“Change is good; no change is better”, goes an English proverb. Nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to David Geffen Hall, reviled for its impossible acoustics since it opened in 1962. A major refurbishment in the mid-1970s, funded by radio and electronics pioneer Avery Fisher, whose name would grace the building for nearly 50 years. , changed little in the quality of the hall. At concerts, the music disappeared into thin air; orchestra musicians heard neither themselves nor the rest of the orchestra on stage. And the eye, which also wants something, was deeply unhappy with the gold-leaf-covered block box filled with mustard-coloured chairs. The New York Philharmonic, one of New York’s cultural crown jewels, has thus been playing in a hall far below its level for more than half a century. After a few aborted attempts at a new renovation in the early 21st century, there was finally a happy coincidence in recent years. A great gift from music mogul David Geffen, top manager Deborah Borda who returned after a successful stint with the Los Angeles Philharmonic as president of the NY Phil, conductor Jaap van Zweden as the new chief, and the hiring of the right architectural firm.
Read also this interview with chief conductor Jaap van Zweden about the renovated hall
An integral part of heritage-listed Lincoln Center, the building’s exterior had to remain intact, but everything else was fair game during the renovation. Diamond Schmitt Architects was guided by the goal so fervently desired by the orchestra and conductor, which is to provide a vastly improved experience for audiences and musicians, both in and out of the hall. The result is impressive: the music temple, which was open for only a handful of hours a day, now has an inviting lobby, which is also accessible during the day, with two coffee bars where concerts are shown live on a large screen. Several small concert spaces have been added, as well as rehearsal rooms and a recording studio. The hall itself has become more intimate (from 2,700 to 2,200 seats). The walls are covered with wavy birch wood. Acoustic reflectors are now suspended above the stage, which can be configured in 27 different ways, which can influence the sound in the hall as well as on stage. And, inspired by the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, among other things, 100 seats have been placed behind the concert stage.
Baptism of Fire
After two years of continuous de- and construction work by an average of 450 construction workers a day, the New York Philharmonic gave its first concert in the unrecognizable new home hall on Wednesday. In any case, there was already satisfaction with the process in advance: the budget (550 million dollars) was not exceeded and partly thanks to Covid, the hall was completed two years earlier than planned.
For the acoustic baptism of fire, the New York Philharmonic chose an opening program that immediately put the versatility of the hall to the test: the world premiere of Marcos Balters Oya for orchestra, electronics, and light artist. After surprise gave way to fascination, John Adams’ My Father Knew Charles Ives, a cinematic homage in the higher sound regions, which sounded clear and clear in the hall. The Cuban-American composer Tania León, pioneering grande dame of North and South American new music, became the first whose work has been performed in both the ‘old’ and the new hall. Hair stride, winner of a Pulitzer Prize in 2021, sounded full and powerful. Fading percussion in the closing bars beautifully exposed the magic of deafening silence. Respighis Pini di Roma gave conductor Jaap van Zweden and the orchestra the opportunity to make themselves heard in more traditional orchestral music, and that also worked out very well. Brass, woodwinds, strings, percussion and even the brand new electronic organ filled the hall in a way that you would have thought impossible three years ago. At a few moments it was noticeable that the musicians still had to get used to the new acoustics. That probably won’t last long: after sixty years of suffering, being able to acclimatize to a good hall is a very welcome investment.