In Avery Fisher Hall (Lincoln Center), a Few Feet Makes a Big Difference

Last night I attended the NY Philharmonic's performance in Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, and experienced how dramatically the sound can differ based on a slight adjustment in seating.  The acoustic quirks of that hall are notorious. 

My regular subscription seat for my Saturday night series is in 2nd Tier, Box 4, and I find the sound there to be rich, deep, and reasonably well blended.  For last night's concert, however, I had used the vouchers that the NY Phil sends to early subscription renewers to get a pair of free tickets, and began the concert sitting at Orchestra level, Row CC, Seat 10.  The sound was awful. Even though the orchestra used nine double basses for the opening Dvorak Carnival Overture, the sound from my seat lacked depth and richness, the strings were regularly swamped by brass and percussion, and at times I felt like I was listening to an old monaural LP or an AM radio broadcast.  The effect was raucous, to say the least.  Things were a little better in the Bartok Violin Concerto No. 1, featuring concertmaster Glenn Dicterow, as it is largely a quieter piece, but still the strings sounded thin and lacking in depth from where I was sitting.

I noticed that the seats in Row CC on the aisle, nos. 2 and 4, were vacant, so moved there during intermission.  A move just a few feet towards the center of the hall worked wonders for the Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4. for this piece, the string section seemed slightly smaller than for the Dvorak – at least, they were only useing 8 double basses – but now the string sound was rich and full and there was substantial presence from the lower strings, as well as a much better balance of strings against winds and percussion.  I was startled at how much difference a shift of just a few feet in seating made.  Another startling acoustical anomaly of Avery Fisher Hall.

As to the orchestra's performance, it was interesting to hear the Tchaikovsky again so soon. I attended the first performance by the orchestra of the Tchaikovsky symphony on May 3, when the Dvorak and Tchaikovsky surrounded the world premiere of Magnus Lindberg's Piano Concerto No. 2.  The symphony was on that week's subscription concerts, then featured frequently in the orchestra's west coast tour during the intervening weeks, and then was brought back for this week's subscription concerts, this time following the Bartok Violin Concerto (which was also played on the tour).  I wouldn't compare the two Dvorak performances I heard because of the drastic deficiencies in sound last night for the Dvorak from where I was sitting.  But comparing the Tchaikovsky was quite interesting.  On May 3, I had a sense that much of the rehearsal time had gone to the Lindberg premiere, and the symphony, while well-played, was not really distinctive.  But last night, after they had played this symphony together on tour for two weeks, there was a much higher level of individuality to the performance.

I think this is one of the great values of touring for an orchestra.  They usually prepare a select list of pieces for the tour, varying them from concert to concert, but the result is that they play the same piece repeatedly over several weeks, digging deeper and deeper.  The conductor, in this case Alan Gilbert, undoubtedly finds new things as the sequence of performance unfolds, little interpretive touches, that build up over the repeated performances.  The orchestra, confident to begin with as this team of super-virtuosi must be in a standard repertory work like Tchaikovsky 4, become more and more comfortable playing the piece together and more and more responsive to where the conductor may want to take them.  I wouldn't say that last night's performance was startlingly different from what I heard weeks ago, but I would say that it seemed a more deeply meaningful performance, having benefited from the repetition.

When I mentioned to somebody that I was going to hear last night's program, 2/3 of which I had heard played several weeks ago, the question was "why would you want to do that?"  The answer is clear; because in these circumstances, the second performance is likely to be different and more interesting than the first.  And so it was.

And I learned something.  Avoid Row CC seats toward the wall….!!!

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