January 25, 2018

Photo Essay: The Art of Performing at Lincoln Center

When you mention "Lincoln Center" to most people outside of New York City, you have to qualify it with "the place with the fountain in such-and-such movie."

Moonstruck. West Side Story. The Producers. Ghostbusters. That plaza is as iconic as any of Manhattan's skyscrapers and perhaps even more so than Central Park.

And I didn't appreciate it at all—or really know anything about its history—when I used to have to go there for work all the time.

Don't get me wrong: I was desperate to "belong" with all of the colleagues and artists who surrounded me in my four years working in classical music. I took every free ticket I could get to see the New York Philharmonic. I was crushed when my boss wouldn't allow me to attend opening night of the Metropolitan Opera, even though there was a spare ticket that ended up going to waste.

But I always seemed to be there at night, and I was always so focused on doing my job and not embarrassing myself or my boss (who clearly thought I might embarrass him) that I never bothered to stop and really appreciate all of the venues that make up this world-class performing arts center.

So, 16+ years after I got laid off from my job in classical music, 10 years since I last attended a show there (the miserable "standing seat" for The Magic Flute at the Met Opera), and seven years since moving away from New York City, I returned to Lincoln Center to experience it as a tourist.

In the time since I left New York, Avery Fisher Hall—that gorgeous but acoustically imperfect classical venue that debuted at Lincoln Center in 1962 as Philharmonic Hall—had become David Geffen Hall.

I didn't know who Avery Fisher was when I used to go to his hall all the time for work—or even that he was a real person (much less the founder of Fisher Electronics. It turns out he had donated a lot of money in the early 1970s to fix the acoustics in the auditorium—a project that was taken on by Philip Johnson, who, according to The New Yorker, practically demolished and rebuilt the house (but not the facade or any other parts of the superficial structure)—and got his name on the hall as a result in 1973.

I didn't know back then who Philip Johnson was, or that he would become one of my favorite architects (as the creator not only of the New York State Pavilion but also The Glass House and the Crystal Cathedral).

I don't even remember ever having been at Avery Fisher Hall during the day—or having looked out its monumental windows at the plaza down below.

Of course, back in the late 1990s, not only did I not really understand where I was when I had to go to Lincoln Center, but I also didn't understand that Lincoln Center had been built on top of a tenement community called San Juan Hill.

Low income housing had been razed in favor of high-end culture—classical orchestra players in their tuxedos replacing jazz musicians sitting on the stoops.

The residents of San Juan Hill were relocated, at least—just a stone's throw from the new performing arts complex, a bit closer to the Hudson River, and a bit farther away from white civilization.

In the 1960s, that was considered progress—"urban renewal," courtesy of President Dwight D. Eisenhower (who broke ground in 1959), "The Power Broker" and "Master Builder" Robert Moses, and billionaire John D. Rockefeller.

Of course, the construction of Lincoln Center and its plaza helped make the Upper West Side the desirable and affluent community it is today.

It even houses the northernmost "Broadway" theater in Manhattan, even though it's a good 10 or so blocks and nearly a mile uptown from the area of Manhattan technically considered "Broadway."

Among the treasures we discovered on our tour—pieces of Lincoln Center I never knew to explore—included the (barber) chair and desk of famed caricaturist Al Hirschfeld.

We found the historic display inside the New York Library for the Performing Arts, sandwiched in the back of Lincoln Center between the Metropolitan Opera and the Lincoln Center Theater.

Of course, we'd seen plenty of Hirschfeld's caricatures over the years—of classical musicians, actors, Broadway stars, and more—but it was something else to stand somewhere inside his ghostly aura.

As we proceeded farther into the library, we encountered yet another ghost: that of the dearly departed composer, pianist, and conductor Leonard Bernstein.

In celebration of what would have been his 100th birthday (though he died at age 72 in 1990), the NYPL has collected various artifacts from the very beginning of his life—including the hairdressing equipment business he was born into.

But wiring women's hair up to give them permanent waves wasn't Lenny's destiny.

It was music, despite the fact that he didn't get very good grades for it in school.

Fortunately, he had a 1917 Brewster upright piano from his Aunt Clara to practice on from the age of 10.

By the 1970s, he'd upgraded to a Baldwin baby grand...

...which he worked on in his home/studio in Fairfield Connecticut.

But it wasn't just about having the right equipment for his industry of choice (which, in this case, meant having the right instrument)—because he also needed his lucky cufflinks (which he'd kiss before every performance) and the pencils he considered his "soldiers."

And all of that was enough to earn him 16 Grammy awards (plus a Lifetime Achievement award), as well as a Tony Award and multiple Emmy Awards and nominations. Surprisingly, he was only nominated for one Oscar (for the score of On the Waterfront, which won for Best Picture) and didn't win.

As impressive as Bernstein's career was, though, it was interesting to get to know the man behind the baton...

...the humanitarian and human rights activist who (despite being called every name in the book, from liberal Jew to "commie-pinko-queer") celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 by conducting Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in Berlin and nabbing a piece of the wall as a souvenir.

Throughout his career, he repeatedly created beauty in the face of the ugliness of the world—be it violence, hatred, greed, or evil.

The uglier the world, the more beautiful music he tried to compose, conduct, and record.

And much of that he did through his work with and at Lincoln Center—not only as the New York Philharmonic's conductor, but also in some way as the composer of West Side Story (whose lyrics by Stephen Sondheim namecheck "San Juan" and whose movie version featured the plaza fountain during the "Something's Coming" musical number).

Lincoln Center itself is beautiful, it's true. But there's also so much beauty that erupts out of it, out of its every corner—and not just from the fountain when the water decides to do its dance.

In fact, I'm still not done with it. Stay tuned for a behind the scenes tour of the Metropolitan Opera, which has been a long time coming.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The Spectacular Radio City Music Hall
Photo Essay: Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall 
Photo Essay: The Temple of Academia at UCLA's Original Quad

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