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Tchaikovsky Season in New York

Carnegie Exterior

Carnegie Hall with Studio Floor

For 120 years, Carnegie Hall  has been New York’s premier venue for world’s greatest music including Tchaikovsky and The Beatles. On October 5,the legend celebrates itself with the start of the 120th Anniversary season. Festivities begin with the Opening Night Gala tribute to Peter Illich Tchaikovsky. The Mariinsky Orchestra, led by Valery Gergiev, will perform a complete Tchaikovsky symphony cycle in a five-night program commemorating the composer’s appearance on the Hall’s opening night, May 5, 1891, when he conducted his “Marche Solennelle”.

The era when Carnegie Hall was built was a miraculous period of artistic creation, particularly for composers who wrote astonishing music that is widely performed today. This fall, dozens of events exploring Tchaikovsky and St. Petersburg will take place at Carnegie Hall and throughout the city.

At Carnegie Hall, a Discovery Day exploring the cultural world of St. Petersburg in the 1890s will be presented in partnership with The Harriman Institute of Columbia University on October 15 in Weill Recital Hall. Music of the period will be performed in Staten Island by the Russian Chamber Chorus of New York on October 22 and by Ensemble ACJW on October 25 in Weill Recital Hall.

The New York City Ballet will perform George Balanchine’s “Jewels” at Lincoln Center on October 7. Rachmaninoff’s “Vespers” will be performed as part of the Sacred Music in a Sacred Space series at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola on October 12. On October 26, soprano Anna Netrebko will make her New York recital debut at Carnegie Hall performing songs by Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky. In addition, Sotheby’s Russian Art Department will look at the influence of Fabergé and other Imperial jewelers, plus avant-garde Russian artists in “Russian Art in the Silver Age,” on October 6. On the same day, New York Public Library will present “Tchaikovsky and the Piano in St. Petersburg’s Gilded Age”.

Last spring, on May 5, I was present at the 120thAnniversary Gala, which featured musical director Alan Gilbert, conducting the New York Philharmonic. Carnegie Hall was a treat for the eyes, as well as the ears. Baskets of red flowers created a festive backdrop for the musicians and the ebony Steinway concert grand piano center-stage. Many in audience who were attending the celebration gala at the Plaza after the performance were dressed formally.

Anniversary Gala, May 5, 2011

120th Anniversary Gala

The actor Norm Lewis was seated next to me. He had flown in from London to support his friend Audra McDonald. The pair is scheduled to open in “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” on Broadway in January. McDonald sang a selection of Duke Ellington songs, including “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)”, which Ellington performed at his second Carnegie Hall concert in December 1944.

Carnegie Hall 2011-12 Guide

Audra McDonald at the 120th Anniversary Gala

Gilbert began the evening with Antonin Dvorak’s boisterous “Carnival” overture, which the Czech composer himself had conducted when it premiered at Carnegie Hall in October of 1892. Beethoven’s “Triple Concerto in C Minor” provided the opportunity to showcase three legendary soloists: pianist Emanuel Ax, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Gil Shaham. After Audra McDonald’s solo, the Philharmonic performed George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris,” which had its premiere at Carnegie Hall in 1928. Familiar with the piece as performed in the M-G-M movie, I felt that I was hearing it for the first time. Others in the audience may have felt the same. We responded with a standing ovation.

May’s Anniversary Gala and the rest of the Carnegie Hall 2011-12 season celebrate this New York icon, whose history is so tightly interwoven with the city’s greatest musical moments. Over 400 mementos will be on display inside the showcases of the Rose Museum, which will be accessible to the public when it reopens on October 5. A new exhibit The History of Carnegie Hall includes an the engraved silver trowel used by Mrs. Andrew Carnegie to place the cornerstone on May 13, 1890, reportedly accompanied by music from Wagner’s “Das Rheingold”. An online interview with Carnegie Hall’s Museum Director and Archivist Gino Francesconi provides a glimpse of what became “the center of New York’s cultural scene”.

One-Fifty-Six West 57thStreet was originally called the Music Hall when Andrew Carnegie donated the money for its construction. William B. Tuthill, the 34-year-old architect, was an amateur cellist who had never designed a concert hall. He studied European auditoriums and designed the Carnegie Hall interior to provide the best acoustics available in 1890. Carnegie Hall’s elliptical shape, slightly extended stage and domed ceiling help project soft and loud tones with equal clarity and richness to any location in the hall. In addition to the abundant use of velvet, which would absorb reverberations and echoes, the boxes, decoratively laid out in sweeping curves, allowed sound to curve rather than bounce of sharp angles. The ceiling avoided the pitfall of collecting and swallowing sound. Although it did not affect acoustics, the building original mansard roof was removed in 1894 to build the crowning studio floor.

According to The Landmarks of New York III, the stage ceiling was rebuilt, repairing a legendary hole, created during the production of the 1946 Hollywood film “Carnegie Hall” and masked by canvas and curtains ever since. Legend has it that the hole contributed advantageously to the hall’s acoustics, which were never quite the same.

Paderewski Landmark

Plaque on the Buckingham Hotel

From the beginning, Carnegie Hall was a venue for legendary pianists. In November 1891, Ignacy Jan Paderewski made his debut there. The future Prime Minister of Poland spent much of his life in New York, where he lived a block away from the Carnegie Hall at the Buckingham Hotel on 57thStreet and Sixth Avenue. Sergei Rachmaninoff made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1909, playing his “Second Piano Concerto” as guest soloist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Arthur Rubinstein gave his Carnegie Hall farewell concert in 1976 after 70 years of performances. People lined up around the block in 1965 for tickets to Vladimir Horowitz’s return to performing after a 12-year break. In 1958, the 23-year-old Van Cliburn staged his triumphant homecoming after winning the gold medal in the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow.

Early Carnegie Hall Cover

Early Carnegie Hall Program

On an October afternoon in 1917, with a revolution going on in his Russian homeland, 16-year-old Jascha Heifetz made his debut. Since then, the roster of violinists who have played in Carnegie Hall has come to include Yehudi Menuhin, Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, Gil Shaham, Midori, and Joshua Bell. The greatest cellists of the 20th century, including Pablo Casals, Gregor Piatigorsky, Mstislav Rostropovich, and Yo-Yo Ma have also taken the stage on numerous occasions.

Benny Goodman

Lionel Hampton, Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa, January 16, 1938

Another red-letter date was December 16, 1893, when Carnegie Hall premiered Antonin Dvořak’s “New World” Symphony in the Main Hall, with the composer in attendance. Arturo Toscanini electrified audiences for 28 years at the helm of the New York Philharmonic and the NBC Symphony. Leonard Bernstein made his celebrated 1943 debut with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, and in later years conducted more than 430 concerts in the Hall. A 1938 swing concert by Benny Goodman and his band marked a turning point, making Carnegie Hall a venue for popular, as well as classical music. It opened the door for nearly every big band that followed, including those of Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw and Ellington. Louis Armstrong, Oscar Peterson and Miles Davis took the stage at the height of their careers, as did Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Nina Simone and Nat King Cole.

Its prestige and acoustics made Carnegie Hall a coveted venue for singers, as well as musicians. Luminaries who have performed over the years include Enrico Caruso, Placido Domingo, Maria Callas, Paul Robeson, Lily Pons, Renata Tebaldi, Leontyne Price, Montserrat Caballe, Luciano Pavarotti, and Beverly Sills. Billie Holiday’s appearances were regarded as milestones during the period of racial segregation. On April 23, 1961, Judy Garland performed a concert that has been called the greatest night in show business history. Tony Bennett’s performance the following year is also considered a popular high point.


Posters from the new book Carnegie Hall Treasures

Financial challenges in the postwar era threatened Carnegie Hall’s survival. In 1956, the building was put up for sale. A 44-story office building was planned to take its place, but the deal fell through. With Lincoln Center in the planning stages, it was widely believed that New York could not support two major concert venues. The New York Philharmonic would have a new home at Avery Fisher Hall (originally Philharmonic Hall). The dour Renaissance Revival style of Carnegie Hall was considered out of fashion and the building was slated for demolition on March 31, 1960. At the eleventh hour, violinist Isaac Stern led the Citizens Committee for Carnegie Hall that ultimately stopped the destruction. A plaque near one of the 57thStreet entrances commemorates his achievement. The survival of Carnegie Hall was assured when it was designated a Landmark on June 20, 1967.

Isaac Stern

Isaac Stern Commemorative Plaque

Nearly a century of grime was removed during the 1986 renovation. The building was reconfigured and restored by Polshek Partnership at a cost exceeding $50 million. The terra cotta and iron-spotted Roman brick façade was returned to its original ochre color. Six storefronts installed during the Depression were removed. In addition to several restaurants, they housed a barbershop, drugstore, violinmaker, dry cleaner, thrift bookshop and a nightclub, located below the lobby.

A Gala Reopening concert took place on December 15, 1986 with a roster that included Isaac Stern, Vladimir Horowitz, Yo-Yo Ma, Marilyn Horne, and Frank Sinatra. Leonard Bernstein and Zubin Mehta conducted the New York Philharmonic,

Andrew Carnegie made provision for an extension to the music hall that would house 180 studios, arranged in two towers adjacent to the concert venue. He commissioned Henry Hardenbergh, architect of The Dakota and the Plaza Hotel, and Richard Morris Hunt to create the Carnegie Artists Studios, which was built in 1896-97. Painters, dancers and actors thrived in the two towers—one 12 stories high, the other 16. These contained more than 100 studios, some with special skylights installed to give painters prized northern light. According to New York: The Movie Lover’s Guide, the apartments have housed such names as Leonard Bernstein, Isadora Duncan, John Barrymore, Paddy Chayefsky, Bobby Short and Marlon Brando. Everyone from Mark Twain and Theodore Roosevelt to Marilyn Monroe and James Dean worked and studied in the Carnegie Artists Studios.

Today, red scaffolding surrounds Carnegie Hall as the complex adapts to the economic demands of the 21st century. The city owned towers are in the processes of being gutted in a $200 million studio renovation that will include a new Education Wing with ensemble rooms, practice rooms, and teaching studios, as well as a state-of-the-art home for Carnegie Hall’s Archives. A new outdoor Roof Terrace will be constructed adjacent to the Education Wing.

Some critics have remarked that the Roof Terrace will be a party space for wealthy donors. In fact, the entire renovation has been fraught with controversy. According to architectural plans, the old stone-and-cast-iron staircases and some original walls are slated to survive, but the historic studios will become part of Carnegie Hall legend. They will be in excellent company.

One Comment

  1. Andrew Kay wrote:

    According to a May 26, 2011 letter to the New York Times by composer William Bolcom, Carnegie Hall is “the most common New York-based mispronunciation. It should be car-NAY-ghee, not CAR-nuh-ghee.” Thought you would want to know, in case this post promotes conversation. Thanks for reading!–Andy

    Thursday, September 8, 2011 at 10:47 am | Permalink

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