Monday, February 2, 2009

Alice's Facelift and Other Sounds

It looks like I will soon be giving tours at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, in addition to giving them at Lincoln Center. I'm very excited to be a part of their team and will likely start appearing there in March. I'm particularly excited about their new show, Fashioning Felt, all about the history of and new design work with...felt. It will also be wonderful to be able to work in a place as stunningly beautiful as Andrew Carnegie's mansion.

Speaking of Lincoln Center, I finally got over to see inside the new Alice Tully Hall.
--Photo courtesy the NYTimes.
It really is absolutely gorgeous. I had my camera with me, but I was fairly certain I'd be forcibly booted out the door if I dared take any pictures. It's coming along great, but there's still a lot of construction work being done in the lobby itself--that is, saws and workbenches and things in there--and it will need to just be cleaned up a lot before February 22nd. Nevertheless, I am just as impressed as everyone else with what Diller Scofidio + Renfro has done with it. The smooth, sensual shapes of the auditorium are wonderful. The backstage amenities are evidently drastically improved. They had run out of money the first time around, so it was a little bit cramped down there. For the renovations they actually blasted away a bunch of bedrock to enlarge the underground facilities.

I also got to see them tuning up the panels on the sides of the stage enclosure. They turn 180° to reveal a felt surface--coincidentally a project that will allegedly be on display at the Cooper-Hewitt--that will improve the acoustics for amplified sound as for film screenings. I heard no music, but I did my own little resonance test with a couple hand claps. It's a smooth drop and a good long dissipation time, maybe around a second and a half or a little longer, lovely for chamber music. 

[By the way, this woman is patently an idiot who doesn't understand the first thing about acoustics and obviously thinks she's very, very sassy for nit-picking every last stupid detail. Of course they've still got bugs to work out. You couldn't possibly do something like this without a little fine-tuning after the fact. Unknowns are the Siamese twin of Innovation.]

Of concern to me is the fate of a couple of the artworks there. A coworker told me about it ahead of time, and I did in fact find the alcove for the portrait of Tully, herself. With the newly wide open glass walls of the lobby, they needed to do something to protect it from the glaring sun, so it's recessed quite a few feet back. Not the prominent position it once had, but entirely acceptable under the new circumstances.

It's Alice Bigelow Tully and her little dog, too, and was painted by Thomas Buechner in 1987.
Tully (1902-1993) was a pilot in the Civil Air Patrol during WWII, which I think is very cool. Women weren't really pilots all that often back then. I actually had to look at their family tree to figure this all out, thanks very much to the nice folks at the Corning Glass Archives. For anyone who doesn't know, she was the granddaughter of Amory Houghton, Jr. ("hoten"), whose father founded Corning Glass Works...i.e. buttloads of money. Amory, Jr.'s neice was the Suffragette Katherine Martha Hepburn, who started Planned Parenthood, and her daughter was, of course, Katherine Hepburn, the actor. That makes actor Katherine Hepburn Alice Tully's second cousin or something like that; I can't quite be sure of what you'd call that relation. Amory, Jr.'s grandson, Tully's first cousin, Arthur Houghton, Jr. was vice-president of Lincoln Center.

Wait, it keeps going.

Under the guidance of Arthur, Jr., Harrison & Abromovitz, architects of the Metropolitan Opera and Avery Fisher Hall respectively, designed the Corning Glass Building (1959). It was said to be the most advanced use of a glass curtain wall at the time, appropriately enough, and the first glass skyscraper to go up on Fifth Avenue.
--Photo courtesy New York Architecture Images, and coincidentally, right behind it you can see the AT&T Building by Philip Johnson, who did the third of the central theaters of Lincoln Center, the New York State/ David H. Koch Theater.

Buechner (b. 1926) was the first director of the Corning Museum of Glass. In 1972, he was made president of the Museum, president of the Corning Glass Works Foundation, and president of Steuben Glass. He was later vice-president of Corning Glass. I can't imagine how he and Tully ever crossed paths! He wrote a book about Norman Rockwell in 1971. The subjects in his own portraits, Tully included, seem to have this sly little twinkle in their eye. It strikes me as sort of a cross between Rockwell and one of my all-time favorite portraitists, Franz Hals:

--The Laughing Cavalier (1624)
--Image courtesy AP Art History.

Tully had also gifted a bust, Beethoven a la Colonne (1910) by Émile-Antoine Bourdelle for which it shouldn't be too difficult to find a spot.  Bourdelle (1861-1929) was a student of Auguste Rodin and was obsessed by Beethoven. This was one of twenty imaginary portraits of the composer he created to explore the nature of Genius. There's another one of them, The Tragic Mask of Beethoven (1901), at the east end of the promenade level of Avery Fisher Hall. Édouard Colonne (1838-1910) was first violinist at the Paris Opéra for almost a decade and later became a well-known conductor. 

The one piece I'm maybe most worried about is the Yaacov Agam sculpture, Three X Three Interplay (1971):

--Really beautiful photo by Bernard Ente.
Most of you will remember it in its prominent spot at the top of the stairs heading to the old entrance to Juilliard, which...well...doesn't exist anymore. Lincoln Center is narrowing the traffic lanes and widening the sidewalks along Sixty-Fifth Street, so I insist there will be plenty of places where this one could go. Three has a crank at the base so the viewer can actually interact with it and turn the three stainless steel zig-zags around into different positions. Security guard's nightmare? Fiddlesticks. I very much hope, if they reinstall this, that they grease up the gears so it can be easily operated again. The fact that it can be manipulated by the viewer is the very thing that makes the piece such a clever addition to the Lincoln Center campus. I won't bore you with all my theories on why; regardless, it's important, and furthermore what the artist intended.

Agam was commissioned in 1985 to do a mural in the Port Authority Bus Terminal, but I've never been able to determine if it's still there or not. I don't really spend a whole lot of my free time wandering around Port Authority, though.

The piece I'm most hoping will return to Alice Tully Hall has such a delicious story behind it that I'm not going to tell it now, until I know for sure it's back on the wall again. You'll just have to come on my tour to hear it.

I also have a rant. I'm getting really sick of everybody jumping right onto the pissy bandwagon by using the phrase "acoustically challenged" before every mention of Avery Fisher Hall. Fisher is not acoustically challenged, and New York needs to just come to grips with it already. When the absolute master of his profession, acoustician Cyril Harris gutted and redesigned the auditorium in 1976, it became one of the best halls of its kind in the world. Irresponsible journalists who continue to perpetuate this misinformation are simply flinging around silly catch-phrases that have no basis in reality.

I refer you to an article by New York Times author, Will Crutchfield, presumably an unbiased listener. Not only did Crutchfield hear the same orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic, playing at both Carnegie Hall and Fisher, but he also heard both Vienna and the New York Philharmonic playing the same piece, Sibelius' Fifth Symphony, at Fisher. This allowed him a great opportunity to triangulate the qualities of each hall, and overall he found Fisher's acoustics to be superior. Even the musicians agree. 

So some say it's not absolutely ideal for vocal performances. It was never intended to be. If you want to hear opera in the perfect venue, go to the Met; that's what the Met was designed for. Fisher was designed for instrumental music, and it's excellent for that. Not that vocalists sound bad, but that shouldn't even be under discussion in the first place. The blind, thoughtless worshipping of Carnegie--heavenly though it may be--and equally baseless condemnation of Fisher needs to stop now.

I was reminded of the talks there'd been to renovate Fisher, yet again, with designs by the great Sir Norman Foster, but the reasons for that weren't acoustic. It was because they'd been playing around with the idea to bring the stage out into the middle of the house, as their temporary set-up in summer has done. Some people preferred this arrangement because it brings everyone closer to the stage for a more intimate experience. I feel it's unnecessary and a waste of money. Tully has that intimacy, for those kinds of smaller performances of Mostly Mozart and so on. Fisher is about the grandeur of a huge symphony orchestra in all its glory, and it performs that role admirably.

©2009, Ryan Witte

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