Cause to Celebrate at Merkin Hall
The Wall Street Journal 2/19/2008
By ARRYMORE LAURENCE SCHERER
The Kaufman Center, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, has often been overshadowed by Lincoln Center, a mere block to its south. And while Kaufman has no formal ties with Lincoln Center, its activities are the perfect complement to Lincoln Center’s higher-profile ones. Kaufman’s Lucy Moses School provides classes and private training in music, dance and theater for children and adults at every level of experience. Also at Kaufman Center is the Special Music School, a small K-12 public school founded in 1996 for musically gifted children living in any of New York’s five boroughs, its regular academic curriculum enriched by an in-depth music program funded by private donations. But it is Kaufman Center’s Merkin Hall — an intimate 449-seat auditorium long identified as a venue for eclectic and adventuresome programming — that concertgoers know best. Last month, after an eight-month renovation of the Kaufman Center by Robert A.M. Stern Architects, Merkin Hall celebrated its reopening with several major events.
There has been ample reason for the celebration, and not just because the work was completed on schedule and within budget.
Aesthetically, the original Kaufman building — Abraham Goodman House, designed by Ashok Bhavnani and completed in 1978 — was a problematic concert destination. Its Brutalist raw-concrete style was not to everyone’s taste. From the start, the Kaufman’s main façade achieved a distinctive presence on its block, rubbing its masonry flanks with a nondescript commercial building on its right and an elderly tenement building on its left. And Merkin Hall, despite its coziness and pleasing acoustics, had public spaces that were, even in the most charitable light, woefully uncomfortable: Not only was the main lobby area drab, but it was awkwardly split in half by a long access ramp that made socializing before concerts and during intermissions akin to a game of chutes and ladders. The balcony level was equivalently inhospitable, the public space divided into a gloomy narrow corridor and a multipurpose gallery and meeting room, made bleaker still by poor lighting. Added to this was the simple fact that after three decades in gritty New York, the entire building needed a good face-lift. As Mr. Stern himself observed, in an interview at the start of the project, “It’s a powerful building with strong bones, but a little short on the grace notes.”
Thus Mr. Stern and his associates undertook to supply those grace notes while respecting the original architecture. Their success has been noteworthy, especially as they have not just preserved Merkin Hall’s acoustics and improved its creature comforts, but they have greatly improved the tight public areas without expanding the original footprint. The Merkin Hall entrance signals the change right at the sidewalk. Formerly isolated at the far western end of the building, it has been moved to the opposite end and combined with the entrance to the two schools. Not only is this a more efficient use of entry space, but, as Lydia Kontos, the Kaufman Center’s executive director, observes, “it visibly unites under one marquee all three parts of the Kaufman Center physically and psychologically.”
Whether you perceive it as symbolic or just more accessible, the Merkin lobby proper has been vastly enhanced: Concert patrons now proceed from the small box-office vestibule inside the main Kaufman entrance, and descend a well-proportioned staircase to the spacious lobby floor — the ramp has been replaced by a compact lift for wheelchairs. Upstairs, the cramped balcony-level corridor has also been opened up and the new foyer redesigned as an area to accommodate both concert audiences and school-related activities. Daylight now softly filters through panels of translucent glass set into the second-floor frontage — which shed their own glow back to the street at night. And in the event that school events take place on this level while rehearsals are under way in the auditorium, doors and walls of the auditorium are now equipped with sound barriers.
Apart from the newly inviting spaces, Mr. Stern’s grace notes include a bold and invigorating color scheme. Red banners accent the street façade, while the new angled entrance canopy is emblazoned with a red-lit “Kaufman” logo. Inside, “fire-red” Italian granite facings lend warmth and texture to lobby counters. Some walls are painted red, others are lined with panels of sand-colored mineral composite with a pleasing undulating texture. The lobby floor is softened with carpet, while perforated stainless-steel panels add lustrous crispness to the stair railings.
The Merkin auditorium has been essentially preserved intact, with new — and delightfully bouncy — seating that was carefully designed to maintain the original acoustics. The visual surprise is the amount of wood in the décor of the stage and ceiling, all of it original, but now beautifully cleaned of the years of grime that had all but made it invisible.
Opening-night audiences on Jan. 8 were treated to music programmed to prove that the old acoustics were in good working order. With its instruments positioned in the four corners of the room, “Dawn Carol” (1996), a charming atmospheric piece for four flutes by the British composer Margaret Lowe, offered a gentle riposte to the familiar antiphonal brass music of the Venetian composer Giovanni Gabirelli, often played at similar fêtes in larger spaces. The distinguished Pulitzer-laureate composer Aaron Kernis conducted Aaron Copland’s “Music for Theatre” (1925) and his own “Simple Songs,” which he scored for chamber orchestra in 1995. Together with Ira Mowitz’s “Kol Aharon” for solo violin, mixed ensemble and digital soundtrack, the works confirmed how good the room still sounds, and how responsive it is to music at all dynamic levels.
But it was the second celebratory event, a six-hour “Grand Piano Marathon” offered free on Jan. 21, that proved how much Merkin is loved. When I arrived, somewhat after the initial 2 p.m. downbeat, a line of several hundred people snaked back from the auditorium doors, up the stairs and several times through the new lobby. Inside Merkin, every seat was taken, and the program was already running about an hour behind schedule. As the concert progressed, some earlier arrivals began to leave, making room for others.
Of the four hours I experienced, high points included John Adams’s “Hallelujah Junction” for two pianos, a clever, if somewhat monochromatic riff on Handel’s most famous chorus, admirably played by Farrah Dupoux and Brian Ge, students of the Special Music School. Jimmy Roberts, composer of the musical “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change,” offered three novelty pieces, respectively combining familiar themes by Vivaldi and Lennon & McCartney; Beethoven and Rodgers & Hart; and, my favorite, Elgar’s Nimrod from “Enigma Variations” with Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.” Orli Shaham played seven Chopin pieces with the kind of luxuriant charm that reminded me of historic recordings by Ignatz Paderewski. Finally, at 8:30, Ursula Oppens, a longtime friend of Merkin, delivered the world premiere of William Bolcom’s new “Ballade,” an oddly named work given its spiky textures and overall mood of dour violence. After all that had preceded it, the moment was hardly advantageous for such a musical unveiling, so I hope I can hear the work again when I am less exhausted.
Nevertheless, the event was a bang-up start to Merkin’s new lease on life.