There are certain books that make ideal beginning points for very broad subjects: Taruskin’s monumental Oxford History of Western Music and Berlioz’s or Strauss’s treatises on instrumentation come to mind. Victoria Newhouse’s Site and Sound1 is one of these. It achieves the status of essential reading by both its focus and its scope, chronicling the concert hall’s origins in the ancient Greco-Roman amphitheaters, its flowering in the ornate baroque opera houses of Europe, and its most significant modern incarnations, touching on their roles as both ideological battlegrounds and testaments to our shifting attitudes towards art and, more specifically, classical music. Her book carefully outlines the challenges, the successes, and the failures of the historic and – especially – the modern opera house or symphony hall. Together with its successor, Chaos and Culture2, Newhouse’s books should be the starting place for anyone responsible for the conception or realization of a new concert hall or cultural center anywhere in the world.
Her books lay the foundation for any serious discussion on the topic of concert halls by covering the vast but essential ground and by surveying the lessons experience inevitably offers us. But they also, most interestingly, broach some of the subjects about which the classical music world, either reluctant or else remiss, largely fails to discuss. And it seems to me that these are precisely the most important discussions we could be having. This is the purpose of my work at FSI – to propel these conversations – and I wonder if Newhouse didn’t plant some early seeds in my mind. For example,
People on foot, not automobiles, are now the focus of plans for the inner city. Historic plazas and dense commercial streets have become the model for pedestrian zones in city centers throughout Europe, and the trend is beginning to take hold in the United States. Planners have come to realize that superblocks and broad, sunken plazas deferring to monumental buildings have deadened the street life essential to a lively urban environment. …Rather than siting several cultural institutions in one place, contemporary designs return to the earlier practice of locating concert halls and opera houses in different parts of a city – as the first Metropolitan Opera House and Carnegie Hall (William B. Tuthill, 1891) were in Manhattan, and the Royal Opera House (Edward Berry, 1858) and the Royal Albert Hall (Francis Fowke and H.Y.D. Scott, 1871) were in London.3
Her observations are both insightful and timely. They could have been the basis for our recent Seaside Symposium, which brought the most prominent thinkers and the basic tenants of New Urbanism together to consider the problem of concert halls in the context of community. In the space of one page in her book, Newhouse hits two gigantic problems that almost never show up on the radar of the boards and builders envisioning tomorrow’s concert halls. But they are issues very much known to the New Urbanists – who also know just what to do about them. The fact that these issues are so often entirely overlooked by our institutions of classical music here in America, and that the worlds of New Urbanism and classical music are so completely disconnected, makes Newhouse’s piercing analysis and her very direct challenge seem to me quite remarkable.
I had another such moment when we sat down to speak in person at her home in Manhattan. Our conversation began, naturally enough, with some remarks about the Met.
VICTORIA NEWHOUSE: The Met’s financial problems were first written about in the New York Times. I wrote to Peter Gelb, whom I know, and I said that the only way you’re going to solve these problems is to tear down that house, which is almost four thousand seats – just a couple seats under four thousand – and build something half the size or less than half the size because you’ll never in this day and age fill that, even in New York. I’m going less and less to the Met, and I’m going more and more to places like the National Sawdust, Poisson Rouge, Roulette – and these are small, as you know, very small venues. I believe National Sawdust has something like just two hundred seats – maybe just under – anyway, it’s extremely small. Roulette has maybe four hundred or so. Poisson Rouge I can’t tell you. …I am convinced that these very large concert halls – I would say anything over fifteen hundred seats – are a thing of the past. I just don’t think there are audiences to go to them. And I think that’s one of the problems. I dread going to the Geffen, the former Avery Fisher Hall. I find it so unwelcoming, it’s so enormous. One has no sense of intimacy there whatsoever.
ANDREW BALIO: I’m so glad to hear you say that because in your book you document the largest venues, but what we’re finding in our work is that what makes classical music special to people is its intimacy.
AB: And what’s missing in people’s lives is intimacy. We spend so much time in these giant buildings – shopping malls, monstrous office complexes, big box stores. Classical music should bring people together in a more social, intimate way. We’re hoping to design the whole concert experience from the beginning to be smaller. In fact, we have an initiative we’re working on called Slow Music. It’s about shrinking the scale, bringing classical music into the human scale.
VN: I couldn’t agree more. What they’re doing at the Geffen, they’ve announced an architect and an interior designer who are going to either totally renovate the hall or tear it down and start from scratch.
AB: They’re not allowed to tear it down because now it’s historic. It’s going to have to be a gut job.
VN: They’ve already done that once, you know; they gutted it once. They should be building two – at the very least – smaller halls in that space. There’s no market for these big concert halls anymore.
And of course, again, I have to marvel at Newhouse’s insight. In a world dominated by international corporations, daily commutes on ten-lane beltways, and the nonstop, frantic pace of our ubiquitous technology, we long for something small, human, knowable, and intimate. The boutique hotel, the farm-to-table restaurant, the local business: they’re all making a huge comeback. And it’s the easiest thing in the world to understand why. We’re looking for the antidote to our outsized, automated, and numbers-driven world. Classical music is the perfect antidote, but not if we continue to present it in the way we do now. We can’t expect people to file into halls the size of Walmart, assigned a number as the only thing by which they’re identified as a seat, and then to sit there, elbow to elbow with perfect strangers that they’ll never get to know, without even the smallest hope that someone will bring them a glass of wine or a coffee – or even smile at them – for at least the next several hours. It’s no wonder our halls are looking empty.
AB: How does it make you feel when you go into a half-full auditorium?
VN: I think it’s very depressing. I won’t publish an empty hall in my books; I won’t publish an empty opera house. I think to see a picture of an empty hall is very unsettling. I feel the same way when I go into an actual venue and it’s half empty. It’s a downer.
AB: Absolutely. This is the frustration in our work. They say we have a half-full house and somehow we failed rather than saying we arbitrarily scaled the whole operation too large. We have this industrial approach to concert music that we took in the last century when we wanted to make everything bigger, like sports stadiums. But the symphony doesn’t operate the way football does. They criticize the art form itself because we have a half-full house. We say the house is too big.
VN: How do you handle the problem – if you have a smaller hall – of finances for the musicians? How do you make ends meet?
AB: An orchestra in the United States generally gets only one-third of its operating funds from ticket revenue. Two-thirds come from donated revenue. So the economic imperative is both consistent, repeat ticket sales and a compelling mission to attract philanthropic funds. We’re trying to make the case for building concert halls smaller, as you said, and increasing the valuation of the concert experience – if people value it much more, they’ll pay and donate much more. But even if we elevate the ticket prices in the top tier, we’ll always set aside a certain number of tickets for people of lower income – could be the music students, the youngsters. This is a way of price structuring that has been going on forever. There’s a method to it and the wealthy know they’re offsetting the costs of the other people and everybody’s happy. Let’s say the demand goes up, which would be a wonderful thing: you have a small hall, so you play more concerts. Most orchestras aren’t playing enough concerts – or not as many as they could – and they wish they could offer more concerts that would sell. In our work at FSI we focus on the difference between price and valuation. Believe it or not, orchestras have been trying to push their prices down, assuming that price is the determining factor. But for things beyond the necessities it doesn’t work that way. When a concert costs less than a movie eventually people come to value a concert less than a movie.
VN: There are a lot of free concerts in New York. I’m sure you know that.
AB: What does that do? It may teach people that the value of a concert is free. You have a few wealthy people who are paying because they think this is a public good.
This is a model based on 100% philanthropic funding. And it’s all well and good until the philanthropist moves on. The fact of the matter is that orchestras need a better, more resilient model – one based to some extent on a realistic understanding of market forces and, most importantly, of human nature. What they need is something that will allow them to help themselves – to earn their own way – as much as they can, to insulate them against the whims of philanthropic fashion and the kinds of top-down government control and populist pressures that threaten the orchestras of Europe. We see a great need for careful research and the application of tried and tested market principles to the management of the nonprofit symphony – and a reevaluation of the predominant ideological principles that are pretending to be business principles. But a large part of making our orchestras viable is going to be developing the foresight and restraint needed not to hang an albatross around their necks by building halls that are too expensive to operate and maintain. And Newhouse has thought a lot about that.
VN: People don’t think beyond the bricks and mortar. They don’t think about programming, maintenance. My latest book, Chaos and Culture, touches on just this problem. Writing my last book [i.e. Site and Sound] about opera houses and concert halls, I became aware of how incredibly complicated the process of building a venue for music is – with the whole problem of acoustics, circulation in terms of how people move in and out of it, and all the different problems. So I’ve written a book about the process of building a cultural building in Athens, Greece. It’s an amazing project. It cost over eight hundred million dollars. It’s totally financed by a private foundation: the Niarchos Foundation. It consists of a small opera house – fourteen hundred seats – and the national library, which they desperately needed because their national library has extraordinary treasures – Byzantine and Medieval manuscripts.
They have the same problem because the deal they made with the Greek government before the global economic crisis was that the day it was finished they would turn the key over to the government and the government would run it. At that time, in 2007, the government said, yes, they would be delighted – they were thrilled to have a very expensive, very beautiful building designed by Renzo Piano. They would be very happy to run it; but a lot happened between then and now and they have no money to run it. The same problem as everyplace else: here they have a beautiful building and no money to run it. Of course the foundation will step in and help them out, but I don’t think they’re prepared to do that forever.
AB: Our cultural institutions expect the demand for their programs and resources to support these things – and just the opposite can happen. That’s what is dooming our high culture. The high arts are being saddled with these structural costs, and we never, ever get out of this ditch.
VN: There’s a chapter devoted to the major aspects of building this kind of a building. Really my inspiration for the book – the reason I wrote the book – is to alert people in cultural organizations about the problems: how difficult it is, how time consuming and how expensive and how complex. I have the feeling that so many of these boards jump into construction projects without having any idea what they’re getting themselves into.
AB: That’s exactly what happens. They keep deferring to “experts.” Other people step in – and it’s often driven by the architects, who have agendas and want to make a big statement, or else it’s the client who wants it to be all things to all people, which is usually not possible. The acoustician is often the last person who gets a chance to weigh in. In the case of Disney Hall, unfortunately, the acoustician, Yasuhita Toyota, did not get to “own” the interior of the hall, the concert performance space. As the musicians tell it, it did not turn out very well acoustically, even though it’s a cool place, visually. This happens a lot, where the architect creates all these issues. It’s a big challenge for a local philanthropist, for example, who is going to put down ten million dollars to kick off a concert hall project. First he has to inform his strategy. And there’s nothing – other than your book, actually – that gathers and distills the information into the wisdom of lessons learned. Instead they have information presented to them by all these different interests – usually vested interests. That why it’s so wonderful that you’re doing this.
VN: You might be more interested in the final chapter, where I compare the building of the Cultural Center in Athens, which went very smoothly, practically on time (– of course, it’s a little late – they all are – but it’s almost on time, almost on budget – it went very little over budget), with some other projects, like the Paris Philharmonie. As you know, it was tremendously late, tremendously over budget. Another one is the Herzog & de Meuron’s Elbaphilharmonie in Hamburg. Also Peter Eisenman’s thing in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. I make those comparisons to show how this was exceptional. The rule is rather the opposite. But these guys in Athens, having gone through all of this so beautifully, now have the same problem as all the others.
And indeed, it was the growing realization that many of the problems facing our symphony orchestras are shared not just among symphony orchestras but with businesses, institutions, and pursuits in so many different fields and so many different places that prompted me to begin my work at FSI in the first place. Too many mistakes are repeated unnecessarily because the lessons we should have learned from them are not being collected and disseminated – because we have too much invested in them to call them mistakes in the first place, and because too many of us don’t think to look outside of what has become for us our silo.
My work starts with the search for experts, often outsiders, who are examining these problems afresh – and sometimes in surprising, seemingly disparate fields. Victoria Newhouse was one of my first finds. And she’s been thinking about some of these problems for a long time, as part of a very big picture. That makes her work exceedingly important.
VN: There’s a lot to think through. …Alternative venues like Poisson Rouge or National Sawdust: that’s the future.
AB: Small, intimate – smaller scale. We’re seeing this contraction in so many things. All these things we’ve tried to supersize. They don’t sustain themselves. We need to pull people back in. Classical music is actually built on chamber music. The size of the symphony orchestra as an expression of classical music reached an apex at the end of the romantic period in the early 20th Century. Chamber music, the piano recital – they’ve been pushed off into other places. They’ve become their own separate world. I’d like to bring them together so that a thousand-seat concert hall could also have every night of the week different things. Most importantly, we’d be developing the depth of our audience’s experience. They could have a membership to the local symphony hall, and they could be enjoying this constant diet of music, learning our vast canon, and doing it in an environment of gold-standard hospitality – where they’re not just a face in a crowd, but a friend at an intimate gathering of friends. That’s what we’re envisioning.
1 Newhouse, Victoria. Site and Sound: The Architecture and Acoustics of New Opera Houses and Concert Halls. New York: The Monacelli Press LLC, 2010.
2 Newhouse, Victoria. Chaos and Culture: Renzo Piano Building Workshop and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center in Athens. New York: The Monacelli Press LLC, 2017.
3 Newhouse, Victoria. Site and Sound: The Architecture and Acoustics of New Opera Houses and Concert Halls. New York: The Monacelli Press LLC, 2010. Page 99.