As the Frick Expands, New York City Music Suffers

The harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani at the Frick Collection’s music room, which will be converted into an art gallery as part of the museum’s planned expansion and renovation.

In 1999, before a recital in the music room of the Frick Collection, the pianist Frederic Chiu, then 34, told the audience that he was greatly relieved not to be playing in some generic concert hall before thousands of people.

He said that the Frick’s wonderfully intimate, oval music room had a similar ambience to the Parisian salons where the early Romantic repertory he was about to perform would have been played. To enhance the feeling of intimacy, Mr. Chiu pretended to be a host and spoke to the audience about each piece.

For 80 years, New York audiences — and critics, including me — have felt as much affection for the Frick’s music room as the artists who have performed there, even ones of international renown. It truly is the closest thing to a 19th-century music salon this city has to offer.

But the beloved room is, sadly, now on borrowed time: On Tuesday, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission approved the Frick’s plan for a major expansion and renovation of its complex, originally a 1914 Gilded Age mansion. The salon-like space will be turned into a gallery for special exhibitions.

The museum promises to continue its concert series, but in a new 220-seat basement auditorium that will mostly be used for lectures and educational events. Though it’s good that the Frick will maintain this commitment, many music lovers will mourn the loss of the old room, which, when chairs are brought in, can accommodate only 147 people. Every seat is coveted; performances typically sell out.

That oval space is uniquely suited to chamber music, which was historically conceived for, as the name of the genre suggests, salons and intimate rooms. Most concert halls today, including those designed for chamber music, are too big. Alice Tully Hall, the home of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, seats 1,086. It’s a warm, inviting space with good acoustics for a hall that size. It’s perfect for a small orchestra, and the music of string quartets comes across with full, lively sound.

Yet when you hear a quartet in a much smaller venue, like Weill Recital Hall (with 268 seats), the combined sounds of the instruments, whether in a diaphanous passage of Ravel or an earthy, gnashing outburst in Bartok, permeate the space vibrantly.

In the Frick’s room, the sound of that same string quartet becomes even more visceral and engulfing, and individual voices come through with palpable clarity. You can hear — and see! — the players tossing phrases back and forth between instruments.

I remember being swept away when the Utrecht String Quartet, on its first American tour from the Netherlands in 2013, played Sibelius’s visionary String Quartet in D minor, “Voces Intimae” (“Intimate Voices”). Though there are intricate, soft-spoken strands of music in this brooding, mercurial work, it also has stretches of frenzied intensity. Both the detailed subtleties and walloping fervor came through thrillingly in the performance.

I’ve had similarly memorable experiences over the years at the Frick: the dynamic violinist Augustin Hedelich and the pianist Charles Owen, playing sonatas by Beethoven, Schumann and Janacek in an exciting 2013 recital; the formidable cellist Nicolas Altstaedt, joined by the fine pianist Alexander Lonquich in riveting accounts of Britten’s Sonata in C and Debussy’s Cello Sonata in 2016.

Longtime patrons of the Frick’s concert series had to adjust in 2005, when the museum started charging $20 for tickets that had been free for decades. But the museum had a deficit to deal with. And, after all, institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art had long charged for concerts. The good will the Frick had earned from music-lovers over many years has largely been maintained. (Tickets currently go for $45, or $40 for members.)

But it’s another thing to lose the music room altogether. (Preservationists have fought for the space by seeking an interior landmark designation that would preserve it, but so far they have been unsuccessful.) Now, the closest thing New York will have to a music salon may be the intimate Board of Officers Room at the Park Avenue Armory.

Juliet Sorce, a consultant working with the Frick, told me that the new “subterranean auditorium,” as she described it in a phone interview, would “be circular in shape,” to “give a nod” to “the aesthetic of the old music room.” Plans call for curvilinear rows of fixed seats facing the stage. Ms. Sorce emphasized that today, the oval room today is used only about 25 percent for music. Otherwise it hosts lectures and educational programs, and the Frick has long been dissatisfied with the room’s suitability for these events.

Concerts will still occupy about 25 percent of the new space’s calendar. The firm Selldorf Architects is working with acoustical engineers to “design” the space, a concept that can raise fears of amplification with classical music fans who value natural sound. But Ms. Sorce made clear that the hall would have natural acoustics for music and would “maintain an intimate feeling.” Audiences will have to wait and see; the project is expected to be completed in 2022.

It’s hard to argue that the Frick, which now must place important special exhibitions in basement galleries, should not be able to repurpose the centrally located music room for art. And preservationists have not been united in their reactions to the expansion plan: Some endorse the design as an improvement over an earlier, failed effort, while others still protest it strongly.

Regarding the music room, Theodore Grunewald, from the Committee to Save the New York Public Library, has said that “destroying” the Frick’s music room would be “an erasure of New York City’s cultural and civic memory.”

Alas, this will be so.

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