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Makeover of New York's Alice Tully Hall yields impressive results

Non-New Yorkers can, I trust, be forgiven if they tend to think of the monolithic Lincoln Center in New York as containing only three components, the ones neatly flanking the often-photographed fountain in the plaza: the Metropolitan Opera House, Avery Fisher Hall (home of the New York Philharmonic) and what was originally named the New York State Theater and now called the David H. Koch Theater (the currently-in-renovation home of New York City Opera and New York City Ballet). The rest of the center complex, including the Vivian Beaumont Theater, where the sensational revival of South Pacific has long been running, is hardly less significant, of course. There is perhaps more artistic activity per square yard of the full Lincoln Center than anywhere else.

But one component in this lively space, Alice Tully Hall (home to the Chamber Music Society and New York Film Festival), has been thought of by some folks as a poor relation, partly owing to the rather unbecoming look of the building itself and the dry, widely panned acoustics inside. I don't think aspersions will be cast any longer. Tully Hall, which officially reopened last night after a $159 million makeover that took nearly two years, is now basking in fresh limelight. ...

I did not attend enough performances in the old Tully to make any authoritative comparisons, but I sure do remember how unbecoming the space was, inside and out. I couldn't agree more with New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff, who had this to say over the weekend:

Sunday's opening of a remade Alice Tully Hall, the first phase of an overhaul of Lincoln Center scheduled for completion in 2010, is a revelation. Designed by Diller Scofidio & Renfro, the womblike performance space, its surfaces flush with new life, makes it hard to remember the dreariness of the 1969 original. The freshness springs from the architects' willingness to break with worn-out urban design strategies. They aren't scornful of the building's history; nor do they treat it with undue reverence. With the precision of surgeons, they cut out ugly tumors and open up clogged arteries. In doing so, they suggest a way forward for a city in which preservation is all too often a form of embalmment. 

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The imaginative, glass-walled lobby areas seem to brings the building out to the flow of Broadway outside, and bring that world inside. It's all very cool and chic, without looking pretentious. As for the interior performance space of the 1,100-seat theater, that struck me as quite welcoming, too. The walls, covered with a thin veneer of lit-by-LED-from-within moabi wood, offer visual appeal. (The first applause heard last night was for the hall itself, when, after the house lights dimmed, the elegant effect of those walls registered on the crowd.) A colleague reminded me of some odd dividers used in the seating area previously; all is smoothly and sensibly arranged now.

And the sound? Clear and, for the most part, quite warm, during last night's mixed program, designed to offer a sampling of styles and sizes of musical expression, from the 15th century to now, from solo piano to orchestra. The concert kicked off Tully Hall's action- and variety-packed Opening Nights Festival, which runs through March 8 and is charging only $25 for tickets (some events are free).

The first sounds on Sunday came from the eminent early music specialist Jordi Savall, with soprano Montserrat Figueras and Hesperion XXI, performing timeless Sephardic music that filled the space with gentle coloring. Leon Fleisher delivered Bach's Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue with remarkable expressive weight. (He was the only artist on the bill who got an extra bow, even though it meant getting in the way of stagehands. Fleisher apparently broke what a no-curtain-call rule meant to keep the concert moving quickly -- a reception was to follow, and a full concert by Savall and his ensemble after that.)

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Osvaldo Golijov's Mariel from 1999 for cello and marimba, an arresting work that floats and shimmers and sighs and dances -- Maya Beiser was the fine cellist, Tomoya Aomori the effortless marimbist. Beethoven entered the program at the last minute. An injury by cellist David Finckel of the Emerson String Quartet caused that illustrious group to bow out. Instead of the Bartok piece planned, the Brentano String Quartet saved the day with Beethoven's Grosse Fuge, delivered in brilliant, propulsive fashion.

Members of the Chamber Music Society delivered a low-key, rather charming account of Stravinsky's Octet for Winds. And several Society players also joined the Juilliard Orchestra for Stravinsky's Pulcinella Suite, conducted by David Robertson with a remarkable ear for textual clarity, tonal coloring and rhythmic elan.

It all added up to an eventful opening night that signaled a new life for the suddenly chic Alice Tully Hall.

PHOTOGRAPHS: Exterior and lobby shots from AP; performance shot of Brentano Quartet at opening concert courtesy of Lincoln Center (Richard Termine, photographer)

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