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WQXR Features

As Carnegie Goes Dark, Hall Renters Scramble for Alternatives

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Anyone gazing at the posters outside Carnegie Hall this time of year may notice a difference. The glittering lineup of international orchestras, renowned recitalists and big-ticket chamber groups that cruise through the hall during the winter months have set sail for summertime ports of call. In their place are mostly rentals by outside parties: do-it-yourself recitalists, traveling regional choirs, graduation events and others who wish to fulfill a dream of playing in the storied hall.

But this year there's another difference. Starting in June, soloists and ensembles will have to find a new place to perform as the hall shutters for four months. An extensive -- and noisy -- new phase in Carnegie's $200 million project to renovate and expand its offices and backstage areas is about to take place, necessitating the closure.

The construction project, which means the loss of about three-dozen events a year, has prompted scrambling among the artists who normally take advantage of the relatively open June calendar on Carnegie Hall's three stages. Some have had to vie for a limited number of spaces in May; others looked for alternative venues.

Concert Promoters Decamp for Lincoln Center

“It has been a challenge,” said Peter Tiboris, the general director of Mid America Productions, a company that produces concerts in Carnegie Hall for school, church and community groups. “June has always been a big month for us in the past. When we found out this was going to happen a couple years ago our only option was to go to Avery Fisher.” He added, “I’m not complaining, but we’ve had to scramble.”

Founded in 1984, Mid America is a springtime fixture at Carnegie Hall, where it normally presents regional choirs over 15 concerts evenly split between May and June. This year, seven concerts will take place at Carnegie Hall in May before the organization decamps for Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center. Among its final events at Carnegie is an evening-length bill of choirs from Minnesota, Wisconsin and Texas, each giving 30-minute performances on May 29.

Iris Derke, the general director of Distinguished Concerts International, a company that rents Carnegie Hall for choral and orchestral concerts, agreed that available dates were “significantly less” this year. “We’ve always been at Carnegie in June and that’s always been a good one for dates for us,” she said. “We’ve shifted all of those dates to Lincoln Center.”

It’s not just large promoters who are affected. Katya Grineva (pictured) is a New York-based Russian pianist who has booked Carnegie Hall or Weill Recital Hall about a dozen times in the past 15 years. “Originally I wanted to give a concert in June because that was a better time for me,” she said. “They offered me May 22. It’s harder to get a date right now.”

Grineva said that concerts are more tightly packed together, making for limited rehearsal time in the hall. "I’m still getting rehearsal time but it’s not like it used to be,” she said. When asked how she'll fill the 2,800-seat venue, Grineva said she plans to give away blocks of tickets to school groups and offer discounts for parents bringing their children. Grineva has also hired a publicist to help spread the word.

A Tradition of Rentals

Although it’s not widely known among much of the general public, rentals by outside parties constitute a significant portion of Carnegie Hall’s activities. Of the approximately 700 events taking place on all three stages at Carnegie last season, only 170 are presentations of the hall itself. Rental prices vary by the day of the week, but to book a Friday night in the large Isaac Stern Auditorium, one will spend a base rate of $14,000. In the medium-size Zankel Hall the rate is $4,500, while in the 268-seat Weill Recital Hall it’s $1,750. (Other expenses, like ushers, stagehands, security, insurance and overtime, can double these numbers, depending on the event.)

“There is always great demand for dates,” wrote Carnegie Hall spokesman Synneve Carlino in an e-mail. “We did have some outside presenters looking for alternative dates because of the additional dark weeks, and we worked to accommodate them as best we were able.” The loss of income for the Hall is modest; outside rentals account for 15 percent of the hall’s annual revenues.

Despite the vanity association with self-produced and self-financed concerts, there is also a venerable history of renting at Carnegie, where outside presenters have been part of its history since the building opened in 1891. In the early days it originally operated solely as a rental hall. When the City of New York purchased the building and Carnegie Hall Corporation was formed in 1960, the hall began to present concerts itself, and now it is known for its careful curatorial approach.

That being said, June has long been a month dominated by student and amateur artists, often under the aegis of groups like the American Concert Alliance, a New Jersey organization that presents an annual concert called the Golden Key Music Festival at Weill Recital Hall. George Borisov, the organization’s president, said that some 800 students ages 5 to 26 audition by sending him and a panel of judges their CDs, DVDs or YouTube clips; the top winners get a debut recital at Weill for a $210 fee; parents may also purchase "custom awards" for children who participate in the competition.

Borisov said he was grateful to get a date on May 27. “For students, May and June is the time of harvest,” he said. “It’s so wonderful to come on the stage at the end of the year as a result of all the efforts during the year. More reasonable would be to close during the wintertime. January would be better. But the hall probably has its own reasons.”