THE BLOG

Architecture and Music

01/20/2011 01:20 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This morning Carnegie Hall held a press conference to announce programing for what will be its 120th year. The season will begin in October with a visit from the St Petersburg Mariinsky Orchestra, a way of commemorating the fact that the great celebrity whose visit gave the opening of the hall in 1891 a splash of glamour was Peter Ilytch Tchaikovsky, on his only visit to America.

There will of course be plenty of musical celebrations during the season, including "Mavericks," a set of new American works performed by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, a Perspectives series by the marvelous Hungarian pianist Andras Schiff focusing on his compatriot Bela Bartok and a series by the "hot" early music group L'Arpeggiata.

Philistine that I am, what most fascinated me were the remarks Executive and Artistic Director Clive Gillinson made about Carnegie Hall itself, which is undergoing a mammoth $200,000 renovation, expected to be completed in 2014.

When the site at the corner of Seventh Avenue and 57th Street was selected, in the late 1880s, that part of New York was still known as Hog Hill because of the large population of roaming swine as well as the uncouth local human population."Midtown," Gillinson said, was considered 14th Street, and it was thought foolhardy to build a concert hall so far uptown.

Even more fascinating, the hall with what are considered perfect acoustics was designed by an amateur, who had never designed a concert hall before and never would again. William Tuthill -- a name I had never heard -- was the secretary of the New York Oratorio Society. We do not know why Carnegie chose him to design the hall that would bear his name and so much of his social prestige. Why, Gillinson rightly asked, did he not hire McKim Mead White, New York's most prestigious architectural firm? Why did he not go after such status-conferring innovators as Louis Sullivan or his assistant, the young Frank Lloyd Wright?

Carnegie sent Tuthill on a tour of Europe. He came back with plans that were not so much iconoclastic as just odd -- no separations between the boxes, a major social innovation, and plenty of curves, which were considered acoustically dangerous. Nevertheless the hall has worked brilliantly for 120 years. It more than achieved Carnegie's goal of making New York an international musical mecca. Few of the halls built in the century since by far more experienced and prestigious architects have had such happy results.

Speaking of architecture, last night I attended a recital at the Consulat of Poland, in a huge 19th century mansion at the corner of 37th and Madison, right across from the Pierpont Morgan Library.

I had always assumed this Beaux-Arts building was Morgan's home. Only after I got home to read about it did I discover it had been built by a Dutch-born merchant seaman named Joseph DeLaMar, who made his fortune in mining and metallurgy. (I feel guilty about having told some other concertgoers that the house had belonged to Morgan. For many years it served as the headquarters of the National Democratic Club, though how they justified its super-ornate interiors with the party of The Little People I'm not sure.

My friend Roman Markowicz gave a superb all-Beethoven recital here Tuesday night. He began with a beautiful piece known as the Andante Favori. Before playing he explained that this familiar, well known morsel was originally supposed to be the slow movement of the Waldstein Sonata, which he performed with great power.

The second half of the program was a heroic, magisterial account of the variations on a waltz by Anton Diabelli; It is one of Beethoven's most treacherous pieces, and Markowicz carried it off brilliantly. As I listened, I realized this was how people listened to music a centusry and a half ago -- in private, lavish quarters. It helped me understand even better this morning the social significance of Mr Carnegie's Concert Hall

I was also delighted to see that the Carnegie Hall Gift Shop sells black bags with the text, "Practice, Practice, Practice!"