David Geffen Hall, the acoustically challenged concert home of the New York Philharmonic, is set to undergo a $550 million renovation that promises a more intimate space and better listening experience for fans of the world renowned orchestra, according to an announcement on Monday.
“At long last, David Geffen Hall will be a superb and connected musical venue," said Deborah Borda, the president and CEO of the New York Philharmonic, in a joint press release with Lincoln Center.
Of the total construction cost, $360 million, or two-thirds, has already been raised, according to officials.
The project, which is slated to begin in 2022, comes after years of unrealized plans to remedy the notoriously uneven listening experience in the venue. In 2017, Lincoln Center and New York Philharmonic scrapped a more ambitious design that called for lowering the auditorium and involved Thomas Heatherwick, the British architect behind Hudson Yard's Vessel and the still-under-construction Pier 55 ("Little Island"). At the time, David Geffen, the media mogul for whom the hall was renamed in recognition of his $100 million gift to jumpstart the renovation, criticized wealthy New Yorkers for failing to support one of its most prized cultural institutions.
“New York deserves to have the best concert hall for the Philharmonic," Geffen told Times. "New York should have the best of everything."
Under the more modest redesign, the stage will be moved 25 feet forward, bringing all the seats closer to the orchestra, and will include wrap-around seating, an arrangement that has been used by the Philharmonic during its Mostly Mozart festivals. The number of seats will go down to 2,200 seats from 2,738.
Diamond Schmitt Architects, which originally partnered with Heatherwick for the previous design, will be responsible for the concert hall. Tod Williams and Billie Tsien have been hired to design the public spaces, which include a lobby that will double in size and a media streaming wall that can be used to show concerts and events in real time.
Henry Timms, the president and CEO of Lincoln said the redesigned public spaces "will allow our communities — from visiting schools to concertgoers wanting to stay for a drink — to connect with each other."
The acoustical problems with Geffen Hall, originally built in 1962 as Philharmonic Hall, are well known in classical music circles. Despite a gut renovation in 1979, during which the venue was renamed Avery Fisher Hall, the sound quality has been a steady complaint among audience members and musicians, who have had to adapt their playing styles to suit the venue.
"This is something people have griped about forever," said Zev Kane, the host and assistant producer of WQXR's "The New Release Show," which spotlights new classical recordings.
He added: "The acoustic experience of the hall rarely matches the caliber of the orchestra."
In the same press release, Jaap van Zweden, the music director of the New York Philharmonic, applauded the project as a dream come true for the musicians. "Our collective wish is now being granted, and we are very grateful to all who have brought this project forward," he said. "We are especially hopeful that the new configuration, being surrounded by our audience, will bring us all closer to the music.”
Having the seats closer to the orchestra should facilitate a richer sound quality. Currently, the sound thins out towards the back of the venue, i.e., "the cheap seats." As noted by the New York Times, after the renovation, fewer than 10 percent of seats will be more than 100 feet from the stage; currently one third of the seats in the current hall are located at that distance.
Among the important details of the renovation is the staging of the construction, which calls for limited interruptions to the orchestra's schedule. Work will begin in May 2022, upon which the Philharmonic will move out. It will then return in November for an abbreviated season on the new stage of the still unfinished hall. The venue will shut down again from May 2023 through February 2024, during which time the orchestra will play at other New York City concert halls, including Carnegie Hall and City Center.
The full completion of Geffen Hall is scheduled for March 2024.
In his review of the design, Justin Davidson, the classical music and architecture critic for New York magazine, called the current plan an "architectural turducken" that combines the work of three architectural teams.
Davidson, however, argued that more important than how it looks is how the new hall will sound to classical music aficionados and first-timers alike.
"The auditorium’s design doesn’t promise a masterpiece, but it could look like a truck stop if it sounded like heaven," he wrote.