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A Musical Treasure turns 90

By Thor Eckert Jr. / July 16, 1981

New York

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.

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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.

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.