by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, Sept. 29, 2003.
Zankel Hall, the new midsized venue at Carnegie Hall, is billed as a “new space underground.” The phrase describes not only Zankel’s location—about forty feet below Seventh Avenue, and three yards to the east of the Fifty-seventh Street station—but also its promise of a mildly rebellious attitude. With an opening two-week festival that includes contemporary composition, jazz, performance art, and a modicum of traditional repertory, Zankel aims to go against the grain, to shake things up, to provide an alternative to the solemn concert rituals that unfold in such places as, well, Carnegie Hall. How can an institution go underground and rebel against itself? Such are the paradoxes of the classical-music scene, which seeks to entice new audiences without alienating the moneyed classes and connoisseurs who have historically supported it.
I attended seven of the first nine events in the hall, and I came away with an immediate liking for the look and feel of the space. The vertical surfaces are made of sycamore, the floors of maple. A vaguely summery wicker-type pattern predominates. Overhead is a sleek black array of lights, speakers, and other high technology; it’s as if one of George Lucas’s imperial starships were hovering above. The atmosphere falls somewhere between the calming hush of a desert spa and the nervous importance of a secret military bunker. Tired commuters on the N/R platform will little suspect that Pierre Boulez is conducting a violent orchestra of pianos and percussion on the other side of the grimy tiles.
The subway is distinctly audible as it rumbles behind the right wall. I tried and failed to dismiss the noise as a minor annoyance; it kept intruding on my consciousness, like a neighbor who moves furniture at irregular intervals in the middle of the night. There are, however, advantages to being subterranean: cell phones don’t work. The hall’s acoustics are bright and vivid, but also uneven. The Emerson Quartet made a full, rich sound; Emanuel Ax’s piano seemed uncharacteristically tinny. The three women in the Theatre of Voices ensemble had no trouble projecting the needlepoint canons of Guillaume de Machaut; Renée Fleming’s voice lacked the radiance that it possesses at the Met. Amplified music suffered least. When the Cuban jazz pianist Omar Sosa performed with his octet, the sound had amazing heft and brilliance. The acoustical problems are offset by the lively personality of the place. Something about it makes you want to look around and talk and linger. This is a welcome contrast to the halls of Lincoln Center, which practically spit you out onto the sidewalk.
The thirty-eight-year-old Omar Sosa and the seven-hundred-year-old Guillaume de Machaut met up thanks to the happily gallivanting taste of John Adams, who curated the opening weekend and conducted the first concert. In the pit was a group called the Zankel Band, which was made up of graduates of Carnegie’s various professional workshops. The rough Yankee polyphony of Ives’s “From the Steeples and the Mountains” officially inaugurated the hall; after that came works by a Californian, a Londoner, and a Finn—Lou Harrison’s “Concerto in Slendro,” Thomas Adès’s “Living Toys,” and Esa-Pekka Salonen’s “Mania.” Of these, the delicately percussive Harrison fared best; it danced in place like a robot hoedown.
Sosa followed the same night, at ten. His octet included the Yoruba vocalist Martha Galarraga, the percussionists Gustavo Ovalles and Josh Jones, the Moroccan singer Yassir Chadly, the hip-hop poet Brutha Los, the saxophonist Luis Depestre, and the bassist Geoff Brennan. As if that weren’t enough, the encyclopedic Sosa threw in Bachian inventions, stylized Latin dances in the manner of Gottschalk, and John Cage-esque prepared sounds. He also came up with a few hauntingly memorable melodies; I can’t shake one called “Dias de Iyawo.” At times, the evening threatened to devolve into a multicultural traffic jam, but Sosa kept it all moving with a ferocious flair for rhythm and a keen musical wit. At one point, he began pounding out a simple tonic-dominant progression in rapid-fire chords, and the force of his delivery unleashed a minor delirium among musicians and listeners alike. Sosa then upped the ante by playing the piano with one foot. A lot of people will be grateful to Adams for bringing Sosa into their world.
Adams is a composer who moves confidently across a gamut of styles, and the weekend expressed his sensibility without a note of his music being played. Concertgoers know all too well the kind of programming that looks wonderful on paper but falls flat in practice; Adams’s choices, by contrast, sounded more logical than they looked. Anna Deavere Smith, who performed on the second day, is not a musician at all, and her monologues might have seemed better suited to a theatre than to a concert hall. But when she mentioned Adams’s experimental work “Christian Zeal and Activity,” and its effect on her understanding of the musicality of speech, I started noticing how she used pitch and rhythm to sharpen her characterizations. The evening was a sort of “greatest hits” package of Smith’s legendary one-woman performances, from her twenty-six-character study of the Crown Heights riots to her Clinton-era fantasia on the White House. Her startlingly realistic re-creation of a 1970 conversation between James Baldwin and Margaret Mead played like a duet of viola and trombone. A Korean liquor-store owner who lost her store in the Rodney King riot kept dipping into a deep register, revealing an abyss of anger behind a tight-lipped façade. The Madeleine Albright character stayed in a monotonous middle range, obtrusive in her blandness; she illustrated her own dictum “Americans can’t blend in.”
The opening weekend also included the sometimes languid, sometimes hyperkinetic post-bop jazz of the Kenny Barron Quintet; Frederic Rzewski, giving a survey of his stylistically capricious, politically impassioned output for piano; and Paul Hillier’s Theatre of Voices, which ranged from the fourteenth-century counterpoint of Machaut to the up-to-the-minute digital effects of Ingram Marshall. (Marshall’s “Hymnodic Delays,” based on old New England hymns, was the most striking of the new compositions on display.) Machaut’s “Lai de la fonteinne” had the distinction of being the only “classical” European music heard in the first three days of Zankel Hall; in this context, it came off like an austere exercise in post-minimalist composition. More familiar names followed in subsequent concerts—Bach, Handel, Haydn, and Dvorák—but only one program in the first two weeks failed to include a living composer.
What’s missing so far from the Zankel mix is a really bold engagement with popular music other than jazz. Pop artists might be given the programming power that Adams enjoyed on his opening weekend. Brian Eno, Caetano Veloso, or Björk could curate an entire series, mixing genres to their hearts’ delight. And, if Zankel really wants to acquire an “underground” reputation, it should push past the roster of well-known names. The other night, at the Knitting Factory, I saw the veteran Dutch band The Ex, who blend hardcore punk with African, Latin, and avant-garde sounds. It is territory ripe for colonization by the Zankel sensibility. The trick, of course, would be in persuading a group of unregenerate anarchists to play under the auspices of Andrew Carnegie’s palace of music.
Unfortunately, the opening of Zankel is not the only flurry of news that Carnegie has lately created. In June, the hall announced that within a few years it would begin presenting the New York Philharmonic, which has had enough of Lincoln Center, and, from what one hears, Lincoln Center of it. There is no point in pretending that the Philharmonic’s hundred-and-thirty-concert schedule would allow anything like the glorious array of events that the main hall now offers. Yes, Carnegie accommodated the Philharmonic in decades past, but the orchestra played many fewer concerts then, and it was led by such legends as Mahler and Toscanini. The present-day Philharmonic not only likes the fitfully inspired Lorin Maazel but is likely to extend his contract. Great international orchestras are not going to squeeze themselves into the odd Sundays and Mondays that Carnegie will make available; they will move en masse to Lincoln Center, which is prepared to offer them open-ended, festival-style programming. What is more, Carnegie has to take on the entire institutional mentality of the Philharmonic, which, for all its technical prowess, is one of the most militantly conservative orchestras in the world. What will happen to Zankel’s sense of adventure when the spirit of the Philharmonic starts seeping through the floor? It will go the way of Pierre Boulez’s Rug Concerts and the orchestra’s other short-lived flirtations with modernity.
Carnegie is trying to turn left and turn right simultaneously. It wants to bring in a downtown-ish clientele while acquiring a stable base of Philharmonic subscribers. This urge to absorb everything typifies the modus operandi of Sanford Weill, the chairman of the Carnegie board, who is also the outgoing chief executive of Citigroup. Weill made his name in the financial world by engineering a series of spectacular mergers; he ingeniously erased the distinction between brokering and banking by combining Salomon, Smith Barney and Citibank under one roof. He now wishes to apply the philosophy of synergy to New York’s artistic life. The sort of logic that brought us AOL Time Warner is creating Philharmonic Carnegie Zankel. When it comes to the mysteries of artistic administration, mine is not to reason why, but if I had a say in the matter I would scuttle the Philharmonic plan and scuttle it fast. Carnegie should remain a shining city for the best of the musical world.