The members of the National Symphony Orchestra have been practicing for their visit to Carnegie Hall tomorrow. Like practically every musician in the United States, they know Carnegie Hall Joke No. 1.
That's the one about the tourist who goes up to a street musician in midtown Manhattan -- in most variations, a violinist with his hat on the sidewalk to catch pedestrians' spare change.
"How do I get to Carnegie Hall?" asks the tourist.
"Practice," says the musician.
Carnegie Hall Joke No. 1 shows how firmly the building at Seventh Avenue and West 57th Street has lodged itself in American folklore. Carnegie Hall Joke No. 2 is an exemplar of the momentous musical events that have taken place in that building.
It supposedly happened on Oct. 27, 1917, an unusually hot day, when 16-year-old Jascha Heifetz, technically the most brilliant violinist of the 20th century, made his American debut. Seated side-by-side in the auditorium were violinist Mischa Elman and pianist Leopold Godowsky. After Heifetz had played a few numbers, Elman, dabbing at his forehead with a handkerchief, turned to Godowsky and whispered, "It's warm in here, isn't it?"
"Not for pianists," Godowsky replied.
Name-dropping comes naturally when you start talking about this building, where nearly every great musician of the past century has performed in an almost perfect ambiance. Consider the "Concert of the Century," given there in 1976 with a top ticket price of $1,000, which raised a badly needed $1 million in one day. Among its many highlights that concert featured a "Hallelujah" Chorus with baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau among the singers. That is not so strange; he is one of the great singers of the century, though you seldom catch him in a chorus. But other members of that chorus included Mstislav Rostropovich, Leonard Bernstein, Yehudi Menuhin, Vladimir Horowitz and Isaac Stern.
Bernstein also conducted, as he had done regularly when he was music director of the New York Philharmonic. A list of composers who have conducted in Carnegie Hall would begin with Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, who conducted the opening concert on May 5, 1891, and include Antonin Dvorak (who was panned by the New York Times), Gustav Mahler, John Philip Sousa, Duke Ellington and Aaron Copland.
The NSO's performance there tomorrow is one of more than 150 events marking the hall's centennial season, which will climax with a 10-day festival, April 26-May 5, ending with a four-hour gala featuring Zubin Mehta, Rostropovich, Stern, Jessye Norman, Leontyne Price, Placido Domingo, Marilyn Horne, Samuel Ramey, Rudolf Serkin and Pinchas Zukerman -- living proof of the old aphorism, "The best ones of all/Go to Carnegie Hall."
During the anniversary season, the NSO will be one of 17 North American orchestras helping Carnegie Hall celebrate, along with foreign orchestras ranging from the Vienna Philharmonic and Amsterdam Concertgebouw to the Leningrad and Israel philharmonics, the Tokyo Metropolitan and the Shanghai Symphony. The Kennedy Center, which shares Chairman James D. Wolfensohn with Carnegie Hall, is hosting a photo exhibit, "On Stage at Carnegie Hall: A Centennial Celebration" through March 16 in the Performing Arts Library and Atrium, including a segment on the National Symphony's performances there.
The NSO's association with Carnegie Hall dates halfway back in the building's 100 years to Feb. 4, 1941. For its debut at the hall, the young (10-year-old) orchestra advertised a special two-day excursion, including transportation, a concert ticket, one night in a hotel room and dinner on the train home for $12.10.
Tomorrow, the NSO will play the New York premiere of Richard Wernick's Piano Concerto, which had its world premiere Thursday night at the Kennedy Center. The NSO has been giving New York premieres of new pieces from the beginning, when the program included conductor Hans Kindler's transcription of a Toccata attributed to Girolamo Frescobaldi. In 1957, the NSO played John LaMontaine's "Songs of the Rose of Sharon" with Leontyne Price as soloist and John Vincent's Symphony in D. In 1972, it was Messiaen's "La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jesus-Christ." There were three NSO concerts in Carnegie Hall during the 1976-77 season, and three New York premieres: Miklos Rozsa's "Tripartita," Gunther Schuller's Concerto for Orchestra No. 2 and Ulysses Kay's "Western Paradise."
Premieres have been happening at Carnegie Hall since Dvorak's "New World" Symphony had its first performance there on Dec. 16, 1893. Works that have had their world or U.S. premiere there include Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony, Strauss's "Symphonia domestica," Mahler's Second Symphony, Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3, Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 1 and "Classical" Symphony, Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F, and Duke Ellington's "Black, Brown and Beige." For the centennial season, it has commissioned 13 new works by such composers as William Bolcom, Sir Michael Tippett, Alfred Schnittke, Toru Takemitsu, Joan Tower, George Rochberg, Terry Riley, Ned Rorem and Malcolm Arnold.
Carnegie Hall was originally known as the "Music Hall founded by Andrew Carnegie," a title both cumbersome and not completely accurate. It was changed finally because, to many people (particularly performers), the term "Music Hall" meant something like a cabaret. Carnegie, the founder of U.S. Steel, contributed $2 million, about 90 percent of the building's cost -- certainly enough to justify having the hall named after him. But several others were deeply involved in the origins of the hall, notably Louise Whitfield, who married Carnegie in 1887, and Walter Damrosch, music director of the Symphony Society and Oratorio Society. At the time, the only suitable concert hall in New York was the Metropolitan Opera House, which was used by the opera company, the New York Philharmonic and visiting orchestras and opera companies but unavailable to Damrosch.
Whitfield, a member of the Oratorio Society and friend of Damrosch's, brought the music man and the money man together. The idea of Carnegie Hall actually began moving toward reality in the mid-Atlantic; Damrosch happened to be on the ship taking Carnegie and his bride to their honeymoon in Scotland.
The opening night, with Tchaikovsky conducting, was one of New York's major social and musical events of the 1890s, but it was not the first time music was played there. Leopold Godowsky (the pianist in Carnegie Hall Joke No. 2) performed there unofficially two weeks before the opening.
The most serious challenge faced by Carnegie Hall in its first century came in the late 1950s, when it was assumed that all important concerts would go to Lincoln Center, then under construction. Carnegie Hall's prospects looked grim when the New York Philharmonic announced that it would be moving to Lincoln Center. The philharmonic had been playing in Carnegie Hall since 1892, but it was a restless and querulous tenant. The building was actually sold to developers and scheduled for demolition to make room for a 44-story office building. There was a storm of public protest; a Citizens Committee for Carnegie Hall was launched with Isaac Stern as chairman, and in 1960 the building was saved -- bought by the New York City government and leased back to the Carnegie Hall Corp.
The hall was renovated in the 1980s, and when it reopened some patrons and critics complained that the hall's legendary acoustics had suffered. Subsequent work to restore the acoustics was, on the whole, successful; the sound today may have slightly less warmth than in the past, but ultimately, that is a matter of subjective judgment. The hall still compares favorably to most of the world's auditoriums. When it plays in Carnegie Hall, the NSO sounds better than it does at the Kennedy Center.
Meanwhile, the idea of a high-rise building at that location did not go away. In November 1987, ground was broken for Carnegie Hall Tower, a 60-story structure rising between Carnegie Hall and the Russian Tea Room, architecturally compatible with Carnegie Hall and including expanded facilities for the concert hall as well as luxury condos and office space. Income from this project (the first addition to Carnegie Hall since 1896, when two towers were added to the original six-story building) should mean a measure of long-term financial security for the old hall.
That will give musicians with a sense of humor opportunities to carry Carnegie Hall Joke No. 3, originally attributed to violinist Fritz Kreisler and pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff, into the 21st century.
That's the one about the time Kreisler and Rachmaninoff were playing Beethoven's complex and technically challenging "Kreutzer" Sonata and Kreisler lost his place. He improvised for a while, hoping that Rachmaninoff would put him back on track, but he got no help from his partner. Finally, he had to ask. "For God's sake, Sergei," he whispered, "where are we?"
Rachmaninoff, deadpan, whispered back: "In Carnegie Hall."