New York City's grande dame still charms. Carnegie Hall’s 125th Anniversary Gala united musical luminaries such as Renée Fleming, Lang Lang, James Taylor and Itzhak Perlman for a starry concert that spanned classical, jazz, folk and opera genres in celebration of its landmark anniversary. The Italian Renaissance-style concert hall, with its gold leaf and ornaments, is a cultural gem among the city's leaner, cleaner echo chambers.

Carnegie Hall celebrates its 125th anniversary © Chris Lee
Carnegie Hall celebrates its 125th anniversary
© Chris Lee

To further honor its legacy – seeded by conductor Walter Damrosch and its principal benefactor, industrialist Andrew Carnegie – the gala was held 125 years to the day that the hall opened in 1891, which entailed a five-day festival starring Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The Russian composer had conducted proprietary works between the New York première of Hector Berlioz's Te Deum.

The gala concert kicked-off with The Star-Spangled Banner, percussion and brass students from the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts lining the aisles, snare drums and trombones poised. One of the hall’s most notable, former residents, John Philip Sousa, would've been proud.

The city's historic chorus, Oratorio Society of New York under music director Kent Tritle, flanked by the Orchestra of St Luke's under principal conductor Pablo Heras-Casado, began music-making with Handel's coronation anthem Zadok the Priest.

Richard Gere – a genial, affable host in dry humor, good spirit and laid-back ease – recounted the hall's history and future while citing classical music heavyweights who had appeared on the stage such as Maria Callas, Ezio Pinza, Enrico Caruso and Leonard Bernstein. While Gere narrated milestones, a tasteful multimedia presentation flickered stage walls, comprised of archival images from the hall's Rose Museum of headshots, programs, ticket stubs and performance captures. Highlights included great debuts such as Antonín Dvořák's Ninth Symphony in 1893 and Gustav Mahler's “Resurrection” Symphony in 1908, as well as the American debuts of Arthur Rubinstein in 1906, Jascha Heifetz in 1917, Igor Stravinsky in 1925, Vladimir Horowitz in 1928 (with Sir Thomas Beecham) and Mstislav Rostropovich in 1956, among others.

Despite its monolithic heft on the corner of 57th Street and Seventh Avenue, the hall’s future was threatened mid-century, cited as too expensive to maintain. With certain demolition looming, violinist Isaac Stern rallied NYC’s mayor to purchase the hall in the mid-sixties under municipal auspices. Having been tutored under Stern at alternating points during illustrious careers, Emanuel AxYo-Yo Ma and Perlman took to the stage for the reflective Andante con molto tranquillo from Mendelssohn's Piano Trio no. 1 in D minor.

Bridging generations, Lang Lang joined Ax for a spirited Dvorák Slavonic Dance piano duet for four hands. The duo continued on twenty fingers for “The Swan” from The Carnival of the Animals, accompanied by Ma. Impeccably-suited and quaffed, Lang took solos with a Chopin-like introspection a Manuel Ponce intermezzo, followed by a super-animated number from Danzas Afro-Cubanas by Ernesto Lecuona.

Carnegie Hall celebrates its 125th anniversary © Chris Lee
Carnegie Hall celebrates its 125th anniversary
© Chris Lee

As Gere transitioned to the hall's operatic history, Fleming sang Strauss' Morgen! in a sparkling sheath dress in a golden-plummy shade. The American soprano was joined by American mezzo, Isabel Leonard, in a magenta-red gown, for a dreamy "Belle nuit, ô nuit d'amour" from Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann. Leonard continued solo for a coy, charming Carmen habanera and later Fleming returned, microphone in hand, for a folksy Leonard Cohen Hallelujah.

Affable and darling, Martina Arroyo and Marilyn Horne chatted warmly while introducing a pre-recorded tribute from FLOTUS Michelle Obama in acknowledgement of the hall's global outreach and youth initiatives. Eager to tout its non-classical roots – hosting past musicians such as Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra and The Beatles – singer Michael Feinstein tackled George Gershwin’s Strike up the Band with megawatt, muscled lyrics and clanging piano freestyles. He then delved, with Leonard, into an Irving Berlin/Jerome Kern medley of classic Hollywood tunes in a well-meaning tribute to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Having made his hall debut at 22-years-old, folk singer James Taylor performed George Harrison's Here Comes the Sun on guitar, accompanied by Ma, among his own compositions You and I Again and Shower the People.

A spirited, playful encore closed the evening with Roger Edens' The Joint is Really Jumpin' in Carnegie Hall. Animated Ax, Lang and Feinstein alternated piano passages while Fleming, Leonard and Taylor jazzed-up vocals. In an age where reputations are greatly exaggerated, Carnegie Hall’s earned its merit from time as well as the great artists who've gathered under its roof. 

***11