“Safari for sound”: the New York Philharmonic Orchestra refines its new performance space

The New York Philharmonic Orchestra rehearses at David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center on September 19, 2022 in New York City.

The New York Philharmonic is preparing to open its brand new performance space next month – and it’s not just the instruments that need to find the perfect pitch.

The hall itself is trial run, with the famous symphony testing out its parts while acoustics adjust the wall and ceiling panels to ensure warm, rich tones.

It’s “almost like you’re going on a sound safari,” said Jaap van Zweden, music director of the philharmonie since 2018. “It’s really about reinventing the sound of the orchestra.”

The Dutch-born conductor told AFP that for years the dated design of the old hall did little to help the acoustics created by the instruments.

But now, “they find a lot of sound and beauty, it’s a bit new for them… this honeymoon between them and the room needs time.”

The $550 million overhaul of the space that opened in 1962 gained momentum after concerts at David Geffen Hall closed in March 2020.

As halls across the country darkened, the Philharmonic, in partnership with Lincoln Center – the arts complex on Manhattan’s Upper West Side – finally set about rebuilding their home, discussions of which dated back to 1995.

More than 600 construction workers dedicated hours at all times, six days a week with multiple shifts and overtime, to transform the building into a state-of-the-art space with improved acoustics and a more accessible.

The renovation reduces capacity from 2,738 to 2,200, but visibility is improved for nearly every seat in the house.

And some seats are now placed behind the orchestra, whose stage is 24 feet (seven meters) forward of its previous location against the wall, giving concerts a surround sound feel.

The walls were carefully rebuilt and clad in beech wood, explained chief acoustician Paul Scarbrough, to support the room’s low frequencies.

Another new feature is an adjustable acoustic canopy: “We were able to adjust the amount of energy returned to the musicians on the rig so they could hear each other and perform together, versus the amount directed at the audience” , Scarbrough said. .

“So that they have a rich and enveloping experience of the orchestra.”

New “energy”

Working with Van Zweden, a team from the firm Akustiks selected a variety of works “that would bring out different colors, textures, timbres, layering of instruments,” Scarbrough said.

They then began to make subtle adjustments to the hall characteristics to perfect the sound quality on stage and in the audience.

Violinist Yulia Ziskel called the experience and design “incredible”, describing how the orchestra members discuss the sound before any changes were made to the piece, and five minutes later “things would be very different, a suddenly different sound”.

“This room is so flexible to accommodate so many different options,” said the musician, who played with the Phil for 22 seasons.

The tuning of the hall, which began in August, marks a return to basics for the philharmonie, a nomadic symphony since March 2020.

The pandemic, and then the major renovation that turned their old venue into a skeleton of itself, meant that one of America’s oldest musical institutions reopened its subscription season last fall in temporary homes in the other Lincoln Center spaces.

Ethan Bensdorf, a trumpeter about to enter his 15th season with the company, said the comeback was like “buying a new pair of jeans”.

“You’re really excited to wear the new jeans, they might be a little stiff at first,” he said. “But the more you get used to them, the more they adapt to your body.”

The public opening of the philharmonie is set for October 8 and will include a performance by Etienne Charles’ San Juan Hill. The subscription season then opens on October 12 with the world premiere of Brazilian conductor Marcos Balter Oya.

“I can’t wait to see what the public will see,” said musician Bensdorf. “That’s why we play, that’s why we’re musicians, that’s what we get from live music, that’s why live music is so magical.”

“I’m really looking forward to getting that energy back in the room.”