Massey Hall: for the past and for the future

The new Massey Hall is here. The three-tiered interior atrium recreates the jaw-dropping scale and color schemes of the venue’s 70’s glory. The design gave the venue’s classical design unique impact, while the shiny exterior glinted like a pillbox hat. But perhaps the most striking element was the long enclosed stage: from here you could almost expect to see white-clad Broadway stars. The fact that there were seats in the aisles helped to emphasize the genius of that design.

A decade after the opening of the theater’s spectacular original revival, the birth of a second cultural and cultural center has arrived. As its modern exterior indicates, this new space is the continuation of the original idea. And in that sense, it does maintain some of the same excitement that first beheld the dramatic design.

But there’s a problem with it.

Though the space appears far more comfortable than the old one, the seating has instead increased. Nearly double the number of seats have been brought in, and so the building can now comfortably accommodate far more audience members. But as audiences look up at the grand expanses of the aisles and steps up to the cathedral-like stage, they will find themselves overwhelmed, and difficult to hear.

Massey Hall, the world’s third largest concert hall, has been allowed to become more normal — or, to use an entirely inaccurate construction term, more palatable. The former original dream of its designers has been lost.

The New York Philharmonic’s Philharmonic Society of New York City has had a difficult time maintaining its vision for the hall. The Philharmonic Society, which was founded in 1922, met in 1977 to reorganize, and after seven years of wrangling, reached a landmark agreement with the city for the restoration of the hall, which was then used as an ice rink. In 2008, the museum went bankrupt and had to take itself out of bankruptcy court.

A new lease on life was given to Massey Hall and the new Philharmonic Society made good on the title of the organization: “New York Philharmonic Society.”

So it seems fair to say that the Philharmonic Theatre Society built Massey Hall. Without that grandiose production design, or the social and civic ideals of the venue’s establishment, the hall’s young revival would not exist. Yet it’s hard to see the new iteration of Massey Hall adding the same excitement, or comfort, or resonance to the city that Massey Hall did when it re-opened a generation ago.

While the Philharmonic building may be arriving, the Philharmonic’s soon-to-be-renamed Philharmonic Society has slowly been falling apart. And with the restoration of Massey Hall moving this target a long way down the New York Philharmonic’s agenda, it can’t hope to restore its past.

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