February 06, 2002 / Journal /
As the winter Olympics have been taking place out in Utah, I’ve been moving around North America with the members of the Royal Amsterdam Concertgebouw on their annual tour of the US and Canada, playing Shostakovich Concerto No.1. I haven’t been playing every concert on their tour, because they’ve been traveling with two concert programs, only one of which included me. But I was scheduled to perform with them in Carnegie Hall (New York), Roy Thompson Hall (Toronto), and Orchestra Hall (Chicago) – and at this point, I’m one down, two to go.
Carnegie Hall, which kicked off the tour, brought back many memories. I’ve played in that legendary venue with a different orchestra every year since I was 16 – but on the afternoon of this latest Concertgebouw concert, when I was granted a few minutes to practice onstage by myself; what came to mind as I stood facing the empty hall was my first solo Carnegie performance, way back when I was 12 years old. Actually, it was a performance that nobody saw. At the time, I was the youngest member of the orchestra of the Curtis Institute, and I had traveled to New York to play in the back of the second violins in one of Curtis’ periodic Carnegie Hall concerts. During one of the rehearsal breaks – when everybody else had left to look around the city – I stayed behind, waiting until the hall was empty, and then went out on stage by myself, rearranged a few chairs, planted myself in the soloist’s spot, and played through the entire Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, a capella to an empty hall. Well, not completely empty: one of the janitors came in and sat down in the back, and he was my audience. When I finished, I bowed, put all the chairs back where they belonged, and left to eat my lunch – and that was my Carnegie Hall debut.
This year, before last night’s concert with the Concertgebouw, I wasn’t quite sure how things would feel onstage, because it had been nearly a month since we had played the Shostakovich together back in Amsterdam. Those had been fine concerts, but in the interim I had been working on that piece with other orchestras in Europe. Meanwhile, the Concertgebouw had been playing it on tour with another violinist. I suspected that both the orchestra and I would have changed our ways of playing the piece, and I knew that in preparation for Carnegie Hall, we would have less than 15 minutes on stage to do a quick sound-check and get back into the swing of things together. Even though we used that time well – quickly reviewing potential problem spots and adjusting balances to suit Carnegie’s particular sound – it was hard to know how things would go in the concert.
An hour after the sound-check, Carnegie Hall was full, Riccardo Chailly (a keen collaborator and terrific natural performer) was on the podium to my left, my friend Alex Kerr was seated to my right as concertmaster, and we were off and playing the Shostakovich, one of my favorite concertos. It felt as if we had never been apart, and the entire concert was a real thrill.
By the way, at some point in the concerto, one more Carnegie memory came briefly to mind. In the time since I had last played in Carnegie Hall, Isaac Stern (the great American violinist) had passed away, and the main hall of the Carnegie complex had been named the Isaac Stern Auditorium. My memory was this: a few minutes before my official Carnegie Hall debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra at 16, I was heading downstairs towards the stage in my concert dress, carrying my violin, when I passed a squat, vigorous man striding in the other direction. It was Isaac Stern, whom I’d never met before; as I looked back over my shoulder at him, he turned around, waved, and pointed a finger at me, and called out, “Hilary, have fun out there.” And I did.
Yours from New York City,