Two of the country’s most renowned music venues are in Midtown: Carnegie Hall and Radio City Music Hall. But while each is a physical and cultural landmark, they have little else in common, other than being passion projects led by members of the nation’s elite—industrialist Andrew Carnegie in the case of the former and financier John D. Rockefeller Jr. for the latter.
Carnegie Hall is the elder of the two. While on their honeymoon in 1887, Carnegie’s wife introduced him to the conductor of the Oratorio Society of New York, of which she was a member. The society was in search of a new theater, and Carnegie was impressed enough by the conductor’s plea that two years later he bought much of the eastern side of Seventh Avenue between 56th and 57th Streets in order to build one. The theater, then known simply as Music Hall, opened in May 1891, with Pyotr Tchaikovsky conducting his own “Marche Solennelle.”
The exterior of Carnegie Hall. Image: Martin Dürrschnabel/Wikimedia
The exterior of the building displays a strong Italian Renaissance influence, complete with terracotta details. The interior is even more lavish—though subdued compared with other Gilded Age buildings—with marble Corinthian columns, an ornate golden cornice, and a lushly embellished vaulted ceiling. The building cost $1.1 million (roughly $28.5 million in today’s dollars), most of which came from Carnegie himself.
One of the city’s few remaining large structures built without a steel frame, Carnegie Hall today encompasses three halls. The main hall, which seats 2,804 people on five tiers, was renamed the Isaac Stern Auditorium in 1997, in honor of the violinist’s efforts in the 1960s to prevent the building from being razed; it was here that the New York Philharmonic performed from 1892 to 1962. Zankel Hall seats 599 on two levels, and the intimate Joan and Sanford I. Weill Recital Hall seats just 268.
Carnegie Hall was the site of numerous firsts. Antonin Dvořák’s “New World Symphony” made its world debut here in 1893; Richard Strauss conducted the world premiere of his “Symphonia Domestica” in the hall in 1904; Sergei Prokofiev conducted the stateside premiere of his First Symphony in 1918; George Gershwin performed the world premiere of .his “Concerto in F” in 1925.
The lobby of Carnegie Hall. Image: Payton Chung/Flickr
The hall’s performances were not limited to classical music. Booker T. Washington, Winston Churchill, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Groucho Marx, and J.K. Rowling are among those who spoke on one of its stages. Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Bill Haley and His Comets, Bob Dylan, Patsy Cline, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Frank Zappa are among other diverse performers who took the stage. And Carnegie Hall was the site of what is perhaps one of the seminal concerts recorded live: Judy Garland’s debut there in 1961.
Carnegie Hall continues to be a vibrant venue, with at least one performance scheduled just about every evening. This October alone will see the Orchestra of St. Luke’s performing “Peter and the Wolf,” the Philadelphia Orchestra with Chick Corea, soprano Renée Fleming, and pianist Michael Feinstein performing works by Harold Arlen, among others.
Radio City Music Hall, making up the eastern block of Sixth Avenue between 50th and 51st Streets, is part of the Rockefeller Center complex. Designed with the medley of opulent and industrial materials that was a hallmark of Art Deco, the interior features marble and Bakelite, gold foil and aluminum, with specially commissioned carpets, wallpaper, murals, and sculptures. In addition to its stage, framed by a 60-foot-high proscenium arch, the hall includes eight lounges, each with its own themed decor. Its stage curtain is the world’s largest, and in fact Radio City claims to be the world’s largest indoor theater.
Radio City Music Hall at night. Image: Mack Male/Flickr
Ray Bolger (the Scarecrow in “The Wizard of Oz”), dance maverick Martha Graham, and the Rockettes precision-dance team were on the hall’s December 1932 opening bill. But though Rockefeller and his collaborators, who included RCA chairman David Sarnoff, envisioned the venue as being the site of upscale variety programs, the public snubbed those shows. Radio City quickly was converted to a movie theater that offered a stage show along with screenings. The first film shown was “The Bitter Tea of General Yen,” starring Barbara Stanwyck, in 1933. The original “King Kong,” “National Velvet,” “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “To Kill a Mockingbird” (whose star, Gregory Peck, once worked as an usher in the theater), and “Mary Poppins” are just a few of the movies that debuted here. Up until 1979 the theater showed four movie-plus-live-performance stagings every day.
Inside Radio City Music Hall. Image: Andreas Praefcke/Wikimedia
Radio City Music Hall is best known for its annual Christmas Spectaculars. The first show, in 1933, accompanied the movies “Flying Down to Rio” and “The Night Before Christmas.” Featuring the Rockettes as well as singing and humorous holiday-themed sketches, the shows now commandeer the hall from early November to New Year’s Day each year.
Even if the Christmas Spectacular does not appeal, you are likely to find other shows to entice you to Radio City. In October, for instance, concerts by pop/hip-hop performer Solange, rock band Paramore, and legendary vocalist Tony Bennett are scheduled; after the Christmas Spectacular ends its run, “Daily Show” host Trevor Noah will perform standup.