After decades, the Philharmonic's hall sounds and feels more intimate
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After decades, the Philharmonic's hall sounds and feels more intimate
Jaap van Zweden conducts the New York Philharmonic at David Geffen Hall in New York, Oct. 12, 2022. The performance was the orchestra's first subscription program in the new space. Amir Hamja/The New York Times.

by Zachary Woolfe

NEW YORK, NY.- 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’s 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 remodeling attempted to fix the acoustics that had been criticized 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 25 feet forward, and seating has been stretched around it. The once-dingy interior is now acres of honey-colored wood, the seats upholstered in a floating-flower-petal motif. A theater in which it once felt like miles 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.

But a mighty improvement is already obvious. The acoustical problems of the hall post-1976 have perhaps been overstated. Especially as it aged, it sounded so bad at least in part because it looked and felt so bad.

Now the sound, like the whole experience of being there, is far more immediate and warm. We hear with our eyes as well as our ears, and simply seeing your fellow audience members sitting above and around the stage makes Geffen sound more human.

On Wednesday, the Philharmonic’s first subscription program 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 Respighi’s “Pines of Rome” and the ambiguous haze of Tania León’s “Stride” — the sound was glistening and lucid.

If, at its loudest and densest, the Philharmonic 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 orchestra’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 Philharmonic 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’s been a long journey to that campfire. Most observers swiftly recognized that the 1976 renovation, which built a new theater 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 Philharmonic 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 Philharmonic 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 center’s problem child, ignored in a sweeping, six-year campuswide refurbishment that finished in 2012.

In 2015, David Geffen restarted the hall project with a $100 million gift — minus the $15 million required to buy off Avery Fisher’s heirs, who were surprised to learn that Fisher’s name wouldn’t be permanently attached to the building. But the design that was developed in the wake of Geffen’s donation once again spiraled out of control in ambition and price tag.

It wasn’t until two pragmatic CEOs, Deborah Borda at the New York Philharmonic and 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 $500 million budget.

The only part of the 1960s auditorium that remains is the zigzag ceiling, and it’s 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.

In pulling the stage forward and surrounding it with seating, the new theater, designed by Gary McCluskie of Diamond Schmitt Architects, with Paul Scarbrough in charge of the acoustics, borrows the approach that was workshopped with a temporary structure for over a decade at Lincoln Center’s summertime Mostly Mozart festival. That setup was in turn influenced by the “vineyard” seating of the Philharmonie in Berlin and its most famous American descendant, the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

If it lacks Disney’s flair, the Geffen auditorium, clean and straightforward, is more successful than the hall’s public spaces, which have been redesigned by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. Their main achievements are in decluttering. The box office has been moved to a corner, allowing the lobby to extend far deeper off the plaza, reducing crowding in a space now more appealing to linger in. Having lost its weird mudroom of an archival display, the grand promenade one floor up is much more expansive, too. The corner of 65th Street and Broadway has become a small performance space visible from the street.

But the eclectic decorations — the vaguely tree-shaped lighting fixtures on the first tier balcony, for example, and the scattering of curvy couches in the lobby — have the brightly clashing patterns and generic whimsy of a Marriott, a college student center or the new Delta Sky Club at LaGuardia. The Champagne-colored curtains surrounding the grand promenade, stitched with bits of light-catching gold, have the mass-market feel of those spaces, too — bathed in the permanent deep blue light of a catering hall cocktail hour.

A week in, the sprawling spans of frosted glass around the promenade are already smudged, which is a little icky and a little charming: The new Geffen Hall already has a comfortable, lived-in feel. That seems to be the point. After all, Marriotts, student centers and airport lounges are designed to be antitheses of the intimidation often associated with classical music. But in eschewing intimidation, did the space have to reject glamour, too?

Some of the ways the new hall intends to embrace a broader audience already feel persuasive. A concert hall’s quality in unamplified music is no indication it will work when amplified, too. (Carnegie Hall is a classic example.) 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 neighborhood razed to build Lincoln Center, which officially opened the hall Saturday, 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 on Tuesday, mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile convened a handful of guests for the first in his series of events this season modeled on bluegrass jam sessions. Merrill Garbus, the 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 realize 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. On Tuesday there wasn’t that 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.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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