New York’s cultural woes: scale and cost

New York has been the US musical capital for the better part of two centuries. The New York Philharmonic, the country’s oldest symphony orchestra, was founded in 1842. The Metropolitan Opera has been a star magnet for the art form since its founding in 1880. Carnegie Hall has been the country’s premier concert venue since it opened in 1891. The Juilliard School, founded in 1905, is the most prestigious US conservatory. Lincoln Center, whose venues opened between 1962 and 1966, is the country’s leading performing-arts complex. New York has been the center of the recording industry since the infancy of the medium. And for generations, leading performers have called the city home, or kept a pied-à-terre there.

How, in light of all that, do we absorb the news that the philharmonic has ditched plans to spend upwards of $500 million on an ambitious reconstruction of the orchestra’s home, now known as David Geffen Hall, deciding instead to pursue a less expensive tweaking that would address the hall’s problematic acoustics and off-putting distance between performers and listeners?

Michael Cooper of The New York Times reports on the decision by the philharmonic and Lincoln Center to abandon the full makeover:

The plan was unnecessarily ambitious, New York magazine’s Justin Davidson writes:

The philharmonic’s decision, the ongoing crisis at the Metropolitan Opera – now shedding staff after struggling with middling-to-poor attendance – and the travails of other arts institutions in the city underscore a question that crops up with increasing frequency: Is New York running out of cultural juice?

It certainly isn’t running out of money. With the Wall Street rebound and an ongoing high-end real-estate boom, the city is as rich as it has been since the Gilded Age of the late-19th and early 20th centuries. That’s especially true in Manhattan, where the arts mostly reside. And New York remains a top destination for cultural tourists.

“That a city that has as many wealthy individuals who’ve made a fortune in New York — that they couldn’t show up and support the most important cultural institution in New York, I think is too bad and shameful,” Geffen told The Times in reaction to the philharmonic’s retrenchment.

Geffen’s comment comes in an article by Robin Pogrebin and Cooper that surveys aborted plans by New York cultural institutions:

* * *

In my view, the overriding problems faced by classical-music institutions in New York are scale and location.

The big venues are clustered in midtown Manhattan, far away from many of their local patrons and more than an easy walk away from most of the hotels accommodating visitors.

Lincoln Center’s halls are oversized in seating capacity – 3,800 at the Met, 2,586 at the David H. Koch Theater (formerly the New York State Theater), 2,738 at Geffen Hall. Their acoustics are mediocre and sightlines from most seats are distant. Carnegie Hall’s Isaac Stern Auditorium, seating 2,804, is comparable to Geffen Hall in capacity, but famously better acoustically and feels more intimate thanks to its oval layout.

While two of the most celebrated US concert halls have seating capacities comparable to Geffen Hall’s – 2,625 at Boston’s Symphony Hall, 2,500 at Orchestra Hall in Chicago – newer American classical concert venues tend to be smaller, and most are more intimate in layout: Los Angeles’ Disney Concert Hall seats 2,265; Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas, 2,062; Turner Concert Hall in Nashville’s Schermerhorn Symphony Center, 1,844; Meymandi Concert Hall in Raleigh, 1,700.

The great European concert halls are even more intimate: Vienna’s Musikvereinsaal seats 1,744; Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, 2,037; Paris’ Salle Pleyel and Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, 1,900 each; Barbican Centre in London, 2,026; Leipzig’s Gewandhaus, 1,900; Dvořák Hall of the Rudolfinum in Prague, 1,100. (Two new halls are larger: The Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg seats up to 2,700, and the Philharmonie in Paris seats 2,400.)

Among leading opera houses, the Met’s seating capacity of 3,800 compares with those of Chicago’s Lyric Opera House, 3,563; San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House, 3,146; Winspear Opera House in Dallas, 2,200; Brown Theater of Wortham Theater Center in Houston, 2,405; McCaw Hall in Seattle, 2,890; and Santa Fe Opera, 2,128.

Europe’s opera houses, like its concert halls, are smaller: The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in London, seats 2,256; La Scala in Milan, 2,013; Berlin State Opera, 1,396; Deutsche Oper Berlin, 1,954; Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, 1,900; Semperoper in Dresden, 1,300; Vienna State Opera, 2,300; Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, 1,609; Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, 928; and Paris’ Opéra Garnier, 1,979, and Opéra Bastille, 2,703.

* * *

That long-held American notion, bigger is better, is now colliding with new demographic and artistic realities. US population has surpassed 325 million, but growing numbers of Americans are not of European origin and, aside from those of East Asian lineage, seem less inclined to patronize symphony and opera.

Atomization of cultural preferences, notably in music, has produced smaller followings for any genre. This shrinkage has affected pop-music styles as well as classical music. Increasingly, Americans are musical grazers rather than single-style devotees.

And consumers of all sorts of music are developing a taste for live music in more intimate spaces.

Big venues, whether those of Lincoln Center or the massive arenas that once were central to the rock concert circuit, are feeling the pinch of these trends.

Downsizing existing halls is expensive. The just-completed renovation of Cincinnati’s historic Music Hall, reducing the seating capacity of its Springer Auditorium from 3,500 to 2,500, cost $143 million. Building a brand-new space is even costlier: LA’s Disney Hall, completed in 2003, cost $274 million.

Those numbers are dwarfed, however, by the $500 million it would have cost to gut and rebuild the interior of Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center.

No cost projections have been floated for a more modest renovation of the space. And, given the sad history of attempts in 1976 and 1992 to improve the hall, there’s no guarantee that the third time will prove the charm.

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