It’s taken a few months, but the New York Philharmonic finally sounds at home in its new home. That became clear earlier this month, as soon as the ridiculously young Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä gave an almost invisible nod and started a tensely ravishing performance of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, the Pathetique. The bassoon climbed slowly out of a bog of trembling cellos and, for the next three-quarters of an hour, brass chords glowed, Anthony McGill’s clarinet solos floated exquisitely, raucous climaxes exploded without bursting eardrums, and strings sounded warm and clear and plush. Silences were not the ragged dropouts they can be, but riveting instants of stopped time and held breath.
I’ve spent a lot of time recently in Geffen Hall, switching seats and sections, trying to confirm or at least understand my nagging sense that a $550 million renovation hadn’t yielded the platinum sound it was supposed to. Acoustics refers to the complex trajectory of a musical molecule from the player’s fingers or mouth, ricocheting off balconies and walls, until it reaches a listener’s ear. What makes a room’s acoustics hard to assess is that they depend as much on the music, the musicians, and the listener’s location as they do on the arrangement of surfaces along the way. I sat in the orchestra when music director Jaap Van Zweden led Beethoven’s Ninth, and it was bracing to the point of astringency. Before the renovation, the hall was notoriously murky. Musicians struggled to hear each other, so getting the balance right was largely a matter of guesswork. Orchestral colors tended toward shades of taupe. Now it was as if I were experiencing the score through a freshly cleaned picture window: Every detail was sharp, but the whole ensemble felt out of reach and two-dimensional.
Still, it was hard to distinguish the qualities of music-making from those of the hall. In a later performance of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, Van Zweden conducted like a man slapping the table and capitalizing every other word. The hall’s old incarnation tended to muffle some of that vehemence, so the orchestra had to blare louder and bow harder to get its points across. In the renovated Geffen, the effect of all that collective vigor bordered on the assaultive. The walls seemed to focus on certain tones (especially above middle C) and give them an extra jolt of resonance so that they drilled into the ear.
Getting some distance from the stage helped. I was in the rear of the upper balcony for Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22, with Yefim Bronfman at the keyboard. In the old days, sitting up there meant being far from the action yet enduring some nasty acoustic reflections. The equivalent spot is a good deal closer to the stage now, and while you still feel at a remove, the sound arrives in a luxurious package — colorful, blended, and with the serrated edges smoothed away.
How a hall sounds is partly a stylistic choice. Shortly before Geffen opened last October, I asked Philharmonic president Deborah Borda whether she expected it to yield the kind of round, rosy acoustics that Carnegie Hall is famous for. There, bass notes rumble, sharp attacks get softened like a Hollywood star’s wrinkles, and you can practically go have a beer in the interval between a staccato orchestral chord and its final decay. No, Borda said: Geffen would be a “modern hall,” which I took to mean one with balanced and clear acoustics, evenly distributed across registers from piccolo to double bass. Tchaikovsky conducted the opening concert at Carnegie in 1891, and the most advanced taste at the time called for rich, velvety strings and hot blasts of brass. Today’s new halls handle a far wider range of music, with abundant percussion, electronics, amplification, and sonic characters that range from misty nebulae to intricately layered rhythms and sudden, high-precision shifts. Too much flattering resonance can turn much of that diversity to mush.
After the first weeks of the season, guest conductors started to arrive, and the music-making improved. Van Zweden was never a perfect match for the Philharmonic; now it seems he’s not suited to the new room, either. In mid-November, the Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu led a program that included Bartók’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Percussion, with Daniil Trifonov and his former teacher Sergei Babayan as soloists. That time, I listened from my new favorite perch above and behind the orchestra, in seats that the chorus occupies when there is one and audiences use when there isn’t. The piece is a perfect road test for a new hall: clanging, raucous, and quick in some passages; hushed and whistling in others. Here, it sounded like some beautiful crazy machine, with the two pianos hammering and thumping, never quite in sync but getting the job done with plenty of excitement along the way. In that work, and in Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony, the orchestra sounded more elastic and relaxed than I had heard it in a while, as if the players had finally come to realize they no longer needed to fight the space.
The Philharmonic prides itself on responsiveness: Whatever a conductor demands, or even hints at, is what the orchestra will give, no questions asked. That attitude did no favors for Rafael Payare, who started December with Shostakovich’s overweening symphony of Lenin worship, the Twelfth, known as “The Year 1917.” The composer was a Soviet celebrity in dangerous times, and in this work, written in 1961, he evidently tried to cudgel his real-life terrors and doubts into submission with tedious triumphalism and extra doses of volume. Geffen Hall, perhaps caught up in all the revolutionary enthusiasm, magnified every exaggeration. By the end of the concert, I realized I had tensed every muscle as if armoring my ears against overload.
Which brings me back to Mäkelä, who, at 26, has already been designated the future chief conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. He is almost the opposite of Van Zweden (a former concertmaster of the Concertgebouw). With a finger on the throttle instead of a boot on the pedal, he appears to find his job exhilarating. He followed Payare’s Shostakovich blitz with a nuanced performance of the composer’s more internal Sixth Symphony, and the ardent, wide-ranging melody of the opening sounded as though it were being played in a different Geffen Hall. The timbre still had all the bright, eye-watering clarity of a sunny winter day, but the bitterness was gone. Strings and winds enfolded each other in a kind of sonic yin-yang, and I stopped fearing that a big crescendo would terminate in pain.
Suffering has a place in Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique, and Mäkelä’s interpretation was a touch on the genial side, favoring dance and festivities over brooding. Still, when you see a leader able to provoke an orchestra’s passions and then guide them with such finesse, you know he’s earned his joyfulness. What’s less clear to me is how, in a brief stint with an orchestra he’d never met before, he managed to reset the musicians’ relationship with the building. At some point during the fall, the acoustician Paul Scarbrough returned to tinker with the hall’s settings, so perhaps Mäkelä just lucked out on the timing. But a room sounds good when the music does, and a still unsettled and unforgiving new Geffen Hall has put the Philharmonic on notice: We can hear you now.