The Plans for David Geffen Hall and What They Mean for the Music Within

The reimagined David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center. Photo: Tod Williams Billie Tsien

At 57, the home of the New York Philharmonic has already been through two name changes, one major surgery with organ removal, numerous invasive procedures, and an abortive abandonment (when the orchestra threatened to leave it for Carnegie Hall). Even so, it remains a demoralizing relic, not just because of the clattering acoustics or seats that have turned a shade the orchestra’s president Deborah Borda describes as “merde brown,” but also because musicians hate playing there. Backstage is a bleak wonderland of long hallways, narrow staircases, and glacial elevators. You expect to find a Stasi interrogation chamber behind every steel door.

Talk of renovating or replacing Philharmonic/Avery Fisher/David Geffen Hall has been swirling for years. And now, here we are again, with another design, another staggering budget, and more assertions that this time, it’ll all work out. If it does, then the cost — $550 million and the building’s architectural integrity — will have made it a good deal.

In 2017, when Borda took over the Philharmonic, Geffen Hall’s principal tenant, she persuaded both her board and Lincoln Center’s to quash an overambitious, half-billion-dollar plan to scoop out everything inside the travertine shell and replace it with an entirely new interior by the large Toronto-based firm Diamond Schmitt and the English wizard of glister, Thomas Heatherwick. I approved of the quashing. Two years later, it turns out that was a lowball figure. The true costs, which were never made public, were rocketing into fantasyland. Worse, the plan would have left the orchestra homeless for three seasons — that is, if construction hewed precisely to the schedule, which it never does.

By those bedazzling lights, the current scheme, a joint Philharmonic–Lincoln Center project, is relatively modest. The auditorium stays where it is but gets gutted and rebuilt (again). In 2022, the orchestra moves out for an extended summer break, from May to November, returns for an abbreviated season in the reconfigured but unfinished hall, and spends most of 2023–24 touring, floating, and sojourning in its ancestral home at Carnegie Hall. The new Geffen reopens in March 2024. (Lincoln Center and the Philharmonic say that they’ve already raised two-thirds of the money.)

Max Abramovitz’s original Philharmonic Hall was never a great work of architecture, and its awkwardnesses have become more obvious over the years. But, with its tapered, spikelike columns piercing Lincoln Center’s plaza, its floor-to-vaulted-ceiling atrium, and its clear-glass case inside the travertine arcade, the building projected a luminous glamour. When it opened in 1962, the hybrid of classical temple and modern institution presented symphonic music, not as an antiquated European obsession but as a source of 20th-century American cultural pride.

In place of that eggshell-and-gold light box, we’ll get an architectural turducken. Inside Abramovitz’s shell will be a lobby, by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, and Diamond Schmitt’s curvaceous blond-wood auditorium. (Heatherwick is no longer involved — another cannonball dodged.) If the three layers have little to do with one another, it’s because they each navigate a changing culture in different ways. Abramovitz’s hall, like the rest of Lincoln Center, was designed to elevate, lifting the realm of the arts a few steps above the profane street and inviting the curious to raise their level of sophistication. Williams and Tsien’s new lobby undercuts that condescension. The escalators that once delivered subway scuttlers straight into the light of culture will move off to the side, stripped of their symbolic significance. The whole ground floor will turn into an informal social space where even children can feel at home among the carpeted square footage and wall-size TV screens where the performances inside will be livestreamed for those who accept their music mediated (and free).

Attending a concert in a proper hall can be an expensive and intimidating experience. High ticket prices raise the stakes, and all sorts of unspoken rules for audience behavior emanate from the architecture, ready to embarrass newcomers. And so the trend lately has been to lower the barriers and peel back the walls, virtually at least. Frank Gehry’s New World Center in Miami Beach features great billowing surfaces where images of the outside world can be projected indoors and a lawn where the non-ticket-buying public can sit and watch a concert livestreamed on an exterior wall.

In that same spirit, Williams and Tsien have imagined outward-facing art installations stretching across entire façades. They plan to claw back the northeast corner of the ground floor, now a warren of offices screened off behind a curtain of bilious hue, and turn it into a “sidewalk studio,” a glass-walled room for lectures, rehearsals, performances, and parties in full view of Broadway. The Grand Promenade will lose its high ceilings so that a layer of offices can be tucked beneath the roof. At intermission, concertgoers will line up for overpriced Champagne and brownies beneath a gilded barrel vault, and the first-tier balcony will wrap the atrium, pushing toward the glass façade.

Within is the sanctum, the shape of which begins with the mechanics of a sound wave. The man in charge of making it work is Paul Scarbrough, a principal at the firm Akustiks who dictated the major moves: Cut the number of seats from 2,700 to 2,200, slide the stage nine rows forward, raise the ceiling, steepen the floor’s incline, and tear out some of the third tier. Diamond Schmitt has translated those directives into a design with more gentle swoops than angles, with the audience wrapping around the stage, and walls covered in undulating wood. The effect is of a terraced, vineyard-style hall rejiggered into a shoe box — a fan-shaped peg in a rectangular hole.

The plans for the auditorium. Photo: Diamond Schmitt

The auditorium’s design doesn’t promise a masterpiece, but it could look like a truck stop if it sounded like heaven. Most of the acoustical problems were diagnosed and their treatments prescribed decades ago, but since the first gut renovation, in 1976, failed, the Philharmonic kept popping acoustical aspirin, dangling reflectors from the ceiling and affixing bulbous barnacles on the sides of the stage. Will this go-round will be different? We are assured that it will: Computer modeling has made the acoustician’s craft much more predictable. Still, the definition of excellent sound can change. One orchestra’s transparent clarity can be another’s biting harshness; the reverberation that swaddles cellos in lovely velvet can also smother trumpets in murk. It’s up to musicians to navigate these quirks. To give a new hall sonic zing both with and without amplification, acousticians fit out the room with moving parts: panels, curtains, removable seats, and stages that pop up and down at the touch of a button — all of which depend on stagehands to follow the operating instructions. And the hall still won’t have a full-blown organ.

To those who take their music injected directly into their ear canals, or popping out of fist-size speakers, the pursuit of the perfect room for music can seem rarefied and self-indulgent, like insisting that only a platinum-hulled yacht will do. An orchestra can gin up a lot of excitement, even playing in a factory. For virtually the entire 20th century, classical music drove the technology of sound, and the goal was to make a living room sound like a concert hall. Hi-fi meant fidelity to the “natural” sound of highly engineered spaces. A rosy fuzz around a piano chord, a fast violin tune as crisp and bright as a sunny October day, a thrilling purr of low trombones — we owe these phenomena to the magical interaction of plaster, wood, air, and neurons. In the last 20 years, when portability became the new audio frontier, we have settled for thinner, flatter, cruder sound of earbuds and files compressed enough to stream without a hitch. Outside that acoustical womb, when’s the last time you heard a voice or an instrument blossoming, unamplified in space?

Orchestra members have a monkish allegiance to natural sound, and they like to play in rooms where the hall doesn’t chill their fingers or throw their instruments out of tune, where they can hear each other and judge with accuracy how sharp an accent needs to be, how loud a forte feels. And yet for organizations trying to shake off a reputation for staidness, the lure of the nontraditional venue is strong. During Alan Gilbert’s tenure as music director, the Philharmonic (lacking available local factories in New York) tried out the Park Avenue Armory’s Drill Hall. A couple of years later, so did the Berlin Philharmonic. Last month, the Greek-Russian conductor Teodor Currentzis and the ensemble he founded made their U.S. debut with Verdi’s Requiem, not at Geffen or Carnegie Hall but beneath the roll-out plastic bubble canopy of the Shed, Hudson Yards’ multi-everything venue. To turn a 19th-century staple into a cutting-edge installation, the score was accompanied by Jonas Mekas’s new “cinematic artwork,” a jittery film with lots of close-ups of flowers and a smattering of wartime carnage.

In a profession known for charismatic autocrats, Currentzis outdoes his colleagues in demanding and getting near-fanatical attention to detail in the service of unchained excitement. He founded the orchestra musicAeterna in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk and then moved it to Perm. He’s used geographical isolation to his advantage, leading day- and nightlong marathon rehearsals that leave musicians in a state of near-mystical exhaustion. The result, at Hudson Yards, was a Requiem that felt like a control freak’s catharsis: heavy chords that bounced off a timpanist’s stroke like an airborne semi landing on one tire. The hushed opening wafted into audible range before coalescing into a poignant prayer for eternal rest. The “Dies Irae” exploded into hyperprecise thunder; the chorus spit out each syllable so sharply you could have sliced a finger on a sibilant.

Orchestral music exists in a world of paradoxes. Conductors forge 100 highly trained artists into a seamless unit while still asking them to be individually expressive. They hone details into a glittering illusion of spontaneity. They summon terror and ecstasy, even as audiences are required to shut up and sit still. But Currentzis takes these contradictions to extremes. The effect of all this belabored attention to detail was rousing but unnerving, like a military parade (or the opening of the Beijing Olympics). I can’t imagine how a solo singer might feel stepping into such a compulsively marshaled interpretation — like trying to curl up on a glass couch, perhaps. Somehow, they managed, mostly by singing like orchestra members rather than characters in an opera. Soprano Zarina Abaeva wove her silvery thread of a voice into the choral tapestry. Basso Evgeny Stavinsky kept his sonorousness in check.

If Currentzis agreed to make his U.S. debut in a high-tech barn rather than a concert hall, it was partly an act of defiance toward the classical Establishment, with its stuffy decorum and union rules and tolerance of tired prestige. But there are tradeoffs. With no rafters to shake or hard walls to return vibrations back to the audience, the Shed relied on an apparatus it terms “acoustic scenery” — that is, low-level amplification, channeled through speakers above the stage. The singers wore headsets, and though they got only a light boost — no Broadway-style blaring or disembodied ventriloquism here — I wondered how much more richly hued, spacious, and three-dimensional the Requiem would have sounded in a room built to flatter Currentzis’s blend of meticulousness and passion.

As Currentzis closed a string of performances at the Shed, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, led by Gustavo Dudamel, arrived to go slumming at Geffen Hall. The orchestra makes its home in Frank Gehry’s Disney Hall, an acoustically splendid building that has transformed the orchestra, the neighborhood, and the city beyond. I started out front and center — orchestra, Row V, on the aisle — for John Adams’s recent piano concerto, Must the Devil Have all the Good Tunes?, with Yuja Wang as soloist. It’s a rollicking, raucous work full of boogie-woogie bass lines, sawtooth rhythms, plenty of speeding orchestral traffic, and hard-earned moments of quietude. This is a wide-angle, drone’s-eye view of the city, swooping from skyline to sidewalk and back. In Geffen Hall, it sounded like a Hollywood blockbuster reformatted for an old-fashioned square-screen TV.

For all the hall’s faults, I have heard many flabbergasting concerts there, though Borda reminded me that’s partly because, as a critic, I sit in choice seats. With that in mind, I slipped out during the ovations and sprinted three flights up to the back corner of the third tier, a seat that won’t exist in the new configuration. From there, the stage felt like it was ten floors down and a couple of blocks away, but Wang’s suite of five — count ’em — encores had no trouble vaulting up to my ears, subtleties intact. It was only after intermission, when Dudamel led Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (another Teodor Currentzis specialty) that I fully grasped the problem. Stravinsky wrote the score as a full-body shocker. The pummeling bass drum and spitting brass, baying horns and massed chords like a giant’s limping tread, a chattering piccolo trumpet — the audience should not just hear but feel these sounds rumbling through bone and rubbing on skin. From my seat up against the back wall and just below the ceiling, it sounded like someone had turned up the volume on a cheap car stereo: piercing, painful, flattened, and sour. It hurt my ears and left the rest of me untouched.

Rejuvenating Geffen Hall is a high-cost, high-risk operation, but the reason it’s worth doing is not to satisfy affluent mavens, sound-quality feinschmeckers, or New York boosters, but the people in the cheap seats. They are music students, kids, retirees, first-time ticket buyers, first-date couples, and hard-core aficionados — listeners who can be turned on by a visceral experience or off by a performance that feels distant and dulled.

What I love about a great concert hall is the retreat it offers from the world’s cacophony, the almost sacramental way it heightens a single sense and encourages an hour or two of unbroken alertness and focus. Audiences don’t always respond. Distracted by their own thoughts, jolted by errant cell phones, or bored by lackluster music-making, listeners sometimes doze, rustle, or check the time. That’s because by remaining resolutely archaic, the concert hall has become countercultural. Enter and you surrender control. It’s the rare sanctum where you can’t press “pause,” go back, or choose another option. You have to catch what you can on the fly, and, if you find that specific experience exhilarating, you may never be able to repeat it again.

Revealed: The Plans for David Geffen Hall and for Its Music