The New York Philharmonic’s New Home Is Finally Built For Good Sound: NPR

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The new interior of David Geffen Hall, during a New York Philharmonic Orchestra tuning session.

Michael Moran/New York Philharmonic Orchestra


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Michael Moran/New York Philharmonic Orchestra


The new interior of David Geffen Hall, during a New York Philharmonic Orchestra tuning session.

Michael Moran/New York Philharmonic Orchestra

Lincoln Center’s new David Geffen Hall opens this week, and while the hall’s travertine marble exterior remains the same, everything inside has changed, said Deborah Borda, president and CEO of the New York Philharmonic.

“It’s not a renovation,” she said, “it’s a makeover. It’s an entirely new venue. We stripped to the bones.”

The New York Philharmonic moved from its home in acoustically perfect Carnegie Hall to the Lincoln Center complex in 1962. But its new concert hall was…acoustically I amperfect. And too big.

“The hall was originally designed acoustically so that the envelope could accommodate 2,200 people,” Borda said. “When the hall opened, the Philharmonic and Lincoln Center boards decided they wanted it to be the same size as Carnegie Hall, so they put in 2,800 seats when it was designed for 2,200 seats.”

And that turned out to be the room’s Achilles’ heel. Over the decades, as the name changed from Philharmonic Hall to Avery Fisher Hall and then to David Geffen Hall, various renovations unsuccessfully attempted to address the inherent issues.. In recent years, the Philharmonic and Lincoln Center have finally agreed to rehab, making the space more intimate by reducing seating capacity to the original 2,200.

When the pandemic hit, those plans accelerated. The $600 million project employed more than 6,000 people, many of whom were from minority and women-owned businesses.

But the goal wasn’t just to make a beautiful concert hall, said Lincoln Center president and CEO Henry Timms.

“I think the big hope with this project is that more people feel more welcome at Lincoln Center,” he said. “We’ve been so committed to the heights of performance, to that kind of ambition and dedication, which makes the greatest art. We haven’t been so dedicated to how to reach more people on their terms. , not ours. It’s an important shift.”

Thus, the new Geffen Hall has many outward-looking aspects – people can watch concerts for free both on a giant screen in the expanded hall and outside a studio across the street; there will be visual art on display; and some concerts will be chargeable.

The room is like an instrument

But, of course, the centerpiece is the interior of the room itself. In August and September, the Philharmonic Orchestra gave several “tune-up” sessions in the hall to get used to the new acoustics. Music director Jaap van Zweden said the orchestra immediately realized they didn’t need to push to be heard.

Jaap van Zweden conducts the second acoustic rehearsal with the New York Philharmonic at the newly renovated David Geffen Hall last August.

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Jaap van Zweden conducts the second acoustic rehearsal with the New York Philharmonic at the newly renovated David Geffen Hall last August.

Chris Lee/New York Philharmonic Orchestra

“We have to be very careful that it’s not too loud and that we don’t have to create our own acoustics too much anymore,” he says. “The room gives us back. It’s completely new for the orchestra.”

Concertmaster Frank Huang accepted. “In the old David Geffen, I feel like especially for the strings, we really had to make sure we were singing little notes,” he said. “Making sure they were ringing, that they had enough projection to get to the back of the room.”

Now, he said, they must learn to play softly and trust that the room will take care of the sound.

“There’s an analogy that I think explains it very well,” Borda said of the Philharmonic Orchestra, “which is that the hall is like an instrument, and the New York Philharmonic is learning to play his new instrument.”

Paul Scarbrough, the lead acoustician, was on hand for the tune-up sessions to make any necessary changes to improve the sound.

“We sat on stage as well as in the room,” he said, “and then we would get feedback from Jaap and the musicians that would help us start making some subtle adjustments to the attitude of the various panels. from the canopy on the stage. , adjustment elements hidden in the doors on each side of the stage and other elements hidden around the stage. They are at our disposal to fine-tune the sound quality on the stage.

Music director van Zweden said he was impressed with the tuning process. During a rehearsal, “they changed a panel and it completely changed the sound of the orchestra”, he marveled. “So that was an important moment.”

Scarbrough said where the old Geffen Hall sometimes sounded muddy, the new hall offers much more clarity. “What we hear is that the timbres of the different instruments are very real, very pure,” he said. “A clarinet really sounds like a rich clarinet. Double basses have a wonderful warmth.”

The warmth of honey-coloured wood — and the psychology

There is a warmth to the new room itself. The interior is made up of honey-colored wood – the side panels on the walls are milled to resemble sound waves – and the seats are a colorful pattern that invokes flower petals. “It’s meant to be a joyful space,” Borda explains.

Deborah Borda, CEO of the New York Philharmonic

Dario Acosta/Lincoln Center


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Dario Acosta/Lincoln Center


Deborah Borda, CEO of the New York Philharmonic

Dario Acosta/Lincoln Center

But most importantly, the seats are 30% closer to the stage and they envelop the orchestra – there are even seats behind, said lead architect Gary McCluskie.

“The performance is experienced by audience members in a circle, in an environment, where we and the artists making the music are together in one room,” McCluskie said. “And that feeling of connection between the audience and the musicians, I think is really important.”

McCluskie said the space was designed to create psycho-acoustics. “It has something to do with your mind and the way you perceive sound,” he said. The warm colors of the wood and the intimacy “contribute in one way or another to the architecture of the emotional experience of music”.

The scene itself is flexible. Twenty elevators allow sections to move up and down and create various risers for the orchestra. Now the audience can see the brass and woodwinds in the back, as well as the strings in the front.

Alison Fierst, Associate Principal Flute at the New York Philharmonic

Enze Yan


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Enze Yan


Alison Fierst, Associate Principal Flute at the New York Philharmonic

Enze Yan

But also, it’s good for musicians. “On a practical level, it’s nice to be able to see the conductor and not have to duck the heads of the other musicians in between,” said Alison Fierst, associate principal flute. “But also, acoustically, it’s so much easier to hear, for example, the main row of players in the strings. Just to be able to see really clearly and lock in. It’s so much easier. It’s a dream.”

For the Philharmonic’s Borda, seeing David Geffen Hall go from architectural renderings to a workplace is a dream come true. “It’s more than I expected, honestly,” she said. “I think sometimes we dare to hope too much. We’ll let people come in and judge for themselves. But I’m pretty happy.”

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