At Carnegie Hall, music goes underground

Sept. 15, 2003 at 6:51 PM
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NEW YORK, Sept. 15 (UPI) -- Andrew Carnegie's original concept for a music hall with three auditoriums under one roof has been restored with the opening last weekend of Zankel Hall, a $72 million performance venue in the basement of the 112-year old Carnegie Hall.

The opening was delayed for a year due to the weak economy in the wake of the terrorist attack on the city in 2001, but now a two-week opening festival featuring 24 performance events is under way in the hall, which has its own entrance on Seventh Avenue, around the corner from Carnegie Hall and its Weill Recital Hall's 57th Street entrances.

Tickets for Zankel Hall attractions will range from $25 to $65, lower than those for the other two stages at Carnegie Hall.

The new hall occupies space designated in 1891 as a small concert hall but soon rented out to a theatrical production company and later leased to a film presenter who turned it into an art movie house. The Carnegie Hall board reclaimed the hall from its commercial tenant in 1997 and gutted it to construct a larger hall with flexible seating for a variety of musical events.

Work began in 1999, and some 6,200 cubic yards of bedrock were excavated and removed from as deep as 22 feet below the original theater floor to provide room for an elliptical performance hall with space for 644 seats. One of the biggest problems was insulating the hall from the rumble of the subway which runs only nine feet away from its western wall. This was done with complete success.

The hall has a wood-lined interior that promises to provide as good acoustics as the famously perfect acoustics of the main Carnegie Hall auditorium, now called Isaac Stern Auditorium, directly above. Instrumental and vocal performances audited by this critic indicate that Zankel's acoustics provide high-level clarity and brightness of sound for instruments and warmth and luminosity for the human voice, although big voices may tend to sound over-bright.

Among the artists heard were opera diva Renee Fleming and African folk vocalist Abdoulaye Diabate, virtuoso pianist Emanuel Ax, violinist Jennifer Koh, cellist Edward Arron and flautist Anne Drummond. Particularly impressive was the way the hall carried the sound of Fleming's most muted singing with remarkable definition in her performance of Richard Strauss' art song, "Morgen!"

The lead patrons in financing the hall were Carnegie Hall vice president Arthur Zankel, a financier, and his commercial illustrator wife, Judy Francis, who committed $42 million and for whom the hall has been named. The city gave $34.7 million toward the cost of the hall to which New York State and the federal government also contributed along with private donors.

Of the $100 million raised for the project, $28 million has been reserved for an endowment fund to support expanded artistic programming and musical education for audiences as young as pre-schoolers.

"The opening of Zankel Hall positions Carnegie Hall firmly in the 21st century with its flexibility and advanced technology that will allow us to stretch existing boundaries and present an even wider range of music to new and diverse audiences," said Carnegie Hall Director Robert Harth at a press preview. "The programming should generate interest in a lot of people who don't typically come to Carnegie Hall."

The architectural firm Polshek Partnership, which restored the 2,804-seat Stern Auditorium and 268-seat Weill Recital Hall in the 1980s, designed Zankel Hall, working closely with acoustical and theatrical design experts. It is one of the most flexible performing venues in the United States providing for three set-ups of staging and seating -- flat floor, end stage, and center stage -- and technical facilities for making changes in configuration in a few hours.

The underground hall is entered on the balcony and orchestra levels by means of two escalators. Orchestra seating is sharply raked and there are balcony extensions on either side of the auditorium. The stage in the end stage configuration has no proscenium, and the ceiling is a jungle of lighting fixtures and other technical equipment hidden behind jet black screens.

The overall decorating effect is Japanese in derivation -- almost Oriental in feeling with emphasis on blond maple and sycamore woods contrasting with sage green mohair seating upholstery that suggest a bamboo grove. The surround walls are sheathed in horizontal wood slatting instead of the usual solid woodwork. Flooring is maple and the stage wall is handcrafted in a pleasant design of blond woods in geometric patterns.

It is an altogether happy environment for making and hearing music, and to remind visitors it is an underground environment bedrock is exposed in various places throughout the house.

The opening festival, to run through Sept. 28, will include eight concerts chosen by John Adams, who began his tenure as composer-in-residence at Carnegie Hall this month. Other scheduled events are the Meredith Monk Vocal Ensemble, a theater piece by Anna Deavere Smith, Kenny Barron Jazz Quartet, Emerson String Quartet, pianist Frederic Rzewski, and Brooklyn Youth Chorus.

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