[Editor’s note: The following is from KERA guest blogger Rosalyn Story, who is a violinist with the Fort Worth Symphony as well as a published author.]
There’s an old joke about Carnegie Hall that is probably as famous as the hall itself. I don’t know the origin, but my guess is it probably is one of those jokes from the radio days of pithy humor for which Jack Benny and Henny Youngman were so well known. How do you get to Carnegie? Practice, practice, and practice.
It’s the kind of cornball, rimshot humor that worked better in bygone eras, but the joke’s endurance is a testament to the mythic magnitude of Carnegie, and has become part of the lore and mystique that has followed this hall since it’s earliest days. There are, however, thousands of people who practice all the time and never make it to Carnegie. But if you really want to find yourself on that venerated stage there’s a much more reliable way. Become a musician (a good one), get yourself into an orchestra (a good one), then wait until the time when the goal of practically every American musical ensemble bears itself out. And when you find the words ‘Carnegie Hall Concert’ on your upcoming performance calendar, then go to your room and practice, practice, and practice.
When my orchestra, the Fort Worth Symphony, was told two years ago we’d be playing in Carnegie Hall, there was a buzz of excitement and interested that floated beyond our home in Bass Performance Hall and out into the community. I’m told some 500 Fort Worthers traveled to New York for the concert – camp followers accompanying us for support. It was not the first time we’d been. Actually, a smaller configuration of our orchestra, the Texas Little Symphony, did play in Carnegie Hall in 1980, before I joined the violin section in the late ‘80s, but this past Saturday and Sunday marked the first time the entire Fort Worth Symphony has ever played on one of the world’s greatest stages. Led by our conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya, and with the violin-viola duo of Augustin Hadelich and Alban Gerhardt, we performed the Brahms Double Concerto, a new piece commissioned by the orchestra composed by Osvaldo Golijov, and the Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony. The day after, we came back for an afternoon concert for children featuring Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” narrated by actor John Lithgow.
The Hadelich-Gerhardt duo was gorgeous, and a treat to hear these two great musicians ‘converse’ in the seamless overlapping of arpeggiated phrases in the Brahms, and Gerhardt’s lyrical and deeply moving playing on the ethereal and atmospheric “Mariel” (his cello, a Gofriller, has the most remarkable depth I’ve ever heard) made the evening even more special. And even though we’ve played the Tchaikovsky symphony plenty of times (we’ve even recorded it), there’s something about Carnegie Hall that made even that ancient warhorse brand-new.
I had played on the stage myself only once before, when I was a young musician in what was then called the Kansas City Philharmonic, traveled to Washington, D.C. and New York to play in the Kennedy Center and Carnegie. Then in my twenties, I was young, ignorant, fearless, and lacking the sense to be properly awed (and intimidated) by the whole experience. But even then I realized that there was something very special about this particular concert hall.
After the Fort Worth Symphony’s afternoon children’s concert, friends and I were talking during that post-event down-time when you are pleasantly exhausted and the mind is in a state of review. In the dressing room, putting our concert clothes into wardrobe trunks to be trucked back to Texas, we talked about what it is that makes this hall so unique, and the conversation in various forms continued throughout the evening and into the next day. The quality of sound, the feeling of playing on a stage that gives back what you give out, where the effort put into playing your instrument comes back to you in an immediate and satisfying reward – all are part of what makes Carnegie Hall special. We play every week in what we consider one of the great newer halls in the country – Bass Performance Hall in downtown Fort Worth. But the sound is quite different. One friend put it perfectly; playing in Carnegie Hall is like playing on a rare, old violin, where you just don’t have to work so hard to make a sound of transparency, richness and warmth. It’s true, and a great comparison.
Say you have an old Italian fiddle, perfectly conceived and constructed, then aged with time, seasoned with a perfect varnish, molded and matured by the fingerprints of hundreds of hands who’ve played the instrument and passed it on from generation to generation. All of that, and a hundred other intangibles that language fails to describe. And maybe great halls are the same way.
After all, the violin and the hall are both hollow chambers of old, resonant wood, and the better the instrument (and the hall), the less effort it takes to get to the payoff, the depth and character of sound that is the hallmark of a great performing and listening experience. And here is where a wonderful hall and an extraordinary, time-seasoned and historic hall part company. Bass Hall, brilliant and vibrant and expertly crafted, is a great example of the best modern acousticians have to offer, but Carnegie is the Strad of American concert halls, a beautiful vestige of classical Europe.
That’s why it is so hard to believe that they almost tore it down.
I first heard the story years ago, and am still amazed that in 1960 there were plans to raze the building and replace it with a high-rise. (This they had planned to do to the very stage where Tchaikovsky himself appeared at Carnegie’s opening in 1891). When the New York Philharmonic was about to move to Lincoln Center, Carnegie was about to sit languishing when all attention focused on the new construction a few blocks up the street. It was the great violinist Isaac Stern who spearheaded a campaign not only to avert the fate of a wrecking ball, but to raise public awareness and bestow the proper respect upon this historic auditorium. The campaign succeeded; Carnegie Hall was purchased by the city of New York, declared a non-profit, and made a National Historic Landmark. It makes sense; practically speaking, you should no sooner consider destroying a hall like Carnegie than you would a fine Stradivarius.
If there’s anything more exciting than playing in Carnegie Hall, it’s the experience of playing in Carnegie Hall two days in a row, to nearly packed and enthusiastic houses. Both the evening concert and the children’s concert were so well attended, we musicians had to look out and wonder “Who are all these people? Could an orchestra from Texas really generate this kind of response in a city where great concerts happen almost every night?”
Of course there were many reasons; our staff, I’m told, worked non-stop to sell these concerts, and obviously did a great job. There are our amazing patrons who showed up in full force (as mentioned earlier, by the hundreds) to cheer us on and help fill the house. There is also the growing reputation of the two great young artists Hadelich and Gerhardt who are developing a strong following among lovers of classical music, and there is of course, the pull of the music of Tchaikovsky and Brahms.
But there’s another reason too that has to do with the hall itself. There are many in and around New York who check the paper, the Website or get on the phone. They are in town for the weekend, or they live in New York and their relatives are in for a visit. And they check the schedule to find out “What’s going on over at Carnegie?” There’s always something. The hall is always humming, you might say in a state of constant vibration.
And they show up, sit and wait for the grand old hall to come to life, confident there’s a real treat in store. It must be one of the few halls in the world that has its own persona, its own lore, and carries such an expectation of great music.
And when the music begins, they are not disappointed, whether the performers are from Texas, or Berlin, Russia or South America, or a few blocks away.
Because if it’s playing at Carnegie, it must be good.