NEW YORK — This fall provided a rare opportunity to hear the New York Philharmonic in different venues. Orphaned from David Geffen Hall, which (mercifully) is being rebuilt, the orchestra played in the Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center and Alice Tully Hall. (This spring, the Philharmonic also be at Carnegie Hall, its original home.) I have always loved the Philharmonic, brashness and all, and always wished it was playing somewhere else. With the exception of the Boulez Rug Concerts, where ripping out the seats and bringing in an excited young crowd somehow transformed the acoustic, the sound has always been hard, distant, and chilly. Over the years, I adjusted my expectations, as we all did, but I often felt as if I were hearing with one ear.
My first concert on Sept. 24 at the Rose Theater was so moving that I wondered whether my euphoria simply resulted from getting to hear live music in a hall again after 18 depressing COVID months. Yefim Bronfman’s sublimely quiet playing in the hushed moments of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, caressed by perfectly audible whispers from the orchestra, filled my mask with tears. Then I realized it was the aliveness and intimacy of the Rose Theater that enabled me to hear these angelic sonorities in the first place. Fortissimo passages were riveting as well: The piercing winds and violent snap of the percussion in Hannah Kendall’s Kanashibari (a New York premiere) had a startling vividness, as did the barking horns in Jaap van Zweden’s driving performance of Haydn’s Oxford Symphony.
My first concert at Alice Tully Hall was satisfying on a deeper level. Rather than suffering cancellations, this concert enjoyed a resurrection: the inspiring presence of Michael Tilson Thomas, who had rebounded from a brain tumor, appearing in a concert for the first time since his surgery to a thrilled and grateful audience. The Alice Tully acoustic was even more impressive than that of Rose. The dense web of dissonant sound in Ruth Crawford Seeger’s Andante for Strings had a startling in-your-face immediacy, an eerie grandeur that would probably not have been possible in Geffen Hall, which was particularly cruel to strings. Berg’s Violin Concerto soared through the hall with every strand of counterpoint intact and Gil Shaham’s poetic solo line fully audible.
The main event of the evening, however, was MTT’s jet-propelled but intricately layered reading of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. The crescendos in the funeral march were especially overwhelming in their weight and intensity, bolstered by Markus Rhoten’s bold timpani, which was plenty loud but refreshingly round rather than hard. The Eroica was meant for special occasions, and this was one of them, with a beloved maestro, recovered from a serious illness, conducting a great orchestra he hadn’t led in 10 years, in a venue that allowed him to fully realize his intentions.
Those ravishing horns were again on display at Rose Hall on Oct. 15 in a pulsing performance of Brahms’ Serenade No. 2, as were Liang Wang’s magical oboe sighs. This concert could have been a mess: Not only did van Zweden bow out at the last minute, but the pianist, Leif Ove Andsnes, canceled as well because of a visa problem. Pianist Alessio Bax and conductor Giancarlo Guerrero, in a double Philharmonic debut, came to the rescue, capitalizing on the live acoustic. The opening of Schumann’s Piano Concerto exploded through the hall after the last whisper of Clara Schumann’s Romanze, making the audience — which until then was preternaturally quiet for a Philharmonic subscription crowd — jump out of their seats.
Commenting on the transparency of Alice Tully Hall, Philharmonic vice president for external affairs Adam Crane told me, “There is no place to hide.” (This is not the case in Geffen Hall, where hiding places abound.) The exposure of every player was dramatically evident in the Nov. 17 concert, which offered two works full of opportunities for solos and small groups, Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1.
Another last-minute cancellation — Semyon Bychkov, who dropped out for reasons not divulged by the Philharmonic — resulted in another unplanned premiere, Dima Slobodeniouk, who conducted with keen attention to detail, bringing out every nuance the hall could yield: a delicate harp pluck here, a lower brass growl there. The violin concerto, played with deep introspection by soloist Karen Gomyo, often sounded like a concerto for orchestra, as did the symphony, a feast of chamber ensembles and solos. The New York Philharmonic has always been an assemblage of brilliant soloists, so Alice Tully highlights its strengths.
These venues made the Philharmonic sound like a different band, with more of the explosive energy that makes it New York’s orchestra and a subtlety that was often muffled by its previous venue. Neither of these halls is perfect, of course. Rose has a certain shrillness in loud passages, especially in the upper strings, and the sonority in Alice Tully sometimes lacks a center: One hears all the layers with astonishing clarity but not always what binds them.
In any case, the orchestra members I spoke with are savoring the experience of playing in these spaces, even if, as one put it, “There was nowhere to to go but up.” They are playing with their usual virtuosity but also with a loving commitment and expressiveness to an audience grateful to hear live music again; they know that their fans are hearing much more than before, just as they are. The last-second cancellations and premieres have only added to an exciting picture; nothing has been routine.
All this makes the stakes even higher for the new hall: We are actually hearing the New York Philharmonic now, and it’s impossible to go back.