Center aisles

Terry Teachout, arts blogger extraordinaire, reported

Thursday on Zankel Hall, the new 650-seat auditorium at Carnegie Hall. I would

link to its website, but I’m allergic to horrible Flash pages, so I shan’t.

I was fascinated to read Teachout’s piece, which was much more useful than the

coverage by Tommasini

and Muschamp

in the Times. But I was brought up short by one comment:

In the seating setup used at the media preview, the parterre level of the

auditorium had no center aisle and each row was about 20 seats long, meaning

that latecomers will have to stumble over earlycomers, just as they do in

the New York State Theatre. I hope the managers of the hall will try out a

center aisle at some point.

Well, I hope they won’t – or at least, if they do, that they will decide

it was nothing but an unsuccessful experiment. To be sure, bobbing up and down

as an earlycomer is a bit annoying, and it would be wonderful if we could all

be magically teletransported directly into our seats. But no reputable concert

hall will allow latecomers to try to reach their seats once the concert has

started, so it doesn’t affect the experience of listening to the music. On the

other hand, the presence of a center aisle certainly does affect that

experience, and it does so adversely.

The main reason, of course, that concert halls don’t like center aisles is

that they obliterate the best seats in the house as surely as a Robert Moses

expressway: this does huge damage to their revenues. But there are very good

aesthetic reasons to oppose center aisles as well.

For a concert is more than a group of people listening to musicians –

it is equally a group of musicians playing to the public. There’s something

about the presence of an appreciative audience that brings out the best in a

performer, and there’s something rather dispiriting about playing to empty space.

This weekend marked the finale of the greatest music festival in the world:

the BBC Proms. I’ve been to hundreds

of Proms in my time, and there’s no doubt that part of what makes them so great

is the audience. Ask any member of the Berlin Philharmonic: they’ll tell you

that they play better at the Proms because the audience has the perfect combination

of rapt attention and enthusiasm. The Albert Hall probably has the worst acoustics

of any major concert hall in the world, but it doesn’t matter: it’s still the

site of most of the greatest concert performances I’ve ever been privileged

enough to attend.

Now that which makes the Proms great, audience-wise, cannot really be replicated

elsewhere. For one thing, the best seats in the house are also the the cheapest

seats in the house – and they’re not seats at all, since in the arena,

the audience stands. For another, the Albert Hall at full capacity holds some

5,000 people: even the monstrous Carnegie Hall doesn’t break the 3,000 barrier.

Never will someone at Zankel Hall experience the intense, amazing silence of

5,000 people almost holding their breath as Claudio Abbado lets the final notes

of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony echo around the circular auditorium, until you’re

not sure if it’s the Berlin Philharmonic’s music you’re hearing any more or

if it’s just your memory of it. Neither will a New York concertgoer get caught

up in the kind of endless, exilharating applause which follows, the kind of

foot-stamping riotousness that continues even once the orchestra has left the

stage, and which brings Abbado back, alone, for one final bow.

But at the very least, New York audiences can hope that the best seats in the

house exist, and that in a medium-sized venue they will be filled with

music enthusiasts rather than corporate junketeers. A center aisle, while not

as bad in a concert hall as it is in a theatre, is still a void which puts a

damper on any musical performance – not to mention screwing up the acoustics,

which are generally designed on the understanding that any sound reaching ground

level will be absorbed by soft bodies, rather than bounced back by hard flooring.

And Zankel Hall is going to be home to a very eclectic range of music, from

all over the world: we’re not just talking chamber orchestras who mainly stare

either at their sheet music or at the conductor. Just about all the rest of

the music which is going to be performed at Zankel Hall has a much more direct

bond between performer and audience: we’re moving towards theatre here, not

away from it. I’m looking forward to world music gigs at Zankel Hall which follow

the lead of the Proms and take the seating out of the parterre entirely: let

the audience stand, move and dance! Why should it be that when a musician plays

downtown, at Tonic, say, or the Knitting

Factory, the audience stands, but when the same person plays uptown, the

audience is always seated? And of course, the only thing worse than having an

audience sitting down is not having an audience at all – having a whopping

great empty space where people should rightly be.

I have not yet been to Zankel Hall, but I am sure that the idea behind its

design was to have a relatively intimate shoebox: I’m thinking something along

the lines of the original Glyndebourne here. Center aisles destroy intimacy,

especially when the auditorium is deeper than it is wide. They should be avoided

as much as possible.

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