Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Lincoln Center's Money Pit

In the late 1950s, a group of New York's most important civic leaders, led by John D. Rockefeller III, pushed forward the idea of a unified arts campus for the major performing arts organizations in the city.  Previously, these entities were scattered throughout New York:  the Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Opera at its famous old house at 14th and Broadway, City Opera at the New York City Center Theater, and the City Ballet at the City Center of Music and Drama.  This project, a part of Robert Moses' urban renewal projects of the 1950s and 60s, would have a wide-ranging impact on each organization, continuing to 2015 and beyond.

Grandeur of the old Met: the final performance

The Metropolitan Opera, the last of the buildings to be completed, is a behemoth of a theater, with nearly 4,000 seats.  It replaced the "old Met" and its famous "Golden Circle.  Upon moving to Lincoln Center, the Met organization convinced the historical commission to deny the building any landmark status, this despite the plea from Leopold Stokowski, “I beg you to help save this magnificent house.”  Even the protestations of luminaries such as Leonard Bernstein, Mayor John Lindsay, and even the governor, failed to save "the house that Caruso built."  The old Met was demolished in 1967 to avoid any competing company taking over the facility.

The "new" Met, probably the iconic symbol of Lincoln Center, has little of the status of the former house and itself is plagued by the lack of sufficient storage space, one of the qualms of the older house.  These days the new house is best known for having barely survived a major work stoppage in the Spring and Summer of 1914.

City Center, outside and in.
City Opera, called the "people's opera by founder and major, Fiorello LaGuardia, called the New York City Center its home from 1944 to 1964.  The opera's first home was the former Mecca Temple, a Shrine Building eventually taken over by the city after the crash of 1929.  City Center would also host the City Ballet company until 1966 when both organizations moved to the New York State Theater, now the David H. Koch Theater, (capacity c. 2,500) named after the conservative businessman who financed the 1910 renovation.  This reworking of the house was due to the fact that the State Theater had been constructed as a multi-purpose hall for use by the ballet and city opera.  The latter's insistence of acoustical improvement would be the company's downfall:  as a nomadic company during reconstruction, NYCO presented few productions and the audience quickly drifted away, resulting in NYCO's collapse in Fall 2013.

David H. Koch Theater, interior

The Philharmonic's founding dates from 1842.  Performing first in the Apollo Rooms (seating 600), the ensemble would move to Castle Garden, a former fort and eventually immigration center (predating Ellis Island).

Castle Garden Theater
The simple--yet stunning--interior of Carnegie Hall
By the 1880s, the need for a legitimate concert hall was acknowledged throughout the cultural community.  The "Music Hall," later named for its major benefactor, Andrew Carnegie, opened in a gala concert (conducted by Tchaikovsky) on May 5, 1891.  After turning down an opportunity to purchase the building, the "NY Phil" moved from one of the most famous halls in the world to one of the most infamous:  Philharmonic Hall (later Avery Fisher Hall) at Lincoln Center.

Avery Fisher: the hall that keeps on taking...

Avery Fisher Hall....look familiar?
The first of Lincoln Center's halls to open (1962), the originally facility cost $18 million dollars (c. $140 million in 2014 dollars).  It was plagued from acoustical problems from the start, causing conductor George Szell to comment, “Tear it down and start over.”  The hall underwent at least four acoustical "tweakings" from 1963 to 1972, costing in the neighborhood of $2-3 million ($18.5 million today), and still the product was deemed substandard.

Thus, a much more ambitious plan was hatched.  Philanthropist Avery Fisher donate $15 million to help defray the cost for further acoustical improvements.  The actual work would take place in the summer of 1976 when the hall was mostly "dark."  Cyril M. Harris, a professor at Columbia University, was called upon for the acoustical design.  Some of his thoughts on the hall include:

He discussed the hall one part at a time, beginning with the ceiling. Actually it had two ceilings, for, in the course of the 1969 remodelling, a new ceiling had been installed below the original one. But Harris was discussing the new ceiling only. Its shape was not good, Harris said, because it was essentially flat-a series of smooth plywood surfaces-and it was also too light in weight. It was not a good sound diffuser, for it absorbed some of the low frequencies. Harris thought it would have to come down. Then, the basic shape of the hall was strange -- not rectangular but curved, like a Coca-Cola bottle -- and the faces of the very long side balconies presented a pair of large concave surfaces. Such surfaces either cause echoes or concentrate sound in one area at the expense of other areas and so create dead spots. Some large concave surfaces can be rescued by putting bumps all over them, but the side-balcony faces needed bumps far bigger than they could accommodate. The side balconies, Harris believed, would have to be removed. As for the side walls, he did not approve of the way they were constructed, and he regarded their shape as wrong like the ceiling, they were not diffusing sound properly. The best thing to do with the side walls, Harris thought, would be to get rid of them. The rear wall, which was also curved, was creating a concave surface set of problems of its own. The rear wall would also have to be eliminated. The profile of the concrete floor, as it was shown in the drawings, was "far from optimal," as Harris put it. Part of it needed to be chopped away. Part of it needed to be raised by the addition of more concrete. But even then, Harris said, the floor would still be concrete, and in his opinion a wooden floor was essential to a good concert hall. The concrete floor, with its profile corrected, could serve as a foundation for a wooden floor, with an air space between the concrete and the wood. Though not much, Harris's verdict on the floor was the nicest thing he had to say about the hall.

Having demolished the ceiling, the side balconies, the side walls, the rear wall, and all but part of the floor, Harris had only the stage left. The shape of the stage, he explained to Ames, was acoustically undesirable; it was constructed in such a way that it absorbed a lot of the orchestra's low-frequency bass tones. The stage, Harris thought, would best be done away with, too.

This plan necessitated a great deal of work in a very short time.  This included demolition of the entire interior and a total rebuild--in less than five months.

Avery Fisher amidst the construction
The hall was completed by the planned gala reopening on October 19.  Still, the results were less than favorable and it has been determined that a major problem included the decision to add some 400 seats to the original design.  When the entire Lincoln Center complex was renovated around 2010 (for some $1.5 billion), the Philharmonic Hall was excluded, due to necessary work and excessive costs.  On November 13, 2014, Lincoln Center officials announced their intention to remove Avery Fisher's name from the Hall and sell its naming rights to the highest bidder as part of a $500 million (significantly more than the cost of the original hall) fund-raising campaign for its refurbishment.  Said Lincoln Center chairwoman Katherine Farley,"It will be an opportunity for a major name on a great New York jewel." Fisher's three children agreed to the deal for $15 million.  Not bad--get an extra $5 million for doing nothing!

Beginning in 2019 (or so), the building will close for two years and all that will remain of the original will be its exterior shell.  One only has to hope this will improve this boondoggle of boondoggles.

Acoustician Christopher Blair offers a ray of hope:

With today’s improved knowledge, there is no physical reason why a shoebox concert hall of the basic interior dimensions and volume of Avery Fisher Hall shouldn’t possess magnificent acoustics. Some of the problem lies in the presence of the third level of the side balconies, which both reflects too much early energy to the floor and effectively destroys a potentially resonant “hard-cap” in the room....

Another problem in the design of Avery Fisher Hall is the limited volume of the stage enclosure surrounding the orchestra platform. Sound levels on this stage are much higher than they should be for the orchestra to hear itself and the room response well (“forward masking” again rearing its ugly head). Experiments have been made in recent years with Mostly Mozart concerts of moving the orchestra farther out into the room. The result creates less masking and better balance of early to late energy for both orchestra and audience. This approach should make even more of an auditory improvement with larger orchestras and is worthy of additional study.

* * * * * * * * * *

Thus, Philharmonic/Avery Fisher/whatever they're going to call it Hall, remains imperfect after millions of dollars of alterations.  Now it's said that $500 million is needed; one has to wonder why they just don't tear the whole thing down.  Either way, the Philharmonic is going to experience its own two-year nomadic existence and Carnegie--with its own busy schedule--probably will not be an option.  One can only hope that a great orchestra ends up with a great hall:  that or move to Boston!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Europe's largest city: five world-class orchestras and not a decent hall among them

Royal Albert Hall, home of the Proms (1871)
Capacity: over 5,500--suitable for a symphony?
At the turn of the twentieth century, London boasted three orchestras (note that most U.S. cities are lucky to have one): the Covent Garden, Queen's Hall, and the Philharmonic Society, the organization that commissioned Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.  Each would eventually morph into other ensembles.  The driving factor behind symphonic music-making in the city would be conductor Sir Thomas Beecham.

Edward Elgar at the helm of the LSO, Queen's Hall

The London Symphony, founded in 1904, was established by disgruntled players from Henry Wood's Queen's Hall Orchestra, who objected to what they deemed unfair labor practices.  The LSO has been built as a cooperative ensemble, wherein the players are managers and owners (similar to practices in Berlin, Vienna, and other cities).  The orchestra initially performed at Queen's Hall.  During the First War, large donations from Thomas Beecham kept the orchestra afloat.  Although the cooperative would long court Beecham as a permanent conductor, he refused to work for an ensemble with which he would not have sole control.

The British Broadcasting Company (BBC) founded its own orchestra in 1930 as the first permanent salaried orchestra in London (it is also the only of London's major ensembles that is not self-governed).  With Adrian Boult as its founding conductor (Beecham also spurned the BBC), the orchestra has survived a "fallow period" for four decades beginning around 1950, during which time the orchestra was unable to attract the talent drawn to the other London ensembles.  With the arrival of Andrew Davis the orchestra has performed an amazing turnaround and has only recently regained its world status.

The London Philharmonic, founded by (none other than) Thomas Beecham and Malcolm Sargent in 1932, readily took on London's musical establishment.  The founders' ambition was to build an orchestra the equal of any European or American rival. Between 1932 and the Second World War the LPO was widely judged to have succeeded in this regard.

The unrecognizable remains of Queen's Hall.
Of course, the Second World War wrecked havoc on London's cultural scene and the famed Queen's Hall was destroyed during the Blitz.  It was not rebuilt.

Post-war London has seen two more orchestras pop up (the Royal Philharmonic--yet another Beecham ensemble--and the Philharmonia).  The addition of rebuilt or newly constructed concert halls should have provided happy homes for the five major orchestras as well as the numerous chamber orchestras dotting the landscape.  Unfortunately....

The Barbican Centre, reportedly Europe's largest arts complex, houses both the LSO and the BBC Symphony.  Its conglomeration of brutalist structures, in an aerial view below, was voted "London's ugliest building" in a 2003 poll.

The Barbican--huh?
And it's no better once you stumble through the doors (don't you love those colors?).

The LPO has found its way to the Royal Festival Hall, a 1950's monstrosity.

And one has to wonder what Queen Elizabeth thinks of the hall that bears her name.  It might just challenge the Barbican in ugliness.
Fit for Her Highness?  I think not.
So many orchestras.  So many concert halls.  And none of the latter worthy of the former...Perhaps Sir Simon Rattle will come riding in on a white horse (after his announced departure from the Berlin Phil following the 2018 season) and somehow save the day.  Maybe, just one day, London could get something like this ("the hall that Simon built" in Birmingham):

Them Brits sure like red!
TOMORROW:  The boondoggle of boondoggles:  Avery Fischer Hall, or whatever they're going to call it.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The hall that would challenge the tried and true...

Among the cities ravaged by the Second World War, few suffered the devastating destruction wrought upon the city of Berlin (although one can certainly not discount the siege of Leningrad and others).  Beginning with Hitler's own burning of the Reichstag in 1933 and not ending until 12 years later, the tragedy of the war would be compounded by another war, an idealogical one between the pro-democracy West and the Communist Soviet Union.

The once-beautiful city lay in ruins and would remain much that way until the fall of Communism and the reunification of 1989.

A dead soldier amidst the scoured Brandenburg gate.

Only scars remain of the once beautiful boulevard, Unter der Linden

Not only would the city take decades to fully recover (one might argue that it is still an on-going process), its cultural institutions were also in disarray.  Even though the lofty Berlin Philharmonic would continue to offer performances during the war, its conductor, Wilhelm Furtwangler, would find himself the target of the "de-Nazification" efforts of the Post-War allies.  He was eventually cleared and resumed his position, although not until 1952.

The long-time concert hall of the Philharmonic, now known as the late (old) Philharmonie, was actually an old skating rink repurposed for its use at the end of the nineteenth century.  It was located on Bern Strasse and would remain in use until the bombing on January 30, 1944.  The hall resembled the classic "shoebox" style reminiscent of the great halls of Vienna (Musikverein), Amsterdam (Concertgebouw), and Boston's Symphony Hall.

The classic interior of the Alte Philharmonie, Berlin
Following the war, the Philharmonic, which Furtwangler had built into a world-class virtuoso ensemble, lived a rather nomadic existence, often performing in the art deco Titania Palast and recording at the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Dahlem.

Furtwangler rehearses in the Titania Palast

A performance at the Jesus-Christos-Kirche, Dahlem.
By 1957, the need for a new hall  built expressly for the orchestra was obvious.  The new Philharmonie had to be an edifice worthy of its orchestra, and the design put forward by architect Hans Scharoun included one of the most stunning interiors yet conceived.  It's "vineyard" style of seating--wherein the audience actually surrounds the ensemble, has become particularly popular, and it has been emulated by modern halls, including Sydney Opera House (1973), Denver's Boettcher Concert Hall (1978), the Gewandhaus in Leipzig (1981), Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles (2003), and the recently completed Philharmonie de Paris.

The Berlin Philharmonie
But, to me, one thing is missing: that of an exterior aesthetic appeal.  Unlike the hall's astonishing interior design (and, apparently, outstanding acoustics), the exterior is tackiness personified, resembling a cross between the Paris "spaceship" and a 1960s mobile home facade.  Examining the entrance does not (again) reveal this to be a place of invitation.  Again, I'm old-fashioned, I guess.

UPDATE:  Rebuilding Germany:

Stadtschloss Berlin, under reconstruction

Schauspielhaus, Berlin (reopened 1984)

Old Gewandhaus, Leipzig

A proclamation of brutalism:  the New Gewandhaus
Guess you can't get everything right...
The remains of Dresden, February 1945
Semper Oper, Dresden

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

A bold statement or just another ugly building

The news from Paris--the vicious attack on Charlie Hebdo--that continues to play out in cities across the globe is indicative of how deeply a city--and a nation--can be affected by global terrorism.  But, buried in the headlines is another event: the opening of a new concert hall on the outskirts of the city. Reviews are mixed.

Philharmonie de Paris: Jean Nouvel's €390m spaceship crash-lands in France  Oliver Wainwright, the Guardian

You mean it looks like this?

Ivan Hewett, the Telegraph

J. S. Marcus, Wall Street Journal

Colin Marrs, Architects Journal

This is the building in question, the Philharmonie de Paris:

That damn Louvre Pyramid...
This monstrosity joins the Parisian landscape which now includes:

AND the grotesque Opera Bastille

The specs on the new hall are as appalling as its architecture.
  • Cost:  Estimate--170M Euros; Actual--381M Euros.  That's $488 M USD
  • Construction overrun:  two years late
Even the project's architect is more than a bit upset:

Running two years late and three times over its original budget, the €390m concert hall was still surrounded by an army of workmen fanatically fixing cladding panels to the facade when the conductor took to his dais on Wednesday evening. But Nouvel was conspicuously absent. “The architecture is martyred, the details sabotaged,” he wrote in a blistering editorial in Le Monde that day, describing the finished result as a kind of architecture “that oscillates between counterfeiting and tampering”.  Colin Marrs

Marrs goes on to write, If it is a bewildering arrival in the city, it finds solace here among a zoo of other architectural misfits. The Parc de la Villette is the work of Bernard Tschumi, French godfather of the punkish deconstructivist style, whose bright red follies dot a landscape punctuated by a plethora of strange experiments from the 80s and 90s. There is a mirrored geodesic dome and a hangar-like science museum, a tensile rubbery performance arena and an undulating conservatoire – and, right next to the Philharmonie, the wild postmodern assemblage of Christian de Portzamparc’s Cité de la Musique, already home to a 1,000-seat concert hall.

Many commentators insist that, like other structures within the French capital, the Philharmonie will "grow on us (and them)",  given the time.  Call me old-fashioned, but the outside is as important as whatever happens inside, for the entire space needs to be inviting, something this cash-landed spaceship will never be.

TOMORROW:  Berlin and other German architectural atrocities....

Saturday, January 17, 2015

If you build it, will they come?

Time for an eye examination.  I've been through several of those in the past year, what with two (extremely successful!) cataract surgeries.  Ready to start?


Ok, so which one is better:  number one?

Or number two?

Number three?

Or number four?

Number five?

Or number six?

Number seven?

Or number eight?

Number nine?

Or number ten?

Um......wait a minute.....