As the redevelopment of Lincoln Center continues, concertgoers face nightly challenges: squeezing past an unexpected wood partition that was somewhere else last time, finding a hall’s makeshift entrance of the week, gauging the danger of walking in traffic behind flimsy barricades. (Lincoln Center Chairman Frank Bennack spoke of “one last chance to be hit by a motorcycle”.)
But, as of February 22, they don’t have Alice Tully Hall to kick around any more. Its yet unlandscaped areas may sport yellow keep-away ribbons; but, after almost two years of reconstruction, a new three-story glass structure hovers over Broadway (one entrance mercifully near the subway) housing an airy lobby and a warm rosy-brown hall. Its modern acoustic, unsullied by noise from the subway or heating system, is its message for the future: clear and serviceable.
“It’s essentially the same physical space”, said Lincoln Center President Reynold Levy at a Tully preview, where he spoke of “preparing Lincoln Center for the next century”. The $159 million renovation, “50 years after President Eisenhower placed a shovel in the ground”, is a quarter of the entire cost—a West Side story that embodies a reconfiguration of the Broadway entrance to a multi-windowed box office adjoining an all-day public cafe—a bar for reading or chatting over tea and chicken pot pie.
The architectural firm of Diller, Scofidio, & Renfro, along with acoustician Mark Holden, have re-imagined the main hall, newly named the Starr Theater, with acoustic panels that can be lowered from the ceiling and sides (which also have moveable drapes) and will eventually be set into position. Parts of the stage, expanded to the size of Avery Fisher Hall, can be raised and lowered, and the removable stage area adds up to 150 seats. An upstairs patron lounge has displaced the Juilliard School’s bookstore (which is not far away), and the organ is gone (return date unspecified).
Tully’s two-week reopening celebration was probably the most ambitious ever for a chamber music hall. Venerable and emerging soloists, chamber groups, and orchestral ensembles from several countries performed a half-millennium of music—some for free. There was even film.
“First Look” was a concert sampler, knowingly devised by Jane Moss to show off the hall with music from the 15th Century up to Osvaldo Golijov. In the pre-performance stillness, a blush-colored LED-light stripe encircled the whole hall. The view from the front row of the balcony is sweeping, though light to read the program was poor (adjustment was promised). Gambist Jordi Savall and his ensemble Hesperion XXI played a Sephardic Invocation and three Middle-Eastern flavored romances that wouldn’t have been harmed by a belly dancer.
Leon Fleisher, having regained mobility in his right hand (such loss is a special hell for pianists), is performing again with two hands at age 80. (His latest CD, “The Journey”, is on Vanguard.) Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor profited from rare introspection after Fleisher’s decades of exploring lefthand arrangements.
Because of a back injury, cellist David Finckel of the Emerson Quartet was replaced in Golijov’s Brazilian-flavored 1999 lament, Mariel, by Maya Beiser, who has been called the queen of the post-minimalist cello. Beiser and fleet-footed marimbist Tomora Aomori were spotlighted on the darkened stage.
The 19th Century was oddly absent, until the Bartok that was to have been played by Finckel with the Emerson Quartet was replaced with Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge by the Brentano Quartet, who have been taking it around and were pleased to fill in. So, two problems solved, with style: the large-scale Beethoven is difficult and forward-looking. A week later the orchestral version was played by the German Chamber Philharmonic of Bremen.
Stravinsky’s Octet for Winds with soloists from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center got a full, peppy reading, as did his festive Pulcinella Suite. In that piece they were joined by David Robertson and the Juilliard Orchestra, which responded well to its energy and zip.
Old stars shone at the Chamber Music Society’s “Coming Home”, a wide-ranging program that started with the first piece the ensemble played in Tully Hall 40 years ago (a Trio Sonata now thought to be by Bach colleague Johann Gottlieb Goldberg). There were also two commissions for the occasion. Good acoustics from center seats (Tully has never had a center aisle) indicated that the panels are ready to be locked in place—it sounded right, and no subway noise. (A number of rows preserve the leg room Miss Tully insisted on.)
AnTHem (note the capitalized initials of Alice Tully Hall) was a premiere commissioned from George Tsontakis, who has learned how to manage the system and has prizes to show for it. A shimmering French-style bagatelle for four instruments, the piece lasted a couple of minutes and verged on cuteness.
Composing music to order is William Bolcom’s strong suit, and Shakyamani, the other commissioned work, was inspired by the request for a frank acoustical display. Gentle Asian fusion is apparently yet another skill of this chameleon composer. Players were stationed at lighted stands around the blushstriped hall, and onstage percussion included a windcatcher and bowed cymbal.
Beethoven’s Septet was a reminder of what concerts used to be for. After sitting for almost three hours of other stuff, I still wanted it to go on.
A sweet Schubert chamber recital, part of an annual free Juilliard lunchtime series, drew a hall-aware audience that packed into the thousand seats a half-hour early. There was no LED stripe, and house lights remained on. When the stage is not extended, row F is fine; if it is, even row H on the side is too close to see.
Messiaen’s From the Canyons to the Stars, composed for the Juilliard Orchestra after the composer’s visit to Zion National Park, gave students their 15 minutes (closer to a wearing 90) in the sun. In a way, Messiaen never let go of the sublime listening expanse that engendered his Quartet for the End of Time. Firmly in his birds-brass-Bible mode, Canyons has exotic light percussion and a piano part so taxing that pianists changed off after Part 2. Robertson, a Messiaen acolyte, has made this showy repertory his own with intelligence and vigor.
The London Philharmonic Orchestra and Europa ChorAkademie gave a grand United States premiere of Vladimir Martynov’s far-out (not to say batty) setting of Dante’s Vita Nuova. An almost three-hour repetitive meditation on human and divine love and mourning, it has been called both an opera and an oratorio, but it’s a passion (as in St Matthew), even though it’s about secular love. It had a narrator-evangelist (Mark Padmore), solo arias (Amor sang from the balcony), and three Mozartean boys from the St Thomas Choir.
Martynov believes all music has already been written, so he helped himself to plainchant, davening, tone rows, dollops of Wagner’s low brass, Strauss’s sliding harmony, and Debussy’s whole-tone scale. The beloved, short-lived Beatrice (bay-a-TREE-chay) is the object of trilingual despairing and ecstatic outpourings. Elsewhere the chorus sang a litany in an aisle processional. During the final celeste solo, musicians exited as in Haydn’s Farewell Symphony, turning out the music stand lights. The modest manner of the committed young conductor Vladimir Jurowski belied his large and growing reputation.
In the concert called “New York, New Music, New Hall”, Bang on a Can (which long ago moved up from its downtown roots) hosted bands of three generations, proceeding backward in time. Alarm Will Sound, Alan Pierson’s young group, gave way to 80s pioneer Bang on a Can Allstars under the uncredited original member and sax-player Evan Ziporyn, and then reached back to the hoary 1970s with Steve Reich’s 55-minute Music for 18 Musicians. My favorite Alarm sound was Derek Bermel’s rhythmical Three Rivers, the new Lincoln Center commission. A violin and a plaintive, tinkling marimba drew attention to Oh Ye of Little Faith . . . (Do You Know Where Your Children Are?) by Caleb Burhans.
The Allstars’ premiere was Michael Gordon’s lugubrious For Madeline 2009 (honoring his late mother), full of creeping electronic sonorities, ending with a little clarinet snivel. Julia Wolfe’s Lick (1994) is still over-the-top wild, and the audience grinned and grinned.
Tully’s resonant glass lobby, which can be lighted and dimmed like a theater, was filled for the pre-concert premiere of Phil Kline’s Space, performed by Ethel, an electronically enhanced string quartet that was spread around. Sustained and tonally brooding, the 45-minute piece was not the outer-space rumble of Dutilleux, but more like Glass’s Koyaanisqatsi with sonorities of Messiaen-like languor. (Kline’s music is on Cantaloupe, Bang on a Can’s label.)
“People are waking up”, said a Lincoln Center spokeswoman watching a line of people pack into the house for a free noontime concert (not that any ticket cost more than $25 in the opening weeks). It’s certainly time to smell the coffee when a top ensemble like the German Chamber Philharmonic Bremen performs Beethoven’s Octet and Bach’s Concerto in D minor with pianist Helene Grimaud, who led from the piano with calm assurance. The ensemble had full adult resonance—I picked up little puffs and oboe flourishes out to the far end of the row, where the overhang is no longer a problem.
Emblematic of the new hall’s eclectic repertory: a 12-tone row on a xylophone announces the end of intermission, but on at least one occasion it was Bernstein’s ‘Somewhere’. “West Side Story” indeed!