Sitting onstage, there was a warmth and a resonance that didn’t exist before,” says New York Philharmonic cellist Nathan Vickery following the exploratory “tuning” week this past August. That’s when Music Director Jaap van Zweden, acousticians, and the players themselves gathered in the new Wu Tsai Theater to fine-tune the space in anticipation of the opening of the new David Geffen Hall in October. Coming two years ahead of schedule, it was one of the few silver linings around the clouds of the global pandemic.
Who better to evaluate the changes than the musicians themselves? Judith LeClair, the NY Phil’s Principal Bassoon since 1981, knows the hall intimately. “At first, we were concerned that the sound we were hearing in the middle of the orchestra was a little dry,” she says, “but when we came back after the first break, when the acousticians moved some of the panels, it was miraculous. All of a sudden it was resonant!” Vickery agrees: “There was a real bass sound that carried and sustained.”
The players, who sat in audience seats when not playing, found the sound there to be equally exciting. “There was a clarity—quite visceral, actually—everywhere in the hall, even under the balconies and off to the sides,” says Vickery. “People who went up in the Parterre, behind the Orchestra, said the sound was even better there.”
The acoustics are just part of the sweeping redesign. Adjustable risers vary the height of the musicians’ seats, and the rake of the floor has been adjusted to ensure the audience can see the face of each player. “The risers are great,” Vickery feels. “It’s nice to be able to see the whole Orchestra, and as a player you can see your colleagues on stage much better as well.”
With the stage pulled 25 feet forward into the auditorium, listeners are 30 percent closer to performers. “In the old hall, it felt like the orchestra was off in a little box,” Vickery admits. “With the stage moved further into the center, even the seats all the way at the back feel much closer. It will really help the audience feel connected to us, and we’ll be able to feel that engagement. As a musician, it’s a really special thing to be able to feel the electricity of active listening.”
And with seats surrounding the entire platform, some can enjoy a bird’s-eye view of the conductor’s face. “It’s going to be nice having people behind us,” says LeClair. “I think it’s more intimate.”
The new hall’s shapely contours and curved balconies create a wraparound effect that draws the gaze toward the stage, while state-of-the-art versatility allows the hall to present semi-staged opera, dance, and more.
During that tuning week, the Orchestra trialed everything from Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony to Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra — always a test of an ensemble’s inner ear. As they played, the height and angles of the acoustic panels above the orchestra were tweaked for optimum sound, both on and off the platform. Weeks later van Zweden said: “This sounds like the Berlin Philharmonie!”
The musicians described the old hall as treble heavy and unforgiving. “If you were playing a bass instrument, it was quite a challenge,” says Vickery. “It was hard to hear a cohesive string sound across the stage, and it was always a challenge at the back to hear what was happening at the front.”
“In the old hall it was difficult for wind players to make clean, soft entrances,” LeClair shares. “Starting a note was like walking on eggshells. Now everything feels warm and natural. I can hear the strings better too, especially the celli, which is important for the bassoons.”
The orchestra was lucky enough to have Emanuel Ax drop by for some gentler music-making by way of a Mozart piano concerto. “The sound was so transparent,” Vickery recalls. “It was wonderful to hear the concert hall turn into a recital hall. We have so many options now.”
The sessions began with the Berceuse from Stravinsky’s "The Firebird," which opens with a long, slow bassoon solo. “It was easier for me to articulate the first note, and easier to project into the hall,” says LeClair. “I definitely want to play 'The Rite of Spring.' It’s going to make starting the first note much more satisfying.”