Is the New York Philharmonic’s Swanky New Space short? | Catch My Job


Sixty years ago, Leonard Bernstein presided over the inauguration of the Philharmonic, Lincoln Center’s main concert venue. The event was broadcast live on network television, and an estimated twenty-six million people tuned in. Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy led the procession of distinguished attendees, who exclaimed over the monumentality of the facade with its white columns and the blue-gold opulence of the interior. Bernstein led the New York Philharmonic in a program that included the Gloria from Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, the first movement of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony and — on a less celebratory note — Aaron Copland’s poignantly dissonant “Connotations.” Mrs. Kennedy, who greeted the composer afterward, was speechless. “Oh, Mr. Copeland,” she said. “Oh, Mr. Copeland.” When asked about the acoustic achievement, she replied equivocally: “I’ve never seen anything like it.

In fact, the acoustics were a failure, as Bernstein recognized. A document in the Philharmonic Archives summarizes his reactions: “Mr. Bernstein said that when he listens in the hall, the hall has an uninteresting sound except for the horns and clarinets. At no time does he feel that he is surrounded by music. He said the overall effect is like hearing music written on a blackboard – the blackboard effect. He said there was no presence or warmth.” Treble frequencies were too dominant; the cellos were often silent; the horns ruled over all.

So began a long twilight struggle to fix the problem: an overhaul in 1963, further adjustments over the next decade, a gut renovation in 1976, more changes in 1992. Philharmonic Hall became Avery Fisher Hall, then David Geffen Hall. The acoustics eventually rose to a decent level, but the sound remained a frame, without resonance. The decor, meanwhile, has turned into beige boredom. Drastic measures were proposed, including demolition; teams of architects came and went. Finally, in 2019, a more limited but still ambitious renovation began—a collaboration between the architecture firm Diamond Schmitt and the design team of Todd Williams and Billie Tsien. Construction was accelerated during the pandemic, and the hall was reopened at the beginning of October. Advance publicity promised that the curse had finally been lifted and that the Philharmonic had acquired a world-class venue worthy of its history and reputation.

Of course, the place looks better. The old hall, with its oversized drawer form, was a discouraging place to listen to music. The orchestra always seemed farther away than it really was — as if seen through the wrong end of a telescope, Bernstein comments. Now the stage has been moved to the front, and a row of seats has been placed behind the musicians. The main floor was sloped more steeply, allowing for better visibility. The balconies curve around the auditorium and taper into aerodynamic forms. The beech paneling is shaped in colorful patterns. Rose petal fabric covers the seats and blue tones appear high on the walls. Anyone who has visited Frank Gehry’s Disney Hall in Los Angeles will experience a few pangs of deja vu.

Public spaces in Geffen are deepened and ventilated. Picking up a ticket or taking the escalator is no longer an exercise in chaos at the entrance. Couches and tables in the lower lobby encourage passers-by to linger. The overall visual aesthetic is a sumptuous mix of brightly striped upholstery, patterned carpets, midnight blue walls, silver and gold-hued partitions, bronze railings and frosted glass parapets. It’s a little too kitschy-cool for comfort: I felt like I was checking into the V Hotel in the Emirates. The decor will quickly become dated – I predict another renovation before the decade is out – but for now it has a clumsy, pleasure-seeking charm. There is also an auxiliary performance space, the Sidewalk Studio, with large windows overlooking Broadway. It has a sharp sound, which was confirmed by the midday chamber concert.

The acoustics of the main hall were overseen by Paul Scarbrough and Christopher Blair from Acoustics. My first impressions, after three performances, were mixed. The sound is bright and clear, with excellent separation of instrumental voices. When the smaller groups within the orchestra play at a lower volume, their timbres float and flourish. However, when the whole ensemble is activated, the sound image seems to flatten out and lose its luster. The treble overpowers the bass, and the brass squeezes the strings. The music stays stuck in front of you instead of rushing around you. I felt like I was listening to a world-class stereo system in a dry room. That, at least, was my experience in the orchestra seats. When I moved to the back row of the uppermost balcony, the balance was better, the bass was fuller, the ensemble richer and more rounded. (Bernstein made a similar observation about the perspective of the upper balcony in his 1962 notes.)

I was reminded of the Disney opening, 2003. The LA Philharmonic, long playing in the cavernous Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, caused almost ear overload in “The Rite of Spring.” In the following years, he learned to deal with Disney’s unusual reaction. The New York Philharmonic will also adapt its sound to its new room, with the Acoustics team making adjustments. Still, I can’t help but feel that Geffen missed his obvious model. This became clear when I heard the LA Phil again on my turf the other day. At the climax of Copland’s Third Symphony, I felt the bass rush through my feet—a sign that the entire hall was resonating with the music. Nothing like that happened at Geffen.

The Philharmonic’s official opening concert, on October 12, began with the world premiere: “Oia,” a high-tech piece by Brazilian-American composer Marcos Baltero. Oja is a warrior spirit of the Yoruba, and her powers are invoked in sharp electronic explosions and a psychedelic light display. The work was disjointed in structure but arresting in impact – shades of the apocalyptic onslaught of Copland’s “Connotations”. The rest of the program — John Adams’ “Mi Father Knev Charles Ives,” Tania Leon’s “Stride” and Ottorino Respighi’s “Pines of Rome” — displayed different facets of orchestral brilliance. Jaap van Zweden, music director of the Philharmonic, conducted briskly and without much insight, as is his wont.

The opening festivities also included the premiere of Etienne Charles’ multimedia work “San Juan Hill,” a co-production of Lincoln Center’s programming department and the Philharmonic. San Juan Hill was a Puerto Rican and black neighborhood that Robert Moses wiped out to make way for Lincoln Center. The Philharmonic joined Charles’ Afro-Caribbean jazz combo, Creole Soul, in a stunning evocation of that lost community, with film segments and taped interviews providing a vivid documentary texture. However, as I listened, I noticed an uncomfortable irony. On the walls of the hall were carved the words “Wu Tsai Theatre”, in honor of the donation by Clara Wu Tsai and Joe Tsai. Joe Tsai is the co-founder and executive vice president of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, which plays a key role in China’s draconian surveillance regime. Perhaps a future Geffen event could celebrate the Uyghur people, who are forced into concentration camps in Xinjiang.

Whatever Lincoln Center’s larger agenda — its new leadership is moving away from traditional classical fare — Geffen Hall ultimately has no purpose other than as an arena for orchestral performances. The Philharmonic, under the executive leadership of Deborah Borde, has recently taken steps to modernize and diversify its image. What he needs now is an energetic, creative music director; van Zweden, who is due to depart in the spring of 2024, has achieved little. When the programs excite the mind and the performances capture the heart, questions of acoustics and decor recede into the background. ♦


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