Carnegie Hall’s First Opening Night: Tchaikovsky Pulls a Fast One?

As far uptown as Carnegie Hall was back in 1891, it wasn’t too far to draw the society crowd to the very first opening night on May 5. The hall was packed with the movers and shakers of the time: Rockefellers and Fricks (and Carnegies, of course), former mayors and current US senators.

All of them were there to see the big musical star of the day, direct from St. Petersburg, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. With a sold-out house and people without tickets paying ushers as much as a dollar and a half..., the composer was quite the draw.

The audience didn’t see much of him. Tchaikovsky joined the New York Symphony Orchestra on stage mid-way through the concert to conduct his own Marche solennelle, but Walter Damrosch, Carnegie’s partner in planning the new hall, led the rest of the concert.

Apparently, in offering up Marche solennelle for opening night, Tchaikovsky was trying to pull something of a fast one at that first opening night. Carnegie Hall archivist Gino Francesconi explains:

No one seemed to mind that Tchaikovsky had simply recycled his march for the coronation of Alexander III; that people were astute enough to know the music pleased the composer. “People in the US know my work better than they do in Russia, in my own home,” he commented. Wherever he went, Tchaikovsky was met with adoring fans and curious onlookers, a bona fide celebrity.

Carnegie Hall recently started its 2011–2012 season with Yo-Yo Ma performing Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme with Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra. That concert was also the start of a focus throughout the first two weeks of October on Tchaikovsky; if you want to learn more about the composer’s time in New York City, visit Carnegie Hall’s blog for more videos featuring Gino.

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