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Von Stade sounds out the Broad Stage

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The Eli and Edythe Broad Stage, newly added to Santa Monica College, had its semi-public tryouts over the summer and a gala last month with singer Barbara Cook, who was amplified. But the opening night concert Saturday, a recital by mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, was the first real tryout of the 499-seat hall's acoustics, which were designed by JaffeHolden.

And the first weasel evaluation is that it is too soon to really tell. One should hear many different kinds of music and spoken events in a hall first and one should sit in various spots.

Saturday, I was given tickets pretty much dead center in the hall, where, I am told by experts, sound waves tend to cancel themselves out. (The Broad has no center aisle.)

Some aspects of acoustics, moreover, can be subjective. My second weasel evaluation on this occasion is that songs I liked a lot and thought especially well performed sounded great. But when I didn't care for the work or objected to a performance, the sound bothered me. That's undoubtedly a good sign. When the music matters, it matters in the Broad. It remains to be seen, however, whether the hall has the type of acoustics that will be kind to performers, no matter what.

Jake Heggie was on the bill, both as the evening's pianist and as a composer. And soprano Kristin Clayton was on hand as well, to offer the Los Angeles premiere of Heggie's "At the Statue of Venus" and to join Von Stade for duets at evening's end.

"Venus" is a setting of a text by Terrence McNally (with whom Heggie collaborated on the opera "Dead Man Walking") and was written for Clayton to open the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in Denver three years ago. In this 23-minute scene, Rose frets about wearing slacks as she awaits a blind date by the statue of Venus. Is she up for this kind of thing? Will he finally be Mr. Right? Will she feel safe and protected with him as she did with her dear father? Will they drink of beauty deeply braving this world together for the rest of their days?

Heggie is an unflappably affable composer. He braves banality with palatable ease. His musical style here is reminiscent of early Bernstein. The piano accompaniment comfortably develops a pleasing theme, and the soprano part slips so comfortably into sentimentality that you hardly mind (at first). Clayton sang and acted up a storm, as if trying out for a sitcom. She sounded oversized, and her voice seemed to bounce off the walls. The piano, placed far back, with lid open, didn't blend well with the singer.

For Von Stade, the stage had a typical recital setup of singer and piano in the center, the lid lowered. Her first group of songs was rose-themed, presumably playing off McNally's protagonist. The second of the four lines in Ned Rorem's very short "I Am Rose," to a Gertrude Stein text, said, in seven words -- "I am Rose and who are you" -- everything in "Venus" and more. Von Stade sang with ideal understated elegance. Heggie was a properly restrained accompanist. Each of the seven words felt perfectly placed in space. Suddenly the Broad became a marvelous stage.

Von Stade's program was in themed groups -- roses, Paris, prayers. When singing the French songs of Fauré and Poulenc, she proved a sensitive artist. But in English she could turn vulgar. In Virgil Thomson's "A Prayer to Saint Catherine," plain speaking became showboating.

For three songs from Heggie's "Facing Forward/Looking Back," Von Stade and Clayton were meant to be mother and daughter. They were funny when they weren't maudlin, and they sounded fabulous together. Yet in a Mozart duet and Delibes' "Flower Duet" from "Lakmé," their voices grated. Broad's acoustics amplify everything, including carelessness.

The concert ended with Bernstein's "Take Care of This House." He meant the White House, and he was known to trot this song out during the Reagan and first President Bush administrations as an admonition, singing it at the piano in a grotesquely exaggerated form.

Von Stade and Clayton did Lenny one better in their bloated rendition, but the performance was moving anyway. The Broad, I suspect, is going to be just fine.

mark.swed@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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