Leading Edge

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 forward to."

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 daunting challenges.

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 another.

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 Carnegie Hall.

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 music.

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 Conference.