What do New York’s Lincoln Center and the typical Stereophile reader have in common? Both have recently made large investments to achieve sonic excellence.

I doubt that very many Stereophile readers have spent as much as Lincoln Center did on the renovation of Geffen Hall: $550 million. But then few audiophiles’ systems are supported by the likes of David Geffen, a $100 million contributor to the Geffen Hall project, or Joseph and Clara Wu Tsai, who gave $50 million.

Geffen made his contribution several years ago, setting the stage, as it were, for the renovation. Tsai’s late-2020 contribution helped accelerate the work so that it could be completed, or almost completed, while the hall was closed due to the pandemic. The renovated hall reopened a year and a half earlier than first projected, on October 7, 2022, two weeks ago as I write this (footnote 1). It’s also fully paid-for, debt-free.

When the hall first opened in 1962, as Philharmonic Hall, it was an acoustical disaster. Harold Schonberg, the New York Times‘s main music critic, put it kindly, writing that the hall sounded “antiseptic” and “very weak in the bass, with little color and presence.” Others weren’t as nice. After conducting his Cleveland Orchestra there for the first time, George Szell suggested they tear it down and start over.

Instead, they tried to fix it. The first renovation took place the following summer. Minor renovations followed in 1965 and ’67; all were aimed at fixing the hall’s sound. A large 1973 contribution by Avery Fisher—founder of Philharmonic Radio Co. and Fisher Radio (footnote 2)—led to the hall’s rechristening and helped pay for the first major renovation, which took place in ’76. That renovation is generally viewed as a partial success.

When I moved to New York, I was excited to live just a 20-minute subway ride from the home of one of the world’s great orchestras. Yet, after a few concerts—most memorably a performance of the Sibelius Violin Concerto when, for long stretches, I couldn’t hear the violin—I stopped going.

The just-completed renovation was major, as you’d expect for $550 million. The interior was gutted and reconfigured. The number of seats was reduced, the stage was moved forward 25 feet, and seats were installed behind it. The average seat is now much closer to the stage than before.

For its reopening concert, the program included Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man and San Juan Hill, the latter a new composition by Etienne Charles (footnote 3) named for the African-American/Puerto Rican neighborhood that was razed to build Lincoln Center. Thelonious Monk lived for a while in, or on, San Juan Hill.

How did the music sound opening night? I don’t know; I wasn’t there. Notice has been mostly positive, and even some of the less-positive reports seem to me quite promising: “insufficient bloom, but great clarity.” It will be a while before I render a verdict. Here, I’m making a different point.

One reason Philharmonic Hall was such a failure acoustically is that the builders ignored the acousticians, making it bigger than it should have been, with many more seats. Even so, in those days large-hall acoustics were hit or miss. A 1986 Carnegie Hall renovation messed up that hall’s famed acoustics. The cause, they eventually discovered, was that concrete had been added beneath the wooden stage, which had vibrated sympathetically with bass instruments. Removing the concrete restored the glory of Carnegie Hall. Contrast that with the 1976 Avery Fisher renovation, when they discovered that wood paneling mounted on lath was absorbing energy, killing off bass. The solution: Glue the paneling directly to the plaster.

Since then, large-hall acoustics has matured. Judging how music sounds in a space is subjective, but most halls built or renovated over the last two or three decades have seemed successful. But why and how has the field progressed? Is it because our understanding of the science is better? Because we now have superior computational tools—can model a hall’s acoustics before hammering a single nail?

No doubt, science and computation have played important roles, but consider this, from a recent New Yorker article by Rivka Galchen about the Geffen Hall renovation. Galchen is interviewing Christopher Blair and Paul Scarborough, the two main acousticians on the Geffen Hall project. “In the past, acousticians relied primarily on what was easiest to measure—things like frequencies and reverberation times,” Galchen wrote. “Blair, in an essay on concert-hall design, noted that this started to change in the nineteen-nineties, when acousticians ‘began to rely more upon their ears, informed by historical precedence, than their measurement devices….’

“‘By the time of the tuning rehearsals, it’s entirely in the ears,'” said Scarborough, the other acoustician, quoted in the article. “‘We’ll do measurements to document it, and measurements get you to ninety per cent, but the ears get us that last ten per cent.'”

Sound familiar?

Melissa Aldana’s 12 Stars
Over the past eight months, no album has received as much play on my system as Melissa Aldana’s 12 Stars, the saxophonist’s Blue Note Records debut. There’s a quality to Aldana’s playing that’s uncommon: She can wail like Coltrane at his wildest and simultaneously maintain a tangible sense of calm at the core, a kind of Zen state. In an interview in this month’s issue (see p.109), jazz expert Ken Micallef, who for years has written both music features and equipment reviews for Stereophile, probes Aldana’s approach to jazz. She cites other influences, but her spirituality and approach to practice—she obviously works very hard at her craft—evoke ‘Trane most of all. A fascinating read.

Footnote 1: To commemorate the Tsais’ contribution, the main performance space in Geffen Hall will be called the Wu Tsai Theater.

Footnote 2: Apparently in Fisher’s day, the old joke—”How do you end up with a small fortune in hi-fi? Start with a large fortune!”—hadn’t been invented yet.

Footnote 3: Juilliard grad Charles’s Carnival: The Sound of a People, Vol 1 was Stereophile‘s Recording of the Month for June 2019.

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