classical music

A Fantastic Opening for National Sawdust

Tanya Tagaq on National Sawdust’s opening night. Photo: David Andrako

A concert hall acquires magic slowly, as memories and music percolate into the walls. The process is fickle: Audiences and musicians revere certain shabby rooms, while other, more serviceable spaces remain generic receptacles. National Sawdust, a deluxe live-music pod floating inside an old brick box in Williamsburg, opened Thursday. Within minutes, it was already dispensing experiences of the kind that lodge in the mind: the vocalist Theo Bleckmann threading a Handel melody through buzzing clouds of electronic dissonance, Foday Musa Suso weaving a tapestry of kora patterns around Philip Glass’s piano, the Inuit singer Tanya Tagaq emanating walrus roars and eldritch howls. If that sounds like a lot of territory to cover in one night, consider it a preview of the range to come. The programming is thick with music, dizzyingly varied, directed not to one constituency but many.

My first impressions of National Sawdust were dominated by Chris Thile. Long and bendy as a bamboo switch, he curled around his mandolin, alternating his own avant-garde bluegrass compositions with Bach. The music rattled through him like a high-voltage current, emerging in a breakneck yet delicate performance of the Presto from Bach’s G-minor violin sonata. “There ain’t too many folks can play too many notes on a mandolin,” he sings in a self-mocking courtship song, an understatement he punctuates with a blizzard of pluckings. Indeed, there ain’t. And not many musicians can hold an audience rapt with so little gear.

The opening show gave the room a workout, from Nadia Sirota’s lovely viola solo by Nico Muhly to the electrified thunderings that backed up Tagaq. The acoustical engineers at Arup have produced a sensitive and versatile space, able to flatter the smallest peep and absorb an amplified assault. Some concert halls are designed to maximize a Mahler symphony or a string quartet. This one has to encourage whatever demented projects composers come up with down the line.

That sense of possibility and range informs the design. A bright, spray-painted mural on the exterior suggests that artists will create the institution, rather than the other way around. A vestibule lined with a herringbone pattern of black-glazed brick creates a buffer of handmade glamour between the street and the musical womb. Textured screens of various shapes and sizes, separated by black steel channels, clad the interior, making the space look at once improvised and calculated, patterned and kinetic — just like much of the music that filled it on opening night.

Kevin Dolan, the attorney, organist, and philanthropist who founded National Sawdust, gave the architects at Bureau V the task of letting audiences have their musical adventures in comfort. They got most of the way there, though, the movable chairs, like the programming, seem geared to the young. The place comes equipped with all sorts of flexible configurations, and producers will have to resist the temptation to pack as many people in as possible, even though that number will never reach 200. On opening night, the intimacy went a step beyond companionable, not just for the audience but also onstage. Performers sidled into position; stagehands had to extract music stands like sushi chefs deboning mackerel. Sitting in the front row, close enough to offer the guitarist Nels Cline a sip of my beer, I noticed that his cable had gotten wrapped around a laptop power cord. Should I reach over and unplug the computer to avert a disaster? (I didn’t; it was fine.)

These kinks will go, the kitchen will soon start accompanying sounds with food, and even musicians who usually appear at Carnegie Hall will want a taste of Williamsburg cool. (The New York Philharmonic has already signed up, for its new music series Contact!) Still, I worry. National Sawdust opened on the same night that Gotham Chamber Opera suddenly closed — one independent cultural firefly lighting up as another flickered out. The coincidence points out just how fragile musical institutions are, especially in a city as mercurial as New York. But a couple of hours into its existence, this one seemed tough and full of magic.