The diva soars into a high note that rises through the air, the musicians hit a crescendo that seems to stop time itself, and the applauding crowd leaps to its feet for a rousing ovation.
A great big concert on the famous main stage at Carnegie Hall? A performance in Carnegie Hall's newest venue, the intimate Zankel Hall?
Nope. Just another show produced by the Carnegie Hall / Citigroup Neighborhood Concert Series. For 30 years now, the Neighborhood Concert Series has presented a broad array of musical artists in the hearts of the richly diverse communities that make up the city. The current, spring edition of the Neighborhood Concert Series brings music to the people at 36 different venues, ranging from the city's public libraries to grassroots community centers to churches, universities, and local performing arts centers. Through June 25, the program presents over 50 one-hour concerts in a dizzying range of styles: classical, Afro-Brazilian, jazz, folk, popular song, klezmer, tango, and even several genre-defying hybrids that demonstrate the series's deliberately eclectic point of view. All told, a total of 100 Neighborhood Concerts will be presented this year.
Best of all, the Neighborhood Concerts are free. Seating is on a first-come, first-seated basis. Space is limited in some venues, so it's a good idea to call ahead; visit carnegiehall.org for details and contact information. The Neighborhood Concert Series is run by The Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall, which develops and implements the Hall's dynamic music education programs, and the 2005-2006 Neighborhood Concert Series is sponsored by the Citigroup Foundation.
The Carnegie Hall / Citigroup Neighborhood Concert program offers a new answer to that age-old question: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? If you live anywhere in the five boroughs, Carnegie Hall comes to you. This month alone, Neighborhood Concerts illustrate that old Rodgers and Hart song; they'll take Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island, too. Plus Brooklyn and Queens! Just a few of the sites: El Museo del Barrio in Manhattan; Mosholu Montefiore Community Center in the Bronx; Kingsborough Community College's Performing Arts Center in Brooklyn; Langston Hughes Community Library and Cultural Center in Queens; and Snug Harbor Cultural Center in Staten Island. The series also stages events at unexpected locations, such as the historic South Street Seaport Museum all the way downtown, Maspeth's Town Hall, and even the Citibank branch on Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights. In a nice bit of historical symmetry, several Carnegie Hall Neighborhood Concerts are given in public libraries, many of which were initially funded by none other than Andrew Carnegie, who built not only his namesake music hall on 57th Street but libraries in New York City and throughout the country.
The spring season of the Neighborhood Concerts began on April 1, and one of the highpoints thus far was a special concert on April 29 celebrating the 30th anniversary of the series. Latin superstar Paquito D'Rivera and his Quintet joined the Bronx Arts Ensemble String Section for the occasion at Hostos Center for the Arts and Culture in the Bronx. Other concerts have included the McCollough Sons of Thunder, a 16-piece brass band that deserves its name, and the Birmingham Sunlights, an a cappella gospel quartet, at Aaron Davis Hall on the CUNY campus on West 135th Street; Imani Winds, the African American and Latino woodwind quintet with a repertoire that ventures from Maurice Ravel to Astor Piazzola and Mongo Santamaria at the Tompkins Square branch of the public library in the East Village; and the bluegrass band Straight Drive and the blues team of Cephas and Wiggins at the Ethical Culture Society on Central Park West.
Who's on the slate this month? Here are a few highlights. The Soul Shakers, African American vocalists who croon and swivel their way through classic doo-wop in harmonies that are this close, will get audiences all worked up on June 13 at the Museum of the City of New York and on June 22 at St. Margaret's House in lower Manhattan. The hipsters of Dave's True Story will bring elegant pop-jazz songs with an edge‹their tunes revolve around psychic readings, postmodern poseurs, and prescription medication‹to the South Street Seaport Museum on June 16. Avantango, an exciting ensemble of tango musicians and dancers that incorporates jazz improvisation and reinvents tango for the here and now, will perform on June 11 at Our Savior's Atonement Lutheran Church in Washington Heights. Staten Island's Snug Harbor Cultural Center gets a jolt of nouveau klezmer when the David Glukh Klezmer Ensemble takes the stage on June 25. Those seemingly unlikely pairings of venue and musical style‹tango in a Lutheran church? klezmer in Snug Harbor?‹capture the gorgeous-mosaic nature of the Neighborhood Concert Series: as in a great neighborhood, multiple communities co-exist comfortably, each offering the other fresh perspectives and cultural enrichment.
The team behind the Carnegie Hall / Citigroup Neighborhood Concert Series collaborates closely with community groups across the city and forges relationships with local officials and presenters so that the concerts are not just one-shot deals. Instead, multiple concerts by a changing assortment of musical ensembles engage the community, so that live music is woven into the cultural life of the neighborhood. The series even embraces the youngest music lovers with its Workshop Concerts, which are meant for children from three to 12 years old (accompanied by parents or caregivers).
It took some nerve to dispatch musicians into the city's neighborhoods in 1976, the first year of the Neighborhood Concerts. After all, 1976 was not exactly the greatest moment in New York's history. Sure, the bicentennial fanfare marking the nation's 200th anniversary, complete with tall ships and patriotic fervor, was fun, but the city was in a profound financial crisis, subways were like something out of Dante, and the Daily News's fall 1975 headline‹"FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD"‹still echoed loudly. Starting Neighborhood Concerts was a real vote of confidence by Carnegie Hall in a troubled city. More than that, Neighborhood Concerts represented an investment in the fabric of the city's communities and a testament to the power of music to bring people together.
As part of the celebrations of the 30th anniversary of its Neighborhood Concerts, Carnegie Hall is harnessing some star power this season in addition to D'Rivera's April 29 event. On June 20 the extraordinary singer and actor Audra McDonald will perform at SummerStage in Central Park. McDonald does it all‹she's got a nice trove of Tony Awards, her albums earn raves, and she has recently ventured into modern opera. No one else can invest a song with the warmth and intensity that are McDonald's great gifts. She gave a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall on April 29, so hearing her in the great outdoors, for free, will be a rare treat. On July 27 Kronos Quartet‹the group that turned chamber music into the hippest thing around‹will offer one of their characteristically adventurous programs when they perform composer Philip Glass's 1998 soundtrack to the 1931 film of Dracula. Given in Prospect Park as part of the Celebrate Brooklyn! festival, the concert will feature a screening of the movie. And the whole thing is free of charge. That's the Carnegie Hall / Citigroup Neighborhood Concert Series for you.
Robert Sandla writes frequently about the arts.