A Place for New Music: A Discussion on Concert Hall Venues

4. The Right Atmosphere

RUSSELL JOHNSON: I also think of a situation where the waiters are the performers, Italian restaurants where the waiters sing opera. And they wait on a table and they wait on a table and everyone makes noise and when they’re ready to sing their arias everyone pays attention. There’s no one in the room that’s going to interrupt that.

FRANK J. OTERI: I remember Puglia‘s restaurant down in Little Italy and they used to come around and sing songs and they’d lock the doors so you couldn’t actually leave. It was a captive audience awaiting their pasta.

COLETTE DOMINGUES: I think careful curation helps. I mean, we were talking before the recording started about a performer who did a sonic meditation with a guitar and a wrench and it’s a very mournful, very peaceful, quiet sound, so that has to be scheduled at a time at Galapagos where the DJ in the next room is taking his break. If it’s between eleven and twelve at night, it’s the perfect time of night for that kind of sonic meditation. Any other time, it’s going to be lost. So careful curation can create a perfect environment, even if the general atmosphere of the space doesn’t lend itself.

FRANK J. OTERI: This all sounds a lot like the same kind of planning that goes into designing a great restaurant!


The Interior of Puglia’s, New York, NY
Photo courtesy Puglia’s

COLETTE DOMINGUES: Well, you make a careful reservation, you choose a menu, you choose a very efficient staff… Choosing your piece of music, choosing your composer, choosing your performers and choosing an environment that is suitable to your taste.

FRANK J. OTERI: A restaurant isn’t just about the food but it’s also about the space. And I think when we talk about concerts, we’re not always directly attuned to the space that the music is in but that space is as important a component as the music that’s being played and who’s performing it and how well it’s being performed.

LIMOR TOMER: For me, it’s exactly the opposite. I don’t want to be challenged. I just want to know that things will be a certain way.

COLETTE DOMINGUES: You want to know that the food tastes good. You want to know that the quality of the food is going to be…

LIMOR TOMER: Right, but I don’t want surprises, you know, I don’t want my sensibilities challenged…I want security. When I go to a concert, I don’t want that.

FRANK J. OTERI: You said before you do want that: you want to have a drink and to feel comfortable.

LIMOR TOMER: I don’t want that from the music, I want that from the venue. I want to feel comfortable in a venue as I do in a restaurant but I certainly don’t want—I’m not looking for security from new music, or old music, or any music! Dependability, you know…I’m not looking for a track record.

COLETTE DOMINGUES: I have to come back to careful curation. You know, the chef chooses the menu very carefully, the curator chooses the musicians and the venue very, very carefully. You create an environment in a space for new music in the way that a good restauranteur would create a good environment in a restaurant with attention to lighting and attention to the community seating in different sizes—you know, your table for eight, your table for four, your table for two, your table for the single. And you can create that kind of environment in a venue for new music.

FRANK J. OTERI: Would certain food not work in certain spaces? Most of the best Chinese restaurants don’t have a lot of ambiance to them. Very rarely do you go to a Chinese place that’s dimly lit, that has sort of a mystery to it. They’re just about having a good meal. I used to joke around a lot, there’s this place downstairs from us at the American Music Center, this Indian place, Sirtaj, which is a little hole in the wall. You know, the walls are very barren and you can see the cracks if you look carefully, but the food is really good. It’s cheap. But on their takeout menu they say “wonderful atmosphere.” What do you mean wonderful atmosphere? There’s no atmosphere here.


Merkin Hall during a concert
Photo courtesy Elaine Kaufman Cultural Center

COLETTE DOMINGUES: There is no atmosphere at Merkin Hall but the quality of the performances that come out of the place are excellent. I mean, the interpretation series, and people go and go and go, but it’s a cafeteria, there is no atmosphere.

FRANK J. OTERI: I love Merkin and I go to a lot of concerts there and a lot of them aren’t as well attended as I think they ought to be. And I wonder if that is part of it. If…

COLETTE DOMINGUES: There’s a harshness that’s not hospitable.

FRANK J. OTERI: Although by the same token, we were talking about the Miller Theatre which is also a terrible hall in a lot of ways, but the programming that goes on there is fantastic. The performances that are there and the environment is fantastic, the way George Steel has set it up: That after a concert there’s always a reception, there’s always drinks. So you can’t have a drink in your hand when you’re hearing a piece but after you’ve heard it and you’re talking to people about the piece you can have drink.

COLETTE DOMINGUES: But you might as well because George’s personality just sort of takes over Miller Theatre and it’s just…it’s a whole way of being with music that just makes it an intensely joyous experience.

FRANK J. OTERI: I remember when it was called McMillen Hall. I was a Columbia undergrad. And it was a God-awful place to hear music. Terrible, terrible environment. They didn’t redesign the hall; they didn’t repaint the hall. It still sounds as dreadful as it always did. But you know, you don’t really hear how bad it sounds when you’re there. Somehow you’re transported somewhere else. It’s like an acoustical placebo, you know, Miller Hall. The acoustics are bad, but they don’t sound bad, even though they are.

RUSSELL JOHNSON: (laughs) Well, of course, most audiences really pay absolutely no attention to acoustics and I think that’s appropriate. The people who are mostly focused on acoustics are the performers. In the average symphony audience in North America today, probably, probably a good 94 percent of the audience is just completely unaware of the acoustics. And that’s, of course, why so many halls are operating with very bad acoustics. That does not really send audiences away. The works being played, the quality of the musicianship, the quality of the music director, that’s what counts. So, it doesn’t surprise me at all, what you said. It’s sort of normal.