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Concert Hall Gaffes: An Irreverent Alice Tully Hall Photo Essay (Part Two)

[Part One is here.]

It’s an happy coincidence that this final post in my series about the death of a once admired example of Brutalist architecture, Pietro Belluschi‘s 1969 Alice Tully Hall and Juilliard School (reborn as Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s new contemporary eye-catcher), appears on the same day as the indispensable Ada Louise Huxtable‘s Wall Street Journal appraisal of Yale University’s respectful restoration of another Brutalist bruiser, Paul Rudolph‘s Art and Architecture building.

In The Beauty in Brutalism, Restored and Updated, Ada Louise (who admired Tully Hall in her original NY Times review of Oct. 8, 1969) notes:

The name Brutalism—from the French béton brut, the raw
concrete used by Le Corbusier and favored by modernists—is more
commonly used today as a term of opprobrium by a public that profoundly
dislikes the style’s rough textures and powerful forms.

I hope that her next assignment is tackling Tully.

But for now, let’s pick up from yesterday’s curmudgeonly CultureGrrl concert cruise:

Finding your seat in Alice Tully Hall’s orchestra section always involved descending a long flight of stairs on either side. In the new incarnation, that descent has been shrouded in gloomy, gray industrial-looking floor and wall covering. The lower depths, where most of the restrooms are located, can get confusing: There’s a labyrinthine warren of passageways and doors on the right side, and even the color-coordinated worker I encountered during the press preview conceded that he found navigation confusing:


Once you emerge from this sensory deprivation chamber, the warm glow of the concert hall is dazzling. But then comes your next encounter with gloomy gray—the suede chairs that replace the theatrically conventional red of the old theater:


The new Tully Hall
Photo: Iwan Baan


The old Tully Hall
Photo: Mark Bussell

The color didn’t matter that much to me, but the lack of confort did. Not only are the chairs constructed of the densest, most unyielding foam known to man, but there’s an even more recalcitrant ridge at the edge of the uncushy cushion, which causes increasingly annoying pressure on your thighs the longer you linger.

As I previously mentioned, I had no difficulty reading my program, “thanks” to the bright light that persistently shined down on my seat, even during the music. Others were not so “lucky”: I heard numerous complaints that the house lights was too dim, even during intermission, for comfortable reading.

All annoyances were forgotten during the masterful performance by the brilliantly restored right hand (as well as the always masterful left) of pianist Leon Fleisher playing Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue. Even the acoustics (which I criticized here) sounded best to me when Fleisher played the hall.

Now it’s time for intermission: I’m surprised to see an usher busily pointing a flashlight at everyone’s feet as they descend from the upper reaches (Row Z for me). I asked him why, and he pointed out the tricky footwork required by this complicated configuration:


The solid brown at the top of the above photo is painted concrete, which is under your feet (instead of the surrounding wood) when you sit in the orchestra.

Things get even more concrete upstairs, where the balcony walls and floors consist of gray-painted concrete, more reminiscent of a basement’s utility room than a concert hall:


But back to those orchestra-level stairs. There’s another trap for the unwary around Row M, where the pattern of low double stairs suddenly changes to high single stairs:


No one can complain about the welcome increase in restroom facilities. But what happened to the water fountain on the left side, where I was situated? The ushers said it was gone, and directed me across to the right side, down the stairs, through a corridor, and around the corner. They told me that was the nearest option. Plan your time carefully.

In the lobby after the concert, I ran into David Robertson, who had conducted the Juilliard Orchesta, with members of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, in Stravinsky‘s “Pulcinella Suite.” He noted that most new concert halls undergo some acoustical adjustments after being tested by public performance, but from his location onstage, things sounded good.

He surprised me by saying that during rehearsal, they had lowered the black cloth banners that can descend from slits in the ceiling to line the wood walls, rendering the sound less harsh during amplified performances and film screenings. This was done, he said, to try to simulate what the hall might sound like when an audience filled the seats.

After the concert, I also ran into architect Liz Diller, who said the hall sounded great to her from her perch in the balcony. When she asked what I thought, I tactlessly observed that, from where I sat in the rear orchestra, the sound seemed a little dry.

“Dry??? I know you have problems with our work, Lee.”

Whereupon she took her leave and joined the champagne celebration.

an ArtsJournal blog