The rejuvenated Alice Tully Hall has now been open for just over a week, and musicians of various persuasions have been testing its responses during the inaugural festival. It has proved welcoming and remarkably elastic.
We heard the tenor Mark Padmore and pianist Imogen Cooper transform the room into an intimate parlor for Schubert songs and then, a few days later, David Robertson led the Juilliard Orchestra in a performance of Olivier Messiaen’s loud, cosmic homage to America’s Southwest. Des Canyons aux Étoiles (From the Canyons to the Stars) is big music, evoking echoes off hard, high walls of stone and blades of sunlight slicing down among the hoodoos. Percussionists can get enthusiastic to the point of inflicting pain. To protect against that possibility, absorbent black banners lined the walls like bunting for a state funeral, deadening the joyful clangor.
The first question people ask about any new or renovated hall is “How does it look?” The second is “How does it sound?” But a concert hall is merely a vessel. Listening for its acoustics is like trying to taste a wine glass: If you notice anything, you’re missing the point.
We will say that the performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor heard on Sunday afternoon was a deeply comforting and enveloping musical experience. Consoling melodies unfurled in long scrolls of counterpoint. A resonant halo softened each pleading dissonance in the moment before the reward of resolution. The hall flattered the mellow timbres of the Collegium Vocale Ghent — fleshy horn, limpid voices; strings like velvet threads. Perhaps that rosy couple of hours would have sounded as sweet in any hall, but Tully did its part, which was to gather 1,000 people in its glowing walls and then allow them to forget its existence.
The exuberant opening festival offered an invigorating panorama of classical music: new and antique, delicate and robust, intimate and dramatic. If that inclusive spirit holds — if a new space engenders fresh creativity — then the redesign of Alice Tully Hall will be far more than an acoustical achievement.