From Our House to the White House

Classic Arts Features   From Our House to the White House
The New York Philharmonic's Presidential history.

On May 14, 1959, Lincoln Center was a barren construction site when President Dwight D. Eisenhower presided at the groundbreaking for the Philharmonic's new home. After the 50-minute ceremony at which Leonard Bernstein conducted Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man and Beethoven's Egmont Overture, the Chief Executive expressed the hope that he would become "a regular patron before long."

But that never happened for Ike or for presidents who preceded and followed him in office. Blame packed schedules as well as Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton: their deal in 1790 establishing a national capital on the banks of the Potomac deprived Presidents yet unborn of a relaxing Philharmonic evening after a hard day at the Oval Office.

The Presidency, however, does have its perks: if an officeholder can't make it to New York, he can invite the Philharmonic to Washington. Eisenhower himself did just that. The concert, on April 5, 1960, at the White House followed a formal state dinner for Colombian President Alberto Lleras. Leonard Bernstein did double duty as conductor and pianist, offering Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and movements of a Mozart Piano Concerto.

Eisenhower's predecessor, Harry Truman, also called upon the Philharmonic, led by Greek-born conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos, to play a benefit for Greece's postwar orphaned refugees. Before the concert at Washington's Constitution Hall on November 6, 1952, the Orchestra's 112 members were introduced to the distinguished amateur pianist from Missouri who, in 1945, had been elected an Honorary Member of the Philharmonic "in recognition of his devotion to good music." The only other Chief Executive recognized in this way was Calvin Coolidge.

John F. Kennedy would have come to Lincoln Center's new Philharmonic Hall on Sunday, September 23, 1962, for the gala opening, but he was stuck in Washington playing host to Pakistan's General Mohammed Ayub Khan. Not to fret‹the First Lady flew in, heard half the performance, and got a peck on the cheek from the conductor, Leonard Bernstein, at intermission. (Returning at a later date, she would find that seat No. 102 bore a plaque, "Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, from her friends‹Miss Porter's School, Farmington, Conn.")

Just 14 months later, on November 22, 1963, George Szell's Philharmonic program was interrupted by word of President Kennedy's assassination. The remainder of the concert was cancelled, and the next two performances of the all-Beethoven program substituted the Funeral March from the Eroica for the Leonore Overture. On Sunday evening, November 24, Mr. Bernstein led the Orchestra on a CBS network memorial telecast of Mahler's Resurrection Symphony, which the conductor described as a work of hope rather than of sorrow.

The Beethoven Funeral March that the Orchestra played to honor Kennedy had served the same purpose nearly 100 years earlier. Audiences at the Philharmonic's April 29, 1865, concert received a somber insert announcing that, following "the sudden and awful death" of Abraham Lincoln, they would not hear the "Ode to Joy" from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, but rather the Eroica's Funeral March as "a fitting tribute to our departed Head."

The Philharmonic also responded with a dedicatory program when Franklin Delano Roosevelt died, but there was some controversy when conductor Artur Rodzinski proposed Richard Strauss's Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life). With World War II still raging, Strauss's Nazi association repelled many, so Brahms's Second Symphony was played instead.

On a happier note, in 1982, during Ronald Reagan's administration, 60 members of the Philharmonic, led by Bombay-born Music Director Zubin Mehta, traveled to Washington to play for Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The ensemble performed Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Gershwin, and Bruch under a starlit July sky on the White House South Lawn. "There we were, one with nature," Mr. Mehta reported. "I was so moved I didn't know when it started and when it ended." The president termed Mr. Mehta's effort "a wonderful example of shuttle diplomacy."

And shuttle diplomacy, it seems, will remain the rule when presidents call upon the Philharmonic, all because of that long-ago handshake between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.

Elliot Rosenberg is a New York-based freelancer who writes frequently about history.

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