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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the September 4, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Carnegie Hall? A Tour Ticket
Carnegie Hall has so seared itself into the general
consciousness that it is the crux of the widely-told joke: A tourist
asks a New Yorker, "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" The
New Yorker replies, "Practice, practice, practice." Try substituting
the name of any other concert venue, and the anecdote loses its clout.
The hall, completed in 1891, and rightly revered for its acoustics,
is renowned throughout the world.
Tours, first offered in 1987, are available Monday through Friday,
at 11:30 a.m., 2, and 3 p.m. from September to June. The first in
the 2002-2003 season takes place Monday, September 9. Tickets are
purchased directly from the box office the day of the tour. Admission
is $6 for adults, $5 for students or seniors, and $3 for children
under 12. Special arrangements for groups of 20 or more may be made
by telephone (212-903-9765) or fax (212-903-0765).
A cosmopolitan group gathers for a tour of the empty hall in late
June. An Indian couple, the woman wrapped in a sari, joins a trio
of Hungarians, residents of Oklahoma, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Toronto,
as well as your U.S. 1 correspondent. Docents Lillian, from the Bronx,
and Mary, from Brooklyn, have traveled 45 minutes for their weekly
stint as volunteer guides.
Mary does the talking while Lillian observes. After determining the
origin of the participants, Mary leads us to the elevator. In response
to legal requirements for accessibility, the elevator is large enough
to handle six wheelchairs. Until a major renovation in 1986, steep
stairs, still in use, provided the only access to seating above the
orchestra level. We ride up three floors and take seats at the front
of the dress circle. If we look sharply downward we see empty seating
and a vacant stage. Some of the participants, fearful of the height,
shy away from positions in the first row.
We listen attentively. Anyone intrigued by one aspect of the auditorium’s
romantic story is ready to discover more.
The genesis of the 2,804-seat hall was a remarkable interplay of serendipity,
civic conscience, and opportunism. In the spring of 1887 millionaire
Andrew Carnegie, 52, sailed with his 30-year-old bride, Louise Whitfield,
on a honeymoon trip to his native Scotland. The marriage was delayed
by Andrew’s possessive mother. The musically inclined Louise had sung
in the soprano section of the Oratorio Society of New York for several
seasons. By chance William Damrosch, 25, who had just completed his
second season as conductor and musical director of both the Oratorio
Society and the Symphony Society of New York, was a fellow passenger.
During the Atlantic crossing the three travelers embarked on a life-long
Before the ship reached port Damrosch confided to the Carnegies
his dream of a concert hall accessible to the Symphony Society. As
New York’s third-place musical organization, ranking behind the Metropolitan
Opera and the New York Philharmonic Society, Damrosch’s orchestra
had difficulty booking a hall sufficiently large. By the end of the
summer Carnegie agreed to support the building of an appropriate concert
hall. His eventual contribution of $2 million would pay for about
nine-tenths the cost of the undertaking.
Within two years Carnegie formed a stock company, and acquired the
block of land on Seventh Avenue between 56th and 57th Streets where
the present Carnegie Hall stands. The plot of land was at the edge
of Goat Hill, where streets were not necessarily paved, in a place
so far up town that it was considered suburban.
To lure an audience to such an out-of-the-way location for the Carnegie
inauguration of the hall in May, 1891, the organizers held an elaborate
five-day opening festival, with concerts conducted by the famed Russian
composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. In his diaries and letters, the
Russian composer wrote copiously and in minute detail about his 25
days in New York and the mostly favorable impressions the events made
upon him. Many of his commentaries of the moment are collected in
the book "Tchaikovsky in America" (published in 1986 and edited
by Elkhonon Yoffee). His diary entry for May 14, 1891, for example,
reads in part:
(for instance, everyone was served ice cream in the form of an enormous,
lifelike rose, from the middle of which the ice cream fell out). In
the midst of dinner Mrs. Hyde pressed me to smoke. All this lasted
very, very long, so that I was tired and almost totally lethargic,
especially since all the time I had to speak English or hear out the
unsuccessful attempts of both hosts to say something in French. At
10 o’clock I departed…
and Louise Carnegie settled in a townhouse on 91st Street, just off
Fifth Avenue, that is now the home of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum.
The Carnegie Hall tour touches on the history of the building and
recounts its definitive escape from demolition in 1960. We learn that
instead of a chandelier, a circle of lights adorns the ceiling. Ninety-six
light bulbs form the circle, one for each diamond in Mrs. Carnegie’s
wedding ring. We hear of the long parade of distinguished individuals
who have appeared on stage. In addition to a roster of distinguished
musicians, they include Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, Booker T. Washington,
and Woodrow Wilson.
The visit alights, not only in the Carnegie Hall Dress Circle three
stories up, but also in the hall’s orchestra level; in the corridors,
where framed photos and manuscripts of individuals associated with
the hall are displayed; and in the small museum and gift shop.
I note a couple of Princeton connections. Among the manuscripts is
a 1989 score by Princeton composer Milton Babbitt honoring the centenary
of the hall. Moreover, an entire wing of the building is named for
James D. Wolfensohn, donor of the jewel of a concert hall at Princeton’s
Institute for Advanced Study. Wolfensohn served on the Carnegie Hall
board beginning in the 1970s and was chairman from 1979 to 1991. His
leadership in fundraising for Carnegie Hall was notable.
The primary focus of the tour is the auditorium, rather than the Wolfensohn
wing, which contains subsidiary facilities. We don’t explore it. Neither
do we visit the Green Room, where performing artists stay secluded
before making their appearance on stage. Nor do we look at wherever
it is that orchestral musicians wait before they appear. Most disappointingly,
unlike participants in the tour of Philadelphia’s new Kimmel Center,
we are not allowed to stand on the stage to bask in imagined glory.
Still, the tour is engaging. Its appeal for children and out-of-town
visitors is unquestionable. Even I, a veteran attender of Carnegie
Hall performances, learn about things that I would never have thought
— Elaine Strauss
Tours Monday through Friday at 11:30 a.m., 2 p.m., and 3 p.m. Tickets
purchased from the box office on day of tour. $6, $5 for students
& seniors; $3 for children. Box office hours are Monday through Saturday,
11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sunday noon to 6 p.m.
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