The minute you step on that stage, you are joining a history of the greatest music-making to date. Every time an orchestra goes to Carnegie Hall, we have a chance to add to that legacy. So you want to deliver your best performances in both your home and in that hall—because if Carnegie Hall’s walls could talk, they would be full of the sounds and voices of those we have loved and cherished in our orchestras for these 125 years. Going to Carnegie Hall is about that, for all of us.”
Photo by Chris Lee
So says Allison Vulgamore, president and chief executive of the Philadelphia Orchestra. And it is fitting that her words come first here, since of all orchestras it is the “fabulous Philadelphians” who have enjoyed one of the longest, deepest associations with Carnegie Hall. Something about the vivid colors and the energy of that orchestra’s performances seemed very early on to gel with the splendid new hall, and the two have enjoyed their New York rendezvous every year since that first visit in 1902.
Photo by Marco Borggreve
But a visit to Carnegie Hall means a great deal to the orchestras who go there. It is emphatically never just another hall, just another tour stop. Of course, some appearances are more inherently dramatic than others. “In March 2011,” recalls conductor Andris Nelsons, “I stepped in to conduct a performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, a chance encounter that would eventually lead to my appointment as the orchestra’s music director. I have to admit that at first it was a very challenging situation. The orchestra and I never had the opportunity before to work together, and we had to prepare a monumental work with limited rehearsal time. However, I felt the orchestra’s complete support throughout every moment of that music. It was in the wonderful Carnegie Hall that I fell in love for the first time with the orchestra’s remarkable sound.”
The very fact of appearing at Carnegie Hall for an out-of-town orchestra is a statement to the country, even to the classical music world – not least because New York has by far the highest concentration of important media outlets in America, and certainly the highest proportion of outlets that will cover classical music. But sometimes that statement feels more important than ever, as is currently the case for the Minnesota Orchestra, due to return after its labor dispute, which resulted in the cancellation of its last scheduled appearances at the venue during the 2013-2014 season. Its (returned) music director, Osmo Vänskä, feels this keenly. “Our next visit will be a historic event for us because of the lock-out and the concerts we had to cancel—this will be our first concert there since that. So it’s very special for us, and by ‘us’ I mean not only the orchestra, but also the audience. A lot of people followed what happened in this very unhappy situation, and so it’s great to go back to Carnegie Hall and say, ‘Hi, we are back and we’re here to play for you again!’”
Photo by Greg Helgeson
It’s not all a question of atmosphere, history, mythology. The out-of-towners are able to be quite precise on at least two aspects of what makes Carnegie Hall so special. “Acoustically it’s beyond criticism,” says Harry Bicket, artistic director of the English Concert (whose annual visits are now a staple). “When you first go into a place, one usually needs to tweak quite a bit, working out whether the bass needs more, or does the hall favor the top of the orchestra, and so on. But the first time we went in there and played, everyone just smiled. There are halls that sound good to the audience, but the musicians can’t hear each other. There are others where it sounds great on the stage, but not to the audience—it’s an interesting phenomenon. Carnegie Hall is a joy to play, and it sounds great as well.”
“There’s a match between the acoustic and our sound,” says Philadelphia’s Vulgamore. “Our sound comes from our chamber-like way of playing, the blending of the winds and the bowing, for instance, into this full-bodied and lush Philadelphia Orchestra sound, and at Carnegie Hall you feel as if you’re surrounded by the sound and made a part of it.” Vänskä, too, picks up on the chamber-music theme. “Every great symphony orchestra is like a big chamber music group because you can’t play well if people aren’t listening to each other and if the hall doesn’t agree with that idea—the hall itself is an instrument! But at Carnegie Hall, the sound goes straight to the audience—they hear everything you do, and the players hear each other. That, in turn, means there can be some spontaneity in the performance because there is less risk. And then, having been very controlling in the rehearsal, as a conductor in the performance you can be the racecar driver!”
“The entire audience was cheering and whooping. I was so happy about that; it speaks about that kind of audience, people who really get what's going on.”
“It has absolute clarity,” adds Bicket. “It doesn’t feel like the false acoustic some halls have either. In some of the newer halls, someone takes a breath and you can hear it on the top balcony, which is rather scary and not very true in one sense, almost as though the whole thing has been exaggerated. At Carnegie Hall, the sound is very natural and unimpeded. The acoustic sounds very natural no matter who plays there.”
And the final vital ingredient for Carnegie Hall’s allure for these visitors? The audience. “My orchestra had not done a lot of opera before me,” says Bicket, “so when we started bringing Handel operas to Carnegie Hall, some of them perhaps felt that they were cast as a backing band to the singers. And I was always saying, ‘No, the orchestra is a central part of this event.’ Then one evening, before the Third Act of Alcina, we were all standing in the wings—me, Joyce DiDonato, Alice Coote, and the rest. And when the orchestra went casually on stage to get ready for the act, we heard this enormous ovation. The entire audience was cheering and whooping. I was so happy about that; it speaks about that kind of audience, people who really get what’s going on, who are so attentive and so warm. The players were thrilled and surprised. The audience decided they wanted to show the orchestra their appreciation—just for them. The musicians were very moved.”
“We always feel warmly welcomed by the Carnegie Hall audience,” accords Nelsons, “which means that all the more we look forward every season to our concerts in New York.” So a visit to Carnegie Hall is never just a “turn up and play” for these orchestras. It is an occasion and frequently a priority. In the midst of planning the new season for the Philadelphia Orchestra alongside Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Vulgamore admits, “We are constantly saying, ‘Which of these programs will the Carnegie Hall audience appreciate?’”
This article first appeared in Carnegie Hall: 125 Years of an Iconic Music Venue’s Most Remarkable People and Memorable Events, available at carnegiehall.org/125th_Anniversary_Magazine.
Illustration by Daniel Mrgan