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My Dinner With Andrew

New York
Carnegie Hall
02/27/2004 -  
Ludwig van Beethoven (edition Mahler): Symphony # 9
Dominique Labelle (soprano)
Jill Grove (mezzo)
Eric Cutler (tenor)
David Pittsinger (bass)
Choral Arts Society of Washington
National Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin (conductor)

A Month at Carnegie Hall

Part Fourteen

Dead From Lincoln Center

“The Philharmonic…will be free to …lengthen its regular season,
to inaugurate a summer season of Pops concerts, to expand its radio
and television programs…Air-conditioning will permit patrons to
enjoy performances the year-round…Great summer music festivals
at Philharmonic Hall are expected to enliven the New York scene-
attracting thousands of visitors as well as New York residents.”

from a 1959 brochure

Every day at the palatial offices of Le Concertographe Magazine here in New York we receive several press announcements in the mail and it is our habit to read them all. One afternoon during this past turbulent summer came a short note from the New York Philharmonic, mentioning in the lowest possible key that their opening night concert featuring bass Samuel Ramey would not be broadcast in the “Live from Lincoln Center” television series as originally scheduled. What is the effect of all of this aborted game of musical chairs on Lincoln Center Plaza? As we pay homage to Samuel Lipman, one of the most perceptive writers on the classical music scene in the past fifty years, by borrowing one of his best titles ever, we offer for your perusal a manuscript, composed when it appeared that the orchestra was moving out, by one of our young staffers, who has since mysteriously vanished, and discovered only recently while we were cleaning out his files:

“Ever since the Kennedy family bought up all of the tenements in the West ‘60’s and then sold the land to the city for one dollar, the Lincoln Center project was meant to be a revitalizing factor in the reinvention of New York as a kinder, gentler cultural locus. Certainly the effect on the surrounding neighborhood was dramatic: a 180 degree turn from urban hell to intellectual heaven (the early 1970’s film Panic in Needle Park captures the locale exactly at its nervous point of transition). Although hardly a St. Peter’s architecturally, the plaza was conceived as a U in order to appear welcoming and nurturing, a fact now being exploited by politicians who use the word ‘elite’ as a pejorative and loudly put forth their idea that the complex should be used exclusively for the entertainment of ‘the people’ (it was the previous generation that espoused this ideology who caused the demise of classical music in the American public schools, but don’t get me started). Perhaps the biggest retrospective irony in all of this will be timing: when these chest-thumping ‘egalitarians’ (editor’s note: this cub reporter seems to have been overly enamored of the quotation mark) recently demanded that jazz have an equal footing at Lincoln Center, the city, at a time when it could least afford to do so, capitulated by granting a gigantic and perpetual tax exemption for a new building just down the block as long as the owners would construct a new, populist concert hall within. Now that both the City Opera and the Philharmonic are contemplating moving out, empty buildings that literally could be had for a song may soon be as plentiful on the plaza as they remain on the waterfront of the South Bronx.

There will be much legal wrangling to settle the issue of reparations, but let’s assume that Avery Fisher Hall survives financially one way or another. How can it reshape itself into a more important cultural institution going forward? Let us not waste any tears on their past misfortunes, but rather celebrate their new-found freedom, a flexibility, by the way, which Carnegie Hall has now profligately discarded (interestingly, when sober second thoughts had a chance to evolve, it was only members of the Philharmonic board that were skeptical of the move; the Carnegie elders appeared to be unanimous in their lemming-like decision to cast away their independence). Already the Phil’s general manager, Zarin Mehta, is doing his best Alexander Haig imitation, prematurely proclaiming that he will be in charge. The stranglehold of the new landlord will extend even to the choosing of chamber musicians for the lesser rooms, the tentacles of the core group extending to ancillary concerts. Once the business people take over, the experience is simply no longer the same. What follows the limiting of our selections? After introducing the bland hamburger to the public, the next logical move would be to raise prices. (Editor’s note: with the tragic death of Robert Harth, Mr. Mehta is now on the short list of candidates to replace the vibrant executive director.)

For Lincoln Center, the Philharmonic’s leaving is like that ne’er-do-well brother-in-law finally moving out: now we can use the room for something productive. If indeed the Phil was the albatross, then in which direction will the newly buoyant ship sail? Let’s consider their huge new advantage over their rival. The Philharmonic’s pattern has been to schedule the same concert four times a week, on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Tuesday evenings, and they have already stated that this will not change after the relocation. Therefore, Carnegie is stuck trying to rent out their auditorium on the less desirable nights and Sunday. Avery Fisher, by contrast, is open and so should have a much better chance of attracting a major orchestra on tour who wants to play New York (and they all do) in a premier time slot, or series of contiguous dates. You try telling the Berlin Philharmonic that they can only appear on Wednesday afternoon!

The tabula rasa of the calendar at Avery Fisher also allows for some creative programming decisions. Although their track record has not been the best, one hopes that the staff there can rally and really make a statement that the plaza is the place for excitement, quality and innovation (the daunting part is that they won’t be able to use the Phil as an excuse any longer). One option being discussed is a new anchor ensemble: perhaps it is time for the Orchestra of St. Luke’s to step up. Another is the creation of a round-robin consortium of orchestras that will be the reliable foundation for the reborn hall. Two or three American groups plus one or two Europeans are potentially serious candidates. In this scenario, the Metropolitan Opera could truly become the savior: with music director James Levine now taking over in Boston, possibly that troubled ensemble as well as the opera’s own symphonic incarnation can become major components on a refreshed plaza. After all, wouldn’t the Met rather have healthy musical neighbors than a Big K-Mart next door?

Everyone in New York is guardedly optimistic about the future of Lincoln Center. After all, we would hate to associate the place with its namesake’s family’s ultimate feelings about the theater.”

Tonight’s conductor, Leonard Slatkin, is no stranger to audience and venue building, his father conducting for years at the Hollywood Bowl, and constructively pointed the way to improved audience outreach by a particularly engaging combination of communicative skills, both as a speaker and a leader. Spending about twenty minutes pointing out the changes of conductor Gustav Mahler to the score of the Beethoven 9, Slatkin involved his mostly neophyte audience (this was a concert in the “Introduction to the Classics” series at Carnegie) without resort to pretension or condescension. Having the National Symphony illustrate his points musically was positively inspired. Slatkin even delved into the original Wagner re-orchestrations of his idol Beethoven, neatly wrapping some hefty scholarship and revelatory orchestral excerpts into a totally non-threatening package. He struck just the right chord for successful audience involvement. The performance of the complete work which followed was nowhere near as edifying as the lecture and the singing, at least for this one night where education is our focus, was, to paraphrase ol’ Jedediah Leland, happily no concern of this department. But, as an educational experience, the evening was indeed first rate.

Hopefully there will always be humans who listen to classical music, but in order to keep them from humming pieces to themselves in the wilderness, like Bradbury’s “book people”, leaders of the musical community must begin to think seriously about education and outright conversion. Perhaps someone with such a knack for it as Leonard Slatkin could show the way. After all, doesn’t he live in Washington?

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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