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The Future of the Philharmonic at Lincoln Center

The New York Philharmonic's bizarre, near-defection from Lincoln Center to Carnegie Hall created ripples throughout the classical musical world and may have long-lasting impact on the relationship between the nation's oldest orchestra and the world's largest arts complex.

The Philharmonic played at Carnegie Hall from 1891 until 1962. They left four decades ago because it looked at the time as if Carnegie would be torn down to build a parking lot and Lincoln Center was a hot new property in search of tenants.

Last June, the Philharmonic announced that they planned to return. The situation has reversed. Lincoln Center is looking dowdy; another of its tenant, the City Opera, is hoping to move to the World Trade Center site; and Carnegie has taken the reins of innovation with the opening of Zankel Hall. Considering the longstanding complaints about the acoustics at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher, it's not surprising that the Philharmonic would want to return to Carnegie's fabled Stern Hall. Brinton Smith, a cellist in the orchestra, said that, even though the musicians weren't notified of the move until right before the story broke, most were in favor of it. "I think we all feel Lincoln Center represents something unique and we are proud to be a part of it," he said. "But Fisher needs to be rebuilt, and there were simply no signs of movement in solving the logistical and financial problems involved in doing that. The orchestra has not had the hall it deserves for 40 years, so when Carnegie expressed interest in having us move there, the choice was obvious."

But on October 7, the Philharmonic and Carnegie boards issued a joint statement calling off the deal, explaining that it had become clear to them that "each institution has unique, undeniable core values, which could have been compromised." The scheduling conflict that reportedly derailed the plan seems so obvious that it's hard to understand how it took months to figure it out. The Philharmonic's annual roster of over 100 concerts would have dominated Carnegie's schedule, leaving few slots for the guest orchestras and artists that have won critical and popular acclaim.

The Bottom Line

Almost certainly, money was the catalyst for the merger. Last spring, in one of the hardest fundraising climates in years, the Philharmonic was looking at a $400 million price tag for the renovation of Avery Fisher Hall. (These days, a more modest, $56 million overhaul is planned.) In addition, the Philharmonic was to have become a managing partner at Carnegie, giving its board a voice in all programming. By contrast, the orchestra is a tenant at Lincoln Center and, as such, must compete with guest orchestras and the Mostly Mozart orchestra for audiences and space.

According to some accounts, the plan was hatched between Carnegie Board Chairman Sanford Weill and his counterpart at the Philharmonic, Paul Guenther. Charles Michener, music critic for the New York Observer, described the deal in an October 21 column as of a piece with "the merger mania that has corrupted so much of the product delivered by our media and entertainment leviathans . . . all about the bottom line." Martin E. Segal, former chairman of Lincoln Center, described it to the Times as "a form of cultural cannibalism."

Consolidations of the type proposed by the Philharmonic and Carnegie Hall are rare in the nonprofit sector. But the funding crisis has prompted many groups to look to the for-profit sector for cues. Nonprofits already do a lot of sharing of resources, and corporate-style mergers could theoretically help them to achieve efficiencies and expand their reach. With many groups competing for fewer funds, banding together may be viewed by struggling arts groups as a matter of survival.


Back in June, news of the deal came as a surprise to Lincoln Center. The announcement that the two institutions would "immediately enter into discussions toward forming a single musical performing arts institution" sounded fairly concrete, and the Philharmonic said it could move as early as 2006. This would have left Lincoln Center with nearly 3,000 seats to fill. With concert bookings scheduled years in advance, it would have been difficult to fill the void.

Putting the best spin on events, the center's vice president for programming, Jane Moss, said at the time that the move presented them with an opportunity to expand and diversify their programming. Now that the orchestra has returned home, it appears that this may still happen. While Lincoln Center officials say they are "thrilled" the orchestra is back, they may argue that the orchestra voided their contract when it tried to leave and must therefore renegotiate terms. In particular, Lincoln Center reportedly wants more advance notice of programming and more control over scheduling guest artists. (With discussions ongoing, neither side will comment on this issue.)

Critics and fans have been arguing for years about the presumed elitism of classical music, and about whether and how to diversify audiences. After the collapse of the deal, the Times' Deborah Solomon published a provocative op-ed, daring Lincoln Center to turn its back on the Philharmonic in order to "reclaim its creative edge. . . . And prove that it stands for something other than the preservation of its quaint past." With the Philharmonic gone, Solomon claimed, the center would have the space for more innovative programming.

Certainly, the buzz around Zankel Hall's first few concerts (which featured Youssou N'Dour, Meredith Monk, and other unconventional figures) now stands as a challenge to Lincoln Center and the Philharmonic to put aside past differences and try something new. "The Philharmonic will remain as an anchor for Lincoln Center and when Fisher is rebuilt it should be a world class hall," Smith said. "Our futures are inextricably linked and we will succeed or fail together."

Martha Hostetter has written about the arts for the Village Voice, American Theater and Empire New York.

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