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Look Out, They're Gonna Blow!: The new Sunset Theater has given the Carmel Bach Festival plenty to toot about.

Hear, Here

The Carmel Bach Festival debuts the uniquely epic acoustics of the new Sunset Theater

By Scott MacClelland

By themselves, the acoustics at the brand new Sunset Theater in Carmel are astonishing--and then some. Unless you've witnessed such clarity, transparency, sonority and presence elsewhere, you are simply not prepared for what you'll hear in the hall that was not just renovated, but rebuilt from the ground up.

Assuming that you are indeed not so prepared, that puts you among the overwhelming majority of concertgoers, as well as musicians, in the world. Elizabeth Wallfisch, the internationally acclaimed performing and recording artist, and concertmaster of the Carmel Bach Festival, says she's never heard anything like it anywhere.

Only a month ago, many Carmelites in touch with the two-year, $21 million project were in doubt that the auditorium would be ready in time for the Bach Festival. They were wrong. The contractor delivered the keys to the city administrator last Wednesday, leaving only some finishing touches, mostly exterior landscaping. Furiously, conductor Bruno Weil and his players and singers began rehearsing, trying to get used to the unprecedented acoustics.

Meanwhile, technicians were frantically "tuning" the hall, measuring reverberations, adjusting the new reflecting shell and overhead clouds, and--now we come to the "and then some" part--using an extensive electronic system of amplifiers and some 80 speakers along the walls to manipulate the rate of decay time. This technology, Lexicon Acoustic Reinforcement and Enhancement System--LARES--has changed the paradigm of acoustic design. According to Steve Barbar, a principal of the Belmont, Mass., company, the decay time--the number of seconds it takes the resonance to fade after the music has stopped--can range from the natural acoustics of the room all the way up to 40 seconds. In other words, LARES can imitate any room acoustic up to and including the cathedrals of Notre Dame and St. Peter's Basilica.

In the hyperefficient new Sunset acoustics, you can even hear the raising of suspicious hackles among acoustic purists. Amplification? Outrageous!

Maybe not. I sat next to Mr. Barbar, who held in his hands a laptop computer with the power to turn the "enhancement" off and on. This he did, and, yes, I could hear the difference between the room's natural 1.2-second decay and the enhanced--and preferred consensus among the CBF folks--2.4-second decay. But the sound of the rehearsing forces (soloists, chorus and orchestra) was exactly the same either way. In other words, there was no distortion that I could perceive, except in the decay time. That, of course, was the intention, Barbar said. Although the system has the capability of various other manipulations, CBF executive Willem Wijnbergen told me their plan was to get it as close to perfect as possible then leave it alone.

Opening night was as much about the gala dazzle of the event--the visually stunning new theater where no seat is denied good sightlines or sonic immediacy--as about the program itself. Bach's Cantata no. 30a, Brandenburg Concerto no. 4 and Magnificat, and Stravinsky's Concerto in D for strings made for a comprehensive review of the festival's musicians in the hall. Explosions of trumpets and drums added fireworks to the two Bach cantatas, and Wallfish sizzled in Brandenburg 4. The combined chorale and chorus delivered in vivid imagery, clearly defined in space. The technically challenging Stravinsky was utterly transparent and flawless. Only a couple of the vocal soloists found themselves under greater acoustic scrutiny than they were used to. It's as if the audience was examining every detail through a magnifying glass under bright light.

Personally, I think the 2.4-second delay is excessive. CBF education director David Gordon told me he preferred 1.8. But perhaps the biggest challenge of this brave new world of acoustic engineering will be whether the longtime CBF musicians will learn how to tone down their previously Herculean efforts on the way to discovering how little effort is required for an ideal result in the new hall.

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From the July 23-30, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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