Monday, January 31, 2022

How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

"Practice, practice, practice" comes the answer, in this well-known old joke. In the light of my own recent experience this adage needs to be amended. When I first played at Carnegie Hall many years ago I was proudly shown a letter by the hall administration from Gershwin, thanking Carnegie Hall for their help. Carnegie Hall had witnessed the premiere of An American in Paris in 1928 and in September 1935 Carnegie Hall was the location chosen for a private rehearsal of his opera Porgy and Bess, the first full orchestral run-through without cuts. Prior to its Boston and New York premieres this was the very first time the opera had ever been heard in its entirety, and aside from the performers the only others present in the vast auditorium were a few friends and family. Ira Gershwin described the occasion thus: "Until then only George knew what it would sound like. I couldn't believe my ears. That wonderful orchestra and the full chorus on the stage. I never realized it would be like that. It was one of the great thrills of my life". Ann Brown, who sang Bess in the opening production, has also left us an evocative description of that first Carnegie Hall run-through: "When the echoes of the last chords of Porgy and Bess had disappeared into the nearly empty hall, we were – all of us – in tears. It had been so moving."

In the late spring of 2019 I was deeply honored to be asked to play again at Carnegie Hall in the autumn of 2019 for an event that was described to me as celebrating 100 years of diplomatic relations between Poland and America (with in attendance a sea of specially invited guests from embassies, consulates, the UN and so forth). I had been asked to contribute the music of two composers who are central to my repertoire, Chopin and Gershwin, ending the evening with the latter’s Rhapsody in Blue. In addition I would be working with the soprano Angel Blue in extracts from Porgy and Bess (Angel Blue was about to open in the lead role of the New York Metropolitan Opera's first production of Porgy and Bess in 30 years). Also invited to take part was the Canadian pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin, and other distinguished artists, and in addition I would be working with soloists from the Polish National Ballet on a specially devised choreography of my own authentic Gershwin repertoire. It sounded like a dream concert and one I was only too happy to be a part of. The fact that I had yet to be told the name of the organisation behind the concert was odd, but in the light of the artists I would be working with it seemed unimportant at the time.

Fast forwarding a few months (and bear with me in this change of direction) at the end of July 2019 I was reading troubling reports from the BBC of a Polish weekly magazine called Gazeta Polska, who were offering printed stickers to their readers declaring LGBT-free zones using a chilling symbol of a black X superimposed on the rainbow flag [Poland court bans 'LGBT-free zone' sticker from sale]. Further reading led to an equally chilling editorial from the Gazeta Polska's editor Tomasz Sakiewicz describing LGBT as "an ideology that has all the features of a totalitarian one", justifying the statement with nefarious comparisons with the tactics of the Communist and Nazi regimes.

Imagine my shock only minutes after reading these reports when I turned to the Carnegie Hall website and for the first time discovered that the concert I was due to take part in on October 24 was being "presented by the Gazeta Polska Community of America". I immediately requested clarification from my contact in Warsaw, as well as from friends in the Polish community, and it quickly became apparent that there was no disguising the close affiliation with the Gazeta Polska magazine in Poland. The Carnegie Hall event had been benignly billed as "From Chopin to Gershwin" and I imagined that without any media scrutiny most New Yorkers would probably remain unaware of the anti-LGBT propaganda that lay behind a concert soon to be promoted throughout the city.

Needless to say I had no choice but to withdraw from the concert after discovering the link. It was not a decision I took lightly, but I could not with good conscience take part in an event that had connections to an organization that expressed views that I regarded as abhorrent and which were in opposition to everything I stood for. I also felt it my duty to let the other performers involved know the nature of the organisation behind the concert. After contacting both Charles Richard-Hamelin and Angel Blue and informing them of the activities of Gazeta Polska, they both had no hesitation in withdrawing from the event as well. And thus it was that I found myself in the unhappy position of dismantling what had at first seemed like a dream concert at Carnegie Hall. I was glad to read on 25 August 2019 that the latest artist caught in the Gazeta Polska trap, the pianist Paul Bisaccia, has also wisely withdrawn from the event – not an easy thing to do given the allure of Carnegie Hall.

The sad aspect of all this is that music, more than any other art form, has the extraordinary ability to bring people together, to rise above prejudice, welcoming everyone, regardless of our differences, to its enchanting harmonies. On 26 July 2019, the day I withdrew from the Carnegie Hall concert after learning of the Gazeta Polska connection, I wrote a Facebook post on the remarkable Astolphe de Custine. Astolphe de Custine was one of Chopin's most ardent supporters and contained within his correspondence are some remarkable letters to Chopin, including an extraordinary one written after Chopin’s last public performance in Paris in 1848, containing these memorable lines: "Art, as you understand it, is the only thing that can unite mankind divided by the hard realities of life. One may love and understand one's neighbour through Chopin." Astolphe de Custine had good reason to write such words, having been persecuted for his homosexuality, at one point beaten and left for dead, and subject to the most vile homophobic attacks in the press; his remarks could not be more apposite here.

So, to return to my opening remark, how do you get to Carnegie Hall? Well apparently it helps if you DON'T use a moral compass.

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Further reading

Anti-Gay Brutality in a Polish Town Blamed on Poisonous Propaganda

For further reading, here is a harrowing personal account from a march in Białystok, Poland in July, translated by my dear friend Antonia Lloyd-Jones [warning, the account contains strong language that some may find offensive]: The struggle for LGBT equality: Pride meets prejudice in Poland

[Marian Anderson singing at Carnegie Hall on January 5th 1947]

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