The efforts to fix the New York Philharmonic’s troubled Lincoln Center home date back almost to the night it opened in 1962, when the auditorium, originally called Philharmonic Hall, was found acoustically wanting.
In 1976 a gut renovation transformed the space, which had been renamed Avery Fisher Hall in honor of a large gift from the audio equipment pioneer Avery Fisher, and tried to fix its acoustics. But problems persisted. More tweaks were made in the 1990s. The Philharmonic tried to leave for good in 2003 to return to its old home, Carnegie Hall. Plans for new designs by Norman Foster and Thomas Heatherwick came and went.
Now the hall, renamed David Geffen Hall after a $100 million gift from the entertainment mogul David Geffen, is reopening in early October after a $550 million overhaul that everyone hopes will finally get it right. Here is a brief timeline of the long road to the new hall.
Sept. 23, 1962
A Glamorous Opening, Troubling Signs
Philharmonic Hall, which was designed by Max Abramovitz and was the first part of Lincoln Center to be completed, opens with Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic at a white-tie gala attended by the first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, and other luminaries. But in his review the next day the critic Harold C. Schonberg in The New York Times notes a “decided lack of bass” in the orchestra section that worsens in the lodges and at the back of the hall, where he likens it to “a high-fidelity outfit with the bass control out of the circuit.”
Sept. 25, 1962
“We’re not going to tear down the hall and rebuild.”
The hall’s acoustician, Leo Beranek, tells The Times that he is “not entirely satisfied” with the sound but believes that adjustments will improve it. “In other words,” the article quotes him as saying, “we’re not going to tear down the hall and rebuild.” A series of remodeling efforts begins, but by 1974 visiting ensembles, including the Boston Symphony and the Philadelphia Orchestra, decide to return to Carnegie Hall.
Gutting the Hall and Starting Again
Lincoln Center announces plans to gut the hall, now called Avery Fisher Hall, and to completely rebuild it under the supervision of the acoustician Cyril M. Harris and the architect Philip Johnson. “There was no point any longer taking halfway measures in relation to the hall,” Fisher says. “A fresh start was needed.”
Avery Fisher Hall Reopens, to Hope
Avery Fisher Hall reopens, and the early reviews are good. This time Schonberg writes in The Times that in “any part of the dynamic range, too, from the wispiest pianissimo to the most stupendous forte, Fisher Hall came through with extraordinary clarity.” But for all his early enthusiasm, he notes that the bass sound, while improved, “tends to be a little weak.”
The Musicians Still Cannot Hear Each Other
Musicians still complain that they cannot hear one another on the stage, so sound reflectors — some called “bongos” for their curved appearance — are placed on the walls and ceiling. Allan Kozinn writes in The Times that “Avery Fisher Hall’s acoustics have troubled musicians and listeners ever since it opened in 1962 as Philharmonic Hall. And although the 1976 renovation was considered an improvement, critics continued to complain of an overly bright brass sound and a weak bass.”
The Philharmonic Tries to Leave Lincoln Center
The Philharmonic stuns Lincoln Center by announcing that it plans to leave Avery Fisher to return to Carnegie Hall. The announcement throws the center’s on-again, off-again redevelopment plans into chaos (three finalists had been selected to compete to redesign Fisher: Norman Foster, Rafael Moneo and the team of Richard Meier and Arata Isozaki). But the plan, which also called for the Philharmonic and Carnegie to merge, proves unworkable and is soon abandoned.
Norman Foster Tapped, But Nothing Comes of It
The Philharmonic board selects the architect Norman Foster to redesign the hall, but plans stall.
March 4, 2015
David Geffen Gives $100 Million
David Geffen donates $100 million to renovate the hall, which is then named for him, after the Fisher family agrees give up the naming rights in exchange for several inducements, including $15 million.
Dec 9, 2015
Heatherwick Studio Briefly on Design Team
The London firm Heatherwick Studio, led by Thomas Heatherwick, and Diamond Schmitt Architects of Toronto are chosen to redesign the interior of David Geffen Hall. They join the acoustic design firm Akustiks and the theater design firm Fisher Dachs.
Back to the Drawing Board
Lincoln Center and the New York Philharmonic scrap the current plans and go back to the drawing board, saying that the proposals were growing too complicated and too costly, and would force the orchestra out of the hall for three seasons.
A Plan, and a Design Team, at Last
A new $550 million plan is unveiled to make the hall more intimate, cutting more than 500 seats, reducing capacity to 2,200 from 2,738. It also calls for adding seats behind the stage, fixing the acoustics, rethinking the public spaces and, yes, adding more restrooms. Heatherwick Studios is off the design team, which now consists of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects (lobbies and other public spaces); Diamond Schmitt Architects (the auditorium); Akustiks (acoustics); and Fisher Dachs Associates (theater design). The hall is scheduled to open in March 2024.
The Pandemic Shutdown Speeds Construction
The pandemic, which has shut down live performance, allows the Philharmonic and Lincoln Center to accelerate the construction schedule, and to push the reopening to this fall. That keeps the orchestra’s nomadic period to just one season, which saw it play at Alice Tully Hall and the Rose Theater with forays to Carnegie Hall.
David Geffen Hall Set to Reopen
The new hall, so many years in the making and remaking, will come to life this month. There will be two concerts Oct. 8 featuring the world premiere of new piece that Lincoln Center commissioned for the occasion: Etienne Charles’s “San Juan Hill,” about the vibrant neighborhood that was razed to make way for Lincoln Center. It will be performed by Etienne Charles & Creole Soul, and the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Jaap van Zweden. Tickets will be available on a choose-what-you-pay basis.