At Last, Heavenly Acoustics Are Heard in the Hall

 
February 22, 2009
Finally, after what feels like endless years of planning, fund-raising, wish lists and sometimes contentious debates among the constituent institutions of Lincoln Center over the scope and timing of the renovation and redevelopment of the 16-acre campus, the first tangible results of the formidable project were shown off on Sunday afternoon.

Alice Tully Hall, closed for nearly two years, opened its grand, airy and people-friendly new lobby to the public and presented a large roster of fine musicians, ranging from living masters to eager students, who played a program aptly titled "First Look." In an inspired choice, the first music heard by an actual audience in the extensively renovated auditorium, now called the Starr Theater, was not some brassy fanfare or festive overture, but three mournful, elegiac Sephardic Romances from the 15th century. These timeless pieces by anonymous composers were offered, as the program stated, as a "Sephardic Invocation." Sometimes serious music befits a joyous occasion.

The music also was immediately revealing of the question that really matters as Alice Tully Hall returns: what are the new acoustics like? The astonishing early music performer Jordi Savall played a gently melancholic melody on the vièle, an early string instrument. And the quiet sounds — ancient and earthy — carried beautifully in the hall. When the soprano Montserrat Figueras, another luminary in the early music movement, joined in, along with the period instrument ensemble Hespèrion XXI, concerns about whether the acoustics in the hall could be markedly improved were largely allayed. Ms. Figueras's tender, pale tones, as she shaped the yearning phrases of the romance, shimmered in the hall.

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. And even as some halls feel smaller and more cozy than they are, Alice Tully Hall, at 1,087 seats, somehow always felt larger than it actually was. Both the auditorium and the sound of performances in it lacked intimacy.

The most remarkable and it seems to me indisputable achievement of the renovation, which is the work of Diller Scofidio & Renfro in collaboration with FXFowle Architects and of the acoustical consultant firm Jaffe Holden, is that the Starr Theater, though not any smaller, now feels intimate and warm. The interiors have been covered with rich, russet African veneer wood. The stage area can now be extended farther into the house. And those purposeless low-wall dividers between different sections of seats have been eliminated.

I was especially impressed when, after the Sephardic Romances, the pianist Leon Fleisher played a rhapsodic and affecting performance of Bach's Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue. I had never found the hall ideal for piano recitals before. But Mr. Fleisher's tone, especially in softer passages, had a presence and body that seemed to be evidence of the new acoustical bloom.

Of course, there is a personal dimension to acoustics; call it psycho-acoustics. Sometimes we hear what we want to hear. Was the passage in the fantasy when the piano breaks into an evocation of recitative so penetrating because the sound in the hall was so rich? Or was it the compelling way Mr. Fleisher played it, more like a vocalist than many singers?

To be honest, I was given a sneak preview of the hall on Friday, when the Juilliard Orchestra rehearsed Stravinsky's "Pulcinella" Suite. The liveliness of the hall's new acoustics was apparent even before the musicians played a note. As the conductor David Robertson explained his goals for the rehearsal to the players in a normal tone of voice, even with his back to the audience I could hear every word.

As the orchestra began the overture, little details and inner voices — a fleeting solo oboe line, some nudging off-beat notes in the two cellos — came through vividly. The clarity of the sound encouraged Mr. Robertson to ask for ever more texture and detail in the playing. If anything, he had to caution the musicians not to overplay. "You are getting a fair amount of splash from the back wall, so be careful," he told the horn players seated in the last row. Such cautionary comments were seldom uttered by conductors in the old, much drier Alice Tully Hall.

As the other performances proceeded on Sunday, the results of the renovation continued to impress me. The cellist David Finckel, nursing a back injury, had to withdraw from a performance of Osvaldo Golijov's mystical and pensive "Mariel" for cello and marimba, but Maya Beiser took his place on short notice, playing with a passion leavened by nobility, joining the excellent marimba player Tomoya Aomori.

Because of Mr. Finckel's injury the Emerson Quartet, slated to play a Bartok quartet, had to withdraw. But the excellent Brentano Quartet, rushing back from a concert in Long Island, gave a vibrant and incisive account of Beethoven's formidable Grosse Fuge.

A performance of Stravinsky's Octet for Winds by the artists of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center did not get off the ground for me. Thinking of Mr. Robertson's comments to his players about the brightness of the hall, I wondered whether in the Octet the musicians were tentative and holding back.

And, in concert, the "Pulcinella" performance was terrific. It's easy for this piece to sound like some light pastiche of Baroque Italian music. But Mr. Robertson emphasized the strange harmonies and fractured phrases that Stravinsky brings to his arrangements to make the originals sound like something modern.

In any event, it takes musicians time to adjust to a new, or in this case, renovated, hall and learn how to play in it. And audiences will have to learn how to listen anew. So much more will become clear as the week of re-opening concerts continues.


At Last, Heavenly Acoustics Are Heard in the Hall
By Anthony Tommasini   - New York Times Music Review