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The Latest Chapter in the Story of Carnegie Hall

February 15, 1987|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

NEW YORK CITY — "Horse-drawn carriages lined up for a quarter of a mile, bringing members of New York's finest families to the first night of a gala five-day festival that was to inaugurate a new era in the city's musical life. . . ."

That was the scene on May 5, 1891, when the Music Hall, funded by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, opened on 57th Street at 7th Avenue in New York City. Tchaikovsky had traveled from Russia to lead a performance of his "Marche Solenelle." The evening opened with a Beethoven overture conducted by Walter Damrosch.

By the season of 1894-95, when the Music Hall was formally christened Carnegie Hall, it was already a goal for the great musical artists of the world and a destination within a destination for visitors to New York.

Could such a triumph be repeated in the late 20th Century? That was the question asked after Carnegie Hall's grand reopening Dec. 15 for the 1986-87 season, following a $50-million restoration.

Verdict Reached

By early February the verdict had been reached, not only by music critics who approved the restoration of the famed acoustics but also by visitors from across the country, Europe and the Far East.

The Carnegie tradition of presenting a total spectrum of musical interests on its stages has been maintained. The pattern was set by the range of musical talents at the gala December reopening. Zubin Mehta conducted the New York Philharmonic. Frank Sinatra sang with the Peter Duchin Orchestra. Marilyn Horne sang with the classic violin obligato by Isaac Stern, the musician who did so much to restore Carnegie Hall. The prelude to Wagner's "Meistersinger" closed the first segment of the concert.

My wife Elfriede and I came here in January as a small personal tribute to our friend Turk Murphy, the great jazz musician who was being honored at age 71 with a debut at Carnegie Hall for his trombone and his band that has its home at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco.

The overflow audience included hundreds of jazz lovers from California and Turk Murphy fans from other states and countries as well as toe-tapping New Yorkers.

The Hot Antic Jazz Band from Nimes, France, and the Jim Cullum Jazz Band from San Antonio played overtures to salute the man whom the New York Times reviewer hailed as the "pillar of the traditional jazz revival in California almost 50 years ago."

The review was especially enthusiastic about Murphy's compositions such as "The Minstrels of Annie Street" and his arrangement originally for Louis Armstrong of Kurt Weill's "Mack the Knife."

Before and after that memorable jazz evening, visitors were brought into New York by a musical kaleidoscope of evenings during the first weeks of Carnegie Hall's reopening. They varied from "The Art of the Spiritual" to the Opera Orchestra of New York, the Philadelphia and Detroit symphony orchestras, the Czech Philharmonic, the Yale Spizzwinks Men's Chorus, the Juilliard String Quartet, the Israela Margalit.

Attractions Continue

During the next two months, the Carnegie Hall attractions continue with highlights such as the Salzburg Celebration of Chamber Music, the Warsaw Sinfonia, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Orchestre National de France, the Puerto Rican Tradition, New York Pops, the Montreal and San Francisco symphony orchestras, the Vienna Philharmonic.

The monthly calendar of concerts lists 67 choices of "Where to Dine near Carnegie Hall." The choices vary as widely as the music, from Szechuan Park South and Prego Pasta d'Italia on the Avenue of the Americas to Piraeus My Love and the Russian Tea Room close to the hall on 57th Street.

A Gala Reception

The Grand Hyatt Hotel at Park Avenue and Grand Central, a $100-million reconstruction of the historic Commodore Hotel, was the setting of a gala black-tie reception for Turk Murphy and his band and hundreds of his friends, on the Friday evening before the Carnegie Hall concert.

This 1,407-room hotel, close to the Broadway theaters, has become a showcase for the 1,000 staff members who are professional dancers, singers and actors when they're not serving guests. During a recent talent contest a member of the hotel's laundry staff danced an El Salvador ballet number in costume. Big winner of the contest was an Engineering Department employee with an operatic tenor voice.

Memorable Evenings

Through all its years, Carnegie Hall has been the setting for memorable evenings. Eubie Blake brought the nation's first formal jazz concert to the Carnegie stage in 1912, and made his last Carnegie concert appearance in 1981 at age 97.

In 1917, Jascha Heifetz, at age 16, made his American debut here. In 1927 Yehudi Menuhin, then age 11, came on stage to play his violin. Leonard Bernstein made an unexpected debut in 1943 by stepping in at the 11th hour for an ailing Bruno Walter.

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