After decades, the New York Philharmonic’s hall sounds and feels more intimate

Jaap van Zweden conducts the New York Philharmonic at David Geffen Hall in New York on Oct. 12, 2022. The performance was the orchestra's first subscription programme in the new space. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK – Raise your hand if you ever thought you would go see the New York Philharmonic, America’s most venerable orchestra, by entering off Lincoln Center’s plaza through a wide-open garage door. No one?

But yes: The main entrance of David Geffen Hall – the Philharmonic’s home, newly, completely and happily renovated after a wait of decades – is now a big glass wall that can swoop up in good weather. And the past week has been bright and mild in New York. So, as audiences drifted in for some of the first concerts in the revamped hall, the lobby inside and the plaza outside merged, without any barrier.

It is a new degree of informality, matched once you get into the transformed auditorium. The vast, drab shoe box that the city knew as Avery Fisher Hall after 1973 – a few years before a major remodelling attempted to fix the acoustics that had been criticised since the building first opened as Philharmonic Hall, in 1962 – has been gutted.

Five hundred seats have been eliminated, along with the proscenium. The stage has been pulled about 7.5m forward, and seating has been stretched around it. The once-dingy interior now features a lot of honey-coloured wood, the seats upholstered in a floating-flower-petal motif. A theatre in which it once felt so far from the back row to the timpanis now verges on intimacy.

There is intimacy in how it sounds too. Any judgment on a hall’s acoustics is highly provisional after just a few visits. For the rest of October’s opening events – and the rest of this season – I will be listening to the Philharmonic play in the new Geffen, and hearing how the experience changes as I sit all over. The orchestra will be changing too, adapting to its home the way a player adjusts to a new instrument.

At its first subscription programme in the space, the third movement of John Adams’ My Father Knew Charles Ives demonstrated that magical orchestral alchemy in a superb hall: the way dozens of musicians playing softly can feel huge.

A low growl in the basses was palpable, not just audible. At quiet dynamics throughout the evening – like the brooding opening of the catacombs section of Ottorino Respighi’s Pines Of Rome and the ambiguous haze of Tania Leon’s Stride – the sound was glistening and lucid.

If, at its loudest and densest, the orchestra seemed strident and blurrily blaring rather than richly massed and blended, with the brasses and percussion overwhelming the woodwinds and strings, that may be less an inherent quality of the room than a remnant of the group’s notoriously blunt and punchy style.

That style – which has not always been discouraged by Jaap van Zweden, on the podium as music director for another two seasons – evolved partly because of the shortcomings of the old hall, the need to force the sound to reach its distant upper reaches. But what felt necessary merely to be heard in that former space could profitably be eased in this new one. The orchestra no longer has to blast to a faraway audience, but can play more like it is sharing the music with a bunch of friends gathered around the campfire.

It has been a long journey to that campfire. Most observers recognised that the 1976 renovation, which built a new theatre in the shell of the 1962 building, had not solved the hall’s acoustical issues, and had introduced new aesthetic ones. But the will was not present – and relations between the orchestra and Lincoln Center, its landlord, were too dysfunctional – to do much about it.

Around the turn of the 21st century, a plan emerged to demolish the building entirely and start over, but the orchestra was so spooked by the scheme’s probable cost and duration that it tried to pick up and move to Carnegie Hall, its home before Lincoln Center was built. That escape failed miserably, leaving Avery Fisher Hall as the centre’s problem child, ignored in a sweeping, six-year campus-wide refurbishment that finished in 2012.

In 2015, David Geffen restarted the hall project with a US$100 million (S$142.7 million) gift – minus the US$15 million required to buy off Avery Fisher’s heirs, who were surprised to learn that Fisher’s name would not be permanently attached to the building. But the design that was developed in the wake of Mr Geffen’s donation once again spiralled out of control in ambition and price tag.

It was not until two pragmatic chief executives, Ms Deborah Borda at the New York Philharmonic and Mr Henry Timms at Lincoln Center, arrived a few years ago that a workable project – which would, as in 1976, fill the existing shell with new contents – was finally agreed on. And when the pandemic shut down performances, construction was fast-tracked so that the opening has come two years earlier than planned, without exceeding the US$500 million budget.

The only part of the 1960s auditorium that remains is the zig-zag ceiling, and it has been painted black and hidden behind a billowing silvery sheath. In one crucial way, though, this is a restoration: At 2,200 seats (versus 2,700 starting in 1962), the hall finally has the capacity for which its acoustics were originally designed.

Jaap van Zweden conducts the New York Philharmonic at David Geffen Hall in New York on Oct. 12, 2022. The performance was the orchestra's first subscription programme in the new space. PHOTO: NYTIMES

A concert hall’s quality in unamplified music is no indication it will work when amplified too. But when its retractable fabric dampening panels are opened and line the walls, the new Geffen is as good with amplification as without.

San Juan Hill: A New York Story, Etienne Charles’ multimedia excavation of the history of the neighbourhood razed to build Lincoln Center, which officially opened the hall, begins with a small jazz ensemble playing alone for half an hour. The amplified sound was direct but resonant; even Charles’ slightest finger taps on a drum registered, just enough.

And mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile convened a handful of guests for the first in his series of events this season modelled on bluegrass jam sessions. Merrill Garbus, singer of the band Tune-Yards, came onstage in bright green socks, so Thile took his shoes off too. The sound was crisp yet tender, the moody lighting classily done.

It was astonishing and delightful to realise that Geffen Hall had become a place where artists could pad around the stage in their socks, or groove as quietly as they would in a tiny jazz club. There was no vaguely embarrassing feeling of an orchestra hall slumming it with pop. Geffen felt – and sounded – natural.

Near the end of the show, Thile looked out into the darkness and smiled broadly. “Let’s do this lots more times,” he said. NYTIMES

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