The Phil, Emptied

What it takes to give Geffen Hall a new (and, fingers crossed, better) sound.

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

When I first stepped into the void of Geffen Hall in mid-construction, a year or so before next fall’s reopening night, I had the impression of a room that had been stripped to bare concrete. On closer inspection, virtually every component I could see was new: the stage jutting out into the room with a high-ceilinged shell above, the risers and lifts to arrange performers in various configurations, the balcony snaking behind the musicians, even the raked floor of the auditorium’s orchestra level. Only the chevron-patterned ceiling remained from the old, pre-Geffen days of Avery Fisher Hall, though even that will eventually be hidden by a cloud of metal mesh. All these elements add up to a $550 million gamble that, after decades of disappointment and making do, the next iteration of a troubled room will be acoustically superb.

Renovation is a weak term for this undertaking, even setting aside the reconfigured lobbies, halls, and backstage areas. Acousticians scrutinized every block and beam in the auditorium and the architects bent their design to the properties of sound. Paul Scarbrough, a principal at Akustiks, developed a menu of specifications that the architects at Diamond Schmitt translated into a multisensory aesthetic experience. Akustiks then built a scale model of the design, fitted out with tiny speakers, microphones, and sensors to test principles in the real world.

The changes will be profound. The New York Philharmonic and Lincoln Center agreed to sacrifice about 500 seats, bringing the capacity down to the sweet spot of 2,200. In the old hall, the orchestra was constricted by a low-ceilinged box that sent reflections pinging around the musicians, assaulting them with their own clangor. A higher ceiling should help project the music towards the audience. Other architectural features will guide and nurture the music as it travels above the audience, then makes its way down to ear level. Before, the sound got trapped beneath balconies that were deep and low, or banged against the back wall, creating harsh, angular blasts. In the new configuration, the walls flare out slightly, the upper balcony is almost entirely gone, and the lowest wraps around the back of the stage.

A perfect concert hall is meant to flatter a musical performance like a well-tailored suit. If the architecture is doing its job, the strings are swaddled in warm, forgiving cashmere, the brass glistens and blends without sounding garish, and the amalgam of 100 simultaneous blurts, scrapes, taps, and pluckings reaches even the most distant ears as a pleasing sonic package. Acoustical design is based on precedent, and the venerated models are the same today as they were when Philharmonic Hall opened in 1962 or when it was remodeled and renamed Avery Fisher Hall in 1973. The great shoebox-shaped rooms of the late 19th century, like Vienna’s Musikverein Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw and Boston’s Symphony Hall, remain the diamond standard, despite their separate idiosyncrasies. “We were thinking about the Philharmonic’s reputation for speaking with power and authority, but we also tried to look back to its history and the sound of the orchestra before it even moved to Lincoln Center, when it was playing at Carnegie Hall,” says Scarbrough.

Until recently, pursuing that 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 out in all directions, bounces off every surface, ricochets from balcony to wall to ceiling and back again in a constantly changing sequence of circular ripples that cross and overlap in three dimensions. A sound’s journey is wildly complex, especially because each encounter with a different material—wood, plaster, paint, concrete— alters its range of frequencies or the energy with which it travels.

In recent decades, more copious data and computer modeling have made acoustic design more predictable, but there’s still a gap between understanding how an old room works and reproducing their qualities in a new one. The way a microphone registers sound waves—not the same thing as a listener’s experience of music—is driven by capricious variables like the precise proportions of the space, the number of absorptive human bodies in the seats, and the joins between surface and structure. In the old Geffen, thin wooden wall panels were affixed to 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 tones will crash into a wavy wooden surface bonded to concrete block. Nicely diffused, those deep sounds should wander back to the audience’s ears, giving the orchestra a velvety strength.

All those alterations are designed to do more than change the trajectory of sonic energy, though. They will also reshape the experience of audience and musician—the quasi-mystical energy exchange that links several thousand brains, processing immense quantities of sonic and visual data. “A hall is a living space, and it changes in the same way that a brand-new string instrument doesn’t sound as good right out of the shop as it does a couple of years later,” says Alan Gilbert, who led the Philharmonic from 2009 to 2017. “The wood settles, it relaxes.” He should know: as music director of the NDR Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, Germany, he conducts regularly in one of Europe’s newest, newsiest, and costliest contemporary halls, which celebrates its fifth birthday in January.

Even as the walls and floors respond to music, musicians adapt to the architecture, adjusting their techniques almost subliminally, the way hikers shift their weight on an uneven trail. A hall designed to an orchestra’s specifications still exerts a certain independent power, revealing players’ habits, say, or demanding more precision. Even a bad hall can have a perversely positive effect on music. Gilbert mentions the Philadelphia Orchestra, which for most of its history struggled to be heard in the notoriously inert Academy of Music. (It moved into the new and not entirely successful Verizon Hall in 2001.) The bow-arm muscle that string players used to compensate for the architecture’s failings is often credited with the orchestra’s celebrated rich golden tone. The foibles of Avery Fisher Hall made themselves felt, too. “There wasn’t enough space on the stage around the orchestra, but at the same time it was a massive hall. The farthest balconies felt like they were in New Jersey—and that encouraged the orchestra to play big and fill the space,” Gilbert says.

The redesigned Geffen is meant to undercut that vastness but not mute the orchestra’s huge voice. “Every seat in the hall will be at least 30 percent closer, and the use of risers on the stage means that the audience can see the face of every musician. That makes the experience much more visceral,” says the Philharmonic’s president Deborah Borda. Architect Gary McCluskie, a principal at Diamond Schmitt, points out  that the impression of closeness depends not only on physical distance but also on the way the hall’s contours draw attention towards the stage. “The curve of the balconies accentuates the sense that the architecture wraps the orchestra; it’s a device to help communicate what the acoustic is doing.”

Next fall, after a trial period when moveable panels are fine-tuned and musicians internalize the building’s quirks, comes the nervous, rocket-launch moment when the conductor gives the first public downbeat. Uncertainty will hang in the air along with the opening chords: Does all that money and sophisticated technology, those decades’ worth of wisdom and years of labor make a symphony sound more richly musical than it did before? It’s a question no sensor can answer.

What It Takes to Give David Geffen Hall a New Sound