This story included my first experience singing at Carnegie Hall. The hall has an interesting history, which you can read HERE. I didn’t know that the opening performance of the hall in 1891 was directed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky himself. Also interesting is that the hall was scheduled to be torn down in the 1950’s as the New York Philharmonic moved to Lincoln Center. It took a great deal of work by a lot of people to save it, among them Isaac Stern, who then had the main concert hall named after him.
For me, it was a privilege just to see the inside of the hall, where so many great musicians had performed. The acoustics were tremendous, especially compared with Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, where we performed the following evening. Avery Fisher Hall was renovated twice to try to help the acoustics, without significant benefit. Also, it was not visually attractive at all, especially compared with Carnegie, which was beautiful beyond compare with its ornate gold and white trim.
For years I wondered why the New York Philharmonic moved, especially as the new hall seated fewer people than Carnegie. I can only guess, but from reading the history of both, it sounded like Carnegie needed renovations that were so expensive that it was scheduled for demolition, so the Philharmonic made a multi-year financial commitment to Lincoln Center before it was finished, expecting that a new hall would have good acoustics. Now Carnegie is a National Historic Landmark.
When we started rehearsing Oedipus Rex again, Sam Wanamaker was brought in to teach us new stage directions. He was a delightful person, who had an interesting history himself. He feared being blacklisted in the 1950’s, so he stayed in England to make a living as an actor. While he was there, he spearheaded the effort to recreate the Globe Theater as it would have been in Shakespeare’s day. He received many accolades from the English people for his efforts.
Once we were at Tanglewood, we had four days to complete the preparations. We were working with Wanamaker for our movements and a choreographer for our dance steps, and we were overwhelmed. It did not seem possible that we could muster a polished performance in that period of time. At one point, one of the chorus’ premier Russian basses got so frustrated that he put down his cape, excused himself, and started to leave. Sam Wanamaker rushed over and put his arm around him and smoothed things over so he could return. In the course of all that, it didn’t occur to me that we might have a spectacular performance. I was just trying to cope with all the demands. With all the stops and starts, I had not had any experience of the spectacular nature of the music. As a result, it was a complete surprise to me how powerful the musical experience was. The performance was wonderful. I understood why Ozawa later made recordings of it and performed the piece all over the world.
Chapter 15 tells the story of my mother and aunt attending the Chorus Pro Musica performance at Carnegie Hall. I had sung with the chorus for years in Boston, but the trip from Delaware was too long for my mother to attend any of the performances. We were both pretty excited, then, that she could hear the chorus in New York. On top of that, the performance would be at Carnegie Hall and she could bring her sister.
Don Palumbo was the director of the chorus by that time. He prepared us for weeks in Boston before the trip to New York. One memorable time resulted from his listening to our dress rehearsal, and giving us directions as to how to improve our performance. First here is some background: a “throw away” is a term in music performance for a note or short phrase that is given so little emphasis that it becomes almost inaudible. Additionally, the secondary title of the Mahler Second is “The Crucifixion.” Now, returning to our story, Don was giving us corrections for our performance. He pointed out that one phrase was performed so poorly that it sounded like a “throw away”. With a perfectly straight face, he admonished us in a loud voice, “This is the Crucifixion, people! There are no ‘throw aways’!”
While Mom, Aunt Clara, and I were visiting in Central Park, Mom told me for what I believe was the first time, that she had sung in the recital hall at Carnegie in the 1940’s. I thought about this for years, wondering her motivation. It would be very uncharacteristic of my mother to brag. I don’t recall her ever bragging about anything. What I have concluded is that there probably were two motivations. One was to let me know that we shared a similar exciting experience, and the second was to let me know that this would be a day in my life that I would never forget.
And she was right.
Here is a link to an excellent video about Mahler’s life and creations: LINK