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


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 gave the impression to be delving into these sublime, sometimes strange scores for the primary time. I forgot concerning the drab surroundings and the acoustical limitations.

I fully supported the choice to rent 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 top of his first season, working with the inventive director Doug Fitch, Gilbert turned the featureless hall right into a splendidly makeshift opera house for a riveting production of Ligeti’s modernist opera “Le Grand Macabre.” I forgot all about acoustics. That night the hall seemed cool, the place to be.

However it wasn’t, really. And there have been 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.

Through the years, there have been a number of 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 all the space and to show David Geffen Hall right into a welcoming and acoustically full of life 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 commenced afresh. (She and Henry Timms, the brand new president and chief executive of Lincoln Center, worked to make it occur, helped by the closure from the pandemic, which allowed construction to hurry 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 brand new auditorium, in any case, seats 2,200 concertgoers. But being in it, standing on the stage looking, I felt the space was invitingly intimate. I felt the identical sitting in various seats close and much, high and low.

Though critics have pledged not to debate acoustics until after concert events begin, and it would take time to evaluate, I can’t help saying that I’m guardedly optimistic about what has been achieved.

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