Recording History Uptown
By Corinne Ramey
On Wednesday, the American Academy of Arts and Letters will induct three new members into its 250-member society of architects, composers, artists and writers, hosting the annual ceremony in its partially underground auditorium on West 156th Street in Washington Heights.
New Yorkers familiar with the Academy—whose members include Mark Twain, William S. Burroughs, Duke Ellington and, as of this week, artists Richard Tuttle and Terry Winters and writer Ward Just—may agree that election to the academy is "considered the highest formal recognition of artistic merit in the United States," as the society states. But in the classical-music industry, the auditorium is almost universally recognized as a hidden gem, the best place in the city—some say the East Coast, others say the entire world—to record solo and chamber music. With its warm, velvety sound and near-perfect acoustics, the auditorium has been the site of nearly 1,000 recordings, according to the academy’s auditorium manager, Ardith Holmgrain, and has become firmly entrenched in classical-music history.
"It is one of the truly great concert halls in the world," said violist Larry Dutton, who has frequently recorded at the Academy with the Emerson Quartet. "Take that hall down 90 blocks and it’d be like Carnegie Hall."
Producer Max Wilcox, who first recorded at the Academy in 1959 with pianist Arthur Rubinstein, called it "a dream hall." "It’s just perfect," he said.
Elite players who have recorded there over the past 80 years include violinists Itzhak Perlman and Midori Goto, cellists Yo-Yo Ma and János Starker, singers Renée Fleming and Plácido Domingo, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and pianists Emanuel Ax, Claudio Arrau and Simone Dinnerstein.
Adam Abeshouse was the producer when Ms. Dinnerstein recorded her 2007 album of Bach’s Goldberg Variations there. "The sound has a lustrous glow," he said. "Every musician I’ve had there has loved playing in that room."
Ms. Dinnerstein was no exception. "That was a complete turning point for not just my career, but my playing," she said. "In that particular hall I can hear myself really well, and I can hear the sound returning. Because I can hear it, it allows me to push myself further in terms of creating a wide variety of sounds."
The American Academy of Arts and Letters has made its home in three beaux arts granite and limestone buildings, part of the Audubon Terrace Historic District, since 1923. Its second building there, designed by architect Cass Gilbert, was completed in 1930 and includes the 730-seat auditorium. Designed for concerts and ceremonies, the hall wasn’t used for music recordings until a change of staff in 1989. "I walked on the stage and said, ’Why is this just sitting here?’" Ms. Holmgrain recalled. "So I bought music stands and chairs and got on the phone and talked to producers."
The room gradually became a favorite spot for musicians and producers alike. "The hall winds up being a significant partner in music," said Arnold Steinhardt, who recorded many albums at the Academy with the Guarneri Quartet. "When you have a hall where everything works, you think, ’Gee, I didn’t realize I could play this well!’"
What exactly makes the acoustics so good is a matter of debate. Pianist Christopher O’Riley, who recorded his album of Radiohead transcriptions in the hall in 2003, cited the ceiling. "You have a sense of the beginning and end of the sound, that it is being couched and suffused by the room itself," he said.
The hall is bell-shaped, rather than rectangular, and the plaster filigree on the ceiling absorbs just the right amount of sound, said producer Judith Sherman. Ms. Holmgrain added that sound also resonates especially well in the hollow spaces above the hall and under the stage.
Moreover, unlike at some Midtown and Downtown venues, there are no subways rumbling underneath, and the auditorium is tucked cozily between the tree-lined entrance to Riverside Drive to the west and Trinity Cemetery to the south.
Asked if the hall’s ideal acoustics were by design or merely a happy accident, Ms. Holmgrain replied, "I truly have no idea."
The 83-year old auditorium, of course, is not perfect. The curtains are frayed, some velvet seats torn. Ms. Holmgrain said the glass chandeliers have been cleaned only once in the past two decades, though she stressed that the space is safe and that the Academy flame-proofs the curtains every year.
"The air in there is probably filled with the molecules of composers and authors long dead," said Ms. Sherman.
Mr. O’Riley was more direct: "It’s haunted."
There are no pianos or recording devices on site, so musicians must make it a bring-your-own experience. Orchestras and large ensembles are generally too much for the room to accommodate (although Meredith Monk did record a 70-person choir there in 2009). In the winter, the heaters are noisy and must be turned off. The staff generally doesn’t rent out the room during July and August because there’s no air conditioning. (One well-known pianist, whom Ms. Holmgrain declined to identify, decided he didn’t mind and recorded in a Speedo, dripping with sweat.) Mr. Abeshouse said the control room often smells like a postgame locker room.
But the artists keep coming back. At 0 an hour, recordings are exactly not a money-making venture for the Academy, and the hall already has a six-month waiting list. For some producers and musicians, the fewer fans the auditorium has, the better. "I have to tell you," said Mr. Abeshouse, "the only problem with me telling you about this is that more people will want to book it."
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