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Alice Tully Hall Opening Nights: Coming Home – Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center

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The Starr Theater at Alice Tully Hall, photo Iwan Baan

The Starr Theater at Alice Tully Hall, photo Iwan Baan

Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center
Tuesday, February 24, 2009 at 7:30 PM

[For a discussion of the new and the old Alice Tully Hall, see now, my conversation with Paula Robison on The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts.]

Johann Gottlieb Goldberg (formerly attr. Johann Sebastian Bach), Trio Sonata in C major for Flute, Violin and Continuo, BWV 1037

Felix Mendelssohn, Fugue in E-flat major for String Quartet, Op. 81, No. 4

Anton Webern, Six Bagatelles for String Quartet, Op. 9

Hugo Wolf, Italian Serenade for String Quartet

George Tsontakis, AnTHem for Flute, Clarinet, Violin, Cello, and Piano (CMS Commission, World Premiere)

Yan Maresz, Entrelacs for Flute, Clarinet, Cello, Bass, Piano, and Vibraphone

William Bolcom, Shakyamani for Piccolo/Flute, E Flat/B Flat Clarinets, Two Violins, Viola, Cello, Double Bass, Piano, and Percussion (CMS Commission, World Premiere)

Ludwig van Beethoven, Septet in E-flat major for Winds and Strings, Op. 20

Charles Wadsworth, Wu Han, pianos; Jaime Laredo, violin; Paul Neubauer, viola; David Finckel (inidsposed), Gary Hoffman, Fred Sherry, cellos; Edgar Meyer, Kurt Muroki, double basses; Orion String Quartet (Daniel Phillips, Todd Phillips, violins; Steven Tenenbom, viola; Timothy Eddy, cello); Tara Helen O’Connor, Paula Robison, flutes; Jose Franch-Ballester, David Shifrin, clarinets; Milan Turkovic, bassoon; Radovan Vlatkovic, horn; Ayano Kataoka, percussion

Any one who did not experience the Upper West Side in the late 1960s, when Lincoln Center was nearing completion, or who has forgotten, might read Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet. There was an apocalyptic feeling in the air—more palpable than anything the Bush administration tried to conjure up— as one negotiated panhandlers, muggers, hippies, and refuse, as one made one’s way up and down Broadway. These public phenomena have not vanished, but New York had reached a peak of dysfunctionality, and western civilization seemed to be self-destructing at a fierce boil: cities were decaying around the country, reading and writing seemed doomed to obsolescence, tv was king, and a lot of people were worried about the cultural partnership of drugs and music. In a few sentences, Bellow conjures up what all this felt like on the street. Exposed glass walls seemed no more than an invitation to vandals, and check points were beginning to appear in the seedy lobbies of public buildings.

The public part of Lincoln Center, which was already finished, tried all too hard to emulate Rockefeller Center as an urban landmark, and in design the Palazzo della Civilta Italiana in the EUR, but it seemed frigid, ugly, and vulgar. The fountain in the piazza between the New York State Theater, the Metropolitan Opera, and Philharmonic Hall invited minor mischief—the sort of thing drunken Americans do in Rome—but it failed to humanize the exposed space, which was especially dire as cold winds whipped through it in January. New Yorkers weren’t ready for open urban spaces yet, but, as bigger and even less hospitable spaces were opened up around the World Trade Center, they began to colonize them. The more business-like parts of Lincoln Center, still under construction, were by nature and function private spaces, and hard, brutalist façades seemed an entirely appropriate gesture. Juilliard was among those private spaces, and, if one attended a public event (They were also many private ones.) in Alice Tully Hall,the approach was an entirely different experience from, say, going to hear the New York Philharmonic. One entered the old Alice Tully Hall rather ignominiously through a squat entrance lobby, which was buried under a platform, itself dwarfed by a mountain of classrooms, practice rooms, and offices. Raised up by gallows-like piers, the Juilliard School was totally divorced from the street and the hall—a monolith of heavy, brutalistic forms—the work of Pietro Belluschi, a distinguished Italian-born architect who emigrated to America at a young age and was trained here.

The Brutalist Juilliard School of Music of Pietro Belluschi, photo Sandor Acs

The Brutalist Juilliard School of Music of Pietro Belluschi, photo Sandor Acs

The architects of the renovation, Diller, Scofidio, and Renfro did everything they could to open up the façade and to present a unified, welcoming structure both to West 65th Street and to Broadway. Its focal point is no longer the main entrance to the school accessed by a now demolished bridge over West 65th Street, but the raised corner of the building, which turns the corner into a visual fulcrum and unifies the two façades, the school above and the concert hall below. Under the rising triangular plane, which is imitated by a streamlined kiosk below, one looks through a vast wall of glass into an open, airy café. The high-ceilinged lobby of ATH lies behind it. As one descends to the hall, one enters the ramped corridors, which are one part of the building which has changed little. This recollection of the past only makes the entrance to the hall more dramatic, because there everything is different. The auditorium, now known as the Starr Theater, is dominated by curved lines and planes, which make one feel as isolated from the bustle and noise outside as one actually is. Acoustical isolation was a major priority for the architects, given the proximity of the subway, which is now inaudible. The hall is encased in a plush, dark panelling of an unusual sort: as described in the release, “illumination emerges from within a wood ‘skin.’ Made of translucent custom-molded, eco-friendly resin panels sheathed in wood veneer, the illuminated walls utilize ultra-quiet LED’s that blend into the overall finished surface and enhance the audience’s perception of aural and aesthetic warmth and intimacy.” Not having read this before the concert, I was mightily puzzled, wondering what the source of those cloud-like patches of pink light might be. The ample seats and aisles insisted upon by Alice Tully herself were dutifully recreated in the renovation. The hall seems enormous for a chamber music venue. (The new hall is 45% larger than the old one. It now seats between 923 and 1087, which is large, but not excessive for a chamber music hall.) Of course it is a multi-purpose hall, intended to accommodate orchestras, as well as the Lincoln Center Film Festival. ) On the other hand it feels remarkably cozy, thanks to the exotic woods employed in the veneers and the architects’ appreciation and expression of the deep affection the faculty and students of Juilliard have developed over the years for the old hall. Beyond that the unusual curves of the design seem futuristic, as they can only have been achieved with the high-tech resources available today, but there is also a touch of retro in it, since the termination of the balcony recalls the silhouette of the Concorde, and that, in my perception, is retro.

The New Juilliard School by Diller, Scofidio, and Renfro, photo Mark Bussell

The New Juilliard School by Diller, Scofidio, and Renfro, photo Mark Bussell

A lot has already been said about the acoustics—largely a product of elements which “include new stage ceilings over the musicians that can be tuned to enhance onstage hearing and projection of sound to the audience, acoustic banners that drop from the ceilings for amplified sound,” most of it enthusiastically positive. I would agree with this, and observe how unusual the sound is. At the one event in the Opening Nights Festival I was able to attend, I was seated in the front quarter of the hall about a third of the way in from the left wall. The small groups which played that evening were enveloped in a pleasant bloom of reverberation, but their sound was also extremely clear and direct. It seems that the architects and the acoustic consultants, aided by tunable panels, were able to work so precisely that they realized both virtues in the hall. Traditionally reverberation and clarity required mutually exclusive trade-offs. The actual experience of this is so rare, that it takes a little getting used to, as beautiful as it is. The organizers of the two-week, nineteen-event festival attempted to present as many different instruments and combinations of them as possible. Several new works were commissioned for the festival, and in this concert it was obvious that William Bolcom and George Tsontakis were able to revise their pieces after actually hearing them in the hall—a phenomenon I confirmed later.

One thing is clear about the renovation. Alice Tully Hall now has a grandeur and presence which reflects its importance as the premier chamber music hall in New York. Its importance as a public venue went no farther than Alice Tully’s dream when Belluschi set to work on its design. Over the past forty years it has enjoyed a distinguished history as the most important institutional influence in the development of the extensive and lively audience who seek out chamber music in America today. It shares its preeminence only with Marlboro, where many of its musicians studied. The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, founded in 1969, just after the hall opened, has been second to none in reaching out to new audiences, not only in the hall, but through, educational programs, recordings and broadcasts as well. Marlboro has also embraced wider audiences in the same way, but ATH’s urban location and size gave it unique opportunities. Two musicians from that opening night, Charles Wadsworth and Jaime Laredo, were on hand for this concert. I should also mention that, sadly, one important and beloved figure in this history was unable to attend because of a serious back ailment, David Finckel, who is co-director of the CMS jointly with his wife, Wu Han, who was very much present, as always.

The evening’s nostalgic element extended to the programming of works from the Chamber Music Society’s original opening night concert, notably, the Trio Sonata in C major for Flute, Violin and Continuo, BWV 1037 formerly attributed to J. S. Bach, now thought to be the work of Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, the godfather of Bach’s famous keyboard variations. The great Paula Robison played the flute part with matchless authority, and a complex tone which constantly exuded color and character. Charles Wadsworth, Jaime Laredo, and Fred Sherry (replacing David Finckel) supported her with seasoned musicality and rhythmic strength. The Orion String Quartet played Mendelssohn’s Fugue in E-flat for string quartet with a relaxed but clear articulation of the contrapuntal lines, and continued on to the most important piece on the program, Webern’s Six Bagatelles for String Quartet (1911, 1913). Everything was in the right place here: expression, color, rhythm, and dynamics, and they didn’t make heavy going of the movements’ extreme concentration. Their performance was deeply satisfying in every way. They followed this with Hugo Wolf’s Italian Serenade (1887), a lyrical instrumental footnote to his song, Der Soldat I, inspired by Eichendorff’s novella, Aus dem Leben eines Taugenichts.

The next three works were more recent. Two of them were commissioned by the CMS for this concert. As I mentioned, they were tailored to the sound of the new hall. The commission had special meaning for George Tsontakis, since he studied at Juilliard, and the old Alice Tully Hall loomed large in his life. His brieftribute (3 minutes!), AnTHem (Get it?) for Flute, Clarinet, Violin, Cello, and Piano was colorful and vibrant, as his work usually is. Again, Fred Sherry filled in for David Finckel. Tsontakis’ luminous sonorities were in absolute harmony with the acoustics. We cold savor both its bite and its glow at once. Formally the work was rounded and self-contained in its specificity, as much as it resonated suggestively in one’s imagination. In Yan Maresz’ Entrelacs the same ensemble was joined by a vibraphone, played by the amazing percussionist, Ayano Kataoka, whose movements, as she plays her instrument, approach a dance. Maresz, born in 1966 in Monaco studied jazz at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and composition with David Diamond at Juilliard, before moving on to IRCAM.He continues to collaborate with them, and Entrelacs was premiered there in 1998. While there was no attempt to conceal the percussiveness of the vibraphone, it proved to be a basically flowing, linear work. Although it was obviously not written for ATH, it sounded spectacular. What works at IRCAM will work in the new ATH.

William Bolcom’s Shakyamani for Piccolo/Flute, E Flat/B Flat Clarinets, Two Violins, Viola, Cello, Double Bass, Piano, and Percussion, was so deeply immersed in the mood it expressed and so powerfully suggestive, that it seemed like a much longer piece than its actual five minutes. Inspired by a little Buddha the composer keeps in his garden, the work is meditative in character: it brings us into nature and the moment. What’s more it was asort of performance piece. It began in darkness, and the lights remained low, even after Ms. Kataoka, barefoot, made her entrance and subsequently made her balletic way about a variety of percussion instruments arrayed across the stage. Bolcom’s scene, his garden, may be small, but the instruments spread around the hall in the second half of the piece gave one a feeling of immensity, even the universal. His instructions were for these instruments “to play no louder than needed for everyone else to hear each other in the various corners of the hall—which will result, I hope, in a sort of practical pianissimo.”

The concluding work on the program was Beethoven’s Septet—his most popular work during his lifetime, as Richard E. Rodda’s program note reminds us. Usually, when this work is played in a smaller hall, it can seem overpowering. Four strings and a clarinet, bassoon, and horn can make quite a lot of noise. In Alice Tully Hall the instruments seemed in proportion, and the musicians’ playing had a unique effortlessness about it. There was a natural blend among the instruments, the players could achieve true pianissimi, and the work really seemed to blossom in the warm, generous acoustic. There was a glorious moment as the cello sounded against the horn. All the players were outstanding, but clarinettist David Shifrin’s wit and high spirits were right in their element. It had never occurred to me how lovable this boisterous piece can actually be, and it was an ideal conclusion to an event which was warm-hearted to begin with. It was more than enough to take Mr. Sammler out of his preoccupations and even put him in a good mood.

My only regret was that I could not attend more of the festival (for which tickets were on sale for $25 or less) to experience more of this brilliant meeting of the sister arts of music and architecture. After the concert Taittinger champagne was flowing—a generous gift of Jérôme Jeandin, Taittinger’s national director in the US. Under these pleasant circumstances it was an added pleasure to run into Da-Hong Seetoo, Christian Steiner and Frank Heller and to anticipate the upcoming season at the Tannery Pond Concerts, another, equally delightful venue for chamber music, which will begin this year on May 25.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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