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Carnegie Hall to be given a new lease on life

By Greg Barns - posted Friday, 1 July 2005


Clive Gillinson is a rare beast in the world of classical music administrators - he’s an entrepreneur. The recently knighted 59-year-old, rescued one of the UK’s most venerable artistic institutions, the London Symphony Orchestra, from a slow and painful death. And now Gillinson is off to New York where from today he will be in charge of that staid but venerable name in the arts - Carnegie Hall.

Gillinson’s appointment has the New York arts community and media intrigued - he was the subject of a long feature in the New York Times Magazine recently.

Gillinson joined the LSO as cellist in 1970 and 14 years later took over the management reins of an orchestra that might have had a glorious past, but whose future was grim. The LSO was bleeding financially with a deficit of around 15 per cent of its revenues. Gillinson, staring down the barrel of oblivion, decided that the only thing to fear really, was fear itself, and set about creating what is today arguably Britain’s finest and most adventurous orchestra.

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Much of what Gillinson achieved at the LSO can be put down to his shrewd business skills, and accurate perception of the fickle and shifting tastes of the classical music audience. What Gillinson understood, which many of his colleagues still don’t today, is that classical music performance venues and groups needs to change their business model if they are to survive.

The LSO today has its own recording label, and is pricing its CDs at under $15 - making them affordable and big sellers. Its musicians often perform in smaller groups at concerts around London and the UK and in community venues such as nursing homes, housing estates and schools. And earlier this year Gillinson secured the services of one of the most exciting and crowd drawing conductors today, the Russian Valery Gergiev.

It was Gillinson - always with an eye to the future audience - who established an education program for schools. The program allows for students to create their own compositions, and the LSO will even help schools design their own special musical project.

The schools program and the community outreach program that the LSO runs are now housed in St Lukes - an old London church that Gillinson decided to buy and turn into a state of the art education and rehearsal facility. It’s a measure of the respect in which Gillinson is held by the LSO’s players that they contributed financially to the St Lukes’ project after the UK government refused the LSO more funds.

The St Lukes’ venture, along with the fact that he is brimming with entrepreneurial talent, probably helped persuade the trustees of Carnegie Hall to try their hand with Gillinson. St Lukes is not just the LSO’s “home away from home” but it’s where it draws revenue from businesses, charities, arts groups and other community organisations that use its facilities daily for conferences, performances, rehearsals and corporate events.

Carnegie Hall, which these days consists of three concert hall spaces, is also essentially a hall for hire. Its most famous tenant, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, left the Hall in 1962 to go to the newly constructed Lincoln Centre on New York’s Upper west side ending a residency of 70 years.

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In 2003 it looked as though Carnegie Hall and its star attraction might be reunited when a merger between the two organisations was proposed. After four months of negotiations the deal fell apart with Carnegie Hall unable to accommodate the needs of the New York Philharmonic, which schedules around 120 concerts a year.

Carnegie Hall has also suffered in recent years, despite its rude financial health, from losing two highly talented administrators. Judith Aaron who restored the Hall to glory after it looked as though it might not see in the 21st century, died in 1998 and her successor Robert Harth also died - of a heart attack after the New York Philharmonic deal went pear shaped.

With the newly commissioned and acoustically superb Zankel Hall now the Hall’s show piece, Gillinson has plenty of opportunity to experiment with clever programming and community outreach programs at Carnegie Hall. He needs to, because the Hall’s audience is greying, and its programming is still relatively conservative.

At Carnegie Hall Gillinson will be freed from the constraints of the British arts bureaucracy and has the chance to shake-up its staid image and make it the very model of an open and innovative 21st century concert space. Given his track record at the LSO Carnegie Hall is set to be in the news a good deal more over the next few years.

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About the Author

Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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