Varied concerts test Carnegie Hall's new sound

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During the eight-month renovation/restoration of Carnegie Hall I was continually asked by worried people, ``Do you think they'll change the acoustics?'' Since the hall's reopening last month, it's clear the acoustics have changed. They've been improved, or rather restored to their original splendor, making this hall nearly as remarkable as Boston's Symphony Hall.

But until Carnegie re-opened its doors, the rumors persisted about what was going on inside. I heard all sorts of stories, the wildest being that the entire interior of the auditorium, including the balconies, had been removed.

Well, as was obvious on first entering the rehabilitated hall, it is essentially the Carnegie we knew from before the ``facelift,'' balconies and all. What is different is the creamier color of the d'ecor, and the end panels on the aisle seats, which are now handsome cast-iron reproductions rather than wood. The loving care lavished on the frieze-work around the auditorium - from the glazing to the gold leaf - means that the hall has probably never looked as dignified and understatedly exquisite as it does today.

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Two other obvious differences - ones that were bound to affect the acoustics - are the removal of yards upon yards of gold brocade curtains and the restoration of the acoustical dome over the stage. Those curtains were put in place after workmen cut through the dome in the mid '40s to make room for the lights and cameras needed to film ``Carnegie Hall Tonight.'' Thus, the Carnegie Hall sound - legendary over several generations - hadn't really been heard to full effect for the last four decades.

How does sound carry in the refurbished hall? Well, I've attended a series of concerts since the opening gala to assess the effect of the changes.

The first post-gala performance was to have been an all-Chopin recital by pianist Daniel Barenboim. But it became an impromptu recital by violinist Itzhak Perlman when Barenboim was forced to cancel his three o'clock date late that morning. Perlman could, therefore, be forgiven for the haphazard approach to his program. Professional that he is, he played his scant 52 minutes of music with his accustomed suave and effortless tone, but chatted rather excessively with his receptive audience.

At least the program did give an unexpected opportunity to assess the effect of that new/old acoustical dome over his head in a concert by solo violin, that most fragile of instruments. Perlman's spinning sound was propelled with so much immediacy throughout the expanse of the hall that even his softest playing, always unusually potent, had more body and presence.

The same evening, the Orchestra of St. Lukes, under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas, offered a Mozart/Wagner/Beethoven program that gave further indications of the state of Carnegie. Thomas's spirited, celebratory way with Mozart's 31st Symphony (``Paris'') meant that the strings had to play with particular verve, and their sound shimmered in the hall. Marilyn Horne joined the orchestra for Mahler's five ``R"uckertlieder,'' and, as is so often the case with her in this hall, she sounded glorious, giving particularly haunting, trenchant readings of the last two songs.

Beethoven's Third Symphony (``Eroica'') gave the first clear demonstration of the new aspect of the Carnegie sound: In the past, I have always found the hall to be very resonant, but not reverberant. In other words, the floors have always rattled in the musical climaxes - amplifying the sound and resonating with it. But because of all that hanging brocade, there was never a long decay time before a climactic chord disappeared entirely. During Thomas's performance, one suddenly heard an impressive decay - 1.9 seconds is the official time - and what a difference it makes!

Thomas's Beethoven was rather less remarkable than I had hoped. Though he had in front of him a fabulous chamber orchestra, he chose to do a large-orchestra performance. The strings were not divided; the tempos were not as bracing as they should have been; and the performance seemed bent on proving that a 58-piece ensemble can sound like 96.

But even with this approach, I suspected I would not really ``feel'' Carnegie until the night when Seiji Ozawa was to lead his Boston Symphony in Mahler's Second Symphony, ``Resurrection.''

Perhaps because of my high expectations, I was truly let down by Ozawa's and the BSO's performance. They played poorly most of the evening. And since Edith Wiens's edgy soprano stood out harshly from the chorus, and veteran mezzo Maureen Forrester's instrument was being rather recalcitrant, I decided to focus on the impact of the ultra-large Mahler ensemble in the hall.

The new flooring and sub-flooring will need time to season before rumbling climaxes will rattle those boards in the same way they used to. (Yet, the ever-instrusive subway is less obvious now, because the floor has been somewhat isolated from the foundation supports.) Those concertgoers accustomed to the drier, more clinical sound of the old hall might need some time to get used to the warmer presence now. During climaxes, there is a warmth and a blend, a sense that the hall is naturally and effortlessly amplifying the sound, rather than just providing a remarkably neutral environment in which it could be heard. And this is, for me, a thrill.

On the potentially negative side, I got the sense, during the Mahler, that the players cannot hear themselves as well as they used to. Also, the bare stage walls create a different deflection of sound than before, when there were free-standing panels on stage. Thus, the sound from instruments such as glockenspiels and horns tends to travel along the walls, creating something like an echo. Conductors will have to experiment with this and, perhaps, reposition their players.

But these will be minor adjustments in a hall that is not only infinitely more beautiful to look at but, to these ears, dramatically more satisfying acoustically.

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