High drama at Lincoln Center: the entrance to Alice Tully Hall under the new wing of the Juilliard School. ©2009 Antonio Carloni
The first constituent to sign on was the New York Philharmonic, jumping ship from Carnegie Hall. Next onboard was the Juilliard School, preeminent among conservatories; then the starry Metropolitan Opera, which was choking in passé splendor at its old house in the Garment District. On May 14, 1959, President Dwight D. Eisenhower himself came to town to break ground before a crowd of 12,000. Leonard Bernstein conducted Copland's "Fanfare." Risë Stevens, in white gloves, sang Carmen's "Habañera." All rose for Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus." That same day, Eisenhower announced plans for a $100 million atom smasher, the last word in scientific research. Both stories made the front page of the New York Times the next morning, but it was Lincoln Center that got preferential placement. In the photo above the fold, Ike is the guy with the shovel, grinning as he heaves his first of five scoops of freshly softened dirt.
Fifty years after the fact, the inspirational words he spoke that day describe what has for decades been the daily reality. "The beneficial influence of this great cultural adventure will not be limited to our borders," Eisenhower said. "Here will occur a true interchange of the fruits of national cultures. From this will develop a growth that will spread to the corners of the earth, bringing with it the kind of human message that only individuals, not governments, can transmit." If only the United Nation could take polyphony and orchestrate such concord.
No secrets: The new dance studio at Juilliard, open to passersby on Broadway. ©2009 Antonio Carloni
"I've been performing at Lincoln Center, with my own company and with the resident companies, since 1990," Gergiev says. "And for the last 15 years, the great thing I've been working to achieve—apart from making music—is to create a second Lincoln Center in our part of the world." That effort has included the construction of an outstanding new concert hall and a state-of-the-art opera house to complement the 19th-century opera house, itself due for a total overhaul.
This is cultural empire-building on the grand scale, yet it cannot match the kaleidoscopic variety of Lincoln Center. Random samples from my personal memory bank: at the New York City Ballet, George Balanchine's Don Quixote, a dark suite of key vignettes eerily distilled from the Cervantes novel; at the Metropolitan Opera, the sheer bliss of Rossini's Barber of Seville as brought to life by the director Bartlett Sher and a cast no less scintillating in comedy than in the vocal pyrotechnics; at the Lincoln Center Festival, Wu Hsing-kuo's one-man King Lear in the style of the Peking opera; again at the Lincoln Center Festival, in a tent on the plaza, the exotic spectacle of Ta'ziyeh, a reenactment of the martyrdom of Hussein, military leader of the Shiites and grandson of the prophet Mohammed.
The tip of the iceberg. Today the 16.3-acre Lincoln Center campus hosts some 5,000 events a year in performance spaces serving 12 independent constituents. Apart from those already named, the list includes the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Lincoln Center Theater, the New York City Ballet, the New York City Opera, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, and the School of American Ballet.
Rounding out the dozen, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts is a constituent in its own right. As such, it manages the campus and runs a flagship arts-education program with global reach, while at the same time producing and presenting some 400 shows of its own each year. The prototype has been emulated at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., the Music Center in Los Angeles, the Barbican in London, La Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciencies in Valencia, and elsewhere. But for range, quality, and reach—or shall we just say eclecticism?—none begins to approach the standard of Lincoln Center.
Artistically, intellectually, and even geographically, Lincoln Center's horizons just keep expanding. Where once the bias ran to the European masters and their American disciples, the panorama is global now. Archaic traditions, the cutting edge—it's all part of the mix. A knife-brandishing Korean shaman here, Indonesian epic through the prism of Robert Wilson there, and over yonder the oratorio Pasión Según San Marcos (The Passion According to St. Mark), by Osvaldo Golijov of Argentina, who does not hesitate to blend Bach and Steve Reich and salsa and international folk styles into his explosive brew. "The whole world comes to Lincoln Center, and Lincoln Center projects to the whole world," says the independent curator Thomas Mellins, who is organizing the exhibition "Lincoln Center: Celebrating 50 Years," at the New York Public Library of the Performing Arts (October 15- January 16, 2010).
The notion of projecting to the world is not merely metaphorical. For over three decades now, Lincoln Center has been a pioneer in disseminating the arts to millions of home viewers everywhere. The prize-winning PBS series "Live from Lincoln Center" took off on January 30, 1976 with a telecast from the New York Philharmonic. The soloist in the Grieg Piano Concerto was Van Cliburn, of Shreveport, Louisiana—the sort of celebrity we now humorously call a rock star since his victory, at age 23, at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, six month after the launch of Sputnik.
Today, the tally of "Live from Lincoln Center" telecasts stands at close to 200—not including performances by the Metropolitan Opera, which has long had its own series under changing titles. The variety has been staggering. Plenty of Pavarotti, scads of Beverly Sills, the new vaudevillians who call themselves the Flying Karamazov Brothers scampering through Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors, Stephen Sondheim's beloved operetta A Little Night Music and his off-putting Passion, Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel made new by students at the Juilliard School in the intricate storybook designs of Maurice Sendak, a treasure trove of Balanchine (but not Don Quixote), Gershwin's classic Porgy and Bess, ground-breaking music-theater hits like Contact and A Light in the Piazza.
For me, the third "Live from Lincoln Center" telecast, on June 30, 1976, will always retain the brightest glow. The Russian defector Natalia Makarova, glamorous yet austere, was to dance Swan Lake that night with American Ballet Theatre, starring in the dual role of the enchanted princess Odette and her glittering nemesis Odile. As a student and fledgling culture vulture in Boston, I was determined to see this icon of the age. I wrote away for tickets the day the first ad appeared, blowing my meager entertainment budget for months. My date and I were ecstatic when the box office came through with prime orchestra locations: close enough to see the dancers' faces but not too close to see their feet.
Perfection! So much so, in fact, that our seats got preempted for a camera operator, his lens the size of a dinner plate, his mock black-tie formal wear silk-screened onto his T-shirt. But the management had made space for us in the same row, closer to the center. Makarova was all we were hoping for and more, especially when under the wizard's spell, she suddenly turned her back to the audience, hovered bolt upright on toe, arms outstretched as on a crucifix, fluttering like wings, the energy passing from shoulder to fingertip like pulses of lightning.
Over the decades, the Lincoln Center family has had its share of headaches and worse. In 1981, a stagehand hurled a violinist down an airshaft to her death from the roof of the Metropolitan Opera. Five years later, in the same hall, a political protester disrupted the opening night of the Moiseyev Ballet, folk dancers from the Soviet Union, by releasing a canister of tear gas.
And then there have been the nagging institutional issues. Though straight drama was always integral to the conception of the campus, several unsuitable candidates came and went before the Lincoln Center Theater settled in to stay. At Avery Fisher Hall (originally Philharmonic Hall) and the New York State Theater (lately christened the David H. Koch Theater), the acoustics have required endless tweaking, with no end in sight. At a symbolic level, it was an embarrassment when the fountain at the center of the plaza sprang a leak. Running a complex of this magnitude is like painting a bridge: the maintenance never stops.
Yet maintenance as such is far from sexy. Staying on top requires a constant raising of the bar—and the periodic hard look in the mirror. As the area surrounding Lincoln Center has grown increasingly desirable, the campus itself has come to look more and more of a fortress: exclusive, elitist. On the occasion of the 50th anniversary, a $1.2 billion renovation of the entire campus under the leadership of Frank A. Bennack, Jr., the current chairman of Lincoln Center, aims to change all that.
The improvements—most of them completed or near completion—go far beyond the cosmetic. "Lincoln Center has been so barren in a way," says the architect Elizabeth Diller of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, creators of the new master plan. "The halls have been filled with a lot of life, but the public spaces have been pretty desolate. A big part of our mission is to bring people to the campus, even without tickets." But the transformation is as much about those who work there as those who come to visit. "A great complaint at Juilliard when we came in," Diller continues, "was that the students and faculty had no sense of being in New York, because the building was so cloistered, so inwardly focused. They wanted a connection to the outside world."
For the dance students at the school, the wish has come true in a sparkling jewel box of a studio overlooking the sharp northwest corner of Broadway and West 65th Street, the interior plainly visible from ground level. The new structure is suspended a dramatic 23 feet above the glassed-in lobby—also new—of Alice Tully Hall, home of the Chamber Music Society. The original entrance, in use since 1969, had all the allure of the side door of a fallout shelter. Suddenly, it is glamorous, overhung by a canopy like a gigantic kite or the prow of a ship. The southern façade of the Juilliard School has been extended in Italian travertine—the traditional building material of Lincoln Center—to abut new Broadway frontage of glass seeded with speckles of ceramic that filter the direct sun. The design even includes a neat stand of bleachers with a view of the dancers. Already those bleachers are very popular.
The same is sure to be true of the vest-pocket lawn in the saddle-shaped geometric form known as a hypar—which will form the roof of a new "destination" restaurant, an upscale attraction swells have long been clamoring for. Free Wi-Fi in all outdoor spaces campus-wide will be a magnet for students and the untethered many whose laptops are their work address. Steps away, the Harmony Atrium, long a pocket of urban blight, has been taken over as a Lincoln Center satellite, with stages for free performances and a centralized box office for cut-rate same-day tickets in all the principal halls. The atrium opens November 12.
The fountain, which has been dry for over a year, comes back on line in September. "For the constituents," Diller says, "that was the most sensitive spot on the entire campus. It's quite old, and it had to be computerized and brought up to date. We proposed a variety of new strategies, but in the end decided to leave it relatively the same. It's still cylindrical, but more geometric. The major difference is that the basin has been lowered into the plaza so the surface of the water is level with the pavement. The ring around it will 'float,' which will look kind of magical. And in terms of the action, there will be a couple of surprises."