Gala. Looking it up in a dictionary, we find the definition is “a social occasion with special entertainment or performances.” Carnegie Hall galas are certainly that: a gathering of a family of friends and supporters to hear performances for which the word special is something of an understatement. But a Carnegie Hall gala is somehow more than that. So let’s dig deeper. The word’s origins seem to lie in the early 17th century, referring to the showy dress worn at such events. Well, while that’s true, too, of course—stylish ball gowns or well-cut suits are invariably much in evidence—that’s not really the point of it. But this is more like it: The term seems to derive from the old French word gale, which means rejoicing. Yes, that’s it: rejoicing. For what better word summarizes the sheer sense of celebration, of people, of talent, of life-affirming and life-changing music-making, and of an organization that has for 125 years nurtured, supported, and made possible such art? Rejoicing: That’s the definition of a Carnegie Hall gala.
Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the San Francisco Symphony with Thomas Hampson, Dawn Upshaw, Yo-Yo Ma, and Christine Ebersole at Carnegie Hall for its Opening Night Gala concert on Sept. 24, 2008.
Pretty much since Carnegie Hall opened 125 years ago on May 5, 1891, galas have been a part of its history. There have, in fact, been 1,100 gala and benefit concerts. To mention a few: May 7, 1906, saw a benefit gala for victims of San Francisco’s earthquake. April 30, 1918, saw tenor Enrico Caruso and soprano Geraldine Farrar take to the stage for the Liberty Loan Rally, promoting the bonds being sold to help support the Allied efforts in World War I. Another war bond rally in 1943 similarly saw conductor Arturo Toscanini and pianist Vladimir Horowitz raise almost $11 million for Allied forces in World War II. That January had also seen a gala to raise funds for infantile paralysis. More recently, Dec. 1, 1988, saw an event in support of the American Foundation for AIDS Research. On March 10, 1991, a gala was held to raise awareness of the destruction of the rainforests.
“Everyone who stands on Carnegie Hall’s main stage is participating in and creating American cultural history.”
There have also been a series of tributes to major artists from across genres: composer Moritz Moszkowski in 1921, violinist Leopold Auer in 1925, jazz legend Fats Waller in 1944, and singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie in 1968. Figures beyond the music world have been honored too, including, on Jan. 27, 1961, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. That’s just a snapshot of the many ways that Carnegie Hall’s stage has been used to reach out to wider society, both musical and beyond. And it’s worth noting that in recent years, funds raised by Carnegie Hall galas have been used to benefit the organization’s social and educational programs. This forthcoming 125th anniversary gala stands in a tradition of galas that have marked milestones in Carnegie Hall’s own history.
The opening gala in 1891—boasting Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky as conductor no less—started the trend. On Sept. 27, 1960, a gala opening night marked the Hall’s salvation from potential demolition. After the extensive renovation of the 1980s, Dec. 15, 1986, saw another gala reopening. Opening nights in general became regular gala events from Sept. 26, 1990, onward, while major anniversaries were celebrated, including the centenary on May 5, 1991, and on April 12, 2011, when James Taylor headlined one of the two events marking the 120th anniversary, the second being the next month with the New York Philharmonic on the Hall’s actual birthday.
Five years on, and James Taylor will again help lead the celebrations, joined by a number of fellow Artist Trustees, including sopranos Renée Fleming and Jessye Norman, retired vocalists Martina Arroyo and Marilyn Horne, pianists Emanuel Ax and Lang Lang, and cellist Yo-Yo Ma. The title of Artist Trustee reflects the deep bond that exists between so many of today’s leading musicians and this iconic venue. Each one is an artist with a significant relationship to the Hall, and furthermore is an artist who both embodies and represents aspects of the Hall’s overall mission. This bond, and the place the Hall plays in an artist’s life, are neatly encapsulated by Renée Fleming: “Everyone who stands on Carnegie Hall’s main stage is participating in and creating American cultural history. Since making my own Hall debut in 1991, I have never been less than awestruck on that stage, thinking about its history, its beauty, and what it stands for. I have performed there with musicians ranging from Luciano Pavarotti and the New York Philharmonic to Sting. The architectural beauty and extraordinary acoustics always make me feel that I am singing for friends in a warm, inviting environment.”
Left: James Taylor Celebrates 120 years with special guests on April 12, 2011. Photo by Chris Lee. Right: Renée Fleming. Photo by DeCCa/anDrew eCCLes
For Emanuel Ax, Carnegie Hall “has always been the place where the dream of great music-making becomes reality.” Ax first played on the Hall’s stage at age 12, invited by an orchestra manager after everyone else had left an afternoon rehearsal to try out the piano; he vividly remembers gazing for the first time out at “that amazing, vast expanse of seats.” But while Ax went on to become one of the Hall’s most significant and beloved performers of today, he is just as aware of how special it feels to be looking in the other direction, out from the seats and toward the music-making. “For me, it is simply the place where I heard the music that molded me and where I had so many life-changing evenings,” he recalls. On May 5, 2016, Ax, Fleming, and their fellow artists will be channeling that passion—and gratitude—for Carnegie Hall into an event that will no doubt earn its own worthy place among the illustrious chronology of previously mentioned concerts.
But let’s conclude by returning 125 years to that first, opening-night concert and to the recollections of not just one of Carnegie Hall’s great musicians, but one of all history’s great musicians. In his diary, after the 1891 opening, Tchaikovsky wrote of the welcome the Carnegie Hall audience gave him: “the enthusiasm was such as I never succeeded in arousing, even in Russia. In a word, it was evidence that I had really pleased the Americans.” It’s the spirit and atmosphere that Tchaikovsky observed then that has gone on to define Carnegie Hall galas ever since. Rejoice indeed, for there is much to celebrate. And, no doubt, much more to come.
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.