NEW YORK, NY.-
Over the past week at David Geffen Hall, the New York Philharmonics overhauled home, Ive listened from the new block of seating behind the orchestra so close to the players that I could almost read the percussionists music. Ive sat in the last row of the third tier, as far from the stage as you can get. And Ive been in the critics usual spot on the main level.
It was striking how acoustically similar these three experiences were. The new Geffen seems to have achieved a rare distinction in its engineering for sound: consistency. No seat in the hall at least the vastly different ones Ive had in numerous visits so far is appreciably better or worse than any other.
Last week, after a handful of opening events, I wrote that the hall an acoustical and aesthetic problem since its opening in 1962 had a mightily improved sound. And I maintain that things have gotten better. But as Ive spent more time there, and as the Philharmonic has audibly begun to settle into it, my feelings about that mightily have become more complicated.
Simply being in the new Geffen is more immediate and intimate than it was before this long-awaited, long-delayed transformation. The blond-wood hall now has 2,200 seats, 500 fewer than it did, and the stage has been pulled forward into the auditorium to allow for seating to be wrapped around it. The general impact on what used to be an enormous, dreary barn is a flood of warmth, even conviviality. Substantially expanded public spaces (and more bathroom stalls) havent hurt.
This all has an effect on our perception of the acoustics, but with each successive concert, Ive begun to detect some subtle gaps between the more inviting visuals and the elusive sound of the hall.
Geffen sounds clear, clean and straightforward; theres nothing distorted or echoing, no weird balances or flabby resonances. But that cleanness can sometimes seem like coolness: an objective, almost clinical feeling, matched by the hard white light glaring on the orchestra. (Compare it with Carnegie Hall, in every respect a golden bubble bath.)
This quality can make soft passages beautifully lucid at Geffen, and solos come off with precision, as if the hall were pointing an index finger at the players, one by one. In the first subscription program in the new space a brassy set of pieces that made Christopher Martin, the principal trumpet, the performances assured star the no-fat sound brought the audience to its feet at the superloud ending of Respighis Pines of Rome. The lack of sonic plumpness also helps make Geffen superb with amplification.
But the Philharmonics second subscription program led Thursday by its music director, Jaap van Zweden was mellower and more strings focused, featuring Debussys silky Prélude à lAprès-midi dun Faune; an American premiere by Caroline Shaw, featuring her vocal octet Roomful of Teeth; and Florence Prices hearty, recently rediscovered Fourth Symphony.
Here, a certain lack of warmth and richness of blend perhaps partly the Philharmonics sometimes blunt playing, and partly the room detracted more from the music. Unlike in the first program, when the strings and woodwinds were occasionally swamped at full volume and density, they were plainly audible Thursday. But those instruments the violins and violas, for example, especially higher in their ranges didnt have ideal presence and color. Unlike in some halls, their sound doesnt bloom even up in the third tier.
So the Debussy was taut, but not sensual. Prices Fourth was rhythmically agile and spirited, but lacked the robustness, the lushness the sense of sonic, and thus spiritual, abundance that the Philadelphia Orchestra brought to her First Symphony at Carnegie in February.
At least these opening programs have been a fresh vision of what a major orchestra can and should play, with women and composers of color, past and present, looming just as large if not more so than the grand old masters. Even if that chestnut Pines of Rome provided the rousing finale of the first program, living composers dominated it. Marcos Balters new Oyá paired the Philharmonic with live-produced electronics (by Levy Lorenzo) and flashing lights (by Nicholas Houfek) to turn the hall into a heaving, pounding belly of a beast, darkly and, over 15 minutes, tediously evoking the Yoruba goddess of storms, death and rebirth.
And the orchestra brought back Tania Leóns Stride, which premiered at Geffen in 2020 and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize last year. Progressing with somber uncertainty but unfailing nobility, its a strong piece. And its good general practice to revive successful contemporary works, gradually folding them into the repertory rather than just generating premiere after premiere.
Best was the first Philharmonic performances of an underrated 2003 masterpiece by John Adams, My Father Knew Charles Ives, which weaves Ivesian controlled chaos into autobiographical musical depictions of sublime mountain vistas on both the East and West coasts, along with tender suggestions of the scratchy radio foxtrots Adams parents might have heard as they were courting.
On this weeks program, the Debussy standard is just 10 minutes long; the remaining hour of music consists of Shaws premiere and the Price symphony, which was written about 80 years ago but had its belated first performances in 2018.
The Philharmonic hasnt played Prices music on a subscription program before. Although her Fourth Symphony lacks the stirring hymn of her Firsts slow movement and the inspired slyness of the Juba dance in her Third, it does have a sprawling yet stylishly developing first movement, a sensitive Andante, its own swinging Juba and a feisty finale. Shaws Microfictions, Vol. 3, is like her contemporary classic Partita for Eight Voices a combination of the angelic and quotidian, of singing, speech, breathing, pitch bending and wailing, although the piece lacks the inspired variety of Partita. The orchestral accompaniment is both playful, with lots of drizzly irregular pizzicato, and ominous.
After the concert Thursday, Roomful of Teeth moved to the halls new Sidewalk Studio visible from the street at the corner of 65th and Broadway for the first Nightcap program of the season: a set of six pieces, including several world and New York premieres, that showed off the groups talent for dreamy floating harmonies and uncanny, even otherworldly, effects.
The Sidewalk Studio is also being used for daytime chamber music performances under the rubric NY Phil @ Noon; last week, a shaky rendition of Mozarts Kegelstatt Trio was outweighed by a polished, graceful take on Schuberts Trout Quintet. The small spaces acoustics are lively, regardless of whether the music is amplified.
Geffen still prompts some raised eyebrows when it comes to tastefulness. A David Smith sculpture has been shoved into a corner of the lobby and blocked by protective wire. Clearly wanting to echo the sputnik chandeliers that elegantly rise as the lights dim before performances at the Metropolitan Opera, the halls designers devised fireflies: flickering polyhedrons that do a tacky little up-and-down show before the orchestra tunes. The public spaces have grown in size, but are also now strewn awkwardly with furniture and stanchions.
But some questionable décor hasnt kept the space from being inviting. With a few minutes left until the concert Thursday, laptops had been opened; wine was being sipped; newspapers were being read; friends were sitting, chatting, laughing. It was bustling but not even close to unpleasantly packed, like in the old days. It was a space that was, in the best sense, being used.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times