NEW YORK — The New York Philharmonic’s opening subscription concert of the season Oct. 12 in the newly renovated David Geffen Hall under music director Jaap van Zweden was a significant cultural moment. After half a century enduring the chilly, distant sonority of its home venue, which had been tinkered with and renamed but never really fixed, the Philharmonic and those who love it were more than ready for a hall worthy of a great orchestra. As I reported on this site last season, the orchestra sounded dramatically better in the Rose Jazz Center, Alice Tully, and Carnegie Hall during the final year of Geffen’s renovation, though as one player told me, “There was nowhere to go but up.” In these spaces, we were actually hearing the Philharmonic, and the idea of going back to the old, muffled sound was unthinkable.
This time, it was not muffled. From the first shattering explosion followed by quiet pedals in Marcos Balter’s Oyá, the sound was startlingly alive and vivid, whether in big climaxes or the most pianissimo whispers. It helps enormously that the audience is closer to the stage, surrounding it on all sides, and that the musicians are on risers. When I asked acoustician Paul Scarbrough (in many ways, the hero of the evening) what was the most important element in the design of the new hall, he said, “It was two things: reducing the number of seats and moving the orchestra forward.” In the old hall, those seated in the far-away balcony had a relationship with the performers that was distant in every way, and seats on the sides offered limited, distorted views. Those seated downstairs, still too far back, had to contend with numerous dead spots and seats where the sound went over one’s head.
In addition to a new auditorium, the Philharmonic also has a fresh approach to repertoire, one that includes not just standard European works but ethnically diverse contemporary pieces aimed to embrace, more global audience. Oyá was an appropriate opener since this “concerto for light designer and electronic musician” (as Balter described it to me) is about acoustics and because it depicts “the Oriba Arusha of Rebirth,” summoned, in Balter’s words, “to baptize and claim this new concert hall, to radically wash it clean from its history and to inundate it with forward-looking energy.” That’s a tall order, but if this brief curtain-raiser couldn’t wash away half a century of frustrating history, it did “inundate” the hall with multicolored lights radiating from panels all over the auditorium and with electronic outbursts in a multichannel-surround sound system.
A different kind of forward-looking piece was Cuban composer Tania León’s Stride, a Pulitzer Prize winner and one of 19 new works by women commissioned by the Philharmonic to mark the centenary of the 19th Amendment. The composer wrote it to honor Susan B. Anthony, who, in León’s words, was always “pushing and pushing and moving forward, walking with firm steps until she got the whole thing done.” Even during meditative moments, this piece strides forward with subtle, unstoppable momentum. A compact concerto for orchestra, it features alternating ensembles — arching brass, eloquent strings, ecstatic bongos and timpani, twittering winds, hymn-like chorales — ricocheting and echoing off each other, incorporating Black, Cuban, and Caribbean motifs. At the end, bells celebrate the passage of the amendment granting women the right to vote. One could clearly hear all the layers, along with tantalizing overtones and reverberations.
The longest recent piece was John Adams’ My Father Knew Charles Ives, reprising Ivesian effects that include soft impressionist moments as well as complex pile-ups of vernacular tunes. Hearing watered-down Ives — a pastiche of a pastiche — makes me simply want to hear the real thing, but I was seduced by the ravishing details — distant piano solos, Christopher Martin’s haunting trumpet soaring over whispered strings — and by the capacity of the hall to handle the most dense climaxes.
At the end came Respighi’s The Pines of Rome, a perfect acoustical demonstration piece. Its familiarity is a positive, since we know how it is supposed to sound, and it was appropriate for this occasion, as the New York Philharmonic gave the U.S. premiere in January 1926 under Arturo Toscanini, his first concert as the orchestra’s conductor. By this time, I knew that the remarkable resonance of the new Geffen would probably make for a spine-tingling experience, and it did.
Zweden has a reputation for micromanaging, but this performance moved forward swiftly, inexorably, yet with plenty of poetry. The imposing Roman pines emerged in different kinds of sound, light, and color, captured in the new hall with hallucinatory vividness — juicy raspberries depicting shrieking children in the Villa Borghese, assaulting our ears to the breaking point; mysterious organum in the catacombs, displaying Geffen’s rich, velvety bass, something we didn’t get in the old venue at all; Anthony McGill’s voluptuous clarinet enfolded by swirling strings and percussion for the Janiculum at night.
The Pines ends in a blaze of glory with a sunrise on the Appian Way, the advancing Consul army blaring out multiple brass, here dispersed at both ends of the new hall, one of the most spectacular crescendos in the repertoire, lifting everyone out of their seats in this go-for-broke performance, a glorious ending to a historic opening night.