Tune in to all the vibes around Carnegie Hall
Stay, eat, explore on foot near the famous venue
NEW YORK — We all know how to get to Carnegie Hall: Practice, practice, practice. What is less well known, even for the experienced New York visitor, is that the area around the hall is a good place to stay, particularly if you’re interested in the arts.
The neighborhood is easier to drive in and out of, it’s a step or two removed from the chaos of Times Square, it’s home to world-class museums, and it’s easy walking distance to Central Park and any number of cultural attractions from the Museum of Modern Art to Lincoln Center to the Theater District.
Carnegie Hall was almost lost to the wrecker’s ball in 1960 when developers wanted the Seventh Avenue site between 56th and 57th streets for an office tower. Lincoln Center was under construction, which seemingly made the hall redundant, particularly at a time when there wasn’t the appreciation for jewels like the old terra cotta and spotted brick building there is today. Isaac Stern, the violinist, led a campaign to save the hall, energizing the classical music community to say no to City Hall and leading the effort to restore it in 1986.
Today, Carnegie Hall is as much a part of Stern’s legacy as his playing. It is an infinitely better place to hear classical music than Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center. Carnegie’s main hall, Stern Auditorium/Perelman Stage, rivals Boston’s Symphony Hall and Cleveland’s Severance Hall in terms of acoustics and old-world charm. I’ve rarely seen a pair of concerts that so captured the transcendent spirit of musical modernism as Pierre Boulez’s concerts with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra last year. The hall made the crispness and clarity of Boulez’s conducting and the Chicagoans’ playing of Bartok and Stravinsky, Dalbavie, and Boulez himself, apparent to even those who thought that great music had ended in the 19th century.
And the hall is famous not just for classical music. You could teach a seminar on American music using just the live concerts recorded there (most are available in the gift shop) — Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Judy Garland, Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, Benny Goodman, Stevie Ray Vaughan, even early Bob Dylan.
Today it’s home to festivals that not only showcase the talents of one artist, but also show where he or she fits into the musical cosmos. It might be the pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard demonstrating Messiaen’s indebtedness to Debussy or David Byrne offering a rock musical about Imelda Marcos. With three halls of varying sizes, the mix of emerging artists and established greats feels like one-stop shopping for quality music of all genres.
The midsize Zankel Hall feels a bit like Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood, which is fitting because this year Ozawa, former Boston Symphony music director, joins Tatsuya Shimono in leading JapanNYC, a festival in two parts. Ozawa is being treated for esophageal cancer, but he and Shimono will conduct the Saito Kinen Orchestra this week in works of Brahms, Berlioz, and Takemitsu, among others. Part two is in March and April.
If you plan on attending, you can often find hotel deals in the area around the hall — from 50th Street to Central Park. I’ve had good luck with Novotel, though I also have fond memories of the Hilton New York where one night, after a 3 a.m. fire alarm went off, the front desk attendant, who didn’t have a stellar command of the language, announced over the room speakers, “There is no fire. Please go back to your regular activities.’’ The Warwick has tons of historic charm and Randolph’s Bar & Lounge, an elegant post-theater place. You can look out onto Sixth Avenue as you nurse your drink or indulge in people-watching inside. My brush with greatness there was bumping into Edward Albee.
Russian, Italian, and French restaurants abound in the area. You can’t get much closer to Carnegie Hall than Trattoria Dell’Arte, right across 7th Avenue, a big, bold place with flavorful pasta dishes, excellent service, and a solid selection of Italian wines. It also boasts having the largest antipasto bar in New York. I generally favor more intimate Italian restaurants, but this place has a festive personality. The restaurant was designed by Milton Glaser to look like a Tuscan art studio with paintings of noses and sculptures of half-finished body parts. It’s pricey, but worth a splurge.
The Russian Tea Room is in the area, but a friend steered me to Petrossian for Sunday brunch. The offerings were flavorful and small, though considering the added girth after a weekend in New York, that didn’t bother me. A pleasant surprise on a night when we didn’t make reservations was Maison, which features seafood and crepe dishes from seaside places in Brittany. The trout was quite tasty and the informal atmosphere just what we were looking for. Speaking of informal, there are several old-time delis. My favorite in the area is the Brooklyn Diner.
The other great nearby cultural landmark is the Museum of Modern Art. Its big exhibit at the moment is “Abstract Expressionist New York.’’ If Pollock, Rothko, and de Kooning are your thing, impress your New York friends and tell them you’re going to Ab Ex. Don’t miss the rooms devoted to earlier 20th-century artists.
One other place to visit in the immediate neighborhood is the Paley Center for Media, (formerly the Museum of Television & Radio). A tribute to John Lennon (the 30th anniversary of his death was Dec. 8) is on through December, but the gravitational pull comes from the screening room, which houses over 150,000 TV and radio programs available for public viewing. Watch Walter Cronkite’s coverage of President Kennedy’s assassination on
But don’t spend too much time with Huntley and Brinkley or Lucy and Desi. Around Carnegie Hall, the past is prologue to a vibrant present.
Ed Siegel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.