Major concert venues like Carnegie Hall in New York, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, and the Musikverein in Vienna are most often associated with the biggest names in classical music. Young talent, however, has a place there, too. Carnegie Hall's Distinctive Debuts concerts, for example, present gifted young artists from all over the world in Weill Recital Hall each season. But these concerts are bigger than just Carnegie Hall: They are the fruit of an unusual collaborative arrangement with a network of major European concert halls.
The 15-member European Concert Hall Organization (ECHO)‹which includes Carnegie Hall, its only non-European member‹is an organization of concert hall directors who meet regularly to discuss issues and interests in common and to collaborate on special programs. For Rising Stars (the European title of the series), members nominate artists, who then perform their recital programs in the member halls with the prestige of all these institutions behind them.
This is how, in the 2000-2001 season, the American cellist Alisa Weilerstein, then 18 and a freshman at Columbia University, found herself playing seven concerts in London, Birmingham, Amsterdam, Athens, Brussels, Vienna, and New York. Weilerstein's career was just getting launched in the U.S.‹she had just won an Avery Fisher career grant and had started a two-year residency with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. The ECHO tour was her first big European concert experience. "I just had a great time everywhere," she recalls. "The recitals went very well. My pianist, David Laughton, is a great friend, and we took the time to look at the cities we were in. People were very warm, and the reception was wonderful." Indeed, the concerts were sold out. The Carnegie Hall nominees for 2003-04 are violinist Jennifer Frautschi and pianist John Blacklaw, who will perform at Weill Recital Hall on April 30, 2004; past notables in the series include the Miró Quartet and flutist Emmanuel Pahud.
Martijn Sanders, director of the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, started ECHO a dozen years ago as the result of a problem. "The agent of a touring orchestra that was coming to the hall was making all sorts of impossible demands, most of them having to do with sponsorship credit," Sanders recalls. "They told us that we were being very difficult, and that all other halls had agreed to what they wanted." Sanders decided to call their bluff. "I obtained the names of all these other halls, and started calling my colleagues, whom I did not know. As it turned out, they too had been told that they were being very difficult, and that all the other halls had agreed to these terms!"
Following these conversations, Sanders and Karsten Witt, who was then director of the Konzerthaus in Vienna, decided that concert hall directors could benefit from more regular communication, and organized a meeting. "We invited those halls that have an artistic policy and program of their own, apart from their resident orchestras, and are not just rental spaces," Sanders says. They felt that Carnegie Hall, which had a similar profile and philosophy, should be invited along with the Europeans. The first meeting, held in August 1990, drew 12 directors, including the late Judith Arron of Carnegie Hall. "Apparently, this was needed," Sanders says. "Many of these people had to be introduced to each other. We knew the managers of orchestras who visit our halls, but we didn't know each other."
ECHO now meets twice annually for two-day sessions, with rotating chairpersons and locations. Membership has changed over the years, and currently encompasses Birmingham Symphony Hall, the South Bank, Barbican, and Wigmore Halls in England; the Concertgebouw in the Netherlands; Cité de la Musique in Paris; the Konzerthaus and the Musikverein in Vienna; Carnegie Hall; and venues in Brussels, Stockholm, Athens, Cologne, and Baden-Baden. Sanders points out that the directors, not the halls, are the members and that collegiality and language flexibility are important considerations. The meeting agendas include such issues as sponsorship, education programs, and marketing programs, and the directors compare notes in the areas of commissions, hall rentals, and copyright. And while the American experience of fund-raising has been quite different from that of Europe, Sanders says that the Europeans find American expertise in that area increasingly useful as European halls, once heavily reliant on government support, begin to look elsewhere. "We see systems growing toward each other," he says. "Many halls are becoming increasingly dependent on private support. The more we grow in new directions, the more we can profit from each other's knowledge."
Artists, another major topic of conversation, led to the Rising Stars program, launched in 1995-96. "It is difficult for young artists to establish recognition in their own countries, let alone internationally," Sanders says. "If it is known that Carnegie Hall has recommended them, the European public and critics are interested." Each country may nominate an artist or ensemble each year. Since only six will tour, halls from the same country may collaborate on a nomination. The members try to balance the instruments and ensemble types in any given season, and each artist is expected to perform a contemporary piece on the recital. "It has to be an adventure for everyone," Sanders says. Some of the halls, like Carnegie Hall, have a smaller recital hall in which to present the series, but Rising Stars sells well even in such large facilities as Birmingham and Cologne. "It has become a major seller," Sanders says. "People recognize that this is something special. We now have other halls outside the group that are interested in taking on the series."
ECHO established itself formally three years ago in order to get European Community subsidy for Rising Stars and for a joint commissioning program, which, like Rising Stars, gives new work exposure in multiple venues. The first commission, Mauricio Kagel's Abduction in the Concert Hall, was performed by the Schoenberg Ensemble in the 2000-2001 season. The second, Counterphrases, a project in which ten composers wrote music for short dance phrases choreographed by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and filmed by Thierry de Mey, premiered this spring in Brussels. ECHO is at work on a third commission, involving composer Steve Reich.
For Robert Harth, executive and artistic director of Carnegie Hall, ECHO has proved to be "a terrific exchange of ideas in a very relaxed and informal environment." Harth is especially pleased with the collaborative projects and the tremendous pipeline of information about up-and-coming talent and new commissions. "ECHO provides a global perspective on arts presentation," he says. "And it is wonderful not only professionally but personally to develop friendships with directors of major concert halls throughout Europe." The next time some traveling orchestra tries to play one hall against the others, everyone will know better, or at least have someone to call.
Heidi Waleson is the opera critic for The Wall Street Journal.