Daily Bow: A New Future for Avery Fisher

Daily Bow LogoAs the saying goes, everything old is new again–but, until now, New York City’s Avery Fisher Hall had been left out. Although the rest of Lincoln Center has undergone a dramatic transformation in the past decade, Avery Fisher Hall–home of the New York Philharmonic–has remained untouched by the hand of progress. The concert hall was designed by Max Abramovitz and built in 1962, and it has suffered from somewhat sub-par acoustics and outmoded patron amenities as it has entered the modern age. Now, though, it is finally Avery Fisher’s turn to get a makeover…and this one is going to be big. The New York Times reported last week that Lincoln Center and the New York Philharmonic are planning “a radical re-envisioning of Avery Fisher Hall that will require the orchestra to relocate for two seasons and aims to redefine what it means to be a concert hall at a time of challenging orchestra economics and changing audience habits.”

In other words, a concert hall for today…and tomorrow.

The finished product will look externally exactly as it does now: the shell of Abramovitz’s building will remain untouched. From that point on, though, the re-working will be extensive. “It’s not going to be a fix-up,” said Katherine G. Farley, Lincoln Center’s chairwoman. “If you’re going to do this, you shouldn’t do a better version of what’s already built.” That’s a departure from the original plan to renovate Avery Fisher. The hall was slated to undergo a renovation along with its surroundings at Lincoln Center, but, despite the selection of a winning architect and the subsequent approval of his design in 2005, no progress was ever made on the project. The $300 million price tag was a serious deterrent, as was the New York Philharmonic’s concern that they would lose patrons if the hall was closed for the renovation and the orchestra was displaced.

Times have changed, though. Partly encouraged by the enthusiasm with which the completed Lincoln Center re-do has been received and party spurred on by a sense of urgency when it comes to securing the orchestra’s future, the New York Philharmonic has decided to damn the torpedoes and go full speed ahead. The classical music scene is different from what it was when the Lincoln Center revamp first got underway a decade ago. In those intervening 10 years, many orchestras have folded due to economic pressure and due to an inability to keep up with the evolution of audiences and their concert-going habits. “If you’re not thinking about the way in which our art form and music and audiences are evolving, you’re not serving the art form long term,” said Matthew VanBesien, the new executive director of the New York Philharmonic. “You really want to build this next great hall in a new way, to do the kinds of things you maybe are doing but want to do in a more compelling way or maybe can’t even imagine yet.”

The mission statement that the two parties have come up with is an ambitious one, but the details are as of yet unclear. The budget for the project and the design, the division of fundraising responsibilities between Lincoln Center and the orchestra, and the interim home of the orchestra are all matters in which there have been no decisions made. Regarding the temporary home for the NYP, VanBesien says, ““We will look both on and off campus. We will look at multiple venues. I think we use this opportunity to really find some special connections throughout the city.” What is certain, though, is that the hall will keep its name. The family of Avery Fisher, for whom the hall was named in 1973, has threatened legal action in the case of a name change. The auditorium, though, is up for grabs for the wealthy donor who would like to see his or her name in lights.

The auditorium itself as it exists now has come under fire for decades for what is perceived to be its stiffness and formality, expressed in many ways–one of which is simply the distance between the audience and musicians. The goal of the as-yet-undecided-upon design is to rectify these woes. According to The New York Times, “While the specific design elements are undecided, the renovation’s goals are clear: to create a space that can accommodate various configurations — including a thrust stage, a proscenium or a theater in the round — and to create an environment that honors the conventions of a concert hall even as it expands on them.”

VanBesien expands, “We want a concert venue that has really excellent acoustics but has an intimacy to it, a sense of immediacy, an almost visceral quality. Some will choose a more formal concert environment, but there is no question that we’ll over the long haul experiment with less formal environments.” The process of building a better hall will be somewhat uncharted territory for both the orchestra and Lincoln Center. With new goals and a new type of audience in mind, Avery Fisher Hall will be blazing its own trail. “This is a new process,” says VanBesien, “and we’re going through that process in a fresh way.”

Construction, though, won’t start until 2017, so the rest of the world will have to wait with bated breath to see what Avery Fisher has to offer the future of classical music.

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