A Musical Treasure turns 90

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Only a few opera houses in the world conjure up an entire operatic standard when named -- the Met, La Scala, the Bolshoi. Only one concert hall epitomizes universal concert excellence -- Carnegie Hall.

From its opening night concert on May 5, 1891, this hall has been a legend, acoustically and artistically. To play in Carnegie Hall has been the summit of a performer's career. Recordings by famous pianists, from their Carnegie Hall concerts, have become worldwide classical hits, even in the Soviet Union.

It is not just the grandeur of the hall, its simple elegance inside, but the accumulated artistic history that this hall represents, and the fact that performers have felt at home here. Vladimir Horowitz is said to have a nail on the stage that marks his "ideal" spot for his piano. Recently Yehudi Menuhin talked about the pressures of the tradition of Carnegie, citing a myth he thought existed that a fire ax backstage was used on all performers who did not live up to the standard.

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When the hall was officially opened 90 years ago, 57th Street on which it is located was still a suburd of the city. In the winter, children sledded nearby. Low buildings and shanties were punctuated diagonally across the street by the Osborne apartment house, which still stands. Nearby stood the massive Grenoble Hotel, on the edge of a farm.

Opening night the line of coaches stretched a great distance from the hall itself.

The next day reviews noted it was the most spectacular audience yet to have been assembled in the city. (They also pointed out that inside this gorgeous hall were two of the finest tiers of boxes ever designed to show off the social elite -- far better than the Metropolitan Opera, which in those days also boasted two tiers of boxes.)

Much to reviewers' surprise the opening night audience was serious, rather low-keyed; many followed the music with scores.

Ninety years later traffic roars -- sometimes quite intrusively. And the gathering inside the 90th anniversary gala concert found more than a generous smattering of gentlemen in open shirts and sports jackets in those glamorous boxes.

Needless to say, changes have been made inside and outside the hall, ranging from such obvious additions as air-conditioning and modern lighting to the basic color scheme and the removal of the once- permanent acoustical shell on the stage -- all cosmetic changes that had no impact whatsoever on the feel and the acoustical integrity of the hall.

The only change that would have had a drastic effect was to have taken place in 1960 -- the razing of the edifice, to be replaced by a monstrous red office tower. It was all in the name of progress, and as Life magazine reported Sept. 9, 1957, the New York Philharmonic would be moving from an acoustical marvel to the Lincoln Square (sic) project with its modern auditorium.

Had that schedule been adhered to, one of the great halls would have been replaced by one of the worst -- one that has been through drastic change after drastic change, and still, after a complete gutting and rebuilding, and renaming to Avery Fisher Hall, is only adequate acoustically.

One wonders what might have happened if Isaac Stern had not aggressively begun the campaign to save Carnegie Hall. Had anyone else tried, it seems doubtful the hall would be here today to have its 90th anniversary celebrated. (When the Metropolitan Opera House at 39th and Broadway was doomed, a core of noted opera celebrities had tried to save itm to no avail.) But Stern was not to put off. He finally got the state to allow the building to be bought by the city and turned over to a nonprofit organization -- the Carnegie Hall Corporation. Andrew Carnegie's monument to the musical arts began its new lease on concert life, and in 1964 was officially declared a historic landmark.

From the beginning Carnegie Hall (as it became quickly known since, to most foreign travelers, Music Hall implied a palace of coarse and raucous entertainment) became a showcase for the best. The acoustics were instantly acclaimed. That was no surprise since the acoustical architect, William Burnet Tuthill, spent time in some hundreds of concert halls around the world before devising his design, which to this day is a classic. The orchestra is spacious, the two tiers of boxes that hug the wall in horseshoe configuration are elegant and unobtrusive. The two major seating balconies sweep up high, with only a few pillars blocking seats in the dress circles; only a few side seats have bad sightlines.

As the hall look now, cream and red velvet with gold highlighting, it remains imposing, graceful, ideally suited to the contemplation of musical performances. And artists say that while performing they can hear themselves in a way almost unique among concert halls around the world.

Orchestras in particular extol the hall's virtues; each time the New York Philharmonic returns to Carnegie -- as it did for the 90th anniversary concert -- it sounds like a different, and far better, ensemble than it does at its permanent home. Carnegie Hall had been the home of the orchestra since it was formed in 1928 by the merging under Arturo Toscanini of two rival orchestras, Before that both had shared the hall.Willem Mengelberg, Toscanini, John Barbirolli, Bruno Walter, Dmitri Mitropoulos, and Leonard Bernstein all were directors of the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie.

The list of soloists, singers, orchestras, and other ensembles that played the house is stupendous. Suffice it to say that with virtually no exceptions, any important artist of any time since 1891 has played Carnegie.

Jazz has played a tremendous role in Carnegie Hall's history -- Bessie Smith, Fats Waller, W. C. Handy, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Ella Fitzgeralld, Louis Armstrong, to mention a few. The Beattles made their US debut on the stage. Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, Barbara Cook, Lena Horne, Frank Sinatra, and Bob Dylan are a few of the other musical stars heralded outside on billboards and acclaimed inside by sell-out audiences.

And not only great musicians. Isadora Duncan danced there; Sarah Bernhardt declaimed there; suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst proclaimed there; Clarence Darrow and Ernest Howe debated there.

Andrew Carnegie always expected his hall to make money, from the very origin of the proposal to build it. That occured on a boat trip with his bride, Louise Whitfield. One on the Scotland-bound barque, the honeymooners ran into the Walter Damrosch, head of the New York Symphony Society and the Oratorio Society. Damrosh and Mrs. Carnegie (a member of the Oratorio Society) prevailed on the millionaire to raise a concert hall, rather than a library.

But it was up to the hall to finance its own operating expense after Carnegie had built it. When costs outran revenue, the lovely mansard roof was removed to make way for a level of studios and offices. Eventually an entire tower was added, then another, as well as a few-shops on ground level, including a coffee shop carved out of the beautiful Seventh Avenue corner. The small Lyceum, a mini-baroque theater, is now a foreign-language film theater; the chamber hall is now Carnegie Recital Hall.

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