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Alice Tully’s Extreme Makeover (Part Two): How Bad Was the Old Hall?

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The original Alice Tully Hall, designed by Pietro Belluschi, 1969
Photo: Sandor Acs

I’ve already told you what I admire about the total transformation of Alice Tully Hall. In a subsequent post, I’m going to take you on a curmudgeonly tour, grumbling about some vexing missteps as I escort you, via photographs, from the entrance to your seats, with a break for intermission.

But first, let the critical spin-resistance begin:

I felt gratified (but also a bit scooped) this afternoon when, after my first mention of the hall’s basic deficiencies, music critic Allan Kozinn on the NY Times ArtsBeat blog, jumped in with a few quibbles of his own (some of which I share). I heartily agree with his bemused observation that “the reopening is being treated as if it were the arrival of another millennium, and I think people are getting carried away.” Like me and others who have happily attended concerts at Tully for most of our adult lives, Kozinn feels that the scorn being heaped upon the original Tully is undeserved.

The most extreme example of Tully sullying was Justin Davidson‘s appraisal of the old house in his recent NY Magazine review of the new architecture:

To enter, you slunk beneath a forbidding slab, inched past a tiny box-office anteroom, and descended a short flight of stairs into a long and loveless lobby, where daylight trickled in through grudging slits. Another level down, in the buried auditorium, noise from an ancient ventilation system masked the sound of passing subway trains, and deadened the music.

Even Anthony Tommasini, who gave a restrained rave for the new digs, had kind words in his NY Times review for the old place:

I, for one, never thought the acoustics of Tully Hall were really poor. The sound was clear and honest, just a little dull and distant.

I don’t agree with the assessment by architect Liz Diller at the press preview that the original design of Lincoln Center in general and Alice Tully in particular was “elitist” or insufficiently “democratic,” shutting out the larger city from “this privileged preserve of the arts.” Its distinctive presence, to a culturally smitten Bronx kid (me in the ’60s), always set it apart as something special and inviting, but not at all exclusionary.

Climbing up a few stairs to the Lincoln Center “acropolis” (as Diller termed it) was nothing like the monumental hike up the stairway to the Metropolitan Museum. But these uplifting approaches just made the occasion all the more glamorous and grand (the exact words that Diller used to describe her architectural firm’s, Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s, own entrance to the new Tully). Elevating cultural enlightenment above pedestrian life doesn’t seem all that unseemly to me.

But if you’re going to spend some $159 million for an old-hall overhaul, the party line has to be that the place was woefully inadequate and even politically incorrect. The last facility to be built at Lincoln Center (opening in 1969), Tully Hall is the only one to be radically reimagined.

On his blog, The Rest is Noise, the New Yorker‘s music critic, Alex Ross, mysteriously titled a straightfoward report about the hall’s opening two-week schedule, “The Revenge of Miss Tully.” Although there’s nothing in that post remotely related to its headline, the spirit of the donor may be perceived to have vented its vengeance at the opening concert.

The program took a double hit when one of its key players, David Finckel (who is both the co-artistic director of a major Tully presenter, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and the cellist for the world-renowned Emerson String Quartet) was felled by a back injury. One piece was preserved on the program, with a substitute cellist, Maya Beiser, but the Emerson’s and Bartok‘s loss was the Brentano’s and Beethoven‘s gain.

As for the Grand Dame herself—Alice’s portrait has been moved from its conspicuous perch in the lobby to an unobtrusive alcove by an elevator and staircase:

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Thomas Buechner, “Alice Tully on the Occasion of her 85th Birthday”

an ArtsJournal blog