How the Philharmonic’s New Home Sounds, From Any Seat
After a major renovation, the acoustics throughout David Geffen Hall are strikingly consistent — but complicated.
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Oct. 21, 2022
Over the past week at David Geffen Hall, the New York Philharmonic’s overhauled home, I’ve listened from the new block of seating behind the orchestra — so close to the players that I could almost read the percussionist’s music. I’ve sat in the last row of the third tier, as far from the stage as you can get. And I’ve been in the critic’s 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 I’ve 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 I’ve 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) haven’t hurt.
This all has an effect on our perception of the acoustics, but with each successive concert I’ve begun to detect some subtle gaps between the more inviting visuals and the elusive sound of the hall.
The Reopening of David Geffen Hall
The New York Philharmonic’s notoriously jinxed auditorium at Lincoln Center has undergone a $550 million renovation.
- Reborn, Again: The renovation of the star-crossed hall aims to break its acoustic curse — and add a dash of glamour.
- ‘Unfinished Business’: After a 17-year run in Los Angeles, Deborah Borda returned to the New York Philharmonic, which she led in the 1990s, to help usher it into its new home.
- San Juan Hill: Etienne Charles’s composition for the reopening of the hall honors the Afro-diasporic musical heritage of the neighborhood razed to build Lincoln Center.
- Expert Assessment: Right after the reopening our critic wrote that the renovation had a mightily improved sound. In the weeks that followed his feelings became more complicated.
Geffen sounds clear, clean and straightforward; there’s 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 Respighi’s “Pines of Rome.” The lack of sonic plumpness also helps make Geffen superb with amplification.
But the Philharmonic’s second subscription program — led on Thursday by its music director, Jaap van Zweden — was mellower and more strings focused, featuring Debussy’s silky “Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un Faune”; an American premiere by Caroline Shaw, featuring her vocal octet Roomful of Teeth; and Florence Price’s hearty, recently rediscovered Fourth Symphony.
Here a certain lack of warmth and richness of blend — perhaps partly the Philharmonic’s 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 on Thursday. But those instruments — the violins and violas, for example, especially higher in their ranges — didn’t have ideal presence and color. Unlike in some halls, their sound doesn’t bloom even up in the third tier.
So the Debussy was taut, but not sensual. Price’s 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 Balter’s 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 León’s “Stride,” which premiered at Geffen in 2020 and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize last year. Progressing with somber uncertainty but unfailing nobility, it’s a strong piece. And it’s 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’s parents might have heard as they were courting.
On this week’s program, the Debussy standard is just 10 minutes long; the remaining hour of music consists of Shaw’s premiere and the Price symphony, which was written some 80 years ago but had its belated first performances in 2018.
The Philharmonic hasn’t played Price’s music on a subscription program before. While her Fourth Symphony lacks the stirring hymn of her First’s 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. Shaw’s “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, though 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 on Thursday, Roomful of Teeth moved to the hall’s 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 group’s 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 Mozart’s “Kegelstatt” Trio was outweighed by a polished, graceful take on Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet. The small space’s 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 hall’s 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 hasn’t kept the space from being inviting. With a few minutes left until the concert on 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.
A Concert Hall’s Rebirth
After Decades, the Philharmonic’s Hall Sounds and Feels More Intimate