Covid and a Concert Hall

Suppose you're head honcho of an orchestra. Cool gig! Then Covid arrives. You cancel your season and shut down the hall. You manage to keep the musicians on payroll, albeit at a reduced salary, but your revenue drops to zero. What do you do? You speed-dial an architectural firm.

Every time you drive through a construction zone, you realize how difficult it is to repair a highway amid traffic. It isn't easy for the contractor, and not particularly appreciated by the traffic either. If only you could eliminate the traffic. Same thing is true with architecture. It's a lot easier to renovate a space when no one's there. For example, when you close a concert hall for the foreseeable future it's a perfect time to swing hammers. That's exactly what's happening at David Geffen Hall in Lincoln Center.

The backstory: It's tough to build a concert hall with good acoustics. Just ask the New York Philharmonic. The original hall was designed by Bolt, Beranek and Newman as a 2,400-seat hall similar to the acoustically excellent Symphony Hall in Boston. Unwisely, before construction, the orchestra was pressured into greatly enlarging the intended seating capacity, a move that trashed BBN's entire acoustical thesis.

When the hall opened in 1962, reviews were decidedly mixed. Various attempts to fix the numerous defects were largely unsuccessful. A large-scale renovation was undertaken in 1976; acoustics were improved, but still not stellar. One critic stated: “The seating capacity is large (around 2,600 seats) and the sidewalls are too far apart to provide early reflections to the center seats. The ceiling is high to increase reverberation time but the clouds are too high to reinforce early reflections adequately. The bass is weak because the very large stage does not adequately reinforce the low string instruments.” Further modifications were made in 1992 – still no luck. In 2019, the orchestra announced that yet another major renovation would be undertaken with work scheduled to begin in 2022. Then along came Covid.

The orchestra realized that the hall's closure, effective March, 2020, provided a unique opportunity. Instead of doing the work in stages while the hall remained in use, the $550-million renovation would be crammed though in one shot.

The structural shell is being left intact, but the interior is being completely gutted. The picture prefacing this blog shows a computer rendering of the renovated hall. Seating will be reduced from the current 2,738 to about 2,200, the stage will be tiered and moved forward by 25 feet, the proscenium will be removed entirely, balcony seating will extend around the sides of the stage, and audience seating will wrap around the back of the stage. Instead of a cavernous, barn-like experience, the new hall will feel considerably more intimate.

Thanks to the closure, it is hoped that work can be completed in Fall 2022, nearly two years ahead of schedule. The renovation is in the hands of the Diamond Schmitt architectural firm. During the work, the orchestra will perform in other venues such as the Alice Tully Hall and the Frederick P. Rose Hall.

If you are interested in concert-hall architecture, or are someone who just enjoys cool computer renderings, check out this short video showing the transformation of the hall.

A footnote: When the hall was first opened in 1962, the inaugural concert conducted by Leonard Bernstein was televised live on CBS to a nationwide audience. I do not expect that the reopening will be similarly presented to today's viewing audience.

Another footnote: The hall in question was formerly named the Avery Fisher Hall. Long-time audiophiles will fondly recall the Fisher name; Mr. Fisher was a pioneer in high-fidelity and his company's audio gear was quite excellent. The hall was named for Mr. Fisher in 1973 following his donation of $10.5 million ($61 million in today's money). In 2014, his name was removed and the hall was renamed for the highest bidder – David Geffen – who donated $100 million. The renovated hall will retain the David Geffen name.

John_Werner's picture

This hall should still be called Fisher Hall. I don't care how many music icons line up to increase the pot. It's out of respect for the genesis and the man.