Gaillard concert hall, blessed by Yo-Yo Ma, proves its acoustical mettle

October 18, 2015
The just-opened Gaillard Center underwent its first public stress test on Sunday as more than 1,800 patrons and donors filled its event spaces, trod on its newly laid carpets, leaned on the refreshment bars, located the toilets and sat for a solid two hours in the comfortable seats of the apricot-colored performance hall. The building held up nicely to both heavy use and intense scrutiny.

"To me it says we were screaming for this," said Juliet Peabody of Charleston, noting the large assembly.

The occasion was the Gaillard's formal grand opening gala concert, featuring acclaimed cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the Charleston Symphony Orchestra (led by its new music director Ken Lam) and the CSO Chorus. They offered a pleasing program that included the musical thrills of Dvorak's famous cello concerto, the dynamic soundscape of Respighi's monumental "Pines of Rome" and a full-throated rendering of Handel's coronation anthem "Zadok the Priest."

Zadok, incidentally, was the high priest of Jerusalem's First Temple, built by King Solomon, who achieved the throne with Zadok's help. What goes around comes around.

In the great civic temple of Joe Riley and Martha Rivers Ingram, concertgoers buzzed and murmured their contentment with the space, the society, the champagne, the energetic atmosphere and the performance itself.

It felt as if Charleston had arrived on an elevated cultural plane, finally, after several years of first fantasy and complaining, and then several more years of project planning and execution.

The old, acoustically imperfect Gaillard Municipal Auditorium was largely remade over the course of three years into an extended neo-Classical structure that houses the performance hall, an expansive exhibition space and city offices. After the concert, patrons migrated into the exhibition hall (sometimes referred to as the "ballroom") for dinner.

The event began with champagne and socializing among patrons filling the lobbies and outdoor balconies. Once everyone was seated in the hall, Mayor Riley and Ingram took the stage to say a few consecrating words. They were greeted by a standing ovation.

"Civilization is measured not by what it inherited but by what it created," Riley said.

Ingram praised Riley for his vision and commitment, thanked city council for its unanimous support and assured the audience that there was still time to donate a little more.

The $142 million Gaillard Center is paid for entirely. Half the cost was covered by the city, half by private donations.

All but $10 million has been raised, but that deficit is covered by a bank loan, Ingram said.

Was it worth it?

From the point of view of this music critic, who sat in the dress circle, slightly stage left, yes, it was worth it.

I'm not sure I love the apricot interior or the fluffy clouds painted in the coffered ceiling or the big light fixture with its curved exterior ribbing, but none of it mattered as soon as the orchestra began to play and its sound filled the horseshoe-shaped space.

Immediately it was apparent that Charleston now possesses a performance hall that can be counted among the country's finest. It is, as the architects say, a "right-sized room" that allows performers to sound their best and challenges them to sound their best, for the clear acoustics make it possible to hear every detail.

The fanfare-like "Zadok the Priest" got the concert off to a nice start and generously showcased the CSO Chorus, which sang with gusto.

The baroque-era music offered the listener an easy way to assess the sound: The music was in a major key, clean and bright. It brought a contented smile to one's lips.

But it was Respighi's "Pines of Rome," deliberately selected by Lam for its dynamic range, innovative orchestration and shimmering effects, that proved unequivocally the Gaillard's great gift.

It literally sparkles at the start with triangle, metal xylophone and winds mimicking the breeze wafting through the pines of the Villa Borghese, Rome's great public park.

During the hushed second part, a dirge referencing the country pines near the catacombs outside Rome, lower-register instruments dominated, but required no perking of the ears. In the delicate third section, the Pines of Jeliculum, nature was most thoroughly evoked, to great effect.

The recorded sounds of the nightingale finished the movement.

The last part, the Pines of the Appian Way, recalled ancient Rome's military might. And here the orchestra went full-throttle, with brass players positioned on both flanks of the auditorium in the gallery level. It gave the hall a real workout. And it gave certain members of the audience a real thrill.

But would the Gaillard properly support a cello soloist?

You bet.

Here's the thing: the hall doesn't mess around. It doesn't impose itself, amplify or otherwise distort the sound. It doesn't ask performers to accommodate it in any way. It sets a simple, beautiful table and invites them to partake.

It trusts the musicians not to overindulge or to forgo altogether the nutritious stuff. Ultimately it's up to the players to listen carefully, strike their balance and deliver the goods. This, of course, is largely achieved thanks to a good conductor. And Ken Lam is a good conductor.

When Yo-Yo Ma played that old chestnut, the Dvorak cello concerto, all this was evident yet again. He shined.

But it was the final moments of the concert that, for me, transformed it from a fabulous opening gala into something sanctified and unforgettable.

The ever-gracious Ma, fully aware of the occasion, offered the perfect encore: the quiet, stunning Sarabande from Bach's sixth cello suite. It was a benefaction meant to bless this new hall and the people in it, he said.

It did.

The Post and Courier
By Adam Parker
Photo by Grace Beahm