Gehry Gives Boost to Bard: Arts Center Acoustical Marvel

“Drop Tuition, Not FOIL” read a message scrawled on a white sheet that greeted guests at the recent opening-night gala for the new Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College. The sheet was held by a small group of students, who had arranged themselves on a lawn with a splendid view of the building they had nicknamed “FOIL” in honor of its roof-a glistening metallic canopy whose floppy-fedora silhouette was unmistakably Frank Gehry. In these troubled economic times, I can understand why students would want the $62 million that was spent on the center applied to a reduction in skyrocketing tuition costs, but I’m pretty sure that it won’t be long before they feel like the luckiest undergraduates in the country.

Bard’s new Fisher Center-named for its principal donor, a philanthropic New York investment banker who headed Morgan Stanley for many years-contains a main auditorium, and an adjacent facility with a dance studio and black-box theater. It isn’t just an extraordinary new resource for an institution that has long viewed the arts as an essential part of a college education; it automatically establishes the slumberous hamlet of Annandale-on-Hudson, a two-hour drive from the city, as home to one of the finest new halls in the country for symphonic and chamber music, as well as for opera, theater and dance.

Visually, the Gehry building assumes pride of place on a campus that’s beautifully situated along the eastern bank of the Hudson, but mostly doesn’t aspire to any architectural distinction. Approaching it on a fine spring evening, I marveled at its playful sculptural presence (it’s a kind of small-scale Bilbao) and the way the brushed, stainless steel canopy reflected the pinks and blues of the Tiepolo sky. The building was originally sited on the river, but when environmentalists and historic preservationists protested, it was relocated to a less conspicuous spot at the end of a meadow. The mighty Hudson is now beautifully implied in the canopy’s rippling panels and forward-thrusting lines.

Mr. Gehry has likened the building to a covered porch of the sort that graces many of the big, old Hudson Valley houses, and as I sipped white wine and dived for canapés with the dressy crowd in the somewhat restricted lobby spaces, I admired the rugged Yankee honesty of the exposed air-conditioning and heating ducts, the soaring network of beams and buttresses, and the skylights that brought the twilight indoors. If the bare-bones look of the interior, all gray and white, reminded me of one of those high-tech artists’ spaces of the 1970’s, it also suggested-as a doyenne of the local cognoscenti put it-the inside of one of those clipper ships that used to sail up the river.

An avuncular figure in an open shirt, Mr. Gehry was in attendance along with a number of other guests from Los Angeles. They were associated with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, whose long-awaited new home, the Walt Disney Concert Hall, is also the handiwork of Mr. Gehry and his acoustician on the Bard project, Yasuhisa Toyota. For them, the evening was an out-of-town preview with a lot riding on one question: What did this collaboration at Bard bode for Disney Hall, which is opening in October? As we filed into the Sosnoff Theater (named for Martin T. Sosnoff, another donor), I asked Deborah Borda, the L.A. Philharmonic’s executive director, whether she was nervous. She laughed: “No. But we’ll see.”

To showcase the hall’s multipurpose capacities-it has a stage that can be reconfigured for various uses-the Fisher Center is presenting two weekends (until May 3) featuring everything from a production of Racine’s Phèdre, directed by JoAnne Akalaitis, to programs of chamber and contemporary music, and performances by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company with the Kronos Quartet, Ballet Hispanico, and the Charles Mingus Orchestra with Elvis Costello. The inaugural demonstration was a blockbuster-a performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony, played on this occasion by the American Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leon Botstein, who also happens to be Bard’s president. One isn’t used to hearing this Mahler behemoth, which lasts nearly two hours, in an auditorium that seats only 900 listeners, and I wondered how my ears-and the hall-would hold up.

They glowed. I had heard a great deal about the acoustical wonders of Mr. Toyota’s best-known projects, Suntory Hall in Tokyo and the Sapporo Concert Hall in Sapporo, but I wasn’t prepared to be so ravished by what I heard in the modestly comfortable Sosnoff Theater, with its gently curvilinear shape, ingeniously sectioned seating downstairs, double balconies, high ceiling of billowing wood, and flexible concert shell of wood and concrete. The American Symphony Orchestra is no Berlin, Vienna or Cleveland ensemble, but under the steady, deeply learned direction of Mr. Botstein, it delivered Mahler’s most kaleidoscopic score with an immediacy that I have seldom encountered.

The character of the instruments-the grit of the double basses, the silkiness of the strings, the warmth of the horns, the plaintiveness of the woodwinds, the expansiveness of the timpani, the shimmer of the harps-was instantly distinctive and fully expressive. The voices of mezzo-soprano soloist Nancy Maultsby, the Concert Chorale of New York and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus emerged with crystalline beauty. In this marvelous sound chamber, there was depth without boom, clarity without shrillness, balance without precariousness; call it the sonic equivalent of magic realism. Most new concert halls go through painful periods of adjustment (the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, which opened in December 2001, is still finding its voice), but this one had arrived fully and perfectly tuned. The orchestra and the setting were one.

After the concert, President Botstein, in a speech of thanks to the movers and shakers behind this triumphant opening, reported that among the joys of playing in the new hall was the ability of everyone onstage to hear one another. He also pointed out that the names woven into the fabric of the chairs we were sitting in were not those of donors, but of the members of Bard’s class of 2003. Here, I thought, is one new arts institution that has its priorities straight.