Monday, January 28, 2008

Saturday night in New York

Looking east across 57th Street and 7th Avenue towards Carnegie Hall. 8:45 PM.
Last Saturday night in New York. Cold, clear winter’s night. Shirley Lord Rosenthal invited me to hear the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. The orchestra is a favorite of Sid and Mercedes Bass, friends of Mrs. Rosenthal. The Basses, who live here and in Fort Worth were in attendance (first tier center), as well as many other Texans who had come up to New York especially for the occasion of seeing their symphony orchestra play Carnegie Hall.

Built with funds provided by Andrew Carnegie, when it opened in 1891, it was first known as the Music Hall. Then Carnegie’s Music Hall. And then in 1894 it officially became Carnegie Hall.

The hall was inspired by a young and popular conductor of the day, Walter Damrosch, the youngest son of a musical family from Germany who emigrated to the United States in 1871. Both Damosch’s father Leopold and elder brother Frank (named for Franz Lizst – an early supporter of the father) were conductors.

Walter Damrosch was only 23 and still studying to be a conductor when one night in New York he suddenly had to stand in for his father who was stricken with pneumonia,  conducting Wagner’s Tannhauser. His father died shortly thereafter and Walter was hired as assistant conductor at the Met.
The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra with its conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya take their final bows on Saturday night at Carnegie Hall.
It was he who planted the idea of building a music hall for the New York Symphony and Oratorio Societies, and the ear who was most receptive to his visions was Louise, Mrs. Andrew Carnegie. When Walter Damrosch was only 29 years old he saw his dream come true. Having conducted the American premiere of Tschaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony the year before, he also had the idea of bringing the Russian composer to conduct the hall’s opening night concert on May 5, 1891.

The southeast corner of Seventh Avenue and 57th Street must be one of the most sacred plots on the island of Manhattan. In the century that has passed, the list of performers and amazing depth and breadth of music, dramatic and comedic talent that has performed at Carnegie Hall arguably surpasses all other concert halls on the North American continent. A concert at Carnegie Hall is a milestone in any performer’s career.

The progam for Saturday night at Carnegie Hall.
Indeed, attending a concert at Carnegie Hall is a thrill when you consider its history. Saturday night the place was packed without an empty seat in the house. I spotted a number of familiar New York faces including Duane Hampton and Ed Cave, Patrick McMullan, Alexandra and Philip Howard, Alexis Gregory, Susan Wadsworth, Gil Shiva, Susan Silver, John Guare, Virginia Coleman and Bob Colacello.

Saturday night’s program opened with Brahms’ “Double” Concerto for Violin and Cello in A Minor with Augustin Hadelich on Violin and Alban Gerhardt on Cello.

The two musicians came out on stage once the orchestra had taken their seats. I had no idea what to expect. I hadn’t yet looked at the program and knew nothing about them including their names.

They looked very young to these eyes, and very American, too old to be prodigies but almost too young to be solo-ing on this stage.

Also, instead of the traditional white tie and tails, they both wore black suits with Nehru style jackets with a strip of black grosgrain around the collar and covering the buttons. The costume itself spoke for the performers: classic maybe but not traditional. Well tailored and dignified, but different; modern.

Taking it in, I guessed that the violinist, a tall, pencil-thin kid with a shock of thick dark wavy hair dominating his head was some brilliant musical student from the Upper West Side. The cellist, who was almost lumbering, taking his seat on a small platform, not quite getting his cello in perfect place at first. He looked like a kid from the cornfields of Kansas, or maybe a surfer up in Trancas above Malibu. Again, not a symphony concert musician for Carnegie Hall.

The duo’s appearance suggested many things contemporary but nothing to match what followed: the impassioned intensity and fun and thrills of their performance. 

Alban Gerhardt
  Augustin Hadelich
They were simply astounding to watch. They seemed to be having an excellent time talking to each other, playing off each other, empathizing, jesting with each other possibly, with their instruments. The violinist, a long tall drink of water, yet relaxed, reserved all of his expressions for his playing. The cellist on the other hand was at different moments swaying and jolting and bobbling, looking this way up to the conductor, and then swinging around and that way up to his colleague as if to let you see a conspiracy of wit and accomplishment between them and the conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya.

And when they were finished, they weren’t finished -- for the cellist who has a very outgoing personality was bidding everyone on stage to share in the standing ovation which produced three curtain calls for them. It was the closest thing to a rock performance reception that I have ever seen at a symphony concert and it was just as beyond exhilarating.

After looking at the program it turned out that the surfer dude cellist is really a German born young man, Alban Gerhardt, from a musical family. The program also stated: (his) “… spellbinding performances have made him one of the most sought-after cellist in the world. The combination of his electrifying stage presence, unerring musical instinct, intense emotion, and striking originality brings audiences to their feet at every performance.”

Well, there you have it; that’s what I saw. And in collaboration with Mr. Hadelich, also a German young man (brought up in Italy), it was dynamite.

After the Brahms, the cellist, Mr. Gerhardt returned to perform the world premiere of Mariel for Cello and Orchestra by Osvaldo Golijov which was commissioned for the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra by Mr. and Mrs. Bass.  The composer was present and again Cellist Gerhardt brought the audience to their feet with shouts and cheers.

At intermission everyone at the bar was coming down from the excitement in the concert hall. Mrs. Bass told me that indeed, the Texans were as excited as the musicians to be playing Carnegie Hall.

Mercedes Bass
There were also cell phones working with people calling to find out the results of the South Carolina primary. That excitement wasn’t unlike the curiosity about the outcome of a Patriots game. And the results that had begun to leak out were causing more excitement. It was apparently Barack Obama’s night. The news seemed to be as buoyant as the concert also.

Following intermission, Maestro Haerth-Bedoya conducted Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64. Another triumph for the Forth Worth Symphony. The ovation was thundering and went on for several minutes. It was joyous watching the musicians standing for their tribute. I couldn’t help wonder what it felt like to have played Carnegie Hall to such a passionate reception. It had to be the trip of trips for everyone on the stage.

Afterwards at dinner around the corner at Circo, the talk returned to the South Carolina primary and the results. Everyone, Republican and Democrat seemed to be in thrall of Obama.

Which brings me to: Carol Joynt, our Washington Social Diary correspondent sent me an email yesterday afternoon about the winner of the South Carolina primary. Carol is a seasoned observer of the political scene. With her weekly video interview with a wide array of the players, media et al at her restaurant Nathans in Georgetown, she keeps her fingers on the pulse of the Nation’s Capitol. The following was her assessment this  weekend:

Dear DPC:

If you want to know what's conspicuous and interesting about Washington in this moment between South Carolina and Super Duper Tuesday is the trend away from the Clintons among die hard liberals who live and work here and who you would otherwise assume are total tools of the Hillary and Bill machine. The media may report there is disenchantment, but it's tangible here in the city that could be their home again for four years. This is a hard-bitten and often cynical group, and to see them sort of light up at the prospect of Barack Obama is like watching dried plants that got suddenly watered. He has struck a profound chord.

It did not go unnoticed here that Greg Craig, a former Clinton lawyer and loyalist, came out for Obama. And the ripple of effect of Caroline Kennedy's New York Times endorsement is only just beginning. What people here were asking Sunday morning is: "How do the Clintons intend to besmirch her? How will they marginalize and neutralize that voice?" How do they ignore Ted Kennedy, who also jumped on the Obama bandwagon? The growing Obama support force here hope now that if John Edwards bails out — which is expected eventually — that he'll side with Obama, and that Al Gore — seemingly in hiding — will come out for Obama, too. How can he not?  What possible reason have the Clintons given him to be in their camp?

As with the other single industry cities, relationships matter here, where who you know and what you can trade is the coin of survival. There is still some timidity about going on record as negative on the Clintons. Those in the know know they will arrive in town prepared to settle scores. That's expected and is relevant if you need to make a living off who's in charge. I've had some friends who experienced very cold winters when they got shut out by the Clintons the last time around. I expect in the next week, leading up to Feb. 5, we will see some significant examples of "coming out" for Obama among democrats. If it's the Kennedys this weekend, who will be brave enough to step up next?

I don't mean to overplay this message. There is hesitation. As one friend said this morning, "the Obama people have joy, but joy with caution." What it feels like to me is not so much a moving away from — or rejection of — the Clintons, as a moving toward Obama. Before right now the liberals on the backbench here felt they had no choice, and now they have a viable choice. Anyone who listened to Obama's victory speech Saturday night in South Carolina would understand this in high definition.

My thoughts this Sunday noon en route to brunch at Cafe Milano with an Obama convert.

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