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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

friendship.

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:

…Then began an endlessly long dinner, with vast pretension

(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…

Eight years after the hall’s elaborate inauguration, Andrew

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

to ask.

— Elaine Strauss

Carnegie Hall, 881 Seventh Avenue, New York, 212-247-7800.

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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