On Fifth Avenue, a Met Lifer Steps Down

Hilde Limondjian retired from her job at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last month after 41 years. In charge of the Met’s concert and lecture series for most of her life, she’s seen the institution, and the cultural life of the city, go through sweeping changes. Shortly before her goodbye party, hosted by Met director Tom Campbell and president Emily Rafferty, she talked to The Observer:


The Observer: How did you start at the Met?

Ms. Limondjian: The director who gave me my job was Thomas Hoving. He was himself young and took a chance on me when I was barely 30-and here I was in charge of this music and lecture series. My first year, I was starting with an empty canvas and I could create a series made up of things I really wanted to hear myself. So I had Stravinsky and Henry Purcell. But the first thing I noticed was] concertgoers were getting older and older and older. And there weren’t new 20- and 30- and 40-year-olds coming in.


What did you try to do to fix that?

I took some of the concerts out of the auditorium-what’s better than putting the music of a particular era surrounded by the art of that era? Also, one of the first concerts we had was a hour-long piano recital and I did it at 7 p.m. and not at 8 p.m. because I thought it was more informal. And sure enough, in the middle of a sonata with three movements, after the first movement, everybody applauded. So that meant that they were new because the old audience would just sit back and they [knew] you were not supposed to applaud [until the piece is over]. Which I think is silly-applaud, laugh, whatever you want to do.


What is your fondest memory of your time at the Met?

Things changed for me at the Purcell concert: When I walked into the auditorium, I saw young people in their 20s and 30s who were wearing sneakers and sweaters. And it sold out. My excitement at seeing that sold-out auditorium was just tremendous. I’ll never forget that.


What were some of the new things you introduced?

We had concerts with talk, which was really great for first-time audiences-like commentary. We invented it. When I first went to concerts [as a child], I didn’t even know what musicians’ voices sounded like; one never heard them speak. They spoke through their instruments. The talk became very important. Also, we imported festivals … and I started a series of Christmas concerts.


How has the music programming itself changed?

In the 1970s-[it was] experimental, lots of folk music, lots of jazz, rock was really big, so I had Odetta, Pete Seeger, B.B. King, Modern Jazz Quartet, Nina Simone. When we announced Nina Simone, Time magazine had a double-page splash because it was very unusual for museums to have jazz. The ’80s became more formal; those were the Reagan years, there was a kind of a restraint. We focused on recitals and chamber music and orchestras. The ’90s were still the basic events, the meat and potatoes of classical music. But we’ve done experimental things that very few other venues could do. We’ve had Philip Glass, we’ve had the Kronos, Steve Reich, La Monte Young.

On Fifth Avenue, a Met Lifer Steps Down