What it takes to make David Geffen Hall sound new

The interior of David Geffen Hall, seen September 10.
Photo: Richard Barnes / JBSA, courtesy of Diamond Schmitt.

When I first walked into the void of Geffen Hall in the middle of construction, about a year before reopening night next fall, I felt like a room that had been stripped of concrete. Upon closer inspection, virtually every component I could see was new: the stage jutting out into the room with a high-ceiling shell above it, the risers, and elevators to organize the performers in various configurations. , the balcony meandering behind the musicians, even the raked floor of the orchestral level of the auditorium. Only the herringbone ceiling remains from the old pre-Geffen days of Avery Fisher Hall, although even that is ultimately obscured by a cloud of wire mesh. All of these add up to a $ 550 million bet that, after decades of disappointment and setbacks, the next iteration of a troubled room will be acoustically stunning.

Renovation is a weak term for this company, even setting aside the reconfigured lobbies, rooms and backstage. The acoustics scrutinized every block and beam of the auditorium and the architects adapted their design to the properties of the sound. Paul Scarbrough, director of Akustiks, developed a menu of specifications that the architects at Diamond Schmitt translated into a multisensory aesthetic experience. Akustiks then built a design-scale model, outfitted with tiny speakers, microphones, and sensors to test the principles in the real world.

The changes will be profound. The New York Philharmonic and Lincoln Center have agreed to sacrifice approximately 500 seats, reducing the capacity to 2,200 seats. In the old hall, the orchestra was strangled by a low ceiling box which made reflections echo around the musicians, assaulting them with their own crash. A higher cap should help project the music towards the audience. Other architectural elements will guide and nourish the music as it moves above the audience, then descends to ear level. Previously, sound was trapped under deep, low balconies, or banged against the back wall, creating harsh, angular explosions. In the new configuration, the walls widen slightly, the upper balcony has almost entirely disappeared, and the lower one wraps around the back of the stage.

A perfect concert hall is said to flatter a musical performance like a well-tailored costume. If the architecture does its job, the strings are swaddled in a warm and indulgent cashmere, the brass scintillates and mixes without sounding loud, and the amalgamation of 100 simultaneous crackles, scratches, hits and pinches reaches even the most distant ears. like a sonic package fun. The acoustic design is based on precedents, and the revered models are the same today as they were when the Philharmonic Hall opened in 1962 or when it was renovated and renamed Avery Fisher Hall in 1973. Large, late 19th-century shoebox-shaped halls, like Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw Musikverein in Vienna and Symphony Hall in Boston, remain the diamond standard, despite their distinct peculiarities. “We thought about the Philharmonic Orchestra’s reputation for speaking with power and authority, but we also tried to reflect on its history and the sound of the orchestra even before it moved to Lincoln Center, when it was playing. at Carnegie Hall, ”says Scarbrough. .

Until recently, pursuing this result was an erratic art, limited by the sheer complexity of sound. When a trumpeter plays a fanfare from the back of the stage, each note spreads in all directions, bounces off all surfaces, ricochets from balcony to wall to ceiling and back again in an ever-changing sequence of circular ripples that intersect and overlap in three dimensions. The journey of a sound is insanely complex, especially since each encounter with a different material – wood, plaster, paint, concrete – changes its frequency range or the energy with which it travels.

Over the past few decades, more data and computer modeling have made acoustic design more predictable, but there is still a gap between understanding how an old room works and replicating their qualities in a new one. The way a microphone records sound waves – which is not the same as a listener’s musical experience – is determined by capricious variables such as the precise proportions of space, the number of human bodies absorbents in the seats and the joints between the surface and the structure. In the old Geffen, thin wooden wall panels were attached to the drywall with steel strips, leaving a cavity behind them, a combination that sucked in low frequencies and killed them. In the new iteration, those rumbling bass will crash into a wavy wooden surface glued to a concrete block. Beautifully distributed, these deep sounds should reach the audience’s ears, giving the orchestra a velvety force.

However, all of these modifications are designed to do more than alter the path of sonic energy. They will also reshape the experience of the audience and the musician – the almost mystical exchange of energy that connects several thousand brains, processing immense amounts of sound and visual data. “A hall is a living space, and that changes in the same way that a brand new string instrument doesn’t sound as good right out of the studio as it does a few years later,” says Alan Gilbert, who directed the Philharmonic from 2009 to 2017. “The wood settles, it relaxes. He should know: as musical director of the NDR Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, Germany, he regularly conducts in one of the newest, newest and most expensive contemporary venues in Europe, which celebrates its fifth anniversary in January.

Even though walls and floors respond to music, musicians adapt to architecture, adjusting their techniques in almost subliminal ways, as hikers shift their weight on a rugged trail. A hall designed to the specifications of an orchestra always wields a certain independent power, revealing the habits of musicians, say, or requiring more precision. Even a bad venue can have a negative, positive effect on the music. Gilbert mentions the Philadelphia Orchestra, which for most of its history struggled to be heard in the notoriously inert Academy of Music. (He moved into the new Verizon Hall, which wasn’t quite successful in 2001.) The bow arm muscle that string players used to compensate for architectural flaws is often attributed to the famous sound. rich golden orchestra. The weaknesses of Avery Fisher Hall were also felt. “There was not enough space on the stage around the orchestra, but at the same time it was a huge hall. The farthest balconies felt like they were in New Jersey – and that encouraged the orchestra to play big and fill the space, ”says Gilbert.

The redesigned Geffen is intended to undermine this vastness but not to stifle the enormous voice of the orchestra. “Each seat in the hall will be at least 30% closer, and the use of risers on stage means the audience can see each musician’s face. It makes the experience much more visceral, ”explains Deborah Borda, President of the Philharmonic Orchestra. Architect Gary McCluskie, director of Diamond Schmitt, points out that the sense of closeness depends not only on physical distance, but also on how the outlines of the room draw attention to the stage. “The curve of the balconies accentuates the feeling that the architecture envelops the orchestra; it is a device to help communicate what the acoustics do.

Next fall, after a trial period where movable panels are fine-tuned and musicians internalize the building’s quirks, comes the nervous, rocket-launch moment where the conductor gives the audience the first highlight. Uncertainty will float in the air with the first chords: does all this money and sophisticated technology, decades of wisdom and years of work make a symphony more richly musical than before? This is a question that no sensor can answer.

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