“Jewel box” is a term often used to describe theaters or concert halls of modest size and exquisite design. Usually, they are also well over a century old, but a new concert hall that recently opened in La Jolla, California, is also worthy of the term. The Baker-Baum Concert Hall is the main performance space in the inviting Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center (known as the Conrad), which recently opened as the home of the La Jolla Music Society. Intended for chamber music, the hall has a seating capacity of only 513, but it was designed by a team of acousticians and architects known for grander projects, and it melds acoustical excellence with audience friendliness.

The community of La Jolla, esteemed for its spectacular setting adjacent to a cliff-lined cove favored by surfers, snorkelers, and sea lions, as well as for its fashionable shops and restaurants, has long been integral to the artistic life of San Diego. The Music Society, currently celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, presents a wide range of music and dance events during the concert season and hosts the popular SummerFest each August. In an interview, Ted DeDee, the Music Society’s recently appointed CEO and president, said the Conrad would facilitate expansion of programing, “including new ventures that the Music Society hasn’t done at all.”

 

Joslin spoke of the challenge of designing the Conrad given its projected location on a commercial street.

Among other cultural attractions, La Jolla is home to the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. Until recently, in fact, the museum served as landlord to the Music Society through its Sherwood Auditorium, where most of the Society’s events took place. The museum’s decision to tear down the Sherwood and replace it with an exhibition gallery prompted a successful fundraising campaign by the Music Society that made the $82 million Conrad a reality. The biggest contributor was the late Conrad Prebys, an impassioned music lover and a prominent San Diego property developer who died in 2016.

The Boston-based Epstein Joslin Architects, whose principal, Alan Joslin, was the project architect for the Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts, was hired on the recommendation of Brenda Baker, a former chair of the Music Society and (together with her husband, Steve Baum) a major contributor to the Conrad. Baker was impressed by the Epstein Joslin–designed Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport, Massachusetts. The tricky subject of acoustics was entrusted to Nagata Acoustics, the Tokyo-based firm headed by Yasuhisa Toyota, responsible for Los Angeles’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, Germany, and many other performance venues.

The opening performance of the Baker-Baum Concert Hall. Photo: Xi Wang.

In an interview, Joslin and his colleague Deborah Epstein spoke of the challenge of designing the Conrad given its projected location on a commercial street. Without the prospect of significant open space around it, the decision was made to position an open courtyard within the Conrad, situated between the concert hall and the center’s other performance hall, a smaller, contemporary space commonly described as a black box. As Joslin explained it, the courtyard facilitates the “merger of audiences attending separate events” and can also enhance “the experience of one audience attending events in both spaces.” For the gala during the first weekend of April, the black box facility, called The JAI in honor of the donors Joan and Irwin Jacobs, hosted a concert on April 7 by the jazz band The Hot Sardines.

Joslin also explained how characteristic details of La Jolla’s architectural heritage helped to inspire elements of the Conrad’s decor. A notable example are the wooden slats that let in air and light at the famous Balboa Park Botanical Building. They served as a model for similar slats, now fabricated in terra-cotta (a common La Jolla building material), that provide shelter for the Conrad’s balconies.

According to Joslin, the hall’s most distinctive feature is the way it combines a shoebox shape, which is now widely favored acoustically, with a horseshoe seating arrangement that brings spectators closer to the performers and enhances their sense of involvement in the performance. The reconciliation of these diverse shapes was accomplished by situating the horseshoe arrangement within a concrete enclosure forming the shoebox. Bordering the horseshoe is an acoustically transparent grille—which, like most of the hall’s auditorium, is made of wood—allowing the sound to circulate within the shoebox.

 

The opening performance of the Baker-Baum Concert Hall. Photo: Xi Wang.

After the opening concert on April 5—a varied program of chamber music by a dozen luminaries—one of the performers, the violist Heiichiro Ohyama (the founding artistic director of SummerFest), noted that the hall’s sound is rich and lively, but not overly reverberant. This was apparent from the first selection, a brilliant rendition by Hillary Hahn of the vibrant Prelude from Bach’s E-major Partita for solo violin. It might seem odd to start a chamber music gala with a solo violinist, but Hahn’s performance spoke compellingly about what one wanted to know about the hall’s sound, as her plush tone filled the space while each note emerged with clarity.

Two movements from familiar chamber works—the Rondo alla Zingarese from Brahms’s Piano Quartet in G minor, Op. 25, played by Cho-Liang Lin, Ohyama, David Finckel, and Wu Han, and the first movement from Mendelssohn’s Octet for Strings in E-flat major, Op. 20, played by the Miró Quartet with Hahn, Lin, Ohyama, and Finckel—testified to the hall’s capability to achieve a warm blend in traditional works.

Hahn’s performance spoke compellingly about what one wanted to know about the hall’s sound, as her plush tone filled the space while each note emerged with clarity.

Less traditional was the delicate, though clearly audible sound of the ukulele as played by Jake Shimabukuro in three works. Lalo Schifrin’s Letters to My Father, a flashy piece anchored in tonality for solo violin, was energetically played Lin and accompanied by projections by Osman Koç that hinted at the hall’s technical capabilities. (Equipped with an orchestra pit, it is a fitting venue for chamber operas.)

Polished performances of Chopin’s well-known Nocturne in E-flat major, Op. 9, No. 2, and Liszt’s Consolation No. 3, S. 172 by the eminent Jean-Yves Thibaudet made the prospect of piano recitals in the hall a highly promising one. Also striking was the appearance of the male dancer Lil Buck in ingeniously choreographed versions of Saint-Saëns’s “The Swan” from Carnival of the Animals and the “Danse Russe” from Stravinsky’s Petrushka that mixed traditional steps with extreme movements resembling those of a contortionist; Inon Barnatan, the new artistic director of SummerFest, accompanied impressively at the piano.

With its new hall,the La Jolla Music Society is poised for growth. It can be expected to take a more active role as a producer of events in addition to its function as a presenter, with cross-disciplinary programs entering the mix. If they draw interest beyond the hall’s seating capacity, DeDee said, “we’ll just schedule multiple performances, the way opera companies and orchestras do.”

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