A lot of things were happening simultaneously at the newly renovated David Geffen Hall Saturday evening for the multimedia performance of “San Juan Hill: A New York Story,” featuring trumpeter/percussionist Etienne Charles’ composition. Like the music, the hall is a dazzling edifice, replete with five or six tiers of balconies, a 50-foot wide digital screen, a spacious welcome center, and enough toilets to accommodate the more than 2,200 attendees.
While spectators focused on the beauty of the Wu Tsai Theater and enjoyed the plush seats with plenty of room for long legs, Charles’ task was to present a soundscape reflecting the people and culture who resided there before urban removal razed the neighborhood. His score touched on the music that enlivened the community before the wrecking ball arrived in the late ’50s, and often as jazz, salsa, the Charleston Strut, calypso, and the blues emanated from his Creole Soul ensemble, a fast-moving picture show flashed on the massive screen.
One of the most engrossing moments occurred when the screen was emblazoned with the words “Riot 1905,” and there was a wee bit of cacophony in Charles’ music, replicating the bedlam but it was nonetheless a sonorous evocation. Further along in San Juan Hill’s development that got its name from the Spanish American War, there were elements of bebop that to some extent signified such former residents there as Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell. When the ubiquitous Lana Turner returned to the screen to embellish the period with her narrative, a historical tableau unfolded, one that extended from the indigenous Lenape to Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story.”
After a lengthy exposition of totally immersive music, the ensemble shared the vast stage with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and under the direction of Jaap van Zweden they combined to offer shifting styles of rhythm and harmony, commensurate with the diverse creativity of San Juan Hill, and the current flavors at Lincoln Center. And when Charles’ trumpet soared above the orchestra it highlighted the new acoustics, which in the past had been a complaint. This bravura moment gave way to a lovely blend of Sullivan Fortner’s pianissimo and Elena Pinderhughes’s symphonic flights on flute, all of it in keeping with Alex Wintz’s guitar, Ben Williams’ bass tempo and John Davis’ drums. The pace quickened when Charles set aside his trumpet and straddled the congas and his exchanges with saxophonist Godwin Louis inspired an explosive passage of melody from the orchestra that came close to the colorful array of Charles’ pink suit, Fortner’s orange jacket, and Louis’ green outfit.
It was informative to see among the images on the screen one of Hannah Elias, “The Negro Enchantress,” a wealthy sex worker of the late 19th century and to hear the triumphant overture akin to her magisterial bearing. Again, Charles’ trumpet gave the moment additional sonority, and intermittent spurts from DJ Logic on the turntables left an impression of Trinidadian pans, consistent with Charles’ lineage.
The renewal of a facility that was once called Avery Fisher Hall on sacred ground that used to be San Juan Hill will certainly have a number of unforgettable concerts, but it’s hard to imagine it will have the symbolic tropes, the historic intersections of Charles’ premiere.