What I’ve Learned in 60 Years of Listening to the Philharmonic

In April 1962, having just turned 14, I attended a New York Philharmonic concert at Carnegie Hall that brought together my top two classical music heroes: Leonard Bernstein and Rudolf Serkin. Well, three heroes, if you include Beethoven, the evening’s featured composer. I can still see Serkin swaying on the piano bench, mouthing the German words to a joyous theme, almost a beer hall tune, in the “Choral Fantasy,” as he played along. Their exhilarating performance of the mighty “Emperor” Concerto made me fantasize about somehow, someday playing it.

After the concert, I waited at the stage door and, mumbling shyly, got Serkin’s autograph. I still have two scrapbooks of programs and playbills from those days, now falling apart.

That Carnegie concert was just five months before the orchestra was to take up residence in its new home, Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center. For years this project had been promoted as the beginning a new era for the performing arts in New York, and the country. I bought into the hype. After all, Bernstein — Uncle Lenny to aspiring young musicians like me — had been talking up the hall big time, asserting that the orchestra needed a state-of-the-art space, a home of its own and a place of honor in this ambitious cultural complex. It sounded like a great idea to my teenage self.

Later, as a music critic, I would spend an enormous amount of my professional life with the New York Philharmonic and what became Avery Fisher Hall, then David Geffen Hall. Now that the Philharmonic is opening the doors to its transformed auditorium, and welcoming audiences to what it hopes will be not just a new era, but a creative rebirth for the orchestra and its audiences, I’ve been reflecting on my early concert-going life. And some of my youthful impressions turned out to be perceptive about problems that would vex this hall for some 60 years.

Back then, I didn’t see what the problem was with Carnegie Hall. Yes, it was dusty and worn, with chipped paint, torn seat cushions and no air conditioning. All that made it seem more welcoming, somehow — its storied history as tangible as the dust particles. I felt like I belonged there, just by dint of loving music so much.

When Philharmonic Hall opened, almost immediately critics, artists and architects complained about its acoustics. I remember reading the coverage by the lofty New York Times critic Harold C. Schonberg. In one column he wrote that the “first night was a near-disaster, acoustically,” that the sound “was too dry,” that “low strings could scarcely be heard” and that quick adjustments to the hall left it, at best, inconsistent. Whew, I thought, he certainly seemed sure of himself.

I was too consumed with school — the Third Form at St. Paul’s in Garden City, Long Island — along with practicing the piano and entering competitions, to get to Philharmonic Hall until the summer of 1963. It certainly looked plush and elegant. But it’s telling that I have such vague memories of the music from that night. The performances (by a festival orchestra), the sound of the music, must not have grabbed me. The musicians seemed kind of distant.

Thinking back, my memories of Philharmonic concerts I attended during those first years, usually sitting somewhere in the balconies, remain vague, though I heard some exciting performances, including Duke Ellington leading the orchestra in his suite “The Golden Broom and the Green Apple.” I finally heard Bernstein conduct the orchestra there in early 1966, and I can’t say I have lingering memories, even with Prokofiev’s powerful Fifth Symphony as a closer.

Newly renovated versions of the hall have been unveiled over the years, including this one in 1976.Credit…Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times

What was wrong? At that time I was also going to the Metropolitan Opera, the “old” Met on 39th Street, and though I can hardly remember what the house looked like and have only scant recollections of productions, I remember the music vividly and in detail. In retrospect I blame Philharmonic Hall: the setting, the stiff formality and stuffiness.

I acclimated to Philharmonic Hall, or so I thought, when I attended the orchestra’s Stravinsky Festival in the summer of 1966. The first concert, led by Bernstein, ended with “The Rite of Spring” (with Stravinsky in the audience). The last one ended with Stravinsky conducting his “Symphony of Psalms.”

OK, I thought, this place will do. After all, the music, what’s being presented, matters most. Then, a month later, I heard Bernstein conduct the “Rite” again, preceded by Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony, in an open-air tent as part of the Long Island Festival at C.W. Post College.

This concert was an epiphany. I “got,” I’m sure, the point Bernstein was making by pairing these pathbreaking scores. Sitting maybe 15 rows from the stage, I was overwhelmed by the sheer audaciousness of both pieces. It was clear to me that no concert at Philharmonic Hall could have the visceral impact that this one did.

Fast forward to 1997, when I joined the staff of The New York Times as a classical music critic. Now it was my job to report on performances and hold the orchestra to high standards. I went to concerts at Avery Fisher Hall all the time, usually sitting in the same choice seat. I wanted to be open-minded and maintain a larger perspective. Yes, the hall was no Carnegie or the Musikverein in Vienna, but the badness of the acoustics was often overstated. On a given night, a concert there could be terrific.

Since I started this look back with memories of Beethoven at Carnegie, let me use him to explain how I’ve experienced the hall over the years. When I got the critic’s job, Kurt Masur, a self-professed Beethoven expert, was the Philharmonic’s music director. His Beethoven had heft and rectitude but it came across as ponderous and imposing, somehow above it all, rather like the hall itself.

The contrast was stunning when, in 2006, Bernard Haitink brought the London Symphony Orchestra to Avery Fisher for a survey of Beethoven’s nine symphonies. The playing was crackling and robust, confident yet spontaneous. The maestro and his players seemed to be delving into these sublime, sometimes strange scores for the first time. I forgot about the drab surroundings and the acoustical limitations.

I fully supported the decision to hire the young Alan Gilbert, who took over as music director in 2009. Some critics and patrons found his Beethoven performances uninspired. I didn’t really agree, and I didn’t care. The orchestra became newly adventurous under his watch. At the end of his first season, working with the inventive director Doug Fitch, Gilbert turned the featureless hall into a wonderfully makeshift opera house for a riveting production of Ligeti’s modernist opera “Le Grande Macabre.” I forgot all about acoustics. That night the hall seemed cool, the place to be.

But it wasn’t, really. And there were too many nights when stirring Bach choral works, animated Mozart symphonies, intense Brahms concertos, diaphanous Debussy scores and more just sounded wan, and I felt restless in my seat.

Over the years, there have been a few attempts at major renovations to correct the hall’s shortcomings. They weren’t radical enough. So it was past time to get it right, to reconfigure the entire space and to turn David Geffen Hall into a welcoming and acoustically lively home for America’s oldest orchestra. When the visionary Deborah Borda was appointed president of the Philharmonic in 2017, her second stint running the orchestra, she swept aside existing plans and started afresh. (She and Henry Timms, the new president and chief executive of Lincoln Center, worked to make it happen, helped by the closure from the pandemic, which allowed construction to speed up.)

During a recent rehearsal at Geffen, she said that the goal was to create an “intimate-feeling hall.” The word “feeling” is crucial. The new auditorium, after all, seats 2,200 concertgoers. But being in it, standing on the stage looking out, I felt the space was invitingly intimate. I felt the same sitting in various seats close and far, high and low.

Though critics have pledged not to discuss acoustics until after concerts begin, and it will take time to assess, I can’t help saying that I’m guardedly optimistic about what has been accomplished.

The transformation of the public spaces already seems a triumph. Especially the spacious yet cozy main lobby just off the plaza, which has a 50-foot-wide video screen on the back wall, upon which live performances will be screened for free, so passers-by can get a sense of what’s going on upstairs.

Still, as Borda told me in an interview last year, “If we don’t get the acoustics right, it’s not going to be a success.” Giving concerts, after all, is what orchestras do, the whole point. We’ll see.

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