Forced from their offices early in the pandemic, key leaders of the New York Philharmonic and Lincoln Center met in July 2020 under the trees of the venue’s Capital Grove patio to try to finally solve a decadeslong problem.
Could they accelerate the timetable to address their albatross: the orchestra’s much maligned, sonically challenged home?
“It was a group moment, like wow, the hall’s going to be closed down,” recalled Philharmonic President Deborah Borda. “Well, let’s get started.”
After a $550 million renovation that took two years, the 180-year-old orchestra returns to David Geffen Hall for a series of openings beginning with a Thursday night ribbon-cutting, a Friday performance for construction workers and Saturday community concerts featuring the world premiere of Etienne Charles’ “San Juan Hill: A New York Story.”
The orchestra celebrates its return with a pair of formal opening galas, on Oct. 26 featuring Renée Fleming, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Bernadette Peters and Vanessa Williams, and two days later with the world premiere of Angélica Negrón’s “You Are the Prelude” and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
“We are not in a shoe box anymore,” music director Jaap van Zweden said. “It’s not nice to say that the acoustic before was really bad, but it was also not great, let’s say it like that. I’m very proud to say that the acoustic now is great.”
The Philharmonic’s hall has been the high-profile site of film premieres and televised concerts yet was shunned by many traveling orchestras.
“For Lincoln Center, this had been such a cloud for so long that we had to address this first,” said Henry Timms, who became Lincoln Center’s president in 2019. “It was important when I started this job that this made a statement about what Lincoln Center wants to be, and that was pre-COVID and pre- the murder of George Floyd.”
Capacity was reduced from 2,738 to 2,200, orchestra rows cut from 43 to 33 and two-thirds of the third tier eliminated. Among the changes: the stage was advanced 25 feet and seven rows of wraparound seating installed behind performers and side tiers were curved reminiscent of the original blueprints.
“It’s like building a ship in a bottle,” said Gary McCluskie, who led the project for Diamond Schmitt Architects. “We completely carved out the old room.”
Based at Carnegie Hall since 1891, the orchestra moved about a half-mile north in 1962 to Philharmonic Hall, the first building to open at Lincoln Center. Designed by Max Abramovitz with acoustics by Leo Beranek, the auditorium was widely panned because of poor bass resonance.
Tinkering began with renovations in 1964, 1965 and 1969, followed by a major reconstruction in 1976. Renamed Avery Fisher Hall, the building reopened with a sound improved but was still criticized as overly bright. Musicians couldn’t hear each other well. In another modest upgrade, sound reflectors were placed on the stage’s sides in 1992.
Unhappiness festered. The orchestra announced in June 2003 it would return to Carnegie, then called the move off four months later. A 2005 redesign was announced and went nowhere.
Momentum built in 2015 with entertainment industry executive David Geffen’s $100 million gift. Borda returned two years later to Philharmonic, which she had run from 1991-99, and scrapped plans to lower the auditorium.
A renovation finally was announced late in 2019 that was to run from May 2022 through February 2024, forcing the orchestra to move for a large chunk of its 2023-24 season.
“It was two organizations: us and Phil. That particular duet has not played as beautifully over the years as it needed to,” Timms said. “You’ve got two complicated organizations with powerful boards of directors and keeping the train on the tracks is a real challenge.”
About $360 million had been raised at the start of the pandemic. The organizations boosted the figure over $400 million by year’s end, obtained bridge financing and announced the new timetable in April 2021.
Diamond Schmitt Architects designed and Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects planned public spaces. Fisher Dachs Associates recreated the theater and Paul Scarbrough of Akustiks headed sound design.
Acoustic science has improved but is inexact. While Borda opened Los Angeles’ Disney Hall to raves, Verizon Hall at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center has been plagued by thin sound.
Scarbrough aimed to cut distance from the farthest seats to the stage and provide acoustic breathing room around the musicians. Sixteen acoustic fiberglass panels hang from the ceiling to allow tuning, and a mesh ceiling is above the audience. Fabric wall banners can cover walls for amplified performances.
“The main thing that didn’t work was the ceiling over the stage being much too low, so driving too much sound energy back to the musicians too quickly, making it very hard for them to hear what was happening,” Scarbrough said. “The third side tier directed too much sound energy back down to the orchestra floor, where the audience would absorb it.”
Walls and tiers were resurfaced with rippled beech wood paneling to improve reverberation, replacing the 1976 renovation’s beige plaster and mahogany-hued lumber. There are 20 motorized lifts in the white oak stage, a Walker Technical digital organ, a retractable film booth, a built-in film screen and capability for rear projection. Dressing rooms and rehearsal spaces were added along with a passage to cross from right to left backstage.
What initially were gold-colored velour seats in 1976 had turned a tawdry mustard. They were replaced by a blue-and-red rose petal pattern on custom Maharam fabric, and average width increased by an inch.
Richard Lippold’s Orpheus and Apollo sculpture, suspended in the atrium until 2014, is being moved to LaGuardia Airport’s Central Hall.
Travertine exteriors remain unchanged, though new colorful art hangs on the north side.
Staircase walls are clad with 35,500 handmade Orsoni Italian tiles with yellow gold leaf and antique white gold, and other walls with 520 yards of custom felt with a rose-petal design in blue, red, orange and fuschia. Staircase ceilings are admiral blue and the grand promenade has a terrazo floor with bronze strips.
“There is a look at Lincoln Center. People used to say it was American fascist, American imperial, but now it looks better and better as time goes on,” Borda said.
Lobby space more than doubled to 12,500 square feet, and a 52-by-8-foot, 42 million-pixel digital screen is where the box office used to be. A 1,680-square foot welcome center was built, a sidewalk studio facing the northeast corner replaced offices and a restaurant called Tatiana, with a menu by chef Kwame Onwuachi, featuring Afro-Caribbean foods, faces the Metropolitan Opera House.
Retractable chandeliers called fireflies and inspired by the Met’s famous touchstone will rise ahead of each performance, adjustable to four brightness levels.
Nothing was certain until the afternoon of Aug. 15, when the orchestra rehearsed in the hall for the first time, playing Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony over and over.
“The first rehearsal, we were a little bit worried because it was very, very dry, but then they moved things around and it’s wonderful,” said Judith LeClair, principal bassoon since 1981. “You could hear what you’re doing. It’s not scary to make soft attacks anymore. It’s not a bright, brittle sound anymore. It’s just a warmer, woodier sound instead of being bright and ugly.”