In the run-up to its public opening on January 19, the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum has been inviting contributors and press to a series of events over the last few days. BMInt’s executive editor, Bettina A. Norton, and I were invited to a gala for members of the Friends of Fenway Court. In addition to a performance in the new Calderwood Hall by Paavali Jumppanen, piano and Corey Cerovsek, violin, we were treated to a mimosa and a mini-eggs Benedict-infused buffet with a variety of rolled soufflés. And we were invited to tour the old and the new ISGM.
Visitors now enter the museum through a glass courtyard on Evans Street. The Miesien mis-en-scene was rather chilly on this 10-degree morning, but nevertheless gleamed invitingly. In any Renzo Piano building, the materials are never less than top-drawer. Evident right at the entrance is the feeling that only the best finishes were used, and that everything was designed to fit together with well-considered connections. One could argue about certain details such as the decision to color the mortar red in the extensive brick interior walls, but overall the feel was expensive and elegant.
The Palace is now reached through a steel-framed glass passageway into a new vestibule with a very shallow brick vaulted ceiling. The only changes of note within the Palace are in the Tapestry Gallery, the former site of Sunday afternoon concerts. This noble space was much improved by the removal of the stage and the stripping of paint from the Mercer Tile floor. An 1890’s art-case Steinway B from Mrs. Gardner’s fourth-floor apartments was restored and installed for occasional informal concerts, usually by NEC students, which will continue on an irregular basis here.
Reaching the new Calderwood Hall in the Renzo Piano wing requires a climb (there is of course an elevator) of a very grand double staircase of glass and steel (note the glass risers which mimic the glass balcony fronts in the auditorium) which yields wonderful views of the backside of the Palace. After a pair of right turns, one finds oneself facing the auditorium’s entrance, a consecutive pair of doors (with very expensive hinges) forming a sound isolation chamber. The effect of going through this claustrophobic space and emerging into a 44-foot cube is reminiscent of the sense one had of entering the Palace through the low hall from the Fenway entrance.
The new hall is breathtaking. One’s eyes are first drawn to the 20-foot-square skylight, and then one pans down the three tiers of glass-fronted balconies with bright red upholstered seats and on down to the bleached wood floor. The scene evokes an elegant, futuristic surgical amphitheater. This is no “black box.” There are many thoughtful details which contribute to the overall sumptuous effect: there are 45º bevels on top edges of the glass balcony fronts to prevent distracting reflections from the skylights from annoying those looking down (the panels were also installed 1º out-of-plumb to dampen acoustical reflections), suspended balconies with carefully placed cork liners where the ironwork penetrates the floor, extremely elegantly machining for the seat-back pivots — seats were supported on a long span box beams to keep their legs off the floor, expensive track lighting fixtures in great numbers, elegantly pierced plywood perimeter walls illuminated from the floor with continuous tubes of raking light. The four-sided balconies each have one row of seats, and the floor has two. There is no apparent preferred axis. On this occasion the lidless piano was placed on the diagonal and the interlocutor, ISGM director, Anne Hawley spoke from a corner.
From our perch in the second tier, it was possible to see Hawley without leaning forward, but the view of the audience members opposite me was much easier to focus upon, and I did not need to look through glass to see them. Calderwood Hall’s balconies will be the recommended venues for sightings of short-skirted patrons during warmer months. This reminded me of how Clarence H. Blackall, Boston’s most important theater architect of the first third of the 20th century, inveighed against auditoriums with parallel side balconies in which many in the audience faced each other. In this case, everyone does.
The room sounded very plush and quiet even as the audience was filing in. There was no audible air handling, and audience sounds did not resonate. When Hawley welcomed us, she used a microphone, which after our experience from earlier private tours, seemed unnecessary. Her amplified voice issued from a small hexagonal speaker array hanging in the center of the space at the level of the floor of the third tier and very much came predominantly from that source.
This hall has a way of focusing one’s powers of observation, since one is very much aware of how 200 other audience members are concentrating. I chose first to sit facing the tail of the piano so that I could see the performer’s face. Paavali Jumppanen, a favorite of the Gardner’s Scott Nickrenz, who has been reviewed in these pages here and here, opened the concert with a dreamy but dynamically wide-ranging account of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata. The sound from the lidless Steinway concert grand was very clear and of more than adequate amplitude from my seat in the second tier, yet unless I leaned overboard, I was seeing the stage through plate glass. The sound did not penetrate the glass, of course, and was hard to localize, mostly seeming to emanate from large convex reflectors hanging from the ceiling. Yet the well-tuned and regulated piano sound was very satisfying, especially since Jumppanen seemed to employ the damper pedal a great deal to overcome the rather low reverberation period of the hall.
Jumpannen next brought his notable strengths to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 26, “Das Lebewohl,” but it wasn’t really clear just how dry the hall was until the third piece on the program, when violinist Corey Cerovsek joined Jumppanen for an account, from memory for both, of Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata. This was animated and fiery in the main, but light and dance-like when appropriate. The violin sound was very satisfying and warm when bowed, but pizzicato sections revealed the room’s dryness — the sound just died away.
For this piece I had moved to the top tier and chose a seat at the keyboard end. If I sat back in the comfortable chair, my view of both performers was entirely obstructed by the balcony floor, and the sound seemed to come again from above me rather than from 30 feet down. In order to see the performers, in this case the tops of their heads, I had to lean my chin on the wooden rail provided for that purpose and look straight down. The sound was also much more direct and localizable then, but the position was untenable for an entire concert. It was interesting to watch how other audience members dealt with the hearing and sight-line issues. Erika Nickrenz, the daughter of the Gardner’s music director, Scott Nickrenz, was steady in her concentration, leaning forward and looking down at the musicians intently for 75 minutes. Others, such as a frequent concert-goer of my acquaintance, never peered over the rail, telling me later that he found the lofty perspective too vertiginous.
If direct communication with artists is important to the designers, then the hall has to be adjudged a partial failure, since the artists’ faces remain invisible to denizens of the upper tiers and those sitting behind the “stage.” In many of the locations where face-to-face contact with the artists is possible, it is only through plate glass panels.
Overall, though, I was pleased with my experience. Calderwood Hall is going to be a quirky and exciting place to hear chamber music. It will nevertheless impose tests on audience and performers alike. We look forward to attending often to see how the experience evolves. The hall is tunable to the extent that sound absorbing drapes can be deployed or retracted — they were fully retracted for this performance and for many the sound was still a bit drier than they liked. Nevertheless, this was a brave design by Renzo Piano, the architect; Yasuhisa Toyota, the acoustician; and Scott Nickrenz, Mr. Music at the Gardner.