Hooray! Gotham Gets a New Concert Hall!

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Hooray! Gotham Gets a New Concert Hall!

Post by Ralph » Thu May 04, 2006 6:34 am

From The New York Times:

May 4, 2006
Music Review | Thomas Hampson
A Big Voice Inaugurates a Smallish Concert Hall

It's not often that concertgoers in New York can hear a singer of the renown of the baritone Thomas Hampson in a recital hall that seats only 280. But the Morgan Library and Museum, which this weekend opened the doors to a splendid new pavilion that unites its existing and expanded building, wanted to call attention to a special component of its new campus: Gilder Lehrman Hall, a new space for chamber music, recitals, lectures and readings. So the Morgan secured the services of Mr. Hampson, along with the pianist Craig Rutenberg, a noted accompanist and opera coach, and the Vermeer String Quartet, to inaugurate the hall with an engaging program on Tuesday night.

New York has few intimate and acoustically appealing halls in the 250-seat range. The Morgan is hoping that its handsome space — designed, like the pavilion, by the architect Renzo Piano — will become a valuable resource. It usually takes concertgoers (this one, at least) time to assess the acoustics and qualities of a new hall. But it's clear from the get-go that this one will be welcomed by the music lovers in the city.

It is located in the lower basement area of the new complex. You enter through the airy glass-enclosed pavilion and can either walk down an elegant winding staircase or take the roomy elevators. The hall is raked at a steep angle, which means that sightlines are excellent from every seat. The stage area can be reconfigured so that the hall can accommodate 240 to 280 people.

The walls are made of lovely cherry wood, and the cushioned seats are colored what could be called Roman Catholic Cardinal Red. Those who like their mattresses extra firm will be at home in these seats. The Morgan might have chosen to eliminate two or three rows to create a bit more legroom. At just over six feet, I was comfortable. But those who are as tall as, say, Mr. Hampson may feel cramped. Because of the significant slope of the raked floor, the back rows do feel somewhat far from the stage for such an essentially intimate space. Still, the hall is inviting and attractive.

So the big question, as always: How are the acoustics? In designing the hall Mr. Piano worked with Eckhard Kahle of Kahle Acoustics in Brussels. As in many modern halls, the acoustics are bright and resonant, rather than warm and rich. The Vermeer Quartet began the program with Schumann's String Quartet in A (Op. 41, No. 3). It is always involving to hear a string quartet up close, and the sound enveloped you the way it never can in a large recital hall.

Still, at times there was a strident quality to the string sound. How much of this was attributable to the playing of the Vermeer Quartet is hard to say. Its performance of this impetuous work had lots of character and energy. But the musicians may have been compensating for some shakiness in execution by digging in and playing with extra grit.

Mr. Hampson then joined the Vermeer for a performance of Samuel Barber's "Dover Beach," a ruminative 10-minute setting for baritone and string quartet of a Mathew Arnold poem. Mr. Hampson's virile voice easily filled the hall. No text was provided in the program, but none was needed, because Mr. Hampson, with his crisp enunciation, made every word clear.

Then he reappeared with Mr. Rutenberg for a group of German songs. In principle, there is no reason Mr. Hampson should not have sung out fully, as he did, and as he will next week, when he takes on the role of Amfortas in the Metropolitan Opera's production of Wagner's "Parsifal." He seldom gets to sing in spaces this intimate, and he seemed to be enjoying the chance the let his voice bounce off the walls.

On the other hand there is something to be said for scaling down your voice to suit a space. Too often, for my taste, Mr. Hampson oversang.

In the first offering, "Der Lindenbaum" from Schubert's "Winterreise," he shaped the phrases with subtlety and elegance. But he bellowed during "Das Irdische Leben" from Mahler's "Des Knaben Wunderhorn." The performance was terrifying in two senses. The song is a horrific tale of a starving child pleading with its mother for food, and Mr. Hampson conveyed the desperation in the music. But it was also terrifying to hear this essential baritone push his voice with such force.

Mr. Hampson showed why he is a respected Mahler singer in the poignant "Wo die Schönen Trompeten Blasen," which tells of a maiden and her lover parting as distant trumpets call the young man to war. Mr. Hampson sang tenderly, while at the piano Mr. Rutenberg voiced the pungent harmonies beautifully. He also brought a lovely touch to the rippling runs of Strauss's "Heimliche Aufforderung," which Mr. Hampson sang with fervent intensity.

Before turning to a group of American songs, Mr. Hampson paid tribute to the Morgan as an institution of immeasurable value and told the audience that the original manuscripts of the German songs he had just sung were all part of the Morgan's renowned collection.

Mr. Hampson has been touring the United States this season with a program of little-known American songs, a project sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution. Here he offered samplers with songs by Henry Thacker Burleigh, Edward MacDowell and Charles Ives, an arrangement of the traditional "Shenandoah" and one of Copland's "Old American Songs." Again, his singing was hardy and involving, though his earthy tones sometimes turned coarse as he sent fortissimo notes soaring.

There is great potential in Gilder Lehrman Hall. But as with a new instrument, a new hall must be broken in, and musicians have to learn how to play it.

"Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former."

Albert Einstein


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