Unlocking the hidden secrets of Carnegie Hall

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Carnegie Hall is one of the most famous concert venues in the world. For a musician, getting the chance to stand on its stage is like a receiving a Nobel prize – proof that you’ve reached the pinnacle of your profession. I’ll never have that chance, but on the way home from my recent Caribbean cruise, I did get a chance to see the legendary concert hall, up close and personal.

Carnegie Hall is on 57th Street in midtown Manhattan, and it happened to be on the way from my hotel on the west side to Manhattan’s hot spots. It also happened that the hall gives daily tours ($18 US adults, $2 seniors). So, on the advice of my friend Roberta Kravette Carnegie Hall signof  Destination: Wildlife, I scheduled a visit on my way home.

I arrived just as the morning tour was starting. And as we gathered in the vaulted entrance hall, the tour guide began to tell a story — and a fascinating one. It starts back in 1887, when an orchestra conductor named Walter Damrosch boarded a ship bound for London. Also on the ship was industrialist Andrew Carnegie, the richest man in America, who was taking his new bride to Scotland for their honeymoon. Damrosch introduced himself, and by the time the ship reached London, he had persuaded Carnegie to build a grand concert hall for his orchestra to perform in.

Carnegie bought a piece of land in what was then the outskirts of town, far from the action and very near a patch of swamp land that’s now Central Park. He commissioned an architect named William Burnet Tuthill, who was also an accomplished cellist. And in the spring of 1891 they opened their creation, The Music Hall, with a guest conductor — a Russian named Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

The opening was met with great acclaim; carriages lined the streets outside. But the name of the venue had to be changed: to local audiences, “Music Hall” meant vaudeville. So despite his wishes, Carnegie’s name was substituted, and Carnegie Hall was born.

The history lesson finished, we set about learning the secrets of the hall itself. So up the stairs we went, to see the main concert hall, called the Stern Auditorium after violinist Isaac Stern. The first stop was the dress circle, where the swells of New York used to sit in their finery, for the benefit of their peers. The dress circle provides a great perspective to see the famous hall in its entirety.

Carnegie hall dress circle view

As the tour guide explained, it’s also the perfect vantage point to see why Carnegie Hall is renowned the world over for its great acoustics. Because the architect was a cellist, he understood how sound travelled through an enclosed space – like the body of a cello. So he designed the hall in the shape of a cello, with rounded corners and a stage that pushes sound out toward the audience.

The hall has no curtain, and there’s no amplification. None is needed: the materials used were all designed to reflect sound rather than obstruct or absorb it, even down to the mohair upholstery on the seats. It’s the work of a true musician, and generations of performers have marvelled at the perfect acoustics.

Stepping into the hallway, we admired the long line of photos commemorating the many artists who’ve appeared in the hall. The list is endless, from classical artists like Van Cliburn, Casals and Rachmaninof to jazz musicians like  Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, and finally folk and rock acts like Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and the Beatles. Many of them contributed signed photos, like the trio below: (from left right) Leonard Bernstein, Grace Bumbry and Benny Goodman.

Carnegie Hall Bernstein Horne Goodman

Along the way, the guide pointed out some of the features of the building, which include wide staircases, unusual for their day. These were meant so ladies in their flowing gowns could move easily, and also so they could be seen and admired — one of the main reasons to attend concerts in the 1890s. To help make the patrons more visible, the staircases also feature large mirrors.

Carnegie Hall stairway w mirror

Next, we visited the private boxes. Unlike in other great concert halls, these are not closed off from each other: the patrons were meant to see each other and socialize a bit. All the while, they got a marvellous view of the stage and the hall (see the photo at the top of this post).

This was also a good spot from which to admire the details of the hall, like the intricate plaster work on the arch above the stage. The gold accents in the rest of the building are paint, but the ones around the stage itself are gold leaf.

Carnegie Hall arch

Down on the floor of the hall – the parquet, as it’s called here – we got a close-up look at the renowned stage itself. These boards have been walked on by some of the world’s most illustrious acts, though not the early ones: the wood was replaced in the 1980s when the hall underwent an extensive renovation. Turning around, I could see the view that has faced all those performers who’ve played here over the past 126 years.

Carnegie Hall seats

Our visit was over: this tour doesn’t include the other venues in Carnegie Hall, like Zankel Hall and the Weill Recital Hall. But as we headed out, we passed a portrait of Isaac Stern himself, commanding a place of honour near the front door. That’s not only because of his fame as a musician.

In the 1950s, Carnegie Hall was slated to be demolished and replaced by a huge, red skyscraper – its picture even graced the cover of Life magazine. But Stern led a citizens’ revolt that succeeded in having the hall acquired by the city. Today it’s run by a non-profit organization.

Isaac Stern painting Carnegie Hall

On the way out, we were invited to spend some time in the Carnegie Hall museum, with its impressive collection of memorabilia and historical documents. There are news clippings, album covers from live recordings made in the hall, photographs, and some wonderful artifacts donated by the artists themselves. This case contains not only Benny Goodman’s clarinet but Gene Krupa’s drum sticks, Lionel Hampton’s mallets and Leonard Bernstein’s baton.

Carnegie Hall Benny Goodman's clarinet

Like most great cities, New York is a feast for the curious traveller. But seeing even one of its treasures in this kind of detail adds depth to your understanding of the city; you understand a bit more about where today’s New York came from. The Carnegie Hall tour took only about an hour, but it was one of the most memorable hours of my travels this year. All that was missing was a little music.

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About Author

Paul Marshman is a retired journalist who spent 30 years as a writer and editor on Canadian newspapers, while travelling to the ends of the earth. Now he continues to travel while passing on his travel experiences to you.

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