Carnegie Hall opens third stage, returning to founder's vision

Thursday, September 11, 2003

— When 19th century steel magnate Andrew Carnegie envisioned the music hall that would bear his name, he had planned for three performance spaces.

This week, his wish has been granted. A century after the last live musical performance on Carnegie's third stage, Zankel Hall has been born.

Wednesday afternoon, a special preview concert got the first hearing with performances that ranged from solo voice; a choir of eight cellos and soprano; an ensemble that included trash cans, wash basins and gongs; a jazz quintet; and African flutes.

Wednesday night, some of the people who donated the $100 million to more than cover the construction got a private concert. Zankel (pronounced zan-Kell) opens to the public Friday with Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Adams conducting music by Charles Ives, Lou Harrison and Esa-Pekka Salonen.

The first concert at Carnegie Hall actually was on the third stage, a piano recital one month before the opening of the main auditorium in 1891. Four years later, the recital space was rented to a theater group whose performers later included Edward G. Robinson, Spencer Tracy and Anne Bancroft.

Most recently the site of a movie theater, the space has now been transformed into a versatile performance venue that seats 540 to 644, depending on configuration. It provides an intermediate-size venue to Carnegie's 2,804-seat Isaac Stern Auditorium and its 268-seat Weill Recital Hall.

The subterranean reclamation project began in 1999 under the leadership of Carnegie's late executive director, Judith Arron, and saw its completion under Robert J. Harth, who took over at Carnegie two years ago.

It cost $72 million, with $10 million from Carnegie Hall vice chairman Arthur Zankel and his wife, Judy.

It involved scooping out more than 6,300 cubic yards of bedrock -- enough to fill 1 1/2 Olympic-size swimming pools -- to a depth below street level of as much as 40 feet. Workers were still laying the sidewalk outside at midnight Tuesday.

The hall turned out to be a handsome venue with stylish American sycamore trim, studio lighting above, lots of leg room in front and yet a coziness that draws the audience close to the performers.

"Real intimacy in New York City. I love it. It's so beautiful," the soprano Renee Fleming told the matinee audience.

Looks aside, the big question is how does it sound?

The digging left a mere 9 feet between the hall and the New York subway system. When quiet moments in the music converged with a passing train, the rumble of the subway could be heard. But it sounded distant and was not more intrusive than an air conditioner.