For the Philharmonic's Opening Night, a New Name and a Big Gift

September 24, 2015
The opening of the New York Philharmonic's 174th season on Thursday felt like the start of a new chapter, as the orchestra played for the first time in the newly rechristened David Geffen Hall and announced that it was getting the largest individual donation in its history: a $25 million gift from Oscar S. Schafer, the chairman of its board, and his wife, Didi.

The gift provided an extra fanfare to begin the season, and signaled that the Philharmonic was addressing the biggest challenges it has faced in decades, including raising its share of the costs to renovate its hall; shoring up its finances; and finding a new music director to succeed Alan Gilbert when he steps down in 2017.

Mr. Schafer a financier who with his wife has sponsored the Philharmonic's free concerts in city parks since 2007 and who became its chairman this year said he hoped his gift would inspire donations from fellow board members and others.

"I'm trying to set the standard that it's an important obligation of the board, and not only the board but people in and around New York because it is the New York Philharmonic," Mr. Schafer, the founder of the Rivulet Capital investment firm, said in a telephone interview. "The New York Philharmonic is revered throughout the world, but sometimes is taken for granted in New York."

Coming on top of the $100 million gift that David Geffen, the entertainment mogul, made this year toward renovation, Mr. Schafer's donation suggested that the long-delayed project was finally taking shape. The renovation is expected to cost more than $500 million, with the remaining expenses to be shared by Lincoln Center and the Philharmonic.

Change was in the air as patrons gathered for the Philharmonic's gala opening-night concert, which featured Lang Lang playing Grieg's Piano Concerto and Mr. Gilbert leading the orchestra in Beethoven's Symphony No. 7.

The evening began with a ceremony to rename the hall for Mr. Geffen in recognition of his donation. It is the building's third name: It opened in 1962 as Philharmonic Hall and became Avery Fisher Hall in 1973 after Mr. Fisher, the founder of the Fisher electronics company, donated $10.5 million toward an earlier renovation. But the hall has long been considered outdated, acoustically challenged and a bit lacking in glamour faults that the coming renovation will aim to rectify.

It was a star-studded event, with George Lucas, Oprah Winfrey, Steve Martin and others looking on as Mr. Geffen pulled a golden rope that removed a red velvet curtain and revealed a new sign outside the building that read "David Geffen Hall."

Jed Bernstein, the president of Lincoln Center, thanked Mr. Geffen for his generosity and proclaimed, "David Geffen Hall is now open."

The Philharmonic's fund-raising goals go beyond the renovation project. In addition to raising its share of the hall's construction costs estimated to be roughly $160 million, or 40 percent of the $400 million remaining after Mr. Geffen's donation it is also working to raise $200 million to double its endowment, as well as the reserves it must raise each year to cover operating expenses.

Mr. Schafer said $20 million of his gift would be divided between the endowment campaign and the renovation project, and that $5 million would continue to support the free parks concerts.

Mr. Schafer, who grew up in a family in which Frank Sinatra was played more often than Franz Liszt, attributed his love of classical music in part to hearing a recording of Beethoven's "Archduke" trio featuring the pianist Alfred Cortot, the violinist Jacques Thibaud and the cellist Pablo Casals during an introductory music class at Harvard. "I cried," he said.

He added that, while he looked forward to many things this season, including a Rachmaninoff festival and the second NY Phil Biennial of new music, he was especially excited by the prospect of a renovated hall with "world-class acoustics meeting the world-class orchestra."

"We're going to create a wow factor," he said.

The New York Times
By Michael Cooper
Photo by Richard Termine