The issues surrounding Avery Fisher Hall, home of the New York Philharmonic, could make up a novel. Concert halls such as the Boston Symphony Hall (completed 1900), the Vienna Musikvereinssall (1870), and the Leipzig Gewandhaus (1885) are famous for their impeccable acoustics. The Avery Fisher Hall, completed in 1962, is not. The hall has gone through major renovations to improve its infamously problematic acoustic quality.
When we went there October of 2011, the hall had just undergone its latest renovation the year before. The New York Times describes the trials and tribulations of the concert hall as it tries to improve what had become something of a bad example in the (dark?) art and science of acoustic design.
Bravo, New York Phil
Acoustics aside, my husband wanted to see in particular Lorin Maazel—former child prodigy and known for his technical mastery—conduct the New York Phil. The night’s program consisted of Mozart’s Symphony No. 38 in D major, Prague (1768) and Concerto in C major for Flute & Harp (1778), featuring Robert Langevin on the flute and Nancy Allen on the harp. We read the playbill for some interesting notes. It seemed that Mozart felt under-appreciated in the music capital of Vienna, but at Prague he was showered with undiluted adulation. The symphony was his gift to the city. The concerto for flute and violin was a commission from the flute-playing aristocrat Duc de Guines (1735-1806), who had a musically gifted, harp virtuoso of a daughter that Mozart tutored in composition.
We quite enjoyed both performances. Maazel is over 80 years of age but you wouldn’t know it unless you did some arithmetic. He was music director of the New York Phil for seven years (2002-2009) and obviously he knew them well and they him. My husband summed up their performance of Symphony No. 38 as “business as usual”. As for me, I liked the cheerful flute and harp concerto, elegantly played by Allen, a prominent harpist and New York native. The Canadian flutist Langevin was expressive; I felt that he truly enjoyed playing this particular piece.
All right, now that I’ve commented on the music, let’s move on back to the concert hall itself. No, wait. After the intermission the next performance were two works by Debussy, Juex: Poeme danse (1912-13) and Iberia, from Images for Orchestra (1905-08). I know that Debussy fans will pelt me with rotten vegetables when I say this, but the only Debussy works I could honestly say I enjoy and would not mind listening to again and again are Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun and Clair de Lune. For the rest of his works I struggle with all the turbulent, impressionist, symbolist complexity. So it was for my husband—who enjoys Debussy and the other transitional composers of that era (and beyond)—that I sat there and grit my teeth.
Of course, this is all about personal taste (or the lack thereof, as the case may be). The New York Phil was their polished, brilliant self.
The Concert Hall Acoustics Issue
So going back to the acoustics issue. It is said that Fisher Hall was originally planned to have a seating capacity of 2,400, but a change came late in the planning process, expanding the hall to hold 2,700 and effectively ruining the acoustical quality.
I have not been to the legendary concert halls of Europe (or Boston) so I cannot say how bad Fisher Hall’s sounded compared to the great halls. The halls I frequent are the ones in and around the city of Tokyo. There’s the NHK Hall (1972), a relative behemoth with a seating capacity of about 3,600. I only go there because it’s home to the NHK Symphony Orchestra, and whether I sit in front or on the balcony I always feel that the place is way too big for a symphony orchestra. But while the acoustic quality is not terrible, the lounge area’s ceiling is low, the upholstery is shabby; the place could do well with an interior facelift.
The opposite of NHK Hall is the relatively new, shiny Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall (1997). It’s all modern, with plenty of natural wood paneling and a seating capacity of about 1,600. Here the Tokyo City Philharmonic Orchestra plays its subscription concerts. At one time I sat in front about five rows away from the orchestra; the sound was so loud my ears hurt and they were still ringing an hour or so after the performance. This place is way too small for a full symphony orchestra! The next time I was there I made sure I stayed away from the stage and chose an upper tier seat; this time the sound was rather scrappy. Was it the overly high, non-conventional, pyramid-shaped ceiling? I don’t know but this time my ears didn’t like it either.
Then there’s the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan (1961), with a 2,300 seating capacity distributed over five tiers. This is where the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra performs, but it’s also a multipurpose hall that hosts the ballet and other musical performances. I watched Daniel Barenboim do a solo piano recital here and it sounded magnificent. The Tokyo Met sounded good, too. I have zero acoustic complaints for this hall; the only complaint I have is that the place is even shabbier than the NHK Hall.
My favorite concert hall in Japan is one that’s in the city where I live, the Yokohama Minato Mirai Hall (1998). With a seating capacity of about 2,000, this concert hall feels “just right”. It’s a beauty, too, in and out. While I don’t think any concert hall here in Japan can beat Tokyo Opera City in terms of surrounding facilities (spectacular night views, restaurants, shops, accessibility), the Minato Mirai Hall has a bit of mellow warmth to it. It is shoe-box shaped with seats surrounding the stage. In this hall the sound and views are intimate but not confining.
It Wasn’t Bad at All
So, going back to the Avery Fisher Hall, how did it sound? Good, I’d say. We took an upper level seat above right of the orchestra. I could watch the musicians play while getting a good view of the entire hall. My ears had no complaints regarding acoustics. I asked my husband how the hall sounded to him. “It was okay”, he said, “but not nearly as good as The Met.” He was talking, of course, of The Metropolitan Opera, performing in their own hall within the Lincoln Center complex. The Met is another story altogether, so we’ll get to it in another article.
Whatever the issues with the acoustics, Fisher Hall looked good everywhere else: the modern facade with its expansive glass walls, the lobby’s marble-paneled walls and stone floors, a contemporary sculptural installation decorating the foyer’s ceiling, and a large black-and-white portrait of Avery Fisher, the philanthropist for whom the hall was named.
Needless to say, acoustic design is an incredibly complicated matter. It involves everything from the shape and location of the hall, the adjustable/movable parts of the auditorium, type of materials, seating capacity, fire and building codes, where you sit, and yes, the size of the orchestra and the kind of music performed. Minus the differences in personal taste and holding constant the skill of the musicians and conductor, it’s not surprising to listen to the same orchestra in the exact same hall and think they sounded better playing, say, a romantic Brahms piece than an expressionist Schoenberg.
You hear of concert halls so scientifically “advanced” that they appear cold and clinical. Then there are the legendary concert halls in Europe built long before the science of acoustics has been written about in books, but everyone who’s ever sat there says it was like listening to angels sing. For those of us that are not hanging out in Vienna or Boston most of the time, we make do with what is in our neighborhood. These halls might not be classified as great, but they are good enough for us.
What About You?
What’s your favorite concert hall and why? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section!
Music to Consider
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