Maybe it's having just heard three concerts in the miraculous Disney Hall, maybe it's because I got stuck in the subway and missed the entire first half, maybe I was just in a foul mood yesterday - but I came away from last night's New York Philharmonic concert with a vast sense of disappointment. On paper, it looked like a winner: the formidable Radu Lupu playing the Schumann piano concerto, and Riccardo Muti - former director of La Scala and the Philadelphia Orchestra - conducting Bruckner's 6th Symphony. And, with a seat in the fifth row center, I thought for once I'd be immune to Avery Fisher's notoriously bad acoustics.
Honestly, I wasn't that broken up about missing the Schumann: a pile of soft muddle that Lupu somehow managed to invest with dynamic energy, but ultimately couldn't rescue from triteness. But, I have a deep reverence for Bruckner, whose nine symphonies are towering works of grandeur and power, yet straightforward, almost minimalist in sound. The Philharmonic has been more than capable of delivering the goods in the past: one of the most profound musical experiences I've ever had was listening to this orchestra perform Bruckner's 4th under Kurt Masur at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine back in 2001; their performance of the 3rd in Avery Fisher the following season was nearly as stunning, not at least because it was last time I ever heard Masur with the Philharmonic.
I should have known things were going to end up badly from the minute I walked in the hall, where I had to run a geriatric gauntlet of canes, walkers, and dowagers with absolutely no peripheral vision to get to my seat. Muti came onstage, his baton came down... and what came forth was just nasty. There was no warmth, no reverb, no sense of balance or coordination. The strings grated, the woodwinds warbled, the trumpets sounded tentative, almost uncertain. I mean, I know Bruckner can be hard, but this is the friggin' New York Philharmonic. Is it unreasonable to expect precision and confidence from the most famous orchestra in the country? Hell, these guys aren't even the best orchestra in New York anymore. (That would be the MET Orchestra, which only plays on off nights from its regular gig.)
If there was one bright spot, it was Muti, who brought his usual cool, commanding presence to the podium. I've seen Muti conduct in a number of different venues - including the Musikverein in Vienna, where he led the Vienna Philharmonic in a stunning performance of Schubert's "Great" Symphony. I couldn't help thinking the whole time he'd rather be there. (I often wonder what goes through a conductor's head when he's placed in an obviously inferior situation, trying to make it look like he isn't just there to collect a paycheck.)
But the bottom line is this: going to see the Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall is a generally shitty experience. The acoustics, the faded paint, the threadbare seats and carpet. It's certainly not worth $92 - which is what my seat would have cost were I not eligible for the MyPhil program for patrons under 35. Avery Fisher is supposed to undergo a long-overdue renovation in the summer of 2010, but contrast this with the State Theater across the plaza, where Gerard Mortier has arranged for renovations next season, a full year before he even takes over as General Director. I mean, WTF, Zarin?
So, I've decided enough is enough. After this season, I am officially boycotting Philharmonic concerts in Avery Fisher Hall until they gut that goddamned barn and give us the concert hall this orchestra - and this city - truly deserves. Of course, that's not going to make these players any better, but it might at least cover up some of their slop. Who knows, maybe a new interior will inspire better playing, the wayI imagine it did with the LA Phil when it moved from Dorothy Chandler to Disney. One can dream.