Carnegie Hall

Carnegie Hall is Too Damn Big

Justin Davidson

By Justin Davidson

on 05.27.14 in Features

[From a Room is a new series from architecture and classical music critic Justin Davidson that examines how people and spaces work together to create great venues. Read Part 1, about New York's "best bad venue." — Ed.]

A Steinway stands ready on the stage of Carnegie Hall, its black bulk glistening like a wet silhouette against the blond parquet and creamy walls. Nearly 3,000 people have gathered in one room to hear a soloist extract music from an unamplified gizmo of wood and felt and steel. The pianist strides out of the wings towards the instrument and, seen from the back of the topmost gallery, she looks like a small, scurrying creature. When she starts to play, the notes hang in the air, crystalline raindrops gathering into climaxes of muted thunder. The music sounds clear and beautiful — and very, very far away.

Carnegie Hall is a sublime place to hear classical music, but it is also almost always too big. The big-hall piano recital is one of classical music’s central rituals, and its prestige masks its inherent wrongness. A 9-foot concert grand is a formidable piece of equipment, full of power and poetry, but it is still too puny for such an ample space. Voices grow wispy on their way to the back walls, string quartets inhabit a bubble of intimacy that leaves much of the audience outside, and unless you’re sitting front and center even a large ensemble can seem confined within an invisible frame. An orchestra snaps out a sudden fff and the chord goes rocketing through space, pinballing off the stucco ornaments, mixing with its own echoes. By the time the sound arrives at any given pair of ears, it has softened, rounded, and acquired that famous rosy glow. Sometimes, that treatment is exactly what the music needs, but not always. It can denude a symphony of violence, make it incapable of overwhelming the audience, strip it of terror or exhilaration.

‘[Beethoven's "Eroica"] drew energy from his primal battle with architecture.’

In an age before amplification, the great concert halls were built to accommodate the loudest manmade sounds: the brass-propelled roar of a late 19th-century symphony orchestra. Tchaikovsky and Mahler both conducted in Carnegie Hall, and their symphonies sit comfortably in it, swinging from delicate flutterings to rafter-splintering explosions. Their orchestras and ambitions are immense, their scores constructed so that climaxes rumble through the floor and distant trumpets are heard from the wings. But Beethoven created his symphonies for smaller quarters, and at Carnegie they sit wrapped in their cocoon of air, sounding plusher and more polite than they were ever meant to.

In 1805, music lovers of all classes packed into the Theater an der Wien in Vienna for the premiere of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the “Eroica.” Mostly, they stood squashed together in the stuffy, gaslit room, and the music — now aggressive, now tender, now full of savage joy — pummeled them into exhaustion. The theater is not huge. Today, the demands of legroom, aisles and bathrooms have cut its capacity to half of what it was 200 years ago — just over a third of Carnegie Hall’s. Beethoven, even half deaf, could sense the room’s boundaries, and he hurled the notes against them, using the walls to intensify the physical power of the music. His symphony drew energy from his primal battle with architecture.

‘Today, the “strange figure” of the lonely pianist is now the norm, a wisp in an elegant vastness. And that means audiences are paying small fortunes to be present for beautifully executed music that they cannot properly hear.’

Eventually, the “Eroica,” with its shocking length and awesome scale, brought the modern concert hall into being. Beethoven’s posthumous popularity demanded bigger spaces, which meant bigger stages that could accommodate larger orchestras. Vienna’s Musikverein opened its doors in 1870, Carnegie Hall in 1891. This cycle supersized the symphony to a scale Beethoven never envisioned, and at the same time neutralized his music’s claustrophobic thrill and cage-rattling ferocity.

But back to that lonesome Steinway. Franz Liszt, who invented the profession of piano virtuoso, wielded an explosive, overwhelming style, but it was relatively easy to explode and overwhelm in the drawing rooms and lovely little theaters that formed his circuit. At first, he surrounded himself with singers and chamber ensembles to keep the variety-loving audience entertained. But in 1839, he made his first solo appearance before an audience of a few hundred grandees in the reception room of a Roman palazzo. In such an intimate environment, his tossed hair and etched brow, his long fingers and willowy limbs, his merciless domination of the instrument — all gave him an aura somewhere between high priest and gladiator, best experienced at close range.

He performed on the stage of Milan’s opera house, too — and found its size discomfiting. “I gave my first concert in Milan at the Teatro alla Scala, which, as you know, is one of the largest in the world,” he wrote. “I must have made a strange figure there — I, so lank, so narrow, alone with my faithful Erard [piano], quite alone before a public accustomed to show and noise.” Liszt gave his audience plenty of both, and entertained it so successfully that today’s great pianists routinely perform his music in cavernous venues. Today, the “strange figure” of the lonely pianist is now the norm, a wisp in an elegant vastness. And that means audiences are paying small fortunes to be present for beautifully executed music that they cannot properly hear.