The operation was successful. The patient didn't die, which is something. But the Charles R. Bronfman Auditorium at Tel Aviv's Culture Square awoke after two years of renovations as a cross between a mammoth and a large flightless bird.
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The former Mann Auditorium, the home of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, was airy, modern, inviting and open. Now it's oppressive, old-fashioned and cumbersome. The changes seem to affect a detail here and a detail there; all told, they have taken the life, the light, the air and the utopia out of the place.
Work on the lobby wasn't finished on the day we visited last week, but there seems to be little change here. Meanwhile, the auditorium's main entrances have been converted from a joyous intersection into an oppressive experience. The doorways have been narrowed due to the changes to the central auditorium area, becoming dark passageways. Congestion at the doors on opening night was inevitable. Opponents of the renovations warned of this, but to no avail.
In the auditorium itself the central bank of seats in its new format makes accessibility a problem, and the wooden acoustic partitions between rows add a hazard of their own. They obstruct the audience’s view, as well as a view of the audience from the stage. They're an eyesore that cuts through the space. You're almost seized with an urge to kick them down.
Had these partitions not been part of the original design, you would have suspected that they stemmed from yet another off-the-cuff Israeli improvisation. It was only natural to find artificial flowers hanging from a basket on one of these partitions, apparently a leftover from opening night and a questionable improvisation in its own right.
The auditorium was wood-paneled from its inception, like it or not. The addition of more wood has passed the critical mass for wood, turning an asset into a burden. The step-like wooden waterfalls on the sides are as cumbersome as step-like construction on a hillside. The curtain of wooden panels behind the stage looks like a liquidation sale of wooden poles after a summer camp for scouts.
Wooden floors everywhere join in. Instead of serving as a neutral background that befits a floor in such a large hall, the floor sticks out like the orchestra's soloist. The wood's dark reddish hue is too bold and only worsens the heavy feeling. Many would agree that a return to the original, unobtrusive gray linoleum would have been a better idea. It's still modern and fashionable, as it was 50 years ago, and would have definitely lightened things up a bit.
Instead of the wooden panels that have replaced seats at the back of the stage, the auditorium could have benefited from a choreographic genius of a totally different kind. This would have saved the place from its sense of being a Noah’s Ark. Since strict conservation wasn't being followed, at least something good could have come out of the venture.
After the lame reopening last week, the burning question is whether the effort was worth it at all and if the new acoustics justify the project. It’s hard to tell. From the first halting responses, it appears the opening concert wasn’t a disaster – we certainly would have heard loud and angry voices if it had been.
On the other hand, concertgoers didn't fall off their seats in excitement. Speaking of seats – though they seem slightly more comfortable and roomy, it's unclear whether this justifies throwing away 2,700 seats only because they were 60 years old.
The upgrading of the structure, the added comfort for the orchestra and the addition of underground auditoriums were all essential and welcome. There was no argument about this. If the maintenance culture had been better to begin with, everything could have been done much more cheaply. A well-maintained facility may have also benefited the acoustics and prevented much frustration.
The building's outer shield came out of the operation intact, as far as is discernible before all the work is done. The building has returned to the city’s landscape as lit up and glorious as ever, no doubt thanks to the watchful eyes of critics who made sure there wouldn't be a worse outcome. Unfortunately, this wasn't enough.