An architect’s rendering of the David Geffen Hall. Picture Credit: Diamond Schmitt Architects

The concert hall of the future

A performance space without walls or limits

On Music

This article is taken from the March 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Music in America has not come well out of Covid. The Metropolitan Opera, half-empty, shut down for the month of February. Music directors in New York and Seattle, a Dutchman and a Dane, left their jobs. Bigger European names polished their excuses. A dozen orchestras hired vice-presidents of EDI (equality, diversity and inclusion). The Emerson Quartet, America’s finest, called it quits. Music professors were hauled before woke tribunals. Stephen Spielberg’s West Side Story movie lost most of its investment.

Unsentimental, heartless even, but that’s how New York does business

At the end of this tunnel, there is a glimmer of light, possibly a game changer. This October, the New York Philharmonic will return to Lincoln Center, a year ahead of schedule. Yes, you read that right. The transformed David Geffen Hall will open a whole year early thanks, in part, to Covid shutdowns allowing a jump-start. I cannot remember a premature hall birth before, but that’s the least of it. The original estimate for stripping back the hall to underpinnings and equipping it for twenty-first century uses was around one billion dollars.

It sits, after all, in a part of Manhattan where only hedge-funders can afford to rent more than a one-bed closet. A billion bucks seemed about right and execs set about tapping the midtown rich for the rest. So guess what? The final reckoning has just come in at half the price — $550 million, less change.

This is beyond belief. In Europe, everyone overspends. The Philharmonie de Paris went three times over budget at €534.7 million. Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie septupled its estimated cost at €789 million. Cologne Opera will be paying interest until 2063 on its billion-Euro refurb. London cannot even get past go on replacing its wretched Barbican hall. Manhattan puts us all to shame.

None of this, of course, will amount to a row of beans unless the new hall overcomes the old one’s notorious shortcomings — murky acoustics, quirky access and a snooty atmosphere that put off all but the most determined concertgoers.

Opened in 1962 on the site of demolished tenements where the original West Side Story took place, the hall was named after Avery Fisher who made the lead $10.5 million donation. That sum, these days, would barely pay for cleaning so they erased Fisher in 2015 and called it David Geffen Hall after a Hollywood mogul who gave $100 million to have his name above the door. Unsentimental, heartless even, but that’s how New York does business.

So, what bang will they get for those bucks? Deborah Borda, president of the New York Philharmonic, gave me a virtual tour on Zoom the other day. What I saw leads me to believe that Geffen Hall will leave the rest of the world playing catch-up.

This looks like being the world’s first concert hall without walls

It is impossible to judge the acoustics at this stage, but capacity has been slashed from 2,738 seats to 2,200, which will improve sound distribution. Better still, blocks of seating can be raised or removed at will. A football-like terrace of seating at the rear of the stage is ideal for those of us who like to get up-close and personal with the musicians, but the seats can be retracted at the touch of a button to allow enlargement of the orchestra or a deeper backstage. The stage itself has been brought 25 feet forward to increase intimacy between performers and public — “more visceral,” says Borda — and the ceiling is higher. The side walls have been redesigned in wood with a view to “wrapping the orchestra with the room”.

We cannot know if the sound is perfect until the orchestra is let loose at full cry, but the plan takes the best principles of Boston’s nineteenth century shoebox shape and melds them with modern vineyard style of Hamburg and Paris. It ought to be good. One Philharmonic player who had a sneaky squeak of an instrument on stage tells me it really is.

So much for inside. The old Avery Fisher Hall used to look as inviting from the outside as Sing-Sing or Fort Knox. If you found a way in through a chink in the fortifications, you faced a row of box-office windows that nullified human interaction. There was little in the lobby to refresh body or soul.

The new lobby is something else — twice as big and walled from floor to ceiling by glass so that everything inside can be seen invitingly from the street. The space will be dotted with coffee stations and relaxed seating is provided all around. A giant video screen will show all concerts live and free to anyone who cares to drop in, or watch from Seventh Avenue or 66th Street. This looks like being the world’s first concert hall without walls, and the opportunities are limitless.

Classical music has long dreamed of the possibility of a new audience, and Covid has delivered one. While the hardcore subscription audience has mostly stayed home for two years, a younger, curious and encouragingly diverse public is dropping by for the first time.

If they like what they hear, they come again. The newcomers are picky and cost-conscious. They won’t turn out to routine concerts and they are likely to appreciate the choice of events on offer in smaller spaces around the building, anything from poetry readings, jazz and string quartets to the full Messiaen Turangalîla.

What I am looking at here is the concert hall of the future. It’s a place where people can engage with music at their chosen level of intensity, total in the hall, casual with coffee, peripheral from the street. If Geffen is half as good as it looks on Zoom, it will be the world’s benchmark for a generation.

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