I heard neither of the New York Philharmonic’s previous Lincoln Center homes, though I’ve read plenty about their acoustical problems and the way they plagued the orchestra’s presence there. So I can’t say anything in the way of comparing the orchestra’s rebuilt David Geffen Hall with its immediate predecessor, the Avery Fisher Hall. All I can say is that the sound they made in this concert, their first series since the rebuild, was terrific.

Jaap van Zweden conducts the New York Philharmonic in the Wu Tsai Theater, David Geffen Hall,
© Chris Lee

Any new hall draws audiences out of sheer curiosity, so there’s always a special frisson when a new venue is unveiled, but regardless of this the Wu Tsai Theater (the main venue in the building, named after another generous philanthropist) felt like it carried an energy and drive all of its own. The chief characteristic of the sound was clarity, and the choice of music for the opening programme was so good because it played to that, showcasing music that balanced soloistic moments against big shifting textures. The opening movement of John Adams’ My Father Knew Charles Ives, for example, let the trumpet solo sing out cleanly over the rippling orchestral soundscape, and when those marching bands crashed into one another you could hear every detail, with never any sense of aural sludge. The final movement radiated energy and beauty, thanks mostly to Adams’ trademark compositional techniques, but the clarity and energy of the hall surely helped. 

John Adams, Jaap van Zweden and the New York Philharmonic
© Chris Lee

The opening of Respighi's Pines of Rome had me reaching for my sunglasses, so bright was the shine of the sound. The dazzling strings matched the glittering percussion, but the brass still cut through in what seemed like an ideal balance. Even the offstage trumpet in the Catacombs sounded great, and the texture melted into something soft and delicious for nighttime on the Janiculum. The Appian Way predictably raised the roof though, oddly, conductor Jaap Van Zweden placed the extra brass towards the front of the stalls facing the stage, somewhat dulling the visceral impact. 

Like Sage Gateshead, another modern hall with a similar look, the David Geffen brings the sound close up to the ear so that, if you closed your eyes, you’d still be able to visualise exactly where on the stage every component of the sound was being made. That can mean that blend suffers, one of my bugbears with the Sage, and it’s too soon to say whether the NY Phil have overcome that problem. They turned it to their advantage in Tania León’s Stride, however, its bright playing and shifting shards of colour benefiting from the hall’s precise sound-placing. 

Jaap van Zweden conducts the New York Philharmonic
© Chris Lee

Their bold opener, though, turned the hall itself into a Gesamtkunstwerk of performance. Marco Balter’s Oyá used electronic rhythms and lights to play the building itself like an audiovisual instrument. Beams of colour shot across the darkened hall, projected onto different parts of the auditorium like components of a light-up game, played live in the auditorium by its designers to coordinate with the music. The orchestral textures themselves were very slow-moving: most of the piece’s drive came from the electronic layers, which sounded like a hyperactive rain stick, and often seemed to go on just a little too long.

That’s a relatively small complaint overall, though. The New York Philharmonic has a great new home that embraces their sound and lets it come to life across every frequency. It’s too soon to say that they’ve broken the venue’s curse, but based on this the signs are good.