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New York's Philharmonic Trades Lincoln For Carnegie

June 03, 2003|Paul Lieberman | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — After four decades at Lincoln Center, the New York Philharmonic is returning to its acoustically blessed old home, Carnegie Hall, officials of both institutions announced Monday.

Reached in less than a week of negotiations, an agreement between the 161-year-old orchestra and the 112-year-old concert hall calls for them to form "a single musical performing arts institution," they said, although completing the move will take the Philharmonic at least three years.

The announcement is a blow to the financially troubled Lincoln Center, where the Philharmonic has been an anchor tenant since the arts complex opened in 1962. In recent years, there have been plans to rebuild or renovate Avery Fisher Hall, where the orchestra performs, but they were dauntingly expensive at a time when most major orchestras were running deficits.

Shocked officials of Lincoln Center said in a statement Monday that they learned only Thursday that the orchestra "was engaged in serious discussions with the leadership of Carnegie Hall about the prospect of moving there permanently."

"There was essentially nothing we could do," said Bruce Crawford, chairman of Lincoln Center's board of directors, who like others at the city's preeminent arts center was taken by surprise by the sudden developments.

Lincoln Center officials were aware that "some people" on the orchestra's board were pushing for a return to Carnegie Hall as an alternative to raising funds for a new hall at the current site, Crawford said, "but we were assured by the board's leadership that this wasn't an option."

Crawford said that, in the end, financial and other concerns -- such as the prospect of having to relocate for a couple of years anyway if Avery Fisher Hall was redone -- seemed to have won out over loyalty to Lincoln Center.

The announcement comes at a bad time for Lincoln Center, which like other New York cultural institutions has been hurt by a decline in tourism in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and now may face added pressure to keep another prime tenant -- the New York City Opera -- from leaving.

The opera company has been considering moving to its own home if a suitable facility can be built, perhaps in lower Manhattan near the reconstruction project at the old World Trade Center site.

But Lincoln Center officials tried to put the best face on a bad situation Monday, saying in their statement that they would use the concert hall time eventually opened up by the Philharmonic's departure to expand "thematic programming," such as the Great Performers series, and to sign up "this country's and the world's leading orchestras not only for three or four evenings of performance each year, but also [to remain] in residence for longer periods of time."

Crawford said some of those urged to stay for longer New York seasons might be orchestras that now use Carnegie Hall but would have a more difficult time obtaining open dates there.

"Lincoln Center understandably is disappointed," said Zarin Mehta, executive director of the New York Philharmonic and a central figure in its quickly arranged move.

Mehta said the orchestra's executive committee met Wednesday night to discuss its return to the 2,750-seat Carnegie Hall, where the Philharmonic also was an original tenant upon its opening in 1891, and was "unanimous in saying that should happen."

Mehta said he approached Carnegie Hall officials the next day and "the rest is history."

The late violinist Isaac Stern, who was a major force in the revitalization of Carnegie Hall, began saying three years ago that "it would be his dream if the Philharmonic came back," Mehta said, but the orchestra first wanted to see if it was feasible to redo Avery Fisher Hall, whose acoustics have frequently been criticized.

"When that faded ... we thought we should pursue Carnegie and make that our home again," he said.

"It's the greatest hall in the world," Mehta added. "There is no other hall that comes close.... We called all our orchestra members [Sunday night] and they were ecstatic.

"Everybody drools at the thought of playing there."

Philharmonic and visiting musicians alike have long complained about the acoustics of Avery Fisher Hall, with members of the brass section saying that their instruments sound harsh no matter how well they play because of the auditorium's back wall, and violinists saying they can't properly hear their colleagues in the viola section right on the other side of the conductor.

"There's a time lag from section to section," said violinist Glenn Dicterow, the orchestra's concertmaster, who called the announced move "an amazing surprise" but one that delighted him and his fellow musicians.

"Most people think it's an inspiring move," Dicterow said Monday. "It's been clear from the beginning how most of the members feel about Carnegie Hall. Every time we go there, we say, 'Why couldn't we have our old house back?' "

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