Carnegie celebrates 100 golden years

September 23, 1990|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Everyone who listens to music knows the question and knows the answer.

"How do you get to Carnegie Hall?"

"Practice, practice, practice . . ."

It is significant that Carnegie Hall is the only concert hall about which such a joke is told. For European as well as American musicians and music lovers, it is the hall that represents the pinnacle -- the place where reputations are made and legends live on.

Carnegie celebrates its 100th season this year, beginning with a gala concert Wednesday by violinist Itzhak Perlman and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and continuing into early summer with a roster of artists and programs that no other concert hall can match.

Although this year is undoubtedly special, the extraordinary has been ordinary ever since the hall opened on May 5, 1891, with a festival of five concerts highlighted by the great Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky conducting programs of his own music. In the century since, much of what is important in American music has happened at Carnegie. It was there that Vladimir Horowitz and Leonard Bernstein made their celebrated debuts; there that Sergei Rachmaninoff played his Third Concerto and that Gustav Mahler conducted his "Resurrection Symphony." It was at Carnegie that Paul Robeson in 1959, Judy Garland in 1961, Horowitz in 1965 and Frank Sinatra in 1974 chose to make comebacks. Isaac Stern and Jack Benny gave their only duet performance at Carnegie, and the Beatles gave their first U.S public concert there. It is the place that makes the singular seem more so.

Carnegie Hall, Yehudi Menuhin once said, "is a building built more by music than by man." Carnegie's great traditions may be musical, but actually it is the house that money -- or, more precisely, economic influence -- built. For the history of Carnegie Hall is the story of how the newly richest city in the newly richest country became the world's greatest cultural center, attracting musicians from all over because it promised to make them rich and famous.

The construction of Carnegie -- at 57th Street and Seventh Avenue -- on what was then the northern boundary of Manhattan was an expression of the Gilded Age. Those who had made or who had inherited the fortunes made during and after the Civil War searched for philanthropies to show that matters of the spirit were important to them.

In the years before and after the construction of Carnegie, the new phenomenon called the apartment building began to appear in the hundreds. The middle class liked their efficiency, informality and convenience. But it was a life style that placed restrictions on home entertainment. New Yorkers began to look outside for things to do, things that coincided with the desire of the newly wealthy to see and to be seen. It is no accident that this was an era in which great buildings housing cultural institutions appeared: the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1879; the Metropolitan Opera in 1883 and the Museum of Natural History in 1890. With the flourishing theater district that existed around 14th Street, the cultural needs of the city were being met.

The exception was orchestral music. Steinway hall on 14th Street above the showrooms of the piano manufacturer and Chickering Hall on the corner of 18th and Fifth Avenue were too small for a large orchestra and they were too far south of the northward-moving audiences. In 1887, a 25-year-old conductor named Walter Damrosch found himself on a ship to Europe with the 52-year-old industrialist-philanthropist Andrew Carnegie and the latter's music-loving young bride. By the end of the trip, the city of New York had a commitment for a new hall.

The invitation to Tchaikovsky for the hall's inaugural concerts was extended because the Russian was the most popular living composer in this country. It was accepted because the composer, who had just lost his $3,000 annual stipend from his benefactress, Mme. von Meck, needed the $2,500 fee. Tchaikovsky was impressed by the friendliness and energy of Americans; most of all, however, he was impressed by how much money they had.

He was astonished to learn that the pianist who was to perform his First Piano Concerto had arrived in New York as an unknown just four years before and had already banked $100,000. "That's what America is!" he exclaimed to his diary.

New York audiences and critics loved Tchaikovsky. They also loved the new hall, with its beautiful rose-and-ivory-and-gold interiors and its warm acoustics. "It stood the test well," said the New York Times headline over its story about the hall's opening night. It would not be long before it would be the test.

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