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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Star spangled manner

By Norman Lebrecht / August 11, 2004

There are three defining stories about Carnegie Hall, which last week placed its future in the hands of an unpretentious London musician. Early last century, on the eve of a coast-to-coast tour, Sergei Rachmaninov was accompanying Fritz Kreisler in Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata when, as is not uncommon, the great violinist suffered a memory lapse halfway through the second movement. ‘Where are we?’ whispered Kreisler urgently.

‘In Carnegie Hall,’ rumbled the impassive Rachmaninov.

Some years later, in October 1917, every soloist in New York turned out to witness the US debut of the phenomenal Jascha Heifetz, still only 16. Leopold Godowsky, a pianist so prestidigitatious he would play two Chopin waltzes at once, sat beside the universally famous Russian violinist, Mischa Elman.

‘Phew, it’s hot in here,’ exclaimed Elman after the first couple of pieces.

‘Not for pianists,’ quipped Godowsky.

The third anecdote crops up (to the best of my recollection) in the 1947 feature film Carnegie Hall, in which a pushy mother tries to make a classical pianist of her band-crazed son. ‘How do I get to Carnegie Hall?’ asks a tourist.

‘Practise …’ says the New York cop.

Clive Gillinson, the hall’s next executive and artistic director, had never heard this hoary old joke before last week, an omission which suggests he will have to bridge a gulf wider than the Atlantic when he changes jobs.Gillinson comes from another place, another planet almost, when it comes to the running of musical organisations.

Twenty years ago this November Gillinson stepped up from the second desk of cellos to be managing director of the London Symphony Orchestra at a time when the company was practically bankrupt and all the players were chipping in £43 a month to cover interest payments on bank loans. The Arts Council, ever a friend in need, cut its grant by 20 percent and threatened to withdraw funding altogether if debts were not cleared within three years.

Gillinson restored the company through a delicate blend of prestige concerts and high-grade studio work. The LSO may be the favourite London ensemble of Pierre Boulez and Mstislav Rostropovich, but it also John Williams’s movie track partner. It has its own record label and a winter New York residency, a democratic constitution and a dependable landlord in the Barbican. Player for player and pound for pound, it outpunches every other orchestra on this island.

Yet, in the past year the LSO dipped once more into the red, embarrassed by the inexplicable reluctance of lottery funders to give adequate support to its vision of converting the bombed-out Hawksmoor church of St Lukes into a multicultural, interactive education centre. The deficit is now being patched by private donations and an Education Department grant but once he has rebalanced the books Gillinson, 58, may be forgiven for turning his back on the sisyphean struggle and joining a hall where he need never again have to entertain compromise.

Carnegie Hall is today exactly what it was endowed to be in 1891 by Andrew Carnegie, the Scots-born steel magnate who gave away $350 million to philanthropic causes in his lifetime, and the remaining $300 million at his death. The hall cost a mere two million dollars to build but its cachet was instantaneous. Tchaikovsky sailed over for the opening festival and the greatest musicians have regarded Carnegie ever since as their American gateway. No pianist would dream of opening a tour in Boston or Los Angeles.No place on earth has attracted a greater concentration of musical talent. Kreisler and Heifetz knew all too well that a recital Carnegie was make or break, no place to hide.

Musicians met munificence on West 57th Street. No sooner had Carnegie signed his cheque than the Whitneys, the Sloans, the Rockefellers and the rest of A-list New York bought up the boxes and underwrote unforseen expenses. Carnegie became as much the place for the rich to be seen as it was for virtuosi to be heard. It continues to fulfil Andrew Carnegie’s mission of social responsibility with free concerts in poor neighbourhoods and a range of programmes for teachers and pupils in public schools, where music has been off the curriculum for two generations; some 33,000 New Yorkers take part in these schemes each year. If Carnegie is known for one cross generational moment it is Leonard Bernstein on a Saturday morning explaining sonata form in the Beatles’ Norwegian Wood to open-mouthed children and their parents, in a live relay on public television.

When the New York Philharmonic in the late 1950s elected to move to the Lincoln Center and Carnegie was threatened with demolition, artists and civic leaders, mobilised by the violinist Isaac Stern, stopped the bulldozers. Everyone knew what Carnegie was for: untouchable excellence and pro bono benefaction.

With an operating budget this year of $70 million and a board chaired by Citigroup’s Sanford Weill, Carnegie Hall is a model of financial solidity. In its last big whip-round to raise $100 million for the underground Zankel Hall in 2001, only $72m went on the building. The rest sits in an endowment, funding future programming. Weill, for his 70th birthday, offered to match dollar for dollar every gift to an education endowment; it cost him $25 million in all.

So what can a London orchestral musician, raised on grit and gruel, bring to this lavish, long-running party? Personal qualities apart – and Gillinson has been head-hunted, to my knowledge, by at least six of the top US musical institutions – he will add a dimension of difference, a whiff ofrenewal, which is exactly what is needed.

Carnegie has been through an edgy period since the death of its director Judith Arron in December 1998. Her hand-picked successor, Franz-Xaver Ohnesorg, resigned by cellphone while heading to Kennedy Airport to join Simon Rattle in Berlin (where he was soon ousted). Robert Harth, next in line, died of a heart attack six months ago, aged 47. It has been six years since anyone at Carnegie had the clout and confidence to tinker with the content and embrace 21st century technology. Harth was loudly praised in his eulogies for daring to put on a recital of Messiaen in Zankel Hall; but Messaien has been dead a dozen years, and that’s as contemporary as Carnegie gets.

Gillinson, if I read his mind correctly, will want to refresh the programming with younger voices and reach out to non-attending audiences. Live from Carnegie Hall by website or on compact disc is a distinct possibility. LSO style education initiatives can be developed at Carnegie with proper funding. There is room for experiment. The new boss can buy himself time to think outside the box.

But Carnegie is, above all else, about stardom. Gillinson’s most immediate challenge will be to replace an ailing corps of perennials – Levine, Perlman, Rostropovich, Previn – with younger artists of instant magnetism. In his dreams he will imagine a shirtsleeved maestro in his thirties analysing a Puff Daddy lyric for kids from the Bronx, or a J-Lo sitting in mute splendour through a Domingo recital. Only at Carnegie Hall are such things possible, but someone has to make them happen. It won’t be easy. Good luck, Clive.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001