Philharmonic’s kaleidoscopic program raises doubts about Geffen Hall’s new sound

Fri Jan 13, 2023 at 1:13 pm
By George Grella
Nemanja Radulović performed Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2 with Santtu-Matias Rouvali conducting the New York Philharmonic Thursday night at David Geffen Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

New music and a new face were in David Geffen Hall Thursday night along with the New York Philharmonic. The program was dense with the kind of colors and orchestral showmanship one has been eager to hear there—music that put the renovated acoustics to the test. The results were a passing grade, though not without some imperfections.

The new music came from Anna Thorvaldsdottir with  the Philharmonic playing the U.S. premiere of the Icelandic composer’s Catamorphosis. The new face was violinist Nemanja Radulović, soloist in Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2. The program, led by guest conductor Santo-Matias Rouvali, finished with Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps.

Among Thorvaldsdottir’s many virtues are her ability to create organic forms unique to themselves and that satisfy their own logic, and her skill at orchestration, are most prominent. Catamorphosis displays this to the fullest. It’s an orchestral work that begins with rumbling and rustling and shapes itself into an unusual and communicative lyricism. Along the way, there are ear-opening instrumental sounds and effects.

Catamorphosis (commissioned by NYP as part of the Project 19 program with the Berlin Philharmonic, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and Iceland Symphony Orchestra) has the theme of contemplating large-scale ecological disaster. The new work is haunting but also has seeds of hope, as with the elegant, quick-rising melody in the strings. Thorvaldsdottir’s unique way with form means the music is also constantly in a state of transition—even the slowest statement is poised to become something else.

This first hearing seemed clearly and carefully played—and Rouvali showed all night that he is a careful conductor. One admired how the orchestra moved easily between abstract effects using extended techniques, and robust playing, like the thick and sublime glissandos in the strings. The hall flattered the details of the piece. It also, unfortunately, undercut what Thorvaldsdottir made.

Her orchestration, especially, seemed to be the essential expressive element, charting a map of emotions through timbre. But despite the greater transparency, the new acoustic in David Geffen continues to put a barrier between the physical presence of the music and the listener. The hall’s greater upper range supports color and detail across the orchestra, but the trade has been a loss of almost all resonance in lower frequencies. To hear the contrabassoon or the bass drum and yet feel almost no, if any, physical presence, is an odd experience that undercuts an essential feature of live performance, the feeling of the sound against the listener. Catamorphosis has specific elements to literally press against the listener, rich, strange, organic things, but the hall would have little of it.

That wasn’t an issue with the Violin Concerto, an agile neo-classical kind of piece. The issue here was one of energy from the orchestra.

Radulović gave a fine performance. The solo protagonist cut an impressive figure with his platform shoes, bell-bottom tuxedo, and enormous mane of hair. His playing was cautious in the sense that his intonation, articulation, and phasing were exact throughout. There was nothing stiff, though, this was graceful and elegant playing with the feeling that the violinist had considered how to play each line so that they would sound they way he meant. This was quiet too and unexpected understatement throughout, a focus on the music and an absolute refusal to show off in any why.

Rouvali was careful again, but here too much so. His approach was low-key, and there was too little energy in the orchestra. This rose to an occasional near-simmer in the opening of the final movement, but there was never enough heat to burn, or even excite.

That came in Radulović’s encore. If he had been sweet before, he was diabolical now, starting with the theme of Paganini’s Caprice No. 24, he quickly spun off an improvisatory fantasy that was much more like an Eddie Van Halen solo—complete with left hand pizzicato—than the usual violinist’s showpiece. It was that exciting and a lot of  fun.

Although there were some tenuous moments in Le Sacre, the energy was much higher. The orchestra’s playing was brilliant, and this was one of the finest sheer instrumental performances one has head in this piece. One appreciated how well Rouvali, and the hall, opened up key details, like the alto flute, and individual strings in the slow opening of Part II. The colors in the “Auguries of Spring” were luscious.

Rouvali mostly let the music build while managing excellent tempos and dynamics. The polyrhythms of “The Procession of the Sage” were short of the grinding intensity built into the music, but one admired the conductor’s exactitude with phrases. There was a sense of concentration throughout Part II that held onto the tension, which often dissipates in other performances.

What held the experience a little short was, again, the hall. The harsh over-brightness of the massed high trumpets was one thing. But it was disappointing not to hear the muscular spank of the bass drum and barely feel a tingle in the feet, a sonic build-up without a proper finish.

This program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

3 Responses to “Philharmonic’s kaleidoscopic program raises doubts about Geffen Hall’s new sound”

  1. Posted Jan 13, 2023 at 5:13 pm by John F Kelly

    Good review. You’re right about the sound. The renovation has moved the hall from a D- to a C+ (Carnegie being a B+ and Symphony Hall in Boston an A). There is no reverberation to speak of and of course still a woeful lack of not just bass but “presence.” So much of the time the orchestra still seems a long way off.

    Last night I sat in the front row of the Third Tier (always best for loud pieces) yet the sound quickly becomes “shouty” when the orchestra gets above FFF. This wasn’t my first time in the “new” hall. It’s better upstairs like it always was but it’s still far from “great” or even good. An improvement, but not much of one acoustically speaking.

  2. Posted Jan 16, 2023 at 1:12 am by Avis Rara

    I agree with so much of your assessment of both music and performance here, that it makes me think we hear things in very similar ways. However, I fail to discern any lacking in the bass and the presence of the lower register in Geffen Hall. This puzzles me.

    To my mind, Geffen is not the same type of hall as Carnegie is; the latter always seems to enrobe the sound in something rich. I should add that this doesn’t always sound like the right dress, at least to my ears. It isn’t the resonant Symphony Hall either, which I love, but whose sound does not fit (also, to my ears) every type of music either. The same, even augmented, could be said of the Singverein.

    Geffen is much more transparent and detailed than those, yet I hear plenty of reverberance and presence, quite a bit of it. The bass is perhaps never cavernous, or overthumped, like it can be in Vienna (at least hasn’t been, although some of the moments in Catamorphosis–listened to with closed eyes–made me want to run for my life from the enormous thing coming for me). That said (in my comparison with the Singverein), the celli and double basses, the tubas, the contrabassoons and bass clarinets make quite a characteristic sound (or sounds) in Geffen.

    The thing is, we cannot go in expecting what Carnegie, Symphony Hall or the Singverein give us. The hall at Lincoln Center has an impactful, compact, burnished, feel to it. It is like the flavor of an elegant-bodied wine, not a rich Ruby Port. Or, to keep the wine comparison, It is not Bordeaux, but rather a Burgundy. Mind you, those regions produce wines that exist very close to each other without one trumping over the other. They are different and that makes us richer. Or if you prefer coffee, Geffen is not Sumatra, but Yirgacheefe or Huila. Not a French Roast Java, but a well-balanced Guatemala. Not a truffled venison roast, but a sumptuous hon maguro o-toro sashimi.

    In terms of acoustic spaces, (and I am reducing myself to halls I know well) Geffen doesn’t sound to me as decadently desserty as the Singverein, or as meaty as Symphony Hall, nor is it as austere and distant as the Berliner Philharmonie, nor as thuddy as the Elb. It has an added airiness and an elegant, generous chestnut glow to it. The closest thing that comes to mind is the Lucerne Festival Hall. But definitely I don’t hear a bad, distant, or top-heavy hall. I hear presence and clarity. Far more intimacy than the Paris Philharmonie. A more streamlined version of the vibrant yet intimate Concertgebouw, with–perhaps–even more intimacy than the Amsterdam hall.

    I still remember the impactful swell of the hymn-like riff during the Catacomb movement in Respighi’s Pines, blooming vertically in the hall, in the first subscription concert, there. It was a thrilling moment, despite Van Zweden’s hypermuscularity. It was thrilling because the New York Philharmonic was creating a sound sensation that I seldom experienced with them, before, and never in Lincoln Center. Also, the timpani in the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s 9th, in the gala, under the same hands. I felt them in my stomach, as I did the bass drum in last night’s Sacre. And the sweep and auburn bounty of the low strings in everything…

    I live among chamber musicians, and low woodwinds play in my living room all the time. I didn’t find any lack of punch or roll in the sound, not last night, not in any concert I’ve attended at Geffen Hall. That said, it is definitely not a “sensurround” type of hall.

    I am sure there was a time in which the Singverein could’ve been ruled out as an over-resonant hall, one which felt brass-forward and a bit saturated during tutti. But the orchestra learnt to play the hall and went on to define our sonic expectations for symphonic music ever since… and its own sonic personna. In the same way (if our NY hyper-criticism allows it) the Philharmonic will learn to exploit the riches and compensate the quirks of their new hall, and (one hopes) to redefine itself (and our perception of it).

    I wonder if this difference in perception has to do with where our seats (yours and mine) were located, or if I was perhaps craving a new sound profile, different from that of other halls I knew, whereas you wanted something like Symphony Hall or the Singverein.

    Anyway, sorry for the overwinded tirade, and many thanks for the great, perceptive, well-written review, despite the disagreement on the assessment of the hall’s acoustics.

  3. Posted Jan 16, 2023 at 12:59 pm by John F Kelly

    Responding to Avis Rara. I have been in most of the halls you mention (I presume by “Singverein” you mean the Musikverein in Vienna). That hall (like Boston) has singular acoustics which are exceptional and I find just about perfect for every kind of music.

    I disagree with the characterization of Geffen as being like some fine wine, it’s more like a decent House red. There is virtually no bass response to speak of. The Festival Hall in London is much better which just about says it all. There’s no “room for the sound” in loud tuttis and while it isn’t like being in a Steel Works any more at the end of Pines (just a racket) it is still “shouty” as I said.

    Perhaps Boston and Vienna have “too much” room for the sound and a bit too much reverb, but I’ll take that any day. Mid-way back on the floor in Symphony Hall is acoustic perfection and Karajan rated Boston the best in the world, even better than Vienna.

    Also Sprach the sound junkie……………

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