It was bracing to stroll into a brand-new creation for a story about destruction.
Sixty years after its opening and 45 years after its last gut renovation, the acoustically troubled David Geffen Hall—once called Philharmonic Hall, then Avery Fisher Hall—reopened its doors on Oct. 8, to an audience alternately moneyed, bohemian, or some combination of the two.
That afternoon, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) had rolled up to the ribbon-cutting, framing the hall’s recently completed $550 million renovation in the face of a pandemic as an example of New York unflappability. “We’re still standing,” he said, citing the city’s resilience in the face of 9/11, Hurricane Sandy, and the Trump administration. “Not only standing, but stronger than before.”
Standing in one of the first pairs of shoes to touch the posh carpets—brushing up against starched-shirted Upper West Siders and offbeat sophisticates, sipping Manhattans and Pinot Noir—you could smell the newness. That evening, it felt like a page had been turned in the Big Apple. Yet expectations, and jitters, were through the roof: For the first time since pre-Beatlemania, would the sound in this hallowed hall—the home of the New York Philharmonic, for chrissakes—finally be up to snuff?
Although the debut performance at Geffen wasn’t a proper litmus test for acoustics nerds—the presence of amplified instruments threw off that calculus—it carried immense symbolic weight. First, Lincoln Center (of which the hall is part) didn’t charge thousands, or even hundreds, for the opportunity to be part of this landmark moment in New York history. Instead, they made it choose-what-you-pay—and this was for existential reasons, part of a continuing effort to be more inclusive and make the famed performing-arts complex a community hub, not an ivory-towered one. Second, the rejuvenated Geffen didn’t open with a typical night at the symphony; no Mahler, Ravel or Brahms. Instead, in lockstep with numberless institutions’ early-2020s scramble to belatedly recognize Black Americans’ contributions to global culture, this presentation would hinge on a story of erasure.
Specifically, that of San Juan Hill, an Afro-diasporic Manhattan neighborhood, bursting with community and artistry while marked by racial conflicts, that was generally understood to stretch from W. 59th to W. 65th St. and from West End to Amsterdam Ave.—in other words, where Lincoln Center stands today. Thanks in part to the “urban renewal” machinations of (in)famous NYC urban planner Robert Moses, this melting pot of mostly African American, Afro-Caribbean, and Puerto Rican peoples—and, by extension, their separate and intermingled musics—was marginalized, steamrolled, and silenced.
In 1959, the community where foundational figures like Thelonious Monk, Herbie Nichols, Benny Carter, and James P. Johnson lived and worked was razed, displacing more than 7,000 financially insecure families and setting the stage for Lincoln Center’s eventual construction. But numberless New Yorkers and their progeny didn’t forget San Juan Hill. And on the new Geffen Hall’s opening night, its story rang out once again—with trumpeter, composer, and arranger Etienne Charles at the helm.
A Guggenheim fellow and associate professor of studio music and jazz at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, the Trinidad-born Charles has an acute understanding of the New Orleans tradition and its connections to the whole of the Caribbean. This grasp of cultural multiplicity made him an ideal candidate to introduce a physically and conceptually new David Geffen Hall to the world, via San Juan Hill: A New York Story, a multimedia commission by Lincoln Center for a full orchestra.
According to the program book, the genesis of Charles’ interest in San Juan Hill came in 2007, by way of pianist Monty Alexander visiting his apartment and offhandedly observing that Thelonious Monk’s work “has a Caribbean feel to it.” Charles went on to read that, as a child, Monk relocated from North Carolina to San Juan Hill, which served as a home not only for Black and Puerto Rican populations but also for Cuban, West Indian, Irish, and Jewish New Yorkers in a functional yet volatile synergy.
In the book, Charles notes that “the story told about Black New York is basically limited to Harlem. San Juan Hill: A New York Story … immerses listeners in the culture of the neighborhood and its influences on Black New York, whether it’s Gullah people, people from the South, people from the Caribbean, or people from West Africa.”
The performance began with a humorously tentative moment inadvertently highlighting the greenness of the proceedings: The twinkling lights in the Geffen rafters were pulled up, then down, then up again, to pronounced oohs and aahs from the audience. Then a magenta-suited Charles took the stage alongside his ensemble, Creole Soul—consisting of alto and soprano saxophonist Godwin Louis, flutist Elena Pinderhughes, guitarist Alex Wintz, pianist Sullivan Fortner, bassist Ben Williams, and drummer John Davis, plus spoken-word artists Carl Hancock Rux and Eljon Wardally and turntablist DJ Logic.
After a brief onscreen explanation of the neighborhood that once stood under our feet, San Juan Hill: A New York Story opened with the whispery rumble of Davis’ drums. The rest of Creole Soul delicately joined Davis, initiating the first movement, “Lenape,” which acknowledges the Indigenous peoples who first inhabited the 16 acres Lincoln Center was built on. “Lenape” was followed by “Where Two or More Are Gathered,” featuring narrated testimonials of San Juan Hill family history and a solemn clatter of percussion.
As the composition progressed through its “Zora & Percy” and “Swing Culture” movements, it was apparent that it meant to hold up this extant neighborhood like a diamond, letting the light hit its multitude of facets. And it did so unhurriedly, naturally. San Juan Hill wasn’t suffused with wild innovation and a kitchen-sink feeling like Jon Batiste’s American Symphony, which debuted at Carnegie Hall just a few weeks back, but it didn’t need to be. It was a graceful and eclectic introduction to a local history that many don’t know about—and inarguably should.
With its ominous wash of cymbals and driving, procedural bent, “The Destroyer” suggested systematic decimation of a grassroots community. After these opening movements, the New York Philharmonic took the stage, led by Dutch conductor Jaap von Zweden. (He’s not long for this ultra-prestigious orchestra; von Zweden is set to leave his post after the 2023-2024 season.)
The remainder of the show was never overwhelmed—or overcompensated for—by the New York Philharmonic. Rather, the classical musicians in black, juxtaposing the neon-clad Charles and his colleagues, gracefully framed the composition, never gilding the lily. This even applied when they went on the attack for “Riot 1905,” an allusion to the racial uproar that erupted in said year. “Over ‘San Juan Hill’ and ‘The Gut’ early last night there was a race riot which terrorized the neighborhood for an hour, sent several persons to the hospital, and made it necessary to call the reserves from six police stations,” read a contemporaneous report in The New York Times. “The police of the West Sixty-eighth Street Station expect at least one small riot on the Hill or in The Gut each week.”
“Riot 1905” began with a skittering of woodwinds evoking discord and retaliation; in the latter half, DJ Logic’s turntablism added jagged rhythmic counterpoint. (“As the son of a DJ, I didn’t want it to stop at 1959,” Charles wrote in the program book. “DJ Logic is in my band because turntable culture is a statement in itself about another form of urban renewal: when they stopped public school music education.”)
Following this was the otherworldly and vaporous “Negro Enchantress — The Story of Hannah Elias,” written for a Tenderloin sex worker who became one of the world’s wealthiest Black women during her lifetime. The movement was accompanied by an onscreen visual of a drawn Elias superimposed on a modern-day street corner, contextualizing the events commemorated in San Juan Hill against the urban jungle of today.
“Charleston at the Jungles” featured some earthy and radiant piano from Fortner, suggesting stride and boogie-woogie. “Urban Renewal” began with spectral howls; Charles’ trumpet solos felt fiercer, like a call to be heard, to be seen, to be remembered. And after some jovial words from maestro Charles, the night concluded with “House Rent Party,” a jubilant smorgasbord of all the cultures, personalities, and divergent backgrounds that made San Juan Hill so rich in spirit.
In lesser hands, San Juan Hill: A New York Story could have gone a very different way. The concept could well have devolved into gawking poverty theater, processing the experience of real-life communities on the margins into black-tie entertainment to make bluebloods in 2022 feel better about themselves. But Charles never moralized or pandered; instead, he simply honored the legacy of generations who came before us. San Juan Hill may not have existed in some of our lifetimes, but his thoughtfully conceived opus made it feel vibrant, present, and alive—with plenty to teach us so many decades later.