My most recent “Second City” column for the Washington Post (accessible in the right-hand column), a preview of the fall season in New York, started off as follows:
If you’re a music lover–and it doesn’t much matter what kind of music you love best–the big event will be the opening this month of Zankel Hall, the new 650-seat auditorium that Carnegie Hall has carved out of its basement.
Even before the New York Philharmonic announced its plans to leave Lincoln Center for Carnegie Hall, midtown Manhattan was greatly in need of a medium-size auditorium with good acoustics (Carnegie Hall seats 2,804, Weill Recital Hall 268). Assuming Lincoln Center doesn’t try to block the Philharmonic’s move, Zankel Hall will become an even more important addition to New York’s surprisingly short list of first-class concert venues, since Carnegie Hall will suddenly find itself with an 800-pound gorilla as its principal tenant. An impressive roster of inaugural-season performers is guaranteed to keep the house humming, so all that remains is to find out what it sounds like. I’ll be all ears at Wednesday’s media preview matinee–watch this space for details.
Sure enough, I was there, but I don’t want to jump to any premature conclusions. I’ll be seeing a lot of Zankel Hall in the coming weeks and months, and will have plenty of time to get used to its idiosyncrasies. In the meantime, I do have a few preliminary observations:
Design. Zankel Hall is an old-fashioned shoebox (the most acoustically reliable shape for a concert hall) set inside an elliptical shell. The walls and floor are made of blond wood. The ceiling is an exposed lighting grid painted pitch-black–it feels as if you’re sitting underneath a giant assemblage by Louise Nevelson. Though the modular stage area and seating allow for multiple floor plans, the basic arrangement is that of a traditional concert hall with a steeply raked parterre (the sight lines are excellent), two shallow rings, and a small balcony. I found the results to be attractive enough but somewhat sterile-looking, a typical exercise in safe concert-hall modernism.
Comfort. Since Zankel Hall is underneath Carnegie Hall, the space available for public areas is necessarily limited. At first glance, the main lobby, which wraps around the elliptical shell, felt cramped and claustrophobic, even maze-like (some of the ceilings seem almost as low as the ones in the first-floor lobby of the Metropolitan Opera House), and it appeared as if the crowd was having a bit of trouble getting in and out of the auditorium, though that may have been due to the unfamiliarity of the floor plan. Again, this is something to which we’ll all have to accustom ourselves before drawing any conclusions.
In the seating setup used at the media preview, the parterre level of the auditorium had no center aisle and each row was about 20 seats long, meaning that latecomers will have to stumble over earlycomers, just as they do in the New York State Theatre. I hope the managers of the hall will try out a center aisle at some point.
Acoustics. Multipurpose concert halls are by definition acoustically impossible. Classical music requires long resonant times, pop music short ones. That’s why symphony orchestras sound good in Carnegie Hall, whereas amplified jazz groups sound soupy and unclear. Zankel Hall, by contrast, is meant to be used by everybody from Emmylou Harris to the Emerson String Quartet, though it’s a safe bet that the acoustics will be more flattering to some kinds of music than others.
The first part of the preview program consisted of six widely varied pieces of classical music: “Shatter Me, Music,” an a cappella vocal solo commissioned from John Corigliano for the opening of the hall; two piano-accompanied songs (one loud, one soft) by Richard Strauss; “Pagodes,” a piano solo by Debussy; the slow movement of Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasilieras No. 5 for soprano and eight cellos; and Concerto in slendro, a vest-pocket concerto by Lou Harrison for violin, two percussionists, and three keyboard players. Having listening to all these pieces, my snap reaction was that the hall seemed bright, clear, a bit dry, and distinctly bass-shy, a combination of qualities that I found to be unflattering to Ren