Carnegie Hall counts down for its reopening
The piano is tuned. The red carpets have been cleaned. The crystal chandeliers have gathered dust.
Without concerts for nearly 19 months, Carnegie Hall, the country’s premier concert venue, plans to reopen its doors to the public on October 6.
With the coronavirus still ubiquitous, reopening is a logical feat, with questions about air-ventilation systems, crowd control and hand-sanitizing stations being raised.
It’s also an emotional moment for Carnegie, which lost millions of dollars in ticket sales during the pandemic and at one point was forced to cut its staff by nearly half. The hall is battling an estimated budget deficit of up to $10 million and is planning a higher-than-usual season of about 100 concerts (compared to the usual 150) as it tries to gauge demand.
Clive Gillinson, the hall’s executive and artistic director since 2005, says Carnegie is up to the challenge. Hall entrances, improved ventilation systems and bathrooms have increased frequency of cleaning.
“We have to keep adapting to whatever the situation is, not only to take the best care of people, but also to make people feel as safe as they can,” Gillinson said. “It is reality as well as perception. Both are equally important.”
In an interview, Gillinson discussed the new season, which begins with the Philadelphia Orchestra and its musical director, Yannick Nezat-Seguin, featuring works by Valerie Coleman, Iman Habibi, Bernstein and Beethoven, as well as virtuoso Yuza Wang. Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 is performed with. .
Gillinson also spoke about the lack of racial diversity in classical music and the return of the arts amid the pandemic. These are edited excerpts of the conversation.
Carnegie has been closed for the longest time in its history. Are you confident that the audience will return, especially given the continued spread of the virus and the need for additional safety protocols?
Of course some people will be worried. All I can say is that our reaction has been the opposite. It so happened that everyone is so thrilled that things are coming to life again. When we opened the box office, back on the road, we had tears because they were really excited about being able to buy tickets again. But at the same time, we think we have to take care of those who still have concerns.
During the height of the pandemic, Carnegie was forced to make substantial cuts, including reducing its workforce from 350 to 190. How are you planning for the new season amidst all the uncertainty?
The biggest variables – box office sales and venue fare – are headed in a good direction at the moment. But that doesn’t mean we count anything until we’ve finished the season. You have to work incredibly hard all the time. You have to answer for everything that happens every day because life changes just every day during Covid.
What are you seeing so far in terms of ticket sales?
The opening ceremonies look really strong and very positive. Others will continue to sell out as we move forward.
We didn’t intentionally over-pack the fall. It’s been a very busy new year since we just wanted to make sure the audience had time to build up their confidence, and to really reconnect with going all out again. So this is a very well thought out strategy.
You’ve added a few concerts to the schedule since announcing the season earlier this year, including a full cycle of Beethoven’s Symphony with Nezette-Segin and the Philadelphia Orchestra, which was due to take place last year. How did you decide what to revive?
When we had to cancel due to Covid, I spoke to Yannick and said, “Look, I promise we’ll bring it back in the future.” It was something that amounted to a huge amount to him. The Philadelphia Orchestra commissioned some contemporary works to go along with that cycle that would really be some kind of reflection on the world we live in today and see Beethoven through that light.
The moment we were able to open and the governor allowed everyone to open with full seating, I was the first to call Yannick and say: “That’s it, if there’s a way you can do it. I promised you Was that we’d bring it back. How about now?” They jumped on it.
Plus there are many artists whose concerts have been canceled that you haven’t been able to reschedule. How are you dealing with this?
We feel an obligation to try to bring back those whom we have not yet been able to bring back. So it’s going to take some time, because if you lose a year and a half of concerts, there will be a lot of concerts. Sometimes the world can move on and they’ll be doing other things and having other repertoire. But we are trying to do our best to take care of the people we had to cancel.
Do you worry that the pandemic has hurt the careers of budding artists whose engagements were canceled at Carnegie or elsewhere?
One thing I have always felt is that what we do is that great artists will always come out and they will always be successful. They have something to say that is really important to people. Something like this would obviously change plans and delay early days careers. But the reality is, I think talent and great artistry are never lost. That never, never goes away.
What about smaller venues and less established artists who suffered a lot during the pandemic. Do you think they will return? Has the pandemic fundamentally changed what types of artists and groups can survive?
Some of the most innovative, interesting, imaginative work that has ever happened is underway in New York. This is by far the most dynamic scene we’ve seen.
They are very enterprising people. They are very creative people. and they’ll find a way to survive. It’s not like all of us in large organizations where we have massive overhead, most of which we can’t replace.
The pandemic has made it very difficult for many ensembles to go on extensive global tours, with halts at Carnegie and elsewhere. How do you think the pandemic will change tour?
You have all the issues like climate change etc. I think there’s going to be a lot of question marks about orchestras, at least asking yourself how much they should tour. And I think what they do, they wish it had more importance than before.
It is not just a question of taking a tour and saying, “I have appeared in this city and that city.” It is: “What have I left? Is there a legacy or is it something important that came out of my living there?”
This season Carnegie will feature prominently Russian conductor and Vladimir Putin friend Valery Gergiev, performing a series of concerts with both the Vienna Philharmonic and the Mariinsky Orchestra. How would you respond to those who think they should not be given such an opportunity given their silence on abuses in Russia?
Why are there only artists in the world who are not allowed to have political opinions? I think you only judge people on the basis of their artistry. If someone was racist or someone said things that were clearly derogatory to other races or other people in certain ways, that is completely different and it is unacceptable. But being entitled to an opinion in their case, which happens to be a political opinion, they have every right like every other member of the society.
What do you think of the current debate around the idea that classical music, which has long been dominated by white, male musicians, is racist, and does not adequately address questions about representation and diversity?
If you think about western culture, literature, painting, music, most of it was done by people who were white in some form or the other. And it is not invalid. I always worry when people try to apply today’s values to the world of 100 years ago, 200 years ago, 300 years ago, because the fact is that what people were trying to do at that time was completely and it was relevant to its time. . We have to be relevant to our times. Diversity is incredibly important. It is central to the kind of society we should live in now. And that doesn’t invalidate the fact that great art was created, and well, a lot of it was created by white people, and some of it was made by people who were racist.
Carnegie was one of the first institutions to enforce a vaccine mandate for spectators. Have you met any resistance?
I’ve had a small number of emails from people saying: “This is ridiculous. you are going crazy It’s completely unnecessary.” But we know we have very different views about the world we live in. We can only have one point of view, that is, how do we care for people?
How do you see the future of the arts in light of the pandemic?
No one can judge how people are likely to feel. We can’t tell. But I think the art will roar back.
Why do people live in New York City? Why do big companies want to be here? Why does Headquarters want to be here? Why is all this tourism? Culture is the magnet that really makes New York New York.
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