The Avery Fisher Awards, to be announced on April 10, are one of classical music's most prestigious — and useful — awards, given to both promising and accomplished musicians. They grew out of an unusual phone call that Frank Gilligan, the chief fund-raiser for Lincoln Center, received in 1973.
The caller refused to disclose his identity. Nor would he say who the potential benefactor he represented was — only that the benefactor had a very specific goal in mind. He wanted to contribute money for a new building at Lincoln Center.
Gilligan reported the call to John Mazzola, then the president of Lincoln Center, who agreed to meet with the middleman. He showed him around the campus, after which they sat down on a bench near the Henry Moore reflecting pool. The only building Lincoln Center was toying with at the time, Mazzola told his guest, was a dormitory for students of Juilliard and the School of American Ballet. The potential donor, his representative declared, was more focused on directly supporting music.
Mazzola thought a moment. "We could rename Philharmonic Hall," he declared. That piqued the representative's interest.
A meeting with the benefactor was arranged. Mazzola informed Carlos Moseley, then the president of the New York Philharmonic. He felt awkward that he did not yet even know the benefactor's name that would potentially replace "Philharmonic Hall."
"It doesn't matter what his name is," Moseley said. "I'll learn how to spell it."
When the benefactor arrived at Mazzola's office, his negotiator simply introduced him as Mr. Fisher. Mazzola wracked his brains. Was this Fisher the auto body manufacturer? Was this a representative of the powerful New York real estate family? It didn't occur to him until the conversation began that this might be Avery Fisher, who had made a fortune in high fidelity equipment.
Born in 1906, Avery Fisher had graduated from New York University and gone into publishing, which he did not find satisfying. A lover of music, he had studied the violin as a youth. He was also fascinated by sound reproduction and toyed with audio equipment in his spare time. When motion pictures had begun to talk, the industry had undergone great convulsions in adopting sound equipment. To study how they worked, Fisher acquired the first speakers that the industry had used, which had quickly become outmoded.
He was annoyed at the quality of sound available on radios and the then-78 rpm record players and thought there might be business opportunities in offering the public better options. Interestingly, he named his new company Philharmonic Radio. (In 1945 he sold that company and started a new one, named Fisher Radio.)
Over the years Fisher pioneered the development of the amplifier as well as home stereo. Although his understanding of the technical aspects of sound made him an innovator he was also unconventional in his business practices. John O'Keefe, now a consultant to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was for many years a public relations consultant for Lincoln Center. In 1953, just after he was discharged from the Army, O'Keefe bought a Fisher high-fidelity console for his small flat in Brooklyn Heights. Shortly afterward he was playing a recording of a Mozart Symphony when the system went out.
He called the Fisher Company, where the operator mistakenly put him through to Fisher himself. O'Keefe explained his situation. Fisher told him it sounded serious and that he would be right over! He did indeed show up and fixed the problem. Many years later, when O'Keefe visited Fisher as part of his Lincoln Center duties, he noted that Fisher had the same console model in his living room. It was clearly a product in which he took particular pride, which perhaps explained his willingness to make that "house call."
In 1969 Fisher sold his company to Emerson Radio for $31 million, which in turn sold it to the Japanese giant Sanyo, all of which enabled Fisher to consider becoming a generous benefactor of Lincoln Center. At first, however, he wasn't sure he wanted his name on the hall. After all, he asked Mazzola, who remembered Major Deegan, despite the famous New York City roadway named after him?
"I don't know what he did," Mazzola responded, "but we certainly know his name." And he persuaded Fisher to make the donation in exchange for the renaming.
But Fisher didn't want all the money to go for the building. He set $2 million aside for awards to artists, and thus was born the Avery Fisher Artist Program.
There are two categories, the Award itself and the Career Grants, both of which carry financial stipends. They are not applied for but rather chosen by a panel of expert musicians and respected musical administrators. The recipients are a veritable Who's Who of classical music in the U.S. (One stipulation is that they must be U.S. citizens or permanent U.S. residents.)
Among the earliest recipients of the Prize was Emanuel Ax, who received it in 1979. By that time, he was already appearing under the aegis of Young Concert Artists and had also won the Artur Rubinstein Prize in Israel in 1974.
"Winning a competition doesn't really mean you're better than anyone else," Ax says now. "There is a limited amount of space in which we ply our trade and this prize gives you more chances to perform. When I got it, the cash amount was $5,000, which meant more then than it does now. But equally important was that it involved performances with all the Lincoln Center constituents.
"As the prize has grown in stature it has changed in nature — the people who have got it in recent years have already played with Lincoln Center constituents. The Avery Fisher Prize is more a recognition of accomplishment than a helping hand.
"Do the recipients need the money?" he continues. "Sometimes they do. In most cases, though, they're not using it to pay the rent. You can use it to commission a composer or to endow a scholarship. People sometimes forget that a musical career can take many forms. Touring and giving concerts is only one. Establishing yourself in a community and raising consciousness of classical music is another."
This year's prize carries with it a monetary award of $75,000. In addition, all Award recipients will have their names engraved for posterity on a marble plaque in the Avery Fisher Hall lobby.
The 2007 Award is being given to violinist Joshua Bell, who was singled out once before by the Program as a 1986 Career Grant recipient. Career Grants for 2007, in the amount of $25,000 each, are awarded on April 10.
Howard Kissel reviews theater, art, and classical music
for the New York Daily News.