The performance hall, filled with light blue seats that suggest the colors of the ocean only a few blocks away, feels like an intimate tent, dominated by giant "sails," solid white curving forms on which video can be projected. They are several inches thick, made of plaster and form an essential part of Yasuhisa Toyota's acoustic design, which generates an astonishing quantity of sound (the NWS is still tweaking it with fabric panels and other elements). The steeply raked seating is arrayed snugly around the stage and places the audience in intimate proximity to the musicians. Even the farthest seat is no more than 13 rows from the stage. It is not quite a "theater in the round," but it comes very close.
On a weekday evening earlier this month, the young musicians were exploring the possibilities of their new home, rehearsing for a performance of Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition." Overhead, videos commissioned from the faculty and students of the University of Southern California filled the giant sails while spotlights picked out individual players during solos. As the musicians played Maurice Ravel's orchestration of Mussorgsky's popular suite, a farmer slowly trudged with his ox, cartoon chicks burst from their shells and raced through space, and little vignettes about people in an art gallery played out on the billowing sculptural panels.
Other orchestras have experimented with efforts to make the concert hall more democratic and more contemporary in its engagement with media. Most have failed. With a few notable exceptions, concert halls in the round have failed. And video close-ups and film usually feel contrived and distracting. The difference, in Gehry's new space, is that it all comes together in a unified whole. The video feels like an integral creation, and it raises the possibility that a new, hybrid art form might emerge from this kind of effort. The lighting, designed by Cirque du Soleil veteran Stefan DeWilde, is professional, unobtrusive and tasteful. And the acoustical liveliness of the hall should put the nail in the coffin of an idea that gained force over the last half-century: that only a rectangular hall can offer the proper clarity, accuracy and warmth of sound.
At the back of the concert hall, Gehry has created a sophisticated control booth clad with square glass windows and panels of shiny white plastic, which suggests the architecture of a 1950s research park, a clean, sleek exercise in Cartesian order. Inside are work stations for a dozen or more people, filled with computer screens and control panels for the high-definition cameras, video and lighting. Rather than hide the control booth, the way projectionists are hidden in a movie house, the architect has created a visual reminder of the depth of the New World Symphony's investment in technology, which also includes wiring the entire building for Internet2, the new generation of Internet connecting educational, nonprofit and research institutions.
For the first time, that technology does not feel like an invasion into the 19th-century concert space, but an essential element of a newly emerging entertainment form. This may be horrifying to traditionalists. There is no distance between the listener and the music. The quantity of sound the hall develops suggests the enveloping, even overwhelming sound of music heard through headphones or ear buds. The video grabs the attention, making it difficult at times to find an objective remove from the details of the music. The fourth wall, whatever remained of that supposedly off-putting imaginary barrier between audience and spectacle, is now entirely shattered.