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Geffen Gaffes: My View from Orchestra Row B of the NY Philharmonic’s Planned Makeover

Over many years as a subscriber, I’ve worked my way to second-row-orchestra seating while the NY Philharmonic engaged in its never-ending quest for the right architect (Norman Foster, Thomas Heatherwick, and now Tod Williams and Billie Tsien) and considered various alternatives for a re-do of its Philharmonic/Avery Fisher/David Geffen concert hall.

Now we’re in for another go-round, with big changes in the hall and schedule disruptions for subscribers again being proposed.

My ticket for this week’s performance

I have sometimes wished that they’d just leave well enough alone and stop pursuing plans for wildly expensive overhauls of the hall’s architecture, which drew praise from NY Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable when the Lincoln Center hall, designed by Max Abramovitz, opened in 1962. It needs some updates, but not a complete do-over.

As for its less-than-perfect acoustics: Get over it. This building is never going to sound like the concert hall on 57th Street. “I’ve always said the problem with the acoustics here are comparisons to Carnegie Hall,” the NY Phil’s then executive director, Zarin Mehta, told Robin Pogrebin of the NY Times in 2004. The orchestra’s administrators, its board and architect Norman Foster were then considering another plan that would have reduced the number of auditorium seats and improved amenities in the public areas, as is also envisioned now.

The most important acoustical improvement they can make, from the audience perspective, would be getting rid of the orchestra-level seats on the sides and in the rear, where the sound is deadened by the overhangs of higher-level seating. (I’ve experienced that firsthand.) Removing those seats should be feasible, since the current plan calls for a reduction of seats from 2,738 to 2,200, “in order to optimize acoustics and match the originally intended capacity.”

Judging from this rendering of the renovated hall, the overhangs may remain:

Rendering Courtesy Lincoln Center and NY Philharmonic

As you can see by comparing the view of the new configuration to the current configuration (below), it seems that the rows in the side orchestra sections may be much shorter and the rows in the center section longer—an annoyance if you’re trying to climb over too many people to get to your seats at the center of the central section. (I had that kind of struggle when I attended a concert at the Frank Gehry-designed Disney Concert Hall, home to the LA Phil.)

View of the current Geffen Hall auditorium
Photo by Zach Mahone

That said, it may be premature to make assumptions about the final configuration from the preliminary renderings.

Under the new plan, the current exterior (below) will remain, but the interior will be reconfigured to the tune of $550 million (of which $190 million is yet to be raised). $100 million was kicked in by David Geffen for the naming rights.

The exterior of David Geffen Hall, protected by a row of ugly barriers, designed to thwart vehicular attacks on the plaza
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

I’d wish for less attention and money to be squandered on overhauling the hall and more on improving the mix of musicians (guest soloists and visiting conductors) and on reimagining the programing, to make it more innovative and eclectic. In recent years, I’ve too frequently seen the old reliables—Manfred Honeck and Semyon Bychkov, for example—wielding the guest-conductor baton.

At least one of the hot conductors I’ve been wishing to see is finally on my subscription plan. I’ll get to see Gustavo Dudamel next month, along with a young pianist I’m unfamiliar with–Sergio Tiempo, a countryman of the Venezuelan conductor. Sandwiched between warhorses by Ives and Dvořák, will be the New York premiere (with Tiempo as piano soloist) of a work by an Argentinian composer I’m unfamiliar with—Esteban Benzecry.

I suspect we may owe our access to Dudamel to Deborah Borda‘s coming on board two years ago as the NY Phil’s president and CEO, after having spent 17 years in those roles at the LA Philharmonic. That’s Dudamel’s home orchestra as music director (a post for which Borda had aggressively courted him). Her move to the New York is a homecoming: She “was appointed executive director of the New York Philharmonic in 1991, and subsequently guided the orchestra through a period of artistic and fiscal growth,” as stated in her bio.

Deborah Borda

I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s Geffen Hall concert conducted by Jaap van Zweden, now in his second year as the NY Phil’s music director. His deeply considered interpretations have made me hear new things in familiar works—something that rarely happened with former music director Alan Gilbert‘s always competent, rarely exciting standard takes on the standard repertory.

Although I still love the warhorses, I’m particularly looking forward to the one non-Beethoven offering on this week’s program—a newly commissioned piece (sandwiched between two Beethoven staples) by Steve Reich—a fellow Cornell alum, whom I recently saw at The Shed in Hudson Yards. Judging from this NY Times review of the same program that I’ll be seeing, I’m in for a good evening.

Last January, a great highlight of van Zweden’s first season was the world premiere of Julia Wolfe‘s “Fire in my mouth,” a gripping, deeply moving oratorio with two choirs, orchestra (with scissors) and riveting films and images related to tragic 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, which killed 146 garment workers, most of them young immigrants. (A recording of the NY Phil’s performance of that work has just been released by Decca Gold, Universal Music Group’s newly established US classical music label.)

Jaap van Zweden and Julia Wolfe during curtain calls on Jan. 27 for a world premiere performance of her “Fire in my mouth”
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

But back to the plans for the hall’s major makeover: In an email sent to subscribers (including me) on Monday, the Philharmonic tried to address our qualms about the upcoming disruptions, which will include two “[not-so] brief closures” for construction—one for six months (May 2022 through October 2022), the other for 10 months (May 2023 through February 2024):

We will be with you every step of the way. While the total number of seats in the hall will be reduced from 2,738 to about 2,200…, the majority of seat locations will remain the same. If your seat is moved, you will notice better sound and a much better view.

During the longer of the two planned closures, the orchestra plans to wander around the city, including stints at Carnegie Hall (where we can make invidious comparisons) and City Center—a disruption that might not sit well with tradition-bound seniors (ahem) who, by my scan of the hall, may constitute the majority of attendees.

The email to subscribers promises us “a more intimate connection to the orchestra, with clearer sight lines and every seat closer to the stage.” In my case, though, that’s virtually impossible: If I were any closer to the stage, I’d be sitting with the violinists or under the piano.

I am not exaggerating. Here’s the view from my second-row seat:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Sitting below the pedals is acoustically iffy; sitting very close to the violins and far from the woodwinds creates an imbalanced impression, which might be partly addressed by the plan to seat back-of-the-orchestra musicians on risers. (At least I’ll be able to see them!)

Despite the drawbacks, my husband and I like the immediacy of sitting up close, on keyboard side, which gives us a great view of the soloists and (when there’s no piano front-and-center) the conductor. My somewhat hearing-impaired husband has no problem making out the soft passages, although our hearing may be endangered by the earsplitting fortissimos. And there’s a more practical consideration: Our seats are much cheaper than the ones just a couple of rows back.

What most concerns me is that our current seats are going to vanish altogether under the new plan: The stage is going to be moved forward by 25 feet, to the current Row J. (Can I buy my current chair as a souvenir, as did a friend of mine when the seats at Yankee Stadium were replaced?)

Where does all this disruption physically leave us? Here’s what the Philharmonic says on its FAQs page:

Prior to the announcement of the 2022–23 season, when work will begin, the New York Philharmonic’s Customer Relations team will contact any subscriber whose seating is affected, and we will work together to secure comparable seating. The Philharmonic is confident that every seat in the reimagined hall will be an upgrade, both acoustically and visually.

Not entirely convinced that this “upgrade” will apply to those of us whose seats are being completely removed, I followed up on this invitation in the email that I received:

For further questions, feel free to contact Customer Relations at (212) 875-5656. Our representatives will be happy to address any questions you may have [emphasis added].

“Happy,” perhaps. But not particularly helpful.

Here’s what the Customer Relations representative told me:

Right now, nothing’s going to happen to seats yet. When it does happen, we will be informing our patrons of any kind of comparable seats. We will do the best that we can to match your old seats.

“Does that mean I’ll still be in the second row?” I asked her.

“I’m not sure,” she replied. “But we will be reaching out to you to find a resolution that’s comparable to the seats that you have.”

My fear is that those of us whose rows are being removed will be relocated to the new section behind the orchestra, facing the backs of the players. Yes, we could be in the second row, but the sound would be projected in the wrong direction.

Designing the re-do of the concert hall are Diamond Schmitt Architects, led by Gary McCluskie, and theater designer Joshua Dachs of Fisher Dachs Associates. The acoustician is Paul Scarbrough of Akustiks and the redesign of the public spaces is in the hands of Tod Williams Billie Tsien, familiar to my readers for the now demolished 53rd Street building of the American Folk Art Museum and the relocated Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.

Rendering courtesy Lincoln Center & NY Philharmonic

While I largely disagree with Borda’s recently quoted assessment of the NY Phil’s lobby space as having “all of the charm of an airport terminal,” this really has to go:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

To get to the escalators, each of us has to stand where the polka dot-clad lady is waiting, while the person ahead of us walks the long gangplank (after which the attendant on the right gives the go-ahead to the next attendee). The lines created by this bottleneck is one of the reasons why the lobby is overcrowded before concert time.

As senior subscribers, can we apply for TSA Pre?

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