The chairmen did it. The recent news that the New York Philharmonic’s much-ballyhooed plan to move to Carnegie Hall has gone up in smoke confirmed what I and other skeptics have been saying since the deal was announced (or, more accurately, leaked to The New York Times ) last June: It was never going to happen. As we now know, the whole farrago was cooked up by Sanford I. Weill, the megabanker who heads Carnegie’s board, and his counterpart at the Philharmonic, Paul B. Guenther. And for all the spin about the orchestra’s glorious return to the place where it flourished before its move to Lincoln Center in 1962, it seems clear that the scheme had nothing to do with nostalgia or concern for the public good. In keeping with the merger mania that has corrupted so much of the product delivered by our media and entertainment leviathans (General Electric, which owns NBC, has just added Vivendi Universal’s entertainment division to its list of household appliances), the deal was all about the bottom line.
It’s a familiar story: We live in a society in which the survival of our leading artistic institutions depends on corporate and private philanthropy rather than civic responsibility. But, for once, the right side won. As Robert J. Harth, Carnegie’s executive and artistic director, told The Times last week: “The substantive discussions about governance and finances and management did not take place because the scheduling had to take place first. The danger of compromising our artistic profiles was paramount.”
More bluntly, if the Philharmonic had moved in and monopolized the schedule, Carnegie Hall, as we have come to love it, would have been screwed. No more visiting orchestras from Mexico City, Melbourne and Budapest that eschew Mahler in favor of locally honed masterworks. No more emerging virtuosos who might one day compete with Maurizio Pollini, Yo-Yo Ma, Cecilia Bartoli or Joshua Bell-at least not in the big auditorium. And no more in-depth programming of the sort that has made Carnegie’s artist-led “Perspectives” series so nourishing. With the opening of Zankel Hall, Mr. Harth and his colleagues have sensibly enlarged their menu to appeal to a broader, more youthful range of musical tastes, while keeping intact Carnegie’s long-standing commitment to the highest standards of performance. On the new menu, the Philharmonic would have squatted like beef Wellington.
Should the Philharmonic be punished for its graceless breakout attempt? An arts writer named Deborah Solomon proposed just that in a wacky Op-Ed piece that The Times somehow saw fit to print. Ms. Solomon, whose only contact with the orchestra seems to have occurred in Central Park last July, suggests that Lincoln Center end what has been a “dreary marriage of convenience” and banish the errant orchestra to the hinterlands, thereby freeing up Avery Fisher Hall for something less highbrow and more populist, whatever that is. (The Barnum and Bailey Circus?) The only thing to say about this rant against a great organization and an art form about which the writer clearly hasn’t a clue is that it mistakes good news for bad.
The fact that the Philharmonic has been rudely obliged to return home is cause not only for relief, but for a reality check on the part of the orchestra and its landlord, Lincoln Center. My first suggestion is that everyone stop dreaming about how to overhaul Avery Fisher’s hangar-like auditorium at a cost that is unthinkable in today’s economy and get to work on cosmetics. Merely changing the fabric on the seats from their current Dijon-mustard drabness to something with the persimmon vibrancy of the benches on the mezzanine would instantly warm things up. So would a new paint job that blots out all that institutional off-white, mutes the numbing impact of the hall’s chief decorative feature-the 60-odd exit signs-and conveys the message that going to a concert is a pleasure. (For color samples, look to the sun-drenched palette of the Mexican architect Luis Barragan.) Put some attractive foliage on the terrace-the fountain looks great from there-and for God’s sake, get rid of that cheesy plexiglass around Panevino. (Come to think of it, get rid of the dismal Panevino and replace it with a stylish café/restaurant that stays open throughout the evening, attracting the deprived intermission crowd from the Metropolitan Opera as well). How can Lincoln Center expect people to love a place that looks so unloved?
Second, everyone, starting with the Philharmonic’s chairman and his board members, should stop talking about the hall’s alleged acoustical shortcomings-a complaint that, as many of the world’s top musicians will tell you, is a load of hooey. (Suggestion: enlarge the prison-like balconies, which is where all the best sound goes.) I have attended a number of Philharmonic concerts this season and, under Lorin Maazel’s Mephistophelean baton, the orchestra has never sounded more exciting. Mr. Maazel may not be a pin-up whippersnapper in the mold of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Esa-Pekka Salonen, but not even the feverish Finn can match this veteran maestro at revving the hoariest works vividly into the present tense. Mr. Maazel likes to conduct without a score, and his command over these world-class musicians, if sometimes overbearing, is breathtaking. World-class, edge-of-the-seat ensemble playing is the result.
His conducting the other night of Berlioz’s Romeo et Juliette , crowned by the magnificent closing peroration of José van Dam’s Friar Laurence (“Now that would bring order to Baghdad,” a man behind me whispered), was eloquent and gripping. In a performance of Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto, he showed that he knows how to be at once judiciously challenging and warmly supportive of the most formidable soloist-in this case, the great Hungarian pianist Zoltán Kocsis, who rocked the hall with his clarion sonorities. Who, after hearing concerts like these, could call Avery Fisher “acoustically challenged,” as the local media is so fond of saying?
“It’s the performance, stupid!” I want to say to these tone-deaf kvetchers. In recent weeks, the proof can be heard not just at Avery Fisher, but across the plaza. At the New York State Theater, City Opera’s leading light lyric soprano, Lisa Saffer, is irresistibly true-to-form as Sandrina in the Mark Lamos production of Mozart’s La Finta Giardiniera , which has been transferred, refreshingly, to an insane asylum. At the Met, Jane Eaglen, Ben Heppner and René Pape-having all spent what must have been unusually happy summers-are blazing away as never before in Tristan und Isolde . A terrific young cast, led by a movie-star-handsome Canadian bass-baritone, John Relyea, and two beautiful, exhilarating German sopranos, Anja Harteros and Dorothea Röschmann, is breathing new life into Jonathan Miller’s somewhat adolescent staging of Le Nozze di Figaro . And not even the garish clutter of one of Franco Zeffirelli’s glitziest productions can dim the season’s most lustrous triumph-that of Renée Fleming’s Violetta in La Traviata , a personal best for America’s prima donna that has had even her detractors (call them They Who Refuse to Believe That Callas Died) grasping for superlatives. It’s the performance, stupid!