A temporary concert hall hopes for a permanent audience

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A temporary concert hall hopes for a permanent audience
The Isarphilharmonie, a temporary concert hall designed with prestige acoustics, which opened Friday, Oct. 8, 2021 with a concert by the Munich Philharmonic and its music director, Valery Gergiev. The Isarphilharmonie, a prefabricated stopgap during a renovation, is trying to lure listeners far from the city center. Tobias Hase/Münchner Philharmoniker via The New York Times.

by Joshua Barone

MUNICH.- It was an unusual sight last Friday: the denizens of this wealthy city lifting the hems of their gowns and adjusting their bow ties as they stepped into a rough-around-the-edges industrial space for one of the premier cultural events of the fall.

They were entering the lobby of the Isarphilharmonie, a new concert hall far from the old-fashioned grandeur of the Bavarian State Opera or the Herkulessaal, inside the former royal palace — and far from the city center, where most of Munich’s high-profile classical music performances take place.

The new hall is a rarity: an ephemeral, prefabricated venue designed with top-level acoustics and built for 40 million euros (about $46 million) in only a year and a half, all as a renovation stopgap. A temporary replacement for the ungainly and unremarkable concert hall at the Gasteig, which is closing for a multiyear makeover, the Isarphilharmonie is just one entity of that complex — including the Munich City Library and education facilities — to make an interim move nearly 3 miles down the Isar River to Halle E, once a transformer hall for a power utility, in a quieter, less polished part of town, next to a tire shop.

For many, the journey there is not nearly as easy as to the Gasteig, which is within walking distance of Munich’s Old Town and is outside a busy S-Bahn station. Isarphilharmonie attendees on Friday were encouraged to use public transportation, then take a short walk to finish the journey, or a bicycle. But not their cars, please, because unlike the Gasteig, the new complex (known as Gasteig HP8 for its address on Hans-Preißinger-Straße) has no parking facilities. For now, some drivers can park at a nearby wholesale flower market and ride a shuttle the rest of the way.

It is not lost on the leadership of the Gasteig and its house orchestra, the Munich Philharmonic, that the Isarphilharmonie needs more than novelty to lure people downriver during the renovation, which had been expected to last several years but could stretch to nearly a decade. About 60% to 70% of tickets sold for the new space are from the orchestra’s subscribers, said Paul Müller, the Philharmonic’s executive director, but that still leaves a significant gap to bridge.

So Müller and his colleagues — including Max Wagner, the Gasteig’s director — have examined potential models elsewhere, such as the Philharmonie de Paris, so far from Paris’ center that it overlooks the freeway that forms the city’s border and which has kept ticket prices low to remove at least one barrier to potential audiences.

The Isarphilharmonie, Müller said, will be similar: “This needs a very different structure. You cannot ask for 90 euros (about $104) per ticket.”

But perhaps the highest priority in attracting new concertgoers and pleasing existing ones is to provide a hall that does not feel like the substitute that it is. Shifting to nomadic performances during the Gasteig renovation — as the New York Philharmonic is doing while its Lincoln Center home, David Geffen Hall, is overhauled this season — was not feasible here, Wagner said. So the Isarphilharmonie, designed for temporary use but with a potential future after the Gasteig’s reopening, was designed to hold its own among Germany’s important concert halls. (It will also host Munich’s other major ensemble, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.)

Designed by von Gerkan, Marg and Partners, and with prestige acoustics by Yasuhisa Toyota — of the Paris Philharmonie and Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles — the 1,900-seat, modular space is a striking yet unshowy black wooden box, with a pale timber stage that focuses attention like a movie screen (or like Richard Wagner’s proto-cinematic stage at the Bayreuth Festival Theater a bit north of here).

“We wanted to build something only in wood,” Max Wagner said. (That proved impossible given local fire codes; in the final design, wood coats a steel frame.) “We were lucky because wood is now like gold. But we ordered all this before the pandemic, so we had the delivery and the old price.”

That was crucial to the Isarphilharmonie opening Friday after construction that began in spring 2020; the rest of Gasteig HP8 will follow by next March.

The hall’s sound was put to the test that night with a three-hour Munich Philharmonic concert — led by the orchestra’s music director, Valery Gergiev — which, while a bit scattered, demonstrated a variety of acoustic possibilities. It was also a milestone for pandemic-era performances: the first in Bavaria, because of newly implemented measures, to allow a full audience, mask-free.

A premiere, Thierry Escaich’s “Araising Dances,” opened the program, answering any questions about Toyota’s acoustics with a cello’s pristine pizzicato resonating above the rest of the orchestra, and a solo violin’s ethereal high note eerily bleeding into spectral harmonics. Written for the Isarphilharmonie, the work explored opposites of sound: the full might of the ensemble in a danse macabre versus a chamber group from just the principal strings. As a pièce d’occasion, it did the trick, showing off the space and providing a rousing finale that would have lingered in the air longer had it not inspired immediate applause.

Next came Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, featuring Daniil Trifonov as soloist. Among the Isarphilharmonie’s opening offerings is Trifonov’s first outing playing all five Beethoven concertos, but in the Fourth, he entered with muddled phrasing that virtually contradicted the transparency of the Escaich. (Exceptional acoustics only get you so far.) What followed was an interpretation of overexcited extremities, as if he had not yet settled on a reading of the piece. And he was at odds with the Philharmonic, which could have been lighter but still aimed for restraint and delicacy under Gergiev. Trifonov’s encore, an arrangement of Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” was a return to form: unquestionably sensitive, approaching sublime.

Although the second half of the concert may have wandered, it nonetheless proved a showcase for both the hall and the Philharmonic: Henri Dutilleux’s “Métaboles” reached a satisfyingly earsplitting volume; the opening of Rodion Shchedrin’s “The Sealed Angel” was an appetizing preview of choral performances to come; and Ravel’s second “Daphnis et Chloé” suite was a fittingly grand combination of orchestra and voices. Here, flutist Michael Martin Kofler spun sensual melodies that, in a space that hid not even Gergiev’s occasional grunts, cut easily through the other players. The opening-night listeners were always going to applaud heartily, but that didn’t make their enthusiastic response to the Ravel any less deserved.

With the end of the concert came a reminder that the Isarphilharmonie is still new, with problems to work out — such as finding a way for 1,900 people to exit gracefully without bottlenecking. As if to offer an apology, servers were waiting throughout Halle E with trays of sparkling wine. The following evening, the space would be used less formally, for one of the Philharmonic’s new efforts in alternative programming: a late-night performance, featuring FM Einheit and members of the orchestra, of an experimental work by Vangelino Currentzis (brother of conductor Teodor Currentzis).

But on Friday, if the transition to a new hall was not entirely seamless for attendees, it was for another group: taxi drivers. Clearly having heard the news of the opening, they were lined up outside, ready to shepherd the chilly and stranded audience back home.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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