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New York's New Alice Tully Hall: A Harmonic Renovation

03/18/2009 03:09 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"To wake the soul by tender strokes of art," reads the gold-leafed inscription inside the lid of the old harpsichord of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and on Tuesday night it made perfect sense. The gorgeous instrument had been AWOL for two years as the Chamber Music Society's Alice Tully Hall underwent a makeover by Diller Scofdio + Renfro and FXFowle. When the harpsichord returned for the ensemble's first concert of the season in the new Alice Tully, the inscription wasn't just a nod to the program's opening Bach concerto, but to its re-energized home too.

Starr_Theater_small.jpg Starr Auditorium (Iwan Baan)

Tender strokes of art have certainly reawakened the Starr auditorium. Rather than the gold-and-red interiors familiar to Lincoln Center's veteran patrons, this one is paneled in the warm russet of moabi, a wood that ripples like a curtain along the walls and ceiling. The back of the hall, behind the musicians, is dotted in a pattern of subtle bumps that help to reduce "splash" and diffuse sound. At moments, when the lights were down, a smart red glow ringed the auditorium, thanks to embedded LED lights. The dark slate-colored suade seats are among the most comfortable in the city, and are spaced to allow what seemed to a 6-foot-2 reviewer double the legroom of Broadway's Nederlander Theater, for example.

But the design of the interior surfaces and the positioning of the seats aren't just pretty to look at: they're precision-made to provide acoustics so rich and insulated that George Tsontakis's delicate new piece, for instance, played by musicians positioned throughout the hall, enveloped us in as much silence as the jeweled notes of the strings, winds and percussion. And unlike its previously incarnation, which had a 1960s air of the impersonal, the Starr Auditorium now feels exactly how a chamber music hall ought to: intimate. Between the rounded edges and high-tech touches, I felt as if I were sitting inside a high-end Bose radio, which in this case is a very good thing.

at_65_in_the_Grand_Foyer.jpg Grand Foyer (Iwan Baan)

The farther you get from the auditorium, the less tender the architects' strokes become, but this too is good. The lobby is suddenly a lively affair, not the low-ceilinged stuffy hideout of its previous incarnation, due to high and clear windows that offer generous views of the twinkling lights outside, and in the other direction, the warm Brazilian wood muirapiranga that covers one wall. Closer to the entrance is a cafe with a bar made from a sweeping slab of Portegese limestone - a sensuous kiss-off to the brutalist modernism of the Hall's initial 1960s design by Pietro Belluschi and Eduardo Catalano.

20090222ach-01.jpg View from Broadway (Iwan Baan)

But the greatest evidence of Diller Scofdio + Renfro's departure from the old Alice Tully is their entrance. The approach to the building is at last appropriately majestic and seductive, but not immodest. The front doors set into the lobby's glassy facade now reach closer towards Broadway, and are fronted by a sunken, shallow plaza. A triangular overhang juts out above this space, part of a forceful extension that contains a dance studio. From across the street, the lines and warmth of the facade remix Lincoln Center's traditional reserve with a fresh modernism, a nod to the younger generation of patrons the Society hopes to attract.

You can spot another nod if you turn around just before entering. The steps at the very corner of the plaza rise up in a triangle that reflects the overhang above. Perched over the sidewalk like a ship's mast, it's a stoop ripe for sitting on, a kind of mini grandstand that gives passers-by a chance to gawk close-up at the lobby scene, which has gone from behind-closed-doors to bustling.

Like another set of free seats on Broadway, the wide ruby-red stairs atop the Times Square TKTS booth designed by John Choi and Tai Ropiha with Perkins Eastman, Alice Tully's steps become a neat symbol of the publicness to which the city's art institutions should be striving. "To be here as a New Yorker, I'm exuberant," said Elizabeth Diller, one of the principal designers told me at intermission. "To feel like I can add something to New York - and to all of these composers and musicians and concertmasters - it's a real pleasure."

Like the opening concerto, originally attributed to Bach but was more likely the work of his pupil Goldberg, the new Alice Tully now has a complex authorship. But this palimpsest of a concert hall is the better for it. So instantly classic is the building that concertgoers of the future could be forgiven for forgetting that it ever looked any different.