Not Your Parents’ New York Phil

Opening night at David Geffen Hall was an attempt to reconcile with an institution’s past and map out a way for the future


In the mid-1950s, the Mayor’s Committee on Slum Clearance in New York City authorized the demolition of a working-class Black and Hispanic neighborhood on Manhattan’s West Side—a culturally rich community that included among its residents Thelonious Monk, Benny Carter, and Zora Neale Hurston. The clearance, part of Robert Moses’s widespread campaign of urban renewal in the city, saw homes, schools, and about 800 businesses razed to make way for the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Throughout the 1960s, the fortresslike arts campus arose on 18 city blocks, its buildings designed by such architects as Philip Johnson, Eero Saarinen, and Pietro Belluschi. Philharmonic Hall (later renamed Avery Fisher Hall and now called David Geffen Hall) opened in 1962 as the new home of the New York Philharmonic. The Metropolitan Opera House, the New York State Theater (now the David H. Koch Theater), Alice Tully Hall, and the Juilliard School were completed soon afterward. Meanwhile, the 7,000 families that had been displaced during construction were forced to relocate to already overcrowded areas in Harlem and the Bronx. Segregation worsened on Manhattan’s West Side, as the gleaming new complex seemed to turn its back on the Black neighborhoods to the west of Amsterdam Avenue.

Lincoln Center’s origin story had been glossed over or ignored entirely in the decades since. But a recently completed $550 million renovation of the Philharmonic’s concert hall, meant to address its dreary acoustics and décor, has also spurred some much-needed introspection. Increasing diversity at Lincoln Center was one of three urgent priorities for the organization’s chief executive officer, Henry Timms, when he began his appointment in the spring of 2019—a process that took on greater urgency during the pandemic, after the murder of George Floyd. “What we’re trying to do,” Timms told me, “is bake in a greater commitment to inclusion in everything we do, from who’s on our stage to how we spend our money to how we think about space.” Forty-two percent of the construction contracts for the hall’s renovation, for example, were awarded to minority- and women-owned businesses.

The Philharmonic’s new season began on October 8 not with the standard glitzy opening-night gala for black-tie patrons, but with a pay-what-you-can event where tickets started at five dollars. The concert featured San Juan Hill—A New York Story, a premiere by the jazz trumpeter Etienne Charles, who performed the work (named for the neighborhood that was demolished to make way for Lincoln Center and other new construction) with the Philharmonic and the ensemble Creole Soul.

On October 12, the orchestra began its subscription season with equally atypical fare. Instead of the kind of celebratory work often programmed for such an occasion (Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, for example)—or even the usual concert format of overture, concerto, and 19th-century symphony—Jaap van Zweden, the Philharmonic’s music director, conducted Oyá by the Brazilian composer Marcos Balter and the Cuban-born Tania León’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Stride. León’s piece premiered in 2020, when the Philharmonic commissioned 19 women composers to commemorate the centennial of the 19th Amendment. Oyá was named after the Yoruba goddess of rebirth, and in Balter’s program notes for the performance, he expressed the hope that the piece would “baptize and claim this new hall,” in clear reference to Lincoln Center’s controversial beginnings. The program also included My Father Knew Charles Ives by the American composer John Adams. The only work on the program from the standard repertory was Ottorino Respighi’s colorful showpiece Pines of Rome, which concluded the evening.

The Philharmonic performed with a dynamism sometimes missing in recent years. The orchestra’s red-blooded interpretation of the Respighi received an enthusiastic ovation, the clear and vibrant acoustics of the hall showcasing both the bombastic brass and the gentler woodwind lines. The subtleties of Adams’s gorgeous piece were also elegantly highlighted, as were the contrasting moods of León’s Stride, a work influenced by Louis Armstrong and West African percussion. The performance of Oyá, a vibrantly scored, engaging work for light, electronics, and orchestra, was marred only by the gimmicky effects, with strobe lights bathing rows of listeners in a harsh glare. Overall, the crisp acoustics proved a dramatic improvement over the muffled sound of the old hall, and the audience seemed as pleased as the orchestra to be back after an absence of more than two years.

Shanta Thake, chief artistic officer of Lincoln Center, has collaborated with Timms to develop programming directly addressing the institution’s mission to artistically explore equity and social justice. A program examining the theme of liberation, designed in response to Floyd’s murder and directed by Tazewell Thompson, will highlight Black artists, and the Philharmonic has embarked on community partnerships with organizations including El Puente, a North Brooklyn–based community human rights institution, and Harlem’s Mother AME Zion Church, the oldest Black church in New York State and a former stop on the Underground Railroad. The orchestra will also address the environmental crisis with works by composers Julia Wolfe and John Luther Adams.

The renovation comes at a precarious time for classical music, which (like many of the performing arts) is still struggling to recover from pandemic shutdowns. The Philharmonic, for example, lost an estimated $27 million in ticket revenues during that time. The hope is to attract a wider audience via thoughtful and inclusive programming, as well as with pay-what-you-can events such as the NY Phil @ Noon concerts in the intimate new performance space called the Sidewalk Studio. (Although the audience at David Geffen Hall on October 12 was, generally speaking, middle-aged and white, the 2022 Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center attracted younger and more diverse audiences with pay-what-you-can concerts.) David Geffen Hall will host “The 65th Street Session,” a series of performances curated by mandolinist Chris Thile. Concerts there will be live-streamed to a 50-foot digital wall in the lobby, so passersby can drop in and enjoy the music for free. New amenities at the hall include an Afro-Caribbean–inspired restaurant headed by the James Beard Award–winning Kwame Onwuachi.

In the world of classical music, diversity didn’t suddenly become a buzzword in 2020. The industry has been trying to diversify and attract new listeners for many years, with a particular emphasis on increasing the number of Black and Latino orchestral musicians. But the social justice protests of 2020 led to many more concerts addressing themes of racial inequity. In Everything Rises, a multimedia stage piece performed in October at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Black bass-baritone Davóne Tines sang: “I was the moth, lured by your flame. I hated myself for needing you, dear white people: money, access, and fame.”

There has also been renewed interest in Black composers such as Florence Price, George Walker, William Grant Still, and William Levi Dawson, as well as in Chevalier de Saint-Georges, whose music has been championed recently by the violinist Augustin Hadelich. The Metropolitan Opera opened its 2021–22 season with its first performance of a work by a Black composer—Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones, based on the memoir by Charles M. Blow. In the spring, this institution, famous for its performances of the standard repertoire, will present Blanchard’s Champion—an “opera in jazz” based on the life of the Black welterweight boxer Emile Griffith.

It’s one thing, of course, to alter an orchestra’s repertoire, quite another to change the perception that the concert hall is a stuffy place governed by unwritten codes of conduct. Take the most recent Mostly Mozart Festival, at which newer patrons happened to clap between movements of a symphony. The audience members applauded, Timms told me, “because they were enjoying themselves so much and didn’t know” about the tradition of reserving applause until the end of a piece. (That tradition came about in the Romantic age; in Mozart’s and Beethoven’s time, symphonic works were often punctuated with eruptions of raucous applause.) Some patrons and musicians at Mostly Mozart, however, were irked by the enthusiastic outbursts. Meanwhile, at the opening night of Carnegie Hall’s season in late September, with Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra, there was silence between movements of Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 and the other works on the program.

It’s still too early to tell what effect the New York Philharmonic’s renovated theater and laudable programming will have in drawing a wider audience. But for Timms, these projects are essential. “From a moral perspective, it’s the right thing to do,” he said, “but from a strategic perspective, it’s also the right thing to do, because you simply cannot be an excellent organization if you have a very narrow focus in terms of your personnel and your program.”

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Vivien Schweitzer, a frequent contributor to The Economist and The New York Times, is a pianist and the author of A Mad Love: An Introduction to Opera.


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