By Brian Wise
The last time that the New York Philharmonic returned to its hall following a major renovation, it was 1976 and Nathan Milstein performed Brahms’ Violin Concerto and Pierre Boulez conducted Stravinsky’s The Firebird. New York Times critic Harold Schonberg declared Avery Fisher Hall “infinitely superior to the old” and regular concert life quickly resumed.
As the Philharmonic returns after a two-year overhaul of the same venue, now David Geffen Hall, the homecoming celebrations span nearly a month and involve a wide array of programming, from Etienne Charles’ multimedia piece San Juan Hill to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. One can hardly blame the Philharmonic or Lincoln Center for capitalizing on the moment, which caps a $550 million, pandemic-era effort to solve the sonic problems that have plagued the hall ever since it opened (as Philharmonic Hall) in 1962.
More than an acoustical upgrade, this was also an image overhaul, intended to help Lincoln Center overcome a perception that it is a closed, elitist citadel of the arts. The fruits of this strategy were evident when I arrived in the lounge-like lobby for the New York Philharmonic’s opening subscription concert on October 12. The once cluttered space has doubled in size and boasts low-slung furniture and a coffee bar. Bank teller–style ticket windows have been replaced by a 52-foot-long video wall, which displays whimsical digital art (with plans for free concert livestreams). The box office is now an airy Welcome Center to the lobby’s right.
Concessions receive a greater focus, with the second-floor landing now dominated by a large granite bar and cafe-style seating awash in a palette of warm and cool colors (including copious blue lights). On this mild autumn evening, patrons stepped onto the outdoor balcony for some fresh air and views of the plaza. Some ponied up for the $18 glasses of wine and $28 flutes of champagne (drink prices being an exception to the otherwise egalitarian spirit of the venue).
Inside the house itself (now renamed the Wu Tsai Theatre), blue is the new orange. An auditorium long known for its sea of 1970s mustard fabrics now features seats with a handsome blue-and-rose petal pattern on custom Maharam fabric. Walls and balcony surfaces are finished with wrap-around beech wood paneling. The theater architects, Fisher Dachs Associates, removed 500 seats, shifted the stage 25 feet forward, and added a rear seating terrace, all of which has improved audience sight lines while enfolding the 2,200 audience members in the experience.
Should the foyers and other public spaces have regained some of the Mad Men–era glamour of 1962’s Philharmonic Hall? Opinions have been mixed. A New York Times critic complained of an institutional aesthetic reminiscent of a hotel or airport lounge while a Times of London reviewer found the ambiance full of “color, flamboyance, and festivity.” I’ll leave this for the design experts to settle.
Acoustic and Visual Intimacy
A preconcert talk led by the Philharmonic’s president and CEO Deborah Borda—a driving force behind the renovation—gathered three of the four composers on the evening’s bill: John Adams, Tania León, and Marcos Balter. León was the only panelist to venture a judgment on the acoustics, enthusing that the sound “slapped me in my face” upon hearing her piece, Stride, for the first time (it was performed in the old hall just before the shutdown of 2020 and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for music). Adams seemed pleased and recalled how Philharmonic Hall opened in 1962 with Copland’s Connotations, a gnarly, 12-tone score that prompted a flood of angry comments to CBS, which was broadcasting the event.
This evening’s opener was far more approachable: Balter’s Oyá, a portrait of the Yoruba deity of rebirth and a kind of multimedia concerto to showcase Geffen Hall’s new lighting array and surround-sound speaker system. Lighting designer Nicholas Houfek and electronics artist Levy Lorenzo stood at consoles perched in row R of the darkened auditorium. Against glassy orchestral textures, they added colored, hyperactive lighting and thunderous beats, including a cadenza suggesting a DJ set by Aphex Twin or Moby.
The rest of the program, led by music director Jaap van Zweden, was a sequence of pieces that showed off the hall’s sonic parameters. Adams’ My Father Knew Charles Ives, a nostalgic meditation on home and fatherhood, is rich on atmospheric details—a mystical trumpet solo, Ivesian marching band clashes, dance hall piano chords—that spoke with a noticeable clarity and balance. Similarly, in Tania León’s Stride, which was commissioned as part of the Philharmonic’s Project 19 (celebrating the centenary of the 19th Amendment), the variety of timbres and dynamics came through in crisp detail, from the wispiest pianissimo to the fullest forte. Respighi’s Pines of Rome was a rousing closer, from the velvety sensuality of the Pines of the Janiculum to the brass thrills of the Pines of the Appian Way.
Acoustic judgments hinge on many factors, including one’s seat in the hall and the role of psychoacoustics. Yet from a center spot in Row S, the auditorium has a sonic and visual intimacy that was sorely lacking in the old hall. What’s more, the stage can be reconfigured for various concert formats, with help from 20 motorized lifts and risers that can be rearranged. An important choral test will come later this month when van Zweden leads Beethoven’s Ninth in the second of two galas (Oct. 26 and 28). Two weeks later, Philharmonic musicians will offer Mendelssohn’s Four Pieces for String Quartet.
For all of the acoustic and technical upgrades, a few practical, and perhaps unpopular, quibbles emerge. The seats are an inch wider, but they felt cramped, with leg room especially restricted for this six-foot three-inch tall correspondent. With many concertgoers defying the posted mask requirements, the tight seating didn’t add to a sense of assurance in the Covid-19 era. Also puzzling were the restroom lines at intermission: the number of toilets and urinals has reportedly increased by more than 50 percent, but congestion in the dim corridor remained. And bring your water bottles: nearby drinking fountains have been replaced with bottle refill stations.
Still, the main takeaway from the opening, apart from the acoustics, involves the hall’s new capabilities. Time will tell how the Philharmonic or recitalists use the new lighting functionalities or the built-in film screen to develop formats with a greater visual flair. A project like Alisa Weilerstein’s Fragments, which features lighting and scenic design, might be a natural fit here. In the meantime, she is one of several string players due to appear with the Philharmonic this season (performing Prokofiev’s Sinfonia concertante in February). Others include violinists Nemanja Radulović, Lisa Batiashvili, Christian Tetzlaff, and Leonidas Kavakos, and cellists Yo-Yo Ma and Truls Mørk. A new street-level performance studio also promises a variety of chamber-sized offerings. There remains plenty of room to grow in this new hall.