One caveat to the good idea just mentioned: add an intermission or at the least warn the audience of the length in advance. Here’s why: two upcoming events are long and without intermission by design – “Mahler 2” is  more than 90 minutes and “Salome” is a one act opera with a run time of more than 100 minutes.

 *Featured/top image: The San Antonio Symphony, led by conductor Sebastian Lang-Lessing, performs at the Tobin Center during opening day. Photo by Scott Ball.

Related Stories:

Amid Strings and Brass, Tobin Center Opens to Standing Ovation

Constructing Success: Tobin Center Announces Inaugural Season

YPs & the Arts: The Tobin Center “Ghost Light Society”

Ballet San Antonio Anticipates Life in the Tobin

Inside and Outside, Tobin Center Aims to Bring Performing Arts to the Whole City

San Antonio Symphony Celebrates 75th Anniversary

8 thoughts on “Constructive Criticism for a Pitch-Perfect Tobin

  1. The (lack of) audience etiquette was indeed extremely appalling and very distracting. The evening was magical and unforgettable, but thank you Jim for touching on the etiquette issue!!

  2. Thanks for the GREAT review, Jim! Tami Kegley and I were at the Tobin for the dress rehearsal the night before. Sebastian Lang-Lessing was visibly upset when a 15-minute intermission was called — which apparently didn’t occur during the actual performance. I can’t remember a single time I attended a symphony or ballet performance of this length that didn’t have an intermission. I guess it seemed like a good idea at the time, as they say…

    Let’s hope the good folks at the Tobin take your constructive criticism to heart and follow them going forward. There’s nothing wrong with proactive suggestions like these!

  3. Well written article with good suggestions for future productions. I look forward to attending future symphony concerts and hope that Mr. Berg’s observations will be duly noted and instigated.

  4. Very well put, Jim Berg, on each and every point. As for audience etiquette, is this a San Antonio thing? When we attended the Joffrey Ballet last year at the Lila Cockrell, I was completely appalled by the late seating issue, and I have since witnessed this practice at other live performances in other theaters here in town. I have always been accustomed to the reality of be on time, or be prepared to wait for the first intermission to take your seat in theaters in Houston and across the country. A very good and merciful usher may occasionally be able to time a quick seating with a pause in action, but otherwise you are out of luck. Now that we have a truly world-class performing arts hall, we should adopt world-class standards for our behavior and etiquette in that hall. Viva Tobin!

  5. Jim, I know your mother would totally agree with your assessment and recommendations for the Tobin. Good stuff.

    Though not entirely related to etiquette but definitely interconnected, I do believe for $203 million, they should have spent a bit more money on the chairs. I find them very uncomfortable and seemingly cheap. Particularly when seated for a long opera, symphony or concert. More comfortable chairs may have diminished the need for people to get up and down throughout shows…

  6. Can’t wait to attend a performance at the Tobin Center! I’ve been watching the construction from my office window and love what I see outside. The interior sounds like a treat.

  7. I loved the performance! The musicians, dancers, and singers were wonderful. I thought the set list was well picked to appeal to a wide audience, and was grateful to recognize several pieces. I agree with all of the above. I’d like to add that I believe the mezzanine ushers need an etiquette review as well. They were all very kind, but there were several distracting moments when the ushers were whispering loudly to each other. If they were having a teaching or instructing moment, they should have stepped into the lobby to do so. I turned back several times to try and get their attention but that didn’t work. I now know that I should have shared my frustrations with them or a supervisor after the performance.

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