By Peggy Taylor
For two years these words have sprawled across the entire width of the white marble home of Lincoln Center’s New York Philharmonic. That home, David Geffen Hall, formerly Avery Fisher Hall, has been closed since March 20, 2020, after the pandemic struck and the orchestra played its last concert.
Scaffolding can still be spied inside the Hall through its partially papered windows; dumpsters are still emptying their debris into grinding carting trucks, and construction hoists are still moving up and down the Hall’s north side on West 65th Street.
But last Wednesday, in the glassy Hauser Lounge of Alice Tully Hall overlooking the Geffen, Lincoln Center made it official— the newly renovated home of the Philharmonic will reopen its doors to the public this coming October.
On hand to celebrate were the architects of the new auditorium, the architects of the new public spaces, the acousticians, stage designers, construction workers, as well as the Board Members of the Philharmonic and of Lincoln Center, New York State Governor Kathy Hochul, and New York City Mayor Eric Adams.
Katherine Farley, Chairman of the Lincoln Center Board called the reopening “a historic moment” and noted that the $550 million makeover was “two years ahead of schedule, and on budget.” She hailed it as a “state-of the-art auditorium which will enhance the concert-going experience, revolutionize the acoustics, and provide flexibility for artists and audiences in the future.”
The original renovation plan had called for work to last four years with the reopening planned for 2024, but “when the pandemic struck, we knew we needed to build straight through to generate jobs and drive the economic recovery of New York,” she said.
It was a bold and propitious decision which supported 6,000 jobs and $600 million in economic development. It also contributed to greater equity since 42% of the firms involved are female or minority-owned and 52% of the workers come from underrepresented communities.
New York Governor Kathy Hocul described the project as the “one silver lining resulting from a pandemic which brought us to our knees.” She lauded the ”Lincoln Center and Philharmonic visionaries who believed in the potential of the City, and who knew that even when we were knocked down, we could build our way back.”
Since its opening in 1962, the auditorium, whether known as Philharmonic Hall or later Avery Fisher Hall, has been panned by musicians, critics, and patrons for its “subpar,” “dull,” and “mediocre” acoustics. Musicians complained that they couldn’t hear themselves, and in the December 1977 issue of High Fidelity Magazine, derided Avery Fisher Hall as “A Very Fishy Hall.” Extensive renovations were undertaken in 1976 and 1992, but to no avail.
Not to worry this time around, said Peter W. May, Co-Chairman of the Board of the New York Philharmonic, who promised that the acoustics would be vastly improved and that the revamped Hall will “make our hometown orchestra proud.” He shared the anecdote that the Philharmonic’s principal trumpet player, Chris Martin, had recently played in the Hall and that even with the interior scaffolding still standing had found the sound “spectacular.”
So who is responsible for this “spectacular” sound? That would be Acoustician Paul Scarborough of the acoustical design firm, Akustiks, which achieved this, first, by reducing the number of seats in the auditorium. “We eliminated 500 seats and brought the total to 2200 because the house had only been operating at 75% capacity anyway. By reducing the number of seats we reduced the amount of sound absorbed by human bodies thus increasing the amount of sound produced from reflective surfaces. The fewer the bodies, the more reverberation, the more resonance.”
Secondly, Akustiks installed battens along the side walls at changing elevation and angles to achieve “a balance between the sound being projected to the audience and the sound being projected back to the musicians, so that they can hear themselves play.”
But the Hall is not just getting an aural makeover. It is also getting a visual one thanks to Diamond Schmitt Architects who completely reimagined the interior. Principal Architect Gary McCluskie explained that the stage has been advanced 25 feet into the auditorium, (where Row J would have been) thus allowing the audience better views of the musicians. “The straight-lined balconies have become curvilinear, and the seating is wrapped around the orchestra, so that the audience will enjoy an in-the-round feeling of intimacy with the musicians.” The new Hall will also use a “vineyard” seating configuration, (thus named for resembling vineyard terraces), a configuration increasingly popular with concert halls throughout the world.
The Philharmonic actually began using vineyard seating back in 2005, but only for its summer Mostly Mozart Festival. In winter, it reverted to its original “shoe-box” space, “leaving the audience removed from the musicians and being spectators not participants,” McCluskie regretted. The orchestra seating will be more steeply raked to provide patrons a better view of the stage.
McCluskie praised the theater design firm Fisher Dachs Associates for the versatility of the new stage which will facilitate a variety of performances—choirs, small operas, theatrical productions, and pop concerts with amplified sound. “The Philharmonic had done all these things in the past, but each time they had to build a different stage and bring in speakers and lighting trusses; all that is now mechanized and built in.”
McCluskie also stressed the partnership that Diamond Schmitt enjoyed with Billie Tsien Tod Williams Architects who reconfigured the lobbies and public spaces in an effort to attract new audiences.
“The blue and red fabric that we’re using for the auditorium seats is the same fabric they’re using in the lobby, so you’ll feel a real sense of cohesion as you move from the lobby to the auditorium.” Swatches of the fabrics used for the new decor were on display for the attendees to view and touch. The Hall’s revamped public spaces will include seating areas, cafes, space for small music performances and a 65 ft digital screen for public viewing of rehearsals and performances. McCluskie stressed that Tsien and Williams had “beautified and enlivened the lobbies” and created something which would entice visitors to come to the Hall.
Henry Timms, President and CEO of Lincoln Center, stressed that Lincoln Center was “particularly proud of this project” because it was part of the Workforce Development Program which promotes careers in the construction industry where workers receive five weeks of paid instruction paired with mentors and apprenticeships. Some of the construction workers were among the reporters, politicians, and community leaders invited to the event.
One of the workers participating in the Program was Dominican-born Milton Angeles, a civil engineer, who was hired by Turner Construction. He came to the podium briefly and expressed his gratitude to Turner and Lincoln Center for giving him this opportunity.
In a Zoom appearance, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer praised the project and called the arts “central to New York’s economy, identity and to our souls.” He reminded us of the $10 million in Federal relief funding he had procured for the project and promised to work to procure even more, not only for Geffen but for smaller arts institutions as well. “This will help revitalize tourism and supercharge the city’s comeback.”
In his remarks, Mayor Eric Adams expressed the hope that the “beautiful music played by the Philharmonic would extend out into society where, too often, people have been out of tune.” He praised Lincoln Center for its participation in the Workforce Development Program and its commitment to “remove the inequities we have experienced for far too long.” Ever the City’s number one cheerleader, the Mayor compared the reconstruction of Geffen Hall during Covid to the construction of the Empire State Building during the Great Depression and predicted that New York would “continue to be a leader and inspiration to the world.”