UB's new concert hall is promising musical venue

Beaux Arts Trio performs for the benefit opening Tuesday night

April 20, 2006|By TIM SMITH | TIM SMITH,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The opening of a new concert hall is like a pre-ultrasound-era birth - you never know in advance what you're going to get.

In the case of the rooftop Performing Arts Theater at the University of Baltimore's angular, glass-wrapped, $20 million Student Center on Mount Royal Avenue, preliminary indications were positive for a distinctive acoustical space.

With only 200 seats and a slender, unfussy, high-ceilinged design, the hall looks like it can deliver a superior sonic experience. After Tuesday night's inaugural concert, I'd say it has fallen a little short, but remains promising.

To give the facility a classy launch, UB engaged a distinguished chamber music ensemble, the Beaux Arts Trio, and put on a full concert at $250 a ticket (proceeds benefited the university's scholarship fund).

For all of its liveliness, the sound made by the musicians revealed a curious limit when it came to blend and definition. More sonic cohesiveness would have made the place really sing.

Even with its lid up all the way, the full-sized Steinway didn't have quite as big or rich an impact as I expected it would (heard from about midway in the hall). The violin and cello came through firmly, but without the extra layer of resonance that could have given the playing a distinctive glow.

That said, there was considerable immediacy about the results, a close-up feeling that should make the hall an appealing destination for music lovers.

It may be possible to fine-tune the acoustical elements with a few adjustments in the future. One thing that surely could be done quickly to enhance the environment is the elimination of an electrical hum that permeated the room on Tuesday. (I assume it came from overhead lighting, the culprit in many a theater.)

As for the Beaux Arts Trio, founded 51 years ago and still with the same pianist, Menahem Pressler, the group continues to set an admirable example of tight intra-communication and expressive flair. (The octogenarian Pressler has, not surprisingly, lost some technical clarity over the years, but not his fundamental musicality.)

A tense performance of Shostakovich's Trio No. 2 drew particularly potent work from violinist Daniel Hope and cellist Antonio Meneses. Beethoven's Archduke Trio inspired some firmly etched playing, but the same composer's lightweight, lighthearted Kakadu Variations at the start of the program was approached in a rather humorless fashion.

I wish the program had been more varied, for musical and acoustical interest, but the concert fulfilled its introductory purpose well and certainly whetted the aural appetite for more.

In addition to serving UB students in different ways, the new hall will provide a welcome addition to the cultural scene at large.

Starting in October and going through May 2007, a sterling cross section of Baltimore Symphony Orchestra members and their guest artists will be featured in a series of four chamber music programs. (Ticket prices have not been determined.)

Repertoire in this series will be admirably broad, ranging from favorites by Mozart, Schubert and Brahms to less frequently encountered works by Dohnanyi, Britten and Takemitsu.

Another series, this one devoted to young, emerging artists, is being planned for the facility next season, a co-presentation with the Shriver Hall Concert Series.

Free screenings of vintage family movies, including Raiders of the Lost Ark and Pee Wee's Big Adventure, are scheduled for July and August. And the popular Chris Norman Ensemble is slated to perform folk music of Canada and England in March.

For more information, call 410-837-4053.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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