by Robert Harth
Carnegie Hall's chief looks back on his first, challenge-filled season in New York and finds opportunity in adversity.
I arrived in New York City on September 8, 2001.
People still shake their heads when I tell them that. I hear comments like,
"oh, great timing." Then I hear what a difficult start I had, what bad luck, how
unfortunate. Then come the questions: "You mean you left Colorado for New York
City? Why? What were you thinking?" Then comes the sympathy: "Oh, I am so
sorry..." and "Wow, what a tough start to something that you were so looking
Actually, quite the opposite. Strange as it might sound on first hearing,
arriving in Manhattan when I did was an amazing gift. Let me try and explain.
It is absolutely true that I left the mountains of Colorado--the Aspen Music
Festival and School, a secure comfort zone where I was happily ensconced--for
the wilds of Manhattan. I left a town where the newspaper headlines usually
reported the last tree that was cut down illegally, or the fact that the
snowpack was less than normal.
Baptism by fire? Absolutely. Not because being in New York City during the
attacks made me an instant New Yorker, but because it provided me insights,
experiences, and perspectives that would simply not have been available to me
had my travel schedule been slightly different. I cannot imagine what it would
have been like to have still been in Colorado on September 11, knowing that I
was about to move to New York City.
And then, eleven days after the attacks, Isaac Stern--president of Carnegie
Hall for 40 years, an icon--died. It was a tremendous loss for the world, and
for the world of music. And for us at Carnegie Hall his death, so close to
September 11, stacked grief on top of grief. Already (let's be honest), the
preceding few years had not been easy at Carnegie Hall. Now, we faced new and
No one in America was unaffected by the events of September 11. Everyone has
a story to tell.
My first day on the job was to be Monday, September 17. The terrorist attacks
of September 11 changed that, and I was in the office that afternoon. It was too
soon for any of us to know if we had lost friends or family, but as the day
progressed, news of relief and news of immense sadness both entered our lives,
as we learned of the deaths of patrons, colleagues, and friends.
And so my life at Carnegie Hall began. I had always been a believer in
on-the-job training. But the circumstances surrounding my new job at Carnegie
Hall, coupled with the horror--the immense tragedy--put that theory to the
ultimate test. The issues immediately post-September 11 were daunting. We were
concerned about so very many things: Can we get home tonight? Who should come in
to work tomorrow? How do we help a staff member who is unable to return home
because lower Manhattan is inaccessible? How do we protect Carnegie Hall, a
well-known landmark building? How do we provide enough security to reassure our
patrons, but not so much that we frighten them?
There was so much to think about, and everything was so new to me; Carnegie
Hall is a very complex organization. But at its core, Carnegie Hall is about
music, and that is something I do understand. After confirming the safety of our
staff and immediate family, the key was not to go back to business as usual (an
absurd concept) but also not to shut down. We were in a crisis--our country was
in a crisis--so it was time to respond professionally, compassionately, and
responsibly. Senior staff convened. I listened. I learned. I contributed.
Everyone listened, everyone learned, and everyone contributed.
Carnegie Hall had no concerts until our Opening Gala on October 3. The
questions surrounding that event were numerous: Do we proceed? Do we cancel the
gala dinner and just perform the concert? And other questions surfaced. What
will Carnegie Hall do in response to the attacks? What sort of event should be
presented? Who should perform? And then more and more questions: What can we do
for our local fire and police departments, the men and women who have protected
Carnegie Hall and our neighborhood for years? (Six of the firefighters from the
station one-and-a-half blocks from us lost their lives.) What actions should
Carnegie Hall take to anticipate the repercussions of the attacks? These were
all defining questions at defining moments.
I am proud to say that the staff of Carnegie Hall more than rose to the
occasion. They were--and continue to be--at their best, and it was and is
inspiring to see. Their response mirrored the response everywhere in New York
City, and everywhere in America: new energy, commitment, focus, and an absolute
refusal to surrender to the terror or terrorists. In the face of such
unimaginable tragedy, a tragedy you simply cannot get your mind around, it is
hard to believe there are silver linings. But there are, absolutely.
Between September 11 and the end of October, it's fair to say, Carnegie Hall
lived a lifetime. First came the organization of our Concert of Remembrance.
Carnegie Hall is an integral part of our city and we wanted to respond to the
crisis, to offer our city what we do best--the gift of music.
We asked a handful of artists who were close to Carnegie Hall to participate.
All agreed instantly. In a conversation with James Levine, we talked about
needing someone like Leontyne Price to be part of the concert. And then the
question was asked, "Why not Leontyne?" Within a half-hour of our first
conversation with her, she agreed to come out of retirement and participate.
Leontyne Price, James Levine, Yo-Yo Ma, and several members of the Metropolitan
Opera Orchestra provided all the ingredients necessary for an amazing event.
People lined up at the Hall for the free tickets beginning at 4 a.m. Within
hours, the line went around the block twice.
As with the post-September 11 events at the New York Philharmonic and the
Metropolitan Opera, we witnessed a palpable hunger and thirst for music. Our
Concert of Remembrance on September 30 was unimaginably powerful. It offered the
opportunity to embrace the community, to be together during a time of tremendous
loss, and to seek comfort and solace and healing through the power of music.
A light went on for me that memorable Sunday. I mentioned before that things
happen for a reason. In the morning, the Carnegie Hall family went to Isaac
Stern's funeral in Connecticut. That evening, we attended the Concert of
Remembrance at the Hall. I witnessed what music has always meant to me--its
power, its energy, its universal language--reaching everyone in the most
profound way. Imagine the power of Yo-Yo Ma playing solo Bach at a funeral in a
Connecticut garden on a gray, cold Sunday morning, and then playing the same
music to an audience gathered in Carnegie Hall that evening. It was a privilege
to bear witness to both.
There was little, if any, time to recover from Sunday. The following
Wednesday was the Gala Opening of our season at Carnegie Hall. None of us felt
much in a gala or festive mood. But inspiration and lessons in leadership came
from Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and our remarkable chairman, Sanford Weill. Mayor
Giuliani had urged, along with other city and state officials, that we return to
normalcy. This wasn't a matter of "the show must go on." This was a matter of
balance, between the need to mourn for our losses and the refusal to allow the
events of September 11 to dictate the direction of our lives in America. Our
internal debate was intense. Three thousand people had just lost their lives,
and yet life must go on and would go on.
And so we did. The Berlin Philharmonic heroically traveled to New York City,
stating that they would stand by America as America has stood by Germany.
Appropriate changes were made to the look and feel of opening night, and what
ensued was another memorable event. Once again, I was witness to the power of
music being embraced by an entire audience. The Berlin Philharmonic's three
concerts were more than just a tonic. The intensity of the audience, their
silence, their palpable hunger, the overwhelming gratitude of their response,
all pointed to one unarguable fact: Music was essential in that moment.
Meanwhile, all of us at Carnegie Hall were also working at our "day jobs,"
the ones that occupy our time before our evening concerts. September 11
presented the need to review our budget and make adjustments in light of what we
were certain would be increased expenses and a decline in ticket sales and
donations. In Week Two of my tenure, I convened a series of budget meetings. We
took the opportunity both to cut more than $1 million in the current budget, and
to do a first draft of the following year's budget.
For me, this was an opportunity to get an early and thorough understanding of
the complexities of Carnegie Hall's $60 million budget. It also allowed me the
time to connect with my staff on the line items of their individual budgets; to
engage in a healthy dialogue about priorities, necessities, and luxuries; and to
foster a sense of how I intended to lead the institution and work with my staff.
It was back-breaking, time-consuming, difficult work. But it was participatory,
fair, measured, and decisive, and the results built our confidence in one
We viewed draconian cuts to staff or programs, whether for the current year
or the following year, as our last resort. We never had to go there. We never
jeopardized the overall shape of Carnegie Hall's programs or our adventurous
projects. The key was the staff reaching down deep in their creative efforts to
find new and different solutions. No one became scared, no one was
turf-conscious, and no one was myopic. Everyone pitched in and found ways to cut
money from their budgets. Everyone wanted to be a part of the solution, not part
of the problem. The adversity we faced pulled us together as a team in very
powerful ways, creating bonds that have proved meaningful and lasting.
We were not finished, however. The Concert of Remembrance, Opening Night, the
cuts to the current year's budget, and the development of the following year's
budget were all just the beginning. We began to finalize the details for
Carnegie Hall's Memorial Concert for Isaac Stern. And, in addition, we developed
plans for honoring him throughout the season. Concurrently, it was time to
finalize all the programs, ticket prices, and subscription series for the
following season. And, by the way, there is a concert pretty much every night at
I have often said that you play the cards you are dealt, or you fold them.
We did not fold at Carnegie Hall. The response to September 11 engendered a
sense of responsibility, power, ability, and confidence that allowed our team to
calmly and thoughtfully address the issues at hand. Key to that process was the
enlightenment and insight we were all miraculously given after September 11.
For all arts organizations, the combination of September 11 and the
downward-spiraling economy has created a climate of adversity that is new to
many people who work in the arts. Some are facing tough times for the first
time. Others are facing the toughest times they have known. It's scary; it's
difficult--but it is also an amazing opportunity. Adversity is opportunity,
without question. And, of course, opportunity quickly becomes responsibility.
Now is a time to make choices, and those choices matter more than ever. The
adversity we face tests an organization's strengths, but it also provides the
opportunity to address an organization's weaknesses. Now is a time when tough
questions are easier to ask, tough decisions are easier to make, and creativity
and entrepreneurial spirit are rewarded many times over.
Good news is easy. Raising money in the fat-and-sassy '80s and '90s was easy.
Post-September 11, and in the current economic climate in America, it is harder
to do business. Now comes the hard work. Now comes the time when the real
mission of an arts organization--its true purpose, its importance, its
existence--comes into question. Or into focus. All this is dependent on what we,
who administer these organizations, do next.
There is some good news in all this. First of all, we are not alone. This is
a tough time for all the arts, and there is no sense in hiding from that fact.
Second, there are ways to address the issues we face, to seize the opportunities
presented to us at this troubled time, and to grow stronger--more focused, more
essential, more inclusive, more compassionate, and yes, more intelligent. This
is not a time to put our heads down and plow through. It is a time that cries
out for creativity, insight, sensitivity, understanding, and a new energy and
purpose. The herd always finds a way of thinning itself out. The question we
must all ask of ourselves is: Where do we stand in that Darwinian process?
I've always known that Carnegie Hall is a great concert hall. But I have
learned that it's so much more. It is rich with history, and it has been a great
gathering place for the citizens of New York for all sorts of reasons and
occasions for more than 112 years. In addition to the Concert of Remembrance and
the stunning Berlin Philharmonic concerts to open our season, Carnegie Hall
became host to a wide variety of events arising from the tragedy of September
11. When the comedian Jerry Seinfeld wanted to do a comedy benefit for the
families of victims, he chose Carnegie Hall. Mayor Giuliani chose Carnegie Hall
for the New York City Police Awards. The Hall is woven into the fabric of the
community of New York City. And this, along with the insights and perspectives
of the power of music to provide comfort, solace, and healing, has resulted in a
Carnegie Hall that is stronger than ever--one that understands its rich
tradition, but also recognizes its continuing role as a leader in the world of
The same can and should apply to all of our organizations in all of our
communities. While it is a most difficult and challenging time, it is also a
time to seize the high ground, to re-affirm the mission and purpose of our
institutions, to re-assess our budgets and our resources, and to emerge strong,
focused, and inspired. Music has re-emerged as a powerful, meaningful, heroic,
and critical element in our lives--as essential food for the soul.
Robert Harth, president and CEO of the Aspen Music Festival and School
from 1989 to 2001, has just completed his first year as executive and artistic
director of Carnegie Hall. This article is adapted from his speech on June 14,
2002 to delegates of the American Symphony Orchestra League's 57th National