Russian Revival at Carnegie Hall’s 120th Opening Concert

Jill and Yo-Yo Ma

The sidewalk was crowded, a mess of tuxedos and evening gowns, as we approached Carnegie Hall last week. It was the opening night concert, a grand affair celebrating the storied venue’s 120th season. Currently in the throws of a construction project, guests waited beneath the scaffolding as the crowd slowly filtered inside.

After receiving our ticket, we headed upstairs where the well-heeled guests and patrons of Carnegie Hall had gathered for a pre-concert cocktail reception. Sipping wine and nibbling on shrimp and caviar, the grand dames of New York greeted one another with stately cordiality. Several fur stoles, shrugs and capes, perhaps superfluous in the 65 degree weather, marked the changing of seasons with theatrical flair.

Before long, attendants in red coats emerged with metallophones in hand. Playing the telltale three note tune, guests began to make their way across the scarlet carpet, soon disappearing into their private boxes.

Waiting for the concert to begin, we thumbed through the program. When Carnegie Hall was opened in 1891, The Observer learned, Andrew Carnegie invited Russian composer Pytor Illyich Tchaikovsky to christen the venue with an opening concert. When he died two years later, a small booklet was found in one of his suit pockets. “Things to ask. Is it safe to drink the water in America? What kind of cigarettes do the men smoke in New York City? What kind of hats to they wear?” the composer had scribbled to himself in advance of the journey.

While the drinking water has improved (perhaps) and cigarettes have become taboo, we imagine Carnegie Hall looked not terribly different 120 years ago. Society ladies, including Marie-Josee Kravis, Veronica Bulgari, Carolyn Bechtel, and Princess Firyal of Jordan adjusted their dresses and gloves as their husbands waited patiently before taking their seats. A lush arrangement of marigold and vermillion flowers had been placed on one of the gilded ledges behind the orchestra, a throwback to more extravagant times.

In honor of Carnegie Hall’s 120th anniversary and Tchaikovsky’s inaugural appearance, the theme of the evening was Russian. The lights were soon dimmed, and the famed Mariinsky Orchestra of St. Petersburg began to play. A flurry of bows strummed in perfect unison, as nimble fingers hit each note. After an opening piece, renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma took the stage. Performing Tchaikovsky’s “Variations on a Rococo Theme,” Mr. Ma played with manifest passion, smiling joyfully as he executed the blithe sections, and appearing solemn, even woeful, through the slow parts.

After a thunderous applause, the guests began to file out of the concert hall. Following a slow procession down the velvet staircase, The Observer was once again outside in the cool fall evening. Somehow managing to hail a cab (as several hundred guests were attempting to do the same), we headed to the Waldorf Astoria for the dinner gala.

The Grand Ballroom of the storied hotel was fully outfitted for the occasion. Elaborate centerpieces on each of the tables featured lanterns with etchings of St. Petersburg and the iconic Moscow spires. Before dinner we talked briefly with Carnegie Hall’s executive director Sir Clive Gillinson. “It was a wonderful event, it was a happy event,” he said of the concert, hardly containing his excitement. We asked how Carnegie Hall decided upon the Tchaikovsky revival for the 120th anniversary. “We wanted to look at the world Carnegie Hall as born into, which was 1890-1910, the turn of that century,” the jovial Englishman explained, “And really it was a period when America was not the center of the world,” he said. Showcasing the Russian composer was a way of recalling the foregone era, he explained.

We took our seat where the first course of a Russian inspired meal was already on the table. Caspian sea smoked salmon topped with caviar was followed by a rich beef stroganoff entrée, with a side of Swiss chard. Waiters diligently crisscrossed the room pouring wine, first Acacia Chardonnay, then Parducci Cabernet Sauvignon, as everyone made their way through the meal.

Guests began to circumambulate the room before dessert was served, paying respects to the Mariinsky conductor Valery Gergiev and, of course Mr. Ma. We caught up with the fiery soprano Anna Netrebko who, in her typical frank fashion, expressed her thoughts on the evening. “It was fantastic, very beautiful,” she said through her thick Russian accent. The Observer noticed a brilliant red ring on her finger and asked where she had acquired it. “It’s stolen,” she said simply. From where, and by whom, we wondered? “I don’t know,” she shrugged, taking a bite of her meal. Moving on, we asked Ms. Netrebko if she thought the concert had united American and Russian interests through music. “I think this is way too smart question for this late evening,” she said honestly, pausing briefly before deciding to continue. “I think that the program is great, and it’s quite powerful; different…I think it was really great evening without even thinking why and what and how. Just… very beautiful,” she said.

Mr. Ma was graciously humoring fans, signing autographs and posing for photos throughout the entire evening, barely having time to consume his steak. Just before dessert we were able to discuss the performance with him. “I was so moved to be with people who just love music,” Mr. Ma said of performing with the Mariinsky orchestra. “I think there’s something to do with, obviously, Valery Gergiev and the spirit of the Mariinsky Orchestra, but it also has to do with the Russian spirit….,” the soft spoken cellist said. The symbolic importance of the evening was no less important than the performance itself. “To really think that a hundred twenty years ago that same composer opened the hall, and to have those same sounds reverberating in the hall is pretty amazing,” he said with characteristic humility.

By this time several musicians had taken the stage and began to serenade guests with a farewell ballad as they finished their desserts. Although it was midnight by the time we left, we noticed that several bon vivants had posted themselves, in full black tie regalia, at the hotel’s bar downstairs proving that the classical music needn’t send you to sleep. Russian Revival at Carnegie Hall’s 120th Opening Concert