Carnegie Hall will celebrate its 100th anniversary this year, and it is beginning the observance early. Necessarily: There are enough memories to recall, great moments to celebrate and well-known artists to talk about it to fill the whole year.
For Ray Charles, playing at Carnegie Hall is "like you've gotten to the golden gates of Heaven." For Julie Andrews, it is "a little bit like going to Buckingham Palace." For Yo-Yo Ma, playing there "makes you feel that you're part of history." All are on tonight's PBS documentary: "Carnegie Hall at 100: A Place of Dreams" (Channels 26 and 22 at 9 p.m.).
Jason Robards, who studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts on the upper floors of Carnegie Hall, says he gets "goose bumps ... every time I walk by this building. ... It's something that's hard to explain ... an interior love and joy to see this building here." Radio entertainer Garrison Keillor notes that it "has more ghosts than any other hall in America," and comedian Alan King lists some of them -- people who have performed there. "Can you imagine the memories, the ghosts: Tchaikovsky ... Piatigorsky, Paderewski, Stravinsky, Stokowski, Toscanini, Koussevitzky," King says. "If these walls could talk, they would have a very heavy accent."
For Isaac Stern, who more than any other individual is responsible for the fact that Carnegie Hall can celebrate its centennial, "Carnegie is not just a hall or a place or a name; it's a unique experience."
They are all correct, as is demonstrated throughout the hour-long show in little snippets from Carnegie's great past: Artur Rubinstein playing Chopin, Toscanini conducting Beethoven and, in a rehearsal, violently cursing his double-bass players; Aaron Copland narrating his "Lincoln Portrait" while Leonard Bernstein conducts, Jascha Heifetz playing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, Jack Benny and Stern demolishing Bach's Concerto for Two Violins; the Weavers singing "Wimoweh" (a k a "The Lion Sleeps Tonight"), Liza Minnelli singing "New York, New York." A major problem is that so much has to be packed into the hour that nothing can be given complete.
Stern was the one who organized the Committee to Save Carnegie Hall in 1960, when it was condemned to make space for a skyscraper because Lincoln Center was expected to make it obsolete. What a terrible loss that would have been is a recurring theme, not only in statements by performers who have played there but by tenants who make its eight floors a microcosm of the world of arts.
One of them, film director Andrew Bergman, sums it up: "It's a building bursting with life, and it's a building bursting with surprises."
In one of the best segments, a camera studies the faces of school kids during a children's concert, conducted by Rachel Worby. She is a young director, less known than most of the superstars on the show but very close to what Carnegie Hall is really about. She recalls attending one of Bernstein's children's concerts and deciding on the spot to become a conductor: "When people would say to me 'What do you want to be when you grow up?' I would say 'Leonard Bernstein.' ... If I can move one young person's life the way my life was moved when I sat in Carnegie Hall, then I will have changed the world."