Mixing It Up Underground: Carnegie Hall Digs Deeper

“Location, location, location”-the iron rule of the real-estate racket-has become the mantra of the city’s classical-music institutions. The New York City Opera, fed up with its second-class citizenship at the State Theater at Lincoln Center, wants a place of its own at Ground Zero. The New York Philharmonic plans to move its whole kit-and-caboodle out of soulless Avery Fisher Hall and take up its old residence at Carnegie Hall, a dozen blocks south. Jazz at Lincoln Center is a year away from holding its first house-warming at a new facility in the AOL Time Warner fortress on Columbus Circle. And Carnegie Hall has decided that the best way to break down the barriers between classical and pop music, jazz and rock is to mix everything up in a brand-new hall situated below the Isaac Stern Auditorium and above the Seventh Avenue subway. Carnegie’s new real-estate venture, which opened Sept. 12, is an early test: Will this game of musical chairs yield real artistic and commercial dividends? Will it reinvigorate our civic concert life?

Carnegie’s new underground room is named Judy and Arthur Zankel Hall, in honor of a local philanthropic couple whose surname rhymes not with “rankle” but “Raquel” and who gave what, in the fund-raising game, is called a leadership grant (long gone the days when a moneybags took pride in being the anonymous donor behind a hall called Aeolian or Philharmonic). The new space is being billed as both a “performance and education auditorium for the 21st century” and a restoration of Andrew Carnegie’s “original vision of a three-venue music center.” When Carnegie Hall opened in 1891, the building housed not just a main 2,804-seat auditorium and a 268-seat setting for chamber music (now Weill Recital Hall), but a lower-level, 1,200-seat hall for recitals. After 1895, that space was put to other, nonmusical uses, and over the years the interior was reconfigured to accommodate Off Broadway theater, art films and commercial movies.

Zankel Hall originated in the flush mid-90’s. Carnegie’s blue-chip board hired Polshek Partnership Architects, the firm responsible for the restoration of the main hall in 1986, to do the design and engaged the Tishman Construction Corporation for the heavy lifting and digging-a process that involved excavating 22 feet below the original theater floor and the removal of 6,300 cubic yards of Manhattan bedrock. True to the buzzwords of the day- “multipurpose,” “interactive,” “diversity” and so forth-the operating principle was flexibility. Polshek and company devised a hydraulic system whereby the stage could be raised or lowered, expanded or contracted to accommodate all manner of performance configurations; the system also allows the seats to be whisked away to a hidden garage, thus enabling children to learn about music as they (theoretically) do best-sitting cross-legged on a bare floor. The architects equipped the ceiling with remotely controlled steel trusses that move up and down according to a variety of theatrical needs, and somewhere in the infrastructure they installed the “communications” devices so essential to our wired world.

For a theater with a maximum seating capacity of only 650, the eventual construction cost of $72 million might seem profligate, and as I entered the hall for the opening public concert, bathed in klieg lights shining from across Seventh Avenue, it was hard to see where all the money had gone. If classical-music halls once erred on the side of pomp, Zankel’s notion of elegance is that of a smartly outfitted sushi restaurant: muted earth colors on plaster, wood, carpeting and latticework, a rectangular box of an auditorium encased in the design’s single unusual feature-a canted ellipse of reinforced concrete. It’s an ideal setting for people who don’t feel silly in the expensive road-gang look of Comme des Garçons. Gingerly, I found my moss-colored velvet seat, feeling a bit pinched for space in a house that had been hewn millimeter by millimeter out of all that obdurate schist, and waited for the music to be begin.

Carnegie’s artistic administrators have invited John Adams, the ebullient American composer and conductor, to curate, as it were, the inaugural eight concerts. For the opening program, Mr. Adams selected a program relentless in its aim: to knock you back in your seat. Instead of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” Mr. Adams (who wore a bright orange shirt of Mexican cotton) and his chamber band greeted us with an early short piece by Charles Ives, From the Steeples and the Mountains (1901), a jubilantly ugly mishmash whose canonic take on the bugle call “Taps” got buried in the avalanche of discordant sounds. This was followed by another early Ives exercise in anarchic American energy called Scherzo: Over the Pavements (1910, 1926-27), this one an homage to (or rampage on) the streets of New York. In the mercifully brief work’s only euphonious moment, a subway was heard, rumbling away from the 57th Street station.

Despite Zankel’s vaunted technology, nine stagehands now appeared-middle-aged men whose bulky suits indicated that they had never heard of Comme des Garçons-to change the seating arrangement and instrumental lineup, a happily quiet exercise that took more time to accomplish than both Ives pieces put together. The next work was from the pen of one of Ives’ more benign advocates, Lou Harrison, whose Concerto in Slendro (1961, 1972) is a beguiling work that combines Vivaldi-like structures with delicate Asian timbres and percussive effects, punctuated by the beating of good old American trash cans and washtubs. The expert violin soloist was Jennifer Koh.

Finally, Mr. Adams turned to two of today’s most admired younger composers, the Englishman Thomas Adès and the Finn Esa Pekka-Salonen, who has been one of the most eloquent spokesmen for Mr. Adams’ own music during his tenure as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Both contributed high-octane pieces-Mr. Ades’ Living Toys (1994) and Mr. Pekka-Salonen’s Mania (2000)-that lodged in one’s head with irresistible, witty force. Mr. Adams and his young players-the average age I guessed to be about 23-jumped through the hoops with an energy that was fantastic, if not always optimally precise; Anssi Karttunen, the cello soloist in Mania , was a paragon of Finnish muscle. The effect of both pieces was just what these sensation-mongers intended.

Such a program made any judgment of the hall’s acoustics almost irrelevant; in any case, I will hold off on that issue until I’ve sampled more of Zankel’s fall offerings, which range refreshingly all over the map from jazz to string quartets to sacred vocal music. But for starters, suffice it to say that we were wowed.