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Published: Sunday, 4/10/2011

How to get to Carnegie Hall — from Toledo

BY DAVID KUSHMA
BLADE EDITOR

Don't bother telling Kathleen Carroll the old joke about how you get to Carnegie Hall. She's heard it, repeatedly.

Ms. Carroll is president and chief executive of the Toledo Symphony Orchestra, which will make its New York debut on May 7 at the world-renowned concert venue. It's taken a lot more than practice, practice, practice to get there.

It's taken more than two years of preparation, as well as energetic fund-raising to cover $250,000 in trip expenses. The image and economic boosts Toledo will get from the symphony's tour will benefit all of us, even if your idea of classical music is 1960s rock.

"We could use a bright spot," Ms. Carroll told me. "This isn't about being fancy, tuxedos and chandeliers and fur coats. It's about our community taking a well-deserved collective bow for the orchestra they've built, and about our gratitude for how people have poured out all kinds of support."

Toledo's 80-member symphony is one of seven orchestras, chosen from 65 applicants, that will take part in Carnegie Hall's new "Spring for Music" festival. The selection is a testament not only to the symphony's high level of musicianship, but also to its capacity for innovative programming.

"Anybody can rent Carnegie Hall," Ms. Carroll says. "But when you compete and win an invitation to perform on a stage that has been occupied by every important musical person for more than 120 years, it's a dream come true for the musicians. And they deserve it."

The symphony's risk-taking New York program includes Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, a theatrical collaboration of playwright Tom Stoppard and composer-conductor Andre Previn. The symphony is a character in the play, along with actors from the University of Toledo and Glacity Theater Collective.

Although the black comedy was first performed 35 years ago during the Cold War, its theme — the conflict between free expression and political repression — has ample current resonance in the popular revolts that are sweeping Arab nations and China.

The concert program leads off with Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 6, written and first performed in 1939. There's a connection, aside from symphony principal conductor Stefan Sanderling's fondness for the composer's work. Like the characters in the Stoppard play, Shostakovich expressed resistance to Soviet totalitarianism through music.

If you can't make it to the Big Apple, you can hear the symphony perform the Carnegie Hall program in concerts at the Peristyle on April 29 and 30. Nearly 1,400 people will travel from the Toledo area to attend the New York concert. They'll make up half of the Carnegie Hall audience.

Most of the concert tickets are $25, but some Toledo fans are paying $300 apiece to attend the performance and a party afterwards at — where else? — the Russian Tea Room.

Thomas Morris, a former executive of the Cleveland Orchestra, is artistic director of the Spring for Music festival. He says he is thrilled the Toledo Symphony will be part of the inaugural season and calls its concert program "great." He adds: "We are expecting you to hit it out of the park."

There's an economic-development element to the Carnegie Hall event as well as artistic ambitions. Ms. Carroll says local business and community leaders will entertain New York investors and corporate executives at the concert, using the symphony as an example of the quality of life Toledo offers residents and employers.

The Carnegie Hall concert will propel the symphony to national prominence. It will be broadcast in New York and across the country, as well as in Toledo.

The symphony's road to Carnegie Hall offers a contrast with the recent fortunes of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, which canceled its season amid bitter recriminations before its striking musicians reached a new contract with management last week.

Other, larger symphonies across the country also are suffering from cutbacks in philanthropic support, shrinking audiences, and swollen debt. Ms. Carroll says she takes no pleasure from those orchestras' pain. Toledo's symphony has endured its own financial challenges during the recession.

She says the symphony wouldn't have overcome those obstacles and increased its attendance this season, much less prepared to play Carnegie Hall, without major corporate and institutional sponsorship as well as community backing. In return, symphony musicians perform not just at the Peristyle, but also in classrooms, churches, and community centers throughout northwest Ohio.

When the symphony takes the stage at Carnegie Hall next month, Toledoans in the audience will make their presence known by waving red handkerchiefs — a high-toned counterpart to sports fans' homer hankies and terrible towels. Ms. Carroll invokes a baseball term to describe Carnegie Hall: "The Show."

"This is the big moment — our moment of arrival," she says. "Merit and a lot of hard work got us here. People will believe Toledo can do other things because we've done this."

David Kushma is editor of The Blade.

Contact him at: dkushma@theblade.com



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