ALISO VIEJO — The acoustics were so refined that one could hear the faintest touch of the piano onstage and the slightest rustling of a paper program across the room. Sometimes at the same time.
Indeed, one hears everything at a performance in Soka University's new Performing Arts Center. Hopefully it's mostly the music. That's because there is, more often than not, a lot of great music-making happening on that hall's Alaskan white cedar floor surrounded by the cherry wood walls.
Thursday's chamber ensemble concert with about 45 musicians from the Pacific Symphony was no exception. Led by the Costa Mesa-based orchestra's longtime conductor, Carl St.Clair, the program had three selections: Mozart's overture to "The Marriage of Figaro" opera, Saint-Saëns' "Carnival of the Animals" and Beethoven's Symphony No. 1.
St.Clair also made a few remarks about some history regarding the night's music, which was a welcome touch considering the program contained no historical background notes. He said Mozart's overture to "The Marriage of Figaro" was composed in 1786; Saint-Saëns' "Carnival of the Animals" came 100 years later. Though most know of Mozart's child prodigy background, Saint-Saëns was of the young musical genius type as well. Both had impressive classical prowess by age 5 and were making strides not long after.
Right away when the orchestra began playing the Mozart, one could notice more of an immediacy in the sound given this hall's smaller size compared to the Pacific Symphony's home base, the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa. Soka is not as grandiose, there is no massive organ and it seats about half as many people as a fully-packed Segerstrom.
It was also a brighter sound overall, likely due to the chosen music and the hall's acoustics.
The star, though, was the piano duo of Desirae and Deondra Brown, two traveling pianist siblings of The 5 Browns.
The 5 Browns last played with the symphony in July at Irvine's Verizon Wireless Amphitheater.
The Brown sisters, each playing on a Steinway that faced one another, played marvelously throughout the 14-movement "Carnival of the Animals," which turned out to be an excellent choice. In addition to both gentle and virtuosic piano playing, the piece features a variety of instrument solos for a small ensemble.
Of particular note was the transfixing solo in "Le Cygne" (The Swan) by principal cellist Timothy Landauer, the deep resonance of the double bass in "L'éléphant" (The Elephant) by Steven Edelman and the simple cuckoos of principal clarinet Benjamin Lulich in "Le Coucou au Fond des Bois" (The Cuckoo in the Depths of the Woods).
As a whole, the orchestra sounded as beautiful as ever in the enigmatic "Aquarium" movement, which has been used in countless movie trailers to designate "mysterious" music.
St.Clair conducted the Beethoven from memory, leading a spirited rendition of the composer's early work that's reminiscent of Haydn and Mozart. Much of it went briskly along, joyful and triumphant.
I loved being able to pick out the specific instruments because the acoustics were that good. I could even hear the slightest tap of the timpanist's playing.
Despite a lovely concert, the crowd response at the end seemed lukewarm. There were only a few standing ovations, a lot less compared to what the Pacific Symphony normally gets in Costa Mesa.
The symphony next performs at Soka on April 28 with a concert featuring violinist Karen Gomyo.
BRADLEY ZINT is a copy editor for the Coastline Pilot and a classically trained musician. Email him story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.