Concerts in the Cathedral

Once a `crazy' idea, these free events are now a hit - thanks to Carol Stoessinger

`ONE statement that makes me crazy is when someone says, `It can't be done.' I would have to know, why can't it?'' Caroline Stoessinger - classical pianist, concert producer, lecturer, and founder and artistic director of the Cathedral Free Concert Society at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine here - believes that if it's worth doing, it can be done.

Starting the concert series at St. John the Divine is a case in point. Today, New Yorkers tend to agree that the cathedral is a great place to go for a concert, but when the Very Reverend James Parks Morton, Dean of the Cathedral, suggested the idea to Ms. Stoessinger around 10 years ago, it was a different story.

``Many people said to me, `Don't waste your time,''' she recalls. ```It's uptown. The neighborhood isn't so good. The acoustics are bad. It's freezing cold in the winter time. Why would anyone want to go there to a concert?'''

Stoessinger leans back into the sofa at her Upper West Side apartment, and her voice takes on a tone of gentle determination. ``Well, when people are so negative, it's more of a challenge than ever.''

She had heard that the Viennese pianist Paul Badura-Skoda hadn't appeared in the US for awhile, so on a mere two weeks' notice, she arranged for the first concert at the cathedral.

``It was on a weeknight in March,'' said Stoessinger. ``It was cold, and it was pouring down rain. We had no help with publicity; there was a very small calendar listing in the New York Times. Badura-Skoda was staying at my house, and he was playing free of charge. So I felt an enormous obligation to him.

``I went there at six o'clock at night, with my heart in my throat, wondering how I'd live through it,'' she continues. ``By 6:30, there was a long line, and we had almost 3,000 people that first night! We had no sound system, no help with the acoustics, nothing. How people knew - it's still a mystery to me. I knew then that if people were willing to stand in the freezing cold rain on a weeknight in March to go to a concert uptown, that something was right about it.''

Of course the ambiance of the cathedral is special. It's the largest cathedral in the world - so large, in fact, that the Statue of Liberty could fit under the dome.

``It's a very grand setting for music,'' says Stoessinger, who has watched the audiences grow from local to worldwide. The Cathedral's annual New Year's Eve Concert for Peace has become a New York tradition, featuring artists such as Leonard Bernstein and Frederika Von Stade, and drawing more than 6,000 people, who often wait in line for hours to get in. The New York Times has called it ``New York's most magnificent free concert.''

People seem to feel comfortable at the Cathedral concerts and, unlike the audiences at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, which are often tuxedoed, coiffed, white, and largely upper-class, the audiences at St. John the Divine are racially and socially mixed. The atmosphere, although quiet enough to hear a pin drop, is relaxed and casual.

Stoessinger produces the more than 60 annual events that take place at the cathedral, in addition to being involved in a variety of other projects, which have included benefit concerts for Amnesty International, writing numerous articles on the arts, and an operetta for children. As if all this hasn't kept her busy enough, she's also the mother of a 14-year-old daughter.

Performing as a pianist is an important part of Stoessinger's multi-faceted career. She often plays in the programs at the cathedral and has been hailed by the New York Times as ``one of the most poetic pianists of our time.''

She recently performed a new work by Lukas Foss - ``Remembering Anne Frank,'' with Foss conducting the Brooklyn Philharmonic, at a tribute on the 60th anniversary of the birth of the teen-aged Jewish diarist who was killed by the Nazis.

Stoessinger, who holds degrees from Columbia, Barnard College, and the Eastman School of Music, talked about her background - an unusual one for someone who has become a kind of grande dame of the arts.

``I grew up in the Ozark Mountains in Missouri - it's really along way from a city or from any seat of culture. My parents were very hard-working people. My father only went through the eighth grade in school, but he always said a woman can never have too much education. If you want to be President of the United States, why not? That is the way he perceived life.''

Stoessinger remembers growing up thinking mostly of music and having a ``career'' from the age of nine. ``I was the organist in a funeral home for a dollar a funeral; I played for the Rotary club - I got out of school to do it! And I was the church organist and the school accompanist.''

Her talent for organization showed up early, too, when she got her high school involved in putting on plays. In college, she produced her first concert, an ambitious benefit for Hungarian refugees, involving the Budapest String Quartet.

``When you're inexperienced, you don't understand the limitations - there aren't any,'' she says.

Reached by phone for an assessment of Stoessinger, Lukas Foss says ``I don't know how she does it, but she always gets everybody to come to the concerts, and she gets a lot of very good people to give their services. Every event is `gala.' Sometimes she does it at the last moment, and it always works. She's full of ideas.''

Folk singer Odetta, who has performed at the cathedral, says working with Stoessinger has been encouraging. ``She may be of a fading breed,'' says Odetta, ``that are curious and daring - with taste.''

Stoessinger herself discusses her recipe for success by first describing what it isn't: ``It's not the bureaucratic approach of `Here's our $50,000. We'll have a program on June 1. This fits into this slot. This is so-and-so's job,' and you hope for the best.

``There's no real care or passion in that. The arts are too important not to be passionate about them. We're not selling shoes.''

As far as problems with fund-raising are concerned, Stoessinger takes a positive approach. ``In the arts we have to find ways to use support to make the arts lively and healthy in this country. We just have to work harder and be more creative in finding ways to use the resources we have.''

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