The Science and Emotions of Lincoln Center’s New Sound
In renovating Geffen Hall, the acoustics came first.
October 10, 2022
Geffen Hall’s ambience was under a “curse.” How should it be changed? Illustration by Richard McGuire; Animation by Nicolo Bianchino
“Ihave a very specific answer to your question,” Jamie Bernstein told me. Bernstein is the daughter of Leonard Bernstein, the famed conductor and music director of the New York Philharmonic. “At the Moab Music Festival, one of the things they do is the Grotto Concert.” She described taking a boat down the Colorado River, into Canyonlands National Park, then walking a sandy path that led to a small cave. In that natural amphitheatre, she heard a two-piano performance of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.” “Michael Barrett was playing one, and he was playing so intensely that he split open his thumb. In the pause between the two movements, his thumb was bandaged and they wiped the blood off the keys. In the second half, some large bird—not a canyon wren—started cawing with the music. And it was like the earth itself was opening up from the sound.” Each note hung in the air for a moment and then a few seconds later returned from across the river, echoing off formations some two miles away. “And those are the best acoustics I have ever experienced,” she said.
Founded in 1842, the New York Philharmonic is the oldest symphony orchestra in the United States. Carnegie Hall—known for its creamy, embracing acoustics—served as its home starting in 1891. In 1962, a few years after Leonard Bernstein became the Philharmonic’s music director, it moved to Philharmonic Hall, at Lincoln Center. Lincoln Center became the new home of the New York City Ballet and of the Metropolitan Opera, too—it was a Cold War showcase for American high culture. Bernstein was the son of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants; his father ran a beauty-supply company. The Philharmonic was revered; Bernstein was perhaps even more revered. But the new Philharmonic Hall was not. Its acoustics were described by Harold C. Schonberg, the music critic for the Times, as “antiseptic” and “very weak in the bass, with little color and presence”—and Schonberg was one of the hall’s gentler critics. In addition, the members of the orchestra often couldn’t hear one another properly. “This building went up, and it was brand new and very glamorous and modern,” Jamie Bernstein recalled. “But also it had this marmoreal solidity. My father used to call Lincoln Center the Travertine Mausoleum.” Philharmonic Hall had been built to accommodate bigger audiences—in those days, the symphony’s concerts consistently sold out. But acousticians agreed that the hall was too big, and had too many seats, whose occupants absorbed sound waves.
In the summers of 1963, 1965, and 1969, efforts were made to improve the sound. Wood panelling was added. The upholstery on the seats was changed. A hundred sound-reflecting panels were added to the auditorium’s sides. An entirely new ceiling was put in. At first, Schonberg wrote that “listening to music in Philharmonic Hall is no longer an ordeal. It is now a pleasure, a real pleasure.” But the musicians still had trouble hearing one another; Schonberg later called it a “cold installation.” The problems weren’t confined to the sound. Too many seats were still too far from the stage, precluding a sense of intimacy. Deborah Borda, the current president and C.E.O. of the Philharmonic, remembers her first visit, to see one of Bernstein’s famous Young People’s Concerts; she thought that the musicians, so small and so distant, might be toys. In 1974, Schonberg, in an article called “The Curse of Fisher Hall’s Acoustics” (the hall had been renamed, not for the last time, for a donor, and was now called Avery Fisher Hall), wrote, “Fisher Hall was built with the best intentions . . . but unfortunately there is no getting away from the fact that Fisher Hall is a less than satisfactory acoustic ambience.” A renovation in 1976 was blessed by Schonberg, who called it a transformation from “a horror to one of the important music installations of the world.” Yet the praise didn’t stick.
In 2015, David Geffen gave a hundred million dollars toward another renovation, and the hall was renamed for him. Eventually, the firms Diamond Schmitt and Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects were hired to renovate the hall and to redesign the public spaces, the consultants Fisher Dachs were contracted to handle the theatrical-design aspects, and the acoustical-engineering firm Akustiks was brought in to solve the sound. The hall was expected to be completed in 2024.
Then, at the end of 2020, when New York and the rest of the world was mostly shuttered, the boards of Lincoln Center and the Philharmonic decided to try to accelerate the design-and-construction process into a two-year timeline—these were lost playing seasons, for the most part, anyhow. Henry Timms, the president and C.E.O. of Lincoln Center, said that, amid the pandemic, the boards found that “focussing on this was a way to be optimistic, to think about the future.” When I visited Timms in his office, he had a large L.E.D. clock counting down the months, days, hours, minutes, and seconds before the new hall would open.
“Lincoln Center is where acoustician careers go to die,” Christopher Blair, of Akustiks, told me, looking pleased. I was visiting him and Paul Scarbrough, two of the principals of the company, at their office, a modest space situated above O’Neill’s Irish Pub & Restaurant, in Norwalk, Connecticut. (Scarbrough and Blair helped the bar redesign its acoustics, of course.) We were in a bright conference room. Blair, who is seventy-two, was wearing a blue gingham shirt and a navy cardigan; Scarbrough, sixty, was drinking tea from a California State Railroad Museum mug.
Scarbrough was more measured: “One thing people say is that concert-hall acoustic design is a high-wire act. The margin for error is small.”
Blair added, “This is much more complicated than making a nuclear power plant. Though it’s more devastating if you get a nuclear power plant wrong.”
Some fifty miles away, hundreds of workers at Geffen Hall were hoisting, painting, mounting, wiring. The architectural firms had dozens of people on their teams, but the acoustics were being handled by, pretty much, just Scarbrough and Blair.
“I scare people sometimes. I lack a filter,” Blair said. “That’s why Paul is our front man—he’s very good at explaining things to people.” They showed me a fibreboard-and-wood model of the new Geffen Hall, equipped with tiny microphones, and also some computer printouts that graphed the decay of sound in the space. I said that I didn’t really understand how sound moving through a small model could tell them much about Geffen. Scarbrough said, “The real computer is in his head,” pointing at Blair.
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Scarbrough and Blair both came to acoustical engineering when they were young. Scarbrough was studying architecture and music theory at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and took a course with J. Christopher Jaffe, a legend in architectural acoustics, who designed the concert hall at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. He apprenticed under Jaffe for a summer and has worked in the field ever since. He is calm, tall, and kind, with a surprising hobby—he had recently spent a weekend conducting Connecticut’s Essex steam train.
Blair is his foil in many ways. A father of five, he is the Costello to Scarbrough’s Abbott. He has worked in acoustics for fifty years. His father was an aviation pioneer whose fourth wife was the film star Maureen O’Hara. Blair studied music and mechanical engineering at the University of Vermont, then did graduate studies simultaneously at the New England Conservatory, in orchestral conducting, and at M.I.T., in acoustical engineering. “I didn’t go to a rock concert until I was forty years old, and they paid me,” he said. “That was Joan Jett. I told them to raise the speakers twelve degrees off of the floor if they wanted to stop receiving complaints from three miles away.”
Scarbrough said that the Royal Festival Hall of London was one of his favorite venues: “You cross the Thames on the Hungerford Bridge, you can see Parliament, the London Eye, St. Paul’s Cathedral. The lobby is active, it’s like the living room for all of South Bank. You progress upstairs, and—”
“—and it almost makes up for the acoustics,” Blair interrupted.
“True. But you feel you’re in a special place. It’s the psychoacoustics that works so well there.”
In the past, acousticians relied primarily on what was easiest to measure—things like frequencies and reverberation times. Blair, in an essay on concert-hall design, noted that this started to change in the nineteen-nineties, when acousticians “began to rely more upon their ears, informed by historical precedence, than their measurement devices.” Psychoacoustics is the study of how mood, color, sense of place, and other emotional factors affect the way people perceive and understand music. Pretty much everyone I spoke to—the musicians, the architects, the C.E.O.s of both the Philharmonic and Lincoln Center—emphasized the importance of psychoacoustics. People often have a special feeling about listening to opera outdoors, under the stars with a bottle of wine. The sound is usually weak, or amplified, or in other ways just not that good—yet, still, great.
I wondered aloud what sort of sound systems acoustical engineers might have in their own homes.
“You know what they say—”
“The cobbler and his shoes.”
“I prefer to listen to music live.”
Sound engineering is ancient. Certain walls in the Hagia Sophia are angled to generate what’s called a “slap echo,” a fluttery ta-ta-ta-ta that in ancient times was referred to as “angels’ wings.” If you stand at the base of Chichén Itzá, the Mayan ruins in the Yucatán, and clap, what you hear sounds uncannily similar to the call of a quetzal bird. If you stand under the head of the dragon painted on the ceiling of Honjido Hall, in the Toshogu Shrine, in Nikko, Japan, built more than four hundred years ago, and hit together two pieces of wood, the sound echoes throughout the temple, producing an effect called “the crying dragon.” People have been channelling, amplifying, and manipulating sound for a good long time. But, as a formal science, acoustical engineering is relatively new.
One origin story: In 1895, Charles Eliot Norton, a Harvard professor and polymath, had been complaining about the lecture hall at the Fogg Art Museum, which had recently been built. No one could hear properly in there. It was like lecturing in a narrow canyon. Its shape was pretty standard for a lecture hall, so what was wrong? Wallace Clement Sabine, a young physics professor, took up the problem, spending his nights hauling Oriental rugs, chair cushions, an organ pipe, and a stopwatch between the Fogg and the Sanders Theatre. The Sanders, a wood-panelled hall with a similar shape to the Fogg, had beloved acoustics, and Sabine began doing comparative studies. He measured the sound absorption of various materials (the cushions, the rugs), and those materials’ effects on reverberation. One can think of reverberation as the way a sound tells us about the space that it—and thus we—are in. When recorded music became widely available, players had to come up with ways to create that sense of space. The blues musician Robert Johnson would record himself playing guitar while facing a corner of the room; Capitol Records had concrete echo chambers built thirty feet below its recording studio.
Sabine wasn’t focussed on the movement of the sound waves—instead, he looked at what was absorbing and reflecting the sound. He found that in the Fogg lecture hall a spoken word would hang around for a little more than five and a half seconds, making for a swampy and overly reverberant sound, in which it was difficult to distinguish individual elements. In order to cut that time in half—he considered just over two seconds the ideal length of time for a sound to linger—he added sound-absorbing materials to the space. The cushions and rugs worked.
Around the same time, Boston was building a symphony hall. American orchestras typically performed in theatres or in opera houses, venues that were often shaped like fans, with the stage as the base of the handle. This design made for good sight lines. But Sabine, when consulted, told the architects to use the European model of the “shoebox” concert hall—a rectangle, which can provide a full sound, evenly distributed among the seats. Sabine also suggested narrowing the balconies and making the stage walls taper inward, to redirect and focus the sound. Materials that reflected sound, such as hard brick, steel, and plaster, were used to make the walls—a counter to the absorption of the seats and the human bodies. A balance of warmth and clarity was achieved. Boston’s Symphony Hall remains celebrated for its acoustics. And the unit of sound absorption is called the “sabin.” One sabin is roughly equivalent to the sound absorption of one of those old Sanders Theatre seat cushions.
When I first spoke with Blair and Scarbrough, in November, 2021, many decisions had already been made. Geffen is a shoebox, and it would stay that way. But the orchestra had been moved forward twenty-five feet. Scarbrough said, “Before renovation, almost thirty per cent of the seats were more than a hundred feet away from the orchestra. Now nine per cent of the seats are.” This wasn’t just about sound—it was about the feeling of closeness, and how that affects one’s experience of music. The seating capacity had been reduced from more than twenty-seven hundred to twenty-two hundred. Scarbrough and Blair said that one reason for the disappointing acoustics of Philharmonic Hall had been the initial failure of the board and the architects to listen to acousticians’ advice. The original acousticians were led by Leo Beranek, who died in 2016, at the age of a hundred and two. Beranek did much important research in the field, including on the acoustics in jet planes, where pilots’ voices were drowned out by excessive noise from the engine. He also designed the acoustics of the United Nations General Assembly Hall, in New York. “It really wasn’t his fault!” Blair said, of Philharmonic Hall’s sound. “They added more seats without even consulting him, and it destroyed him.”
“Well, I wouldn’t say it destroyed him,” Scarbrough said.
Propped against the wall of the conference room where we were sitting was a piece of buttery-looking rippled beechwood, which resembled an old radiator. Scarbrough explained that it was a sample piece of panelling for the hall’s interior: “We gave Gary”—Gary McCluskie, the head architect for Diamond Schmitt—“the percentage of wall surface we needed flat versus articulated. Those numbers were based on studies of historic halls in Europe. They came up with this modified sine curve.” (The architects had also considered oak, but found its lines to be too visually noisy.) “Beechwood was a challenge, because wood is organic, it expands and contracts,” Scarbrough said. “We had the woodworkers give us exact measurements of how big a panel could be so that the wood wouldn’t get cracks. But it was worth it for the emotion of the wood.”
Blair said that, though most old European halls appear to be built wholly of wood, this is an illusion. “They’re mostly plaster,” he said. “In Vienna”—at the Musikverein—“there’s a wood ceiling, but on top of that is a layer of bricks.” Scarbrough added, “The acoustical historian Pamela Clements argues that this was an effort to fireproof the hall,” which, incidentally, contributed to the Musikverein’s marvellous sound.
The unseen elements of Geffen Hall had the opposite effect. Scarbrough explained that the walls were sucking energy out of the air: “In the 1976 renovation, the walls were three-quarter-inch-thick plywood panels, then furring strips, and then insulation.” Bass sounds vibrated the plywood panels, leaching the strength of the bass from the music; lacking bass, music can sound anemic, and diminished in complexity. The new beechwood panels will adhere directly to the masonry. On one of his weekly visits, Scarbrough checked the wood panels for how rigidly they stuck to the wall; he recommended changing the one-eighth-inch coating of adhesive to a three-sixteenths coating—insuring a tighter seal and reducing vibration.
The architect Gary McCluskie—tall, thin, and stylishly dressed, like an architect—took me on a couple of hard-hat tours of the hall while the renovation was in process. McCluskie’s team has also designed concert halls in Montreal and St. Petersburg. “The hall is itself an instrument, right?” he said. “It’s made of wood.” McCluskie showed me how the floor had been reraked—increasing the slant from four degrees to seven degrees—to provide better sight lines and to avoid the music running into the flat wall of the audience. The side tiers now had seats that angled toward the stage, as if embracing it. He explained that the stage would have risers and platforms that could be rearranged, depending on how the musicians might use the space, and on whether a performance would include a chorus.
We were looking out at walls of plastic sheeting; something enormous was being hoisted up above the stage so that adjustable absorptive banners of wool serge could be installed. “One thing that’s really interesting to me is the psychoacoustics,” McCluskie said. “Restaurateurs know about this, of course—that the presentation of food affects the way it tastes.” The architects had to make the space warm and welcoming, so that the audience would feel connected to the musicians. For that reason, McCluskie had pushed for the reraking of the floor. “It’s just three degrees difference, but it really affects the sense of closeness to the musicians,” he said. The architects also changed the way that the audience circulates through the building. “With the old hall, it was difficult to even find the entrance, unless you already knew where it was,” McCluskie said. They wanted the hall to feel welcoming to everyone, not only to those people who were—in whatever way—in the know.
It’s the same hall—the same box—but it’s also a near-total transformation. The ceiling is relatively untouched, saving time and money, but it will be experienced differently. “It wasn’t adding anything to the old hall,” McCluskie said. It was simply a dark vault. His team designed a “sound-transparent” mesh to overlay the ceiling: a hand-bent steel grid, with a clover pattern, that catches the light. The seats are upholstered in a fabric with a fallen-petals pattern, a visual echo of the trees visible through the now mostly glass front of the building. “When the fabric for the seats first arrived, it was the wrong thickness—we were in a total panic,” McCluskie said. Seating is a major source of sabins—of sound absorption. “But it turned out the samples they sent just didn’t have the proper backing on them.”
So much of concert-hall design is a matter of chance. Scarbrough talked about working on a concert hall in Nashville. “At the outset of the project, I travelled with the board to see seven concert halls, in five cities, in six days,” he said. One of those was the Musikverein, for an afternoon concert of Dvořák’s Requiem. “And, just as the closing chords were sounded, the sun came around the west of the building, and the room flooded with golden light,” he said. “It was everything—music, architecture, acoustics, the natural environment.” And that is why the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, in Nashville, has windows.
Deborah Borda was the President and C.E.O. of the Los Angeles Philharmonic when the Walt Disney Concert Hall, a silver Frank Gehry building whose shape bears a resemblance to an Everlasting Gobstopper, was being constructed. “We didn’t really know what the sound would be,” she said. “You do all this planning, but . . . Well, I will never forget sitting in the audience section with Frank and Yasuhisa Toyota, who was the acoustician. And Esa-Pekka Salonen was conducting. We were so scared. Frank and I were holding hands. Then Esa-Pekka turned around and said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we have a bass section.’ Frank and I cried.”
Jaap van Zweden, the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, wears all black, which draws attention to his expressive gray eyes. He has a relatively thick Dutch accent, and tends to punctuate his speech with “well, yah” and with the placing together of his hands as a form of punctuation. “Young people listen with their eyes,” he told me. “This hall needs to be not just for us but for the next century.”
Van Zweden explained that, because the orchestra travels, it is accustomed to the challenge of acoustics changing all the time. “Sometimes when we arrive somewhere we don’t even have the opportunity to rehearse in the space that we will play,” he said. “Each hall is an instrument, and, if a hall does not have good acoustics, I say that the orchestra must make their own acoustics.” Acoustics, he said, is a living thing. If a sound is “dry,” a little curt, then you can play over the rests for continuity. “If the acoustics are naturally excellent, you don’t need to dig into the strings for a bigger sound. It’s like painting in oil paint, versus a watercolor,” he said. “In a good hall, you can play with both.”
Van Zweden cited Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony as an example of a piece that can test the acoustics of a space. Some parts are very loud, and some very soft—does a hall let you hear both extremes? “That piece has very powerful moments when you hold your breath—that’s so important,” he said. “How can you make thick sounds, thin sounds—this is what we ask of a space.” Van Zweden also, in his own way, emphasized the power of psychoacoustics. “In my parents’ bedroom, when I was a child, they had a piano next to their bed. That sounded pretty well, I really liked those acoustics,” he said brightly. He added that some of the best halls from an acoustical perspective include Cleveland and Boston, and that “there is a certain magic touch that only comes with time. Like a Stradivarius violin—it’s a fantastic sound, plus history.”
My initial conversation with van Zweden was in June. At the tuning rehearsals, which would begin in August, the orchestra would play selections from various pieces to test aspects of the hall’s acoustics—its range, its clarity, its reverberance, and also how well the orchestra members could hear one another while playing. “That is when we will see,” van Zweden said. “It will be dynamic, we will be changing things.” He would start thinking about whether, say, to place the second violins on the outside, as in the Viennese style, or whether to put the cellos or the violas there. The distinctive sound of each section of the orchestra—the brass, the strings, the woodwinds, the percussion—would carry, or not, in the space.
covid had been very difficult for musicians, van Zweden said. He had spent much of the past two and a half years at home in Amsterdam. He lamented having been unable to develop his relationship with the orchestra through shared music, since he had only begun working with the Philharmonic in 2018. When the music world opened sufficiently for the Philharmonic to play some concerts—though not in their home space—he was proud, he said, that “our audience came with us.” Musicians are meant to be sharing their music.
But van Zweden also valued being home, with family, in the early days of the pandemic. He focussed on his health, and lost seventy pounds. He spent time with his father, who is ninety-four. He even revived his father following a heart attack, doing chest compressions until an ambulance arrived. “My father still plays the piano every day,” he said. “And a few times a month he still puts on concerts in small halls in Amsterdam.”
“By the time of the tuning rehearsals, it’s entirely in the ears,” Scarbrough said. “We’ll do measurements to document it, and measurements get you to ninety per cent, but the ears get us that last ten per cent.” In the most general sense, Scarbrough and Blair would listen for balance among the different sections of the orchestra. Scarbrough said, “The magnitude difference between a brass instrument and a woodwind is quite extraordinary, but, if the hall balances effectively, the conductor can work with that.”
They would also listen for timbre. “Does an oboe sound like an oboe? The woodwinds produce similar tones and frequencies, but they have subtly different timbres,” Scarbrough said. The trueness with which the hall would reflect the oboeness of oboes, the piccoloness of piccolos—that would be another measure of success. Scarbrough went on, “We’re also listening for blend and transparency. You can have tremendous blend but then not be able to pick out individual instruments. You can have tremendous transparency, but with the orchestra sounding like a hundred and five soloists.”
Blair said, “What we really want is an orchestra that can hear each other and perform together even without a conductor.” This is not only a goal but an occasional practice: the New York Philharmonic usually plays the overture to “Candide” with no conductor, in memory of Leonard Bernstein, who composed it.
“And we want it to sound good from many different seats in the hall,” Scarbrough said.
“And, to be completely honest, we have to make sure Row N is perfect,” Blair said. “That is where music critics tend to sit,” he added, with a look of mischief.
The hall is “a chameleon,” Scarbrough said. Changes to the acoustics will be made after the tuning rehearsals, but also sometimes in between performances. Some of the main mechanisms for these literal fine-tunings are the risers, the seating arrangements of the orchestra, reflectors above the stage, and the wool-serge banners. The doors around the stage have slots for panels that can reflect or dampen sound. Scarbrough said, “If they are doing something special with a lot of amplified sound, for example, they can pull out the diffusive panels and put in the absorptive ones, to dry up the stage so an amplified performer can hear themselves.”
The banners are beige, so as not to attract notice, and can be deployed in numerous ways, though they are used most often for amplified sound, such as at film screenings and pop performances. Scarbrough said, “I used to put in some pre-settings and label them ‘classical,’ ‘romantic,’ ‘contemporary,’ etc., but then you’d get into these questions like, Is Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony crossing into ‘romantic’?”
Blair added, “And Debussy is not the same as Mahler.”
Scarbrough said, “So I try not to give those labels anymore.”
“The key is, they have our phone number.”
“This is the most fun and exciting part of the process for us.”
“Dealing with the musicians is always very rewarding. Unless they’re unhappy, in which case it’s not very rewarding.”
After the first tuning rehearsal, Ryan Roberts, an English-horn player and one of the youngest members of the orchestra, told me, “I think the general consensus in my section was that the sound in the hall was coming out a bit cavernous.” The resonance was greater than befitted the music. “If it were just one voice, that would be gorgeous, but with many individual voices the complex texture was getting lost.” A roomful of people would absorb some of that resonance, and the reflectors and the door panels could also be used.
“The first thing that struck me was how much smaller the hall feels—and that’s a good thing,” said Carter Brey, the principal cellist, who has been with the Philharmonic since 1996, or, as he puts it, “for a geologic epoch.” For about a third of the rehearsal, Brey did not have to play, so he’d gone to sit in the audience. “The sound had a sheen and unanimity that was missing before,” he added. The orchestra was used to the hall’s previous acoustics, so much so that when they played at Carnegie Hall—where the acoustics are generally beloved—they would initially feel as if they had lost their footing. After the first tuning rehearsal, van Zweden said, “We need to marry our acoustics. Before you marry, you need to engage. And, before you get engaged, you need to start dating your acoustics. So that is what we are doing now. “
Roberts said, “Carnegie has such a warm and resonant and rich sound, but there’s also something stylized about it—that’s the Carnegie sound.” The new Geffen Hall, he said, will be defined more by its “amazing clarity,” like “if you were wearing sepia sunglasses and took them off and saw the world in all its vibrancy.”
At the second set of tuning rehearsals, Blair and Scarbrough sat in the seats behind the orchestra, in the highest tiers, in the side-boxes, in the middle rows of the floor. They took no notes and spoke little to each other. “We’re mostly listening for balance,” Blair told me. “We’re more relaxed now.” To me, the music sounded clear and enveloping. The orchestra played pieces it planned on performing during an upcoming residency at the Oklahoma State University campus, in Stillwater, Oklahoma: Florence Price’s Symphony No. 4 (a recently revived work by the early-twentieth-century Black composer) and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (his last complete symphony, composed when he was mostly deaf). I looked at a cellist and followed just her sound, then did the same with a bassist, and with a trombonist. I had brought a friend, who sang in college, and during Beethoven’s Ninth he whispered to me that what the orchestra didn’t know was that he was onstage with them, singing his heart out. “They were just playing accompaniment,” he said.
Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts can still be watched on YouTube. One of them focusses on Sibelius; another goes into detail about what makes a piece of music a sonata. Many of the concerts begin with a familiar piece of music and proceed to something less familiar, carrying a playful intellectual line through the selections. In the first televised concert, titled “What Does Music Mean?,” Bernstein begins by having the orchestra play a bit from Rossini’s overture to “William Tell”—which became the theme song to the TV show “The Lone Ranger,” about a hundred years after its composition. He asks the children what it’s about, and he then says that his daughter Jamie, too, thinks of the Wild West when she hears it.
Proceeding through other pieces that are more and less explicitly connected to stories or images—the orchestra plays part of Strauss’s “Don Quixote,” part of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”—Bernstein builds an argument that, even when there is a specific story attached to music, it’s not part of the music. “It’s extra,” he says. He moves on to pieces that are not as closely associated with stories or images: part of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, the bright ending of his Symphony No. 5. “Now we can really understand what the meaning of music is—it’s the way it makes you feel when you hear it,” he says. “You see, we can’t always name the things we feel . . . and that’s where music is so marvellous, because music names them for us, only in notes instead of in words.” ♦Published in the print edition of the October 17, 2022, issue, with the headline “Sound Affects.”
Rivka Galchen, a staff writer at The New Yorker, has contributed fiction and nonfiction to the magazine since 2008. Her most recent novel is “Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch.”