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Classical 101

Music In Mid-Ohio: The Columbus Symphony At Carnegie Hall

 Carnegie Hall entrance
Ajay Suresh

This Sunday’s Music in Mid-Ohio, the season finale, presents the Columbus Symphony as heard in Carnegie Hall in April of 2001. We’ll hear Brahms Symphony number 2, and selections from the prologue to Boito’s opera Mefistofele.

The Symphony went to Carnegie Hall. So did the Columbus Symphony Chorus and children’s chorus, with conductors Ronald Jenkins and Sandra Mathias. Alessandro Siciliani led the entire performance. This was Gala-- capital G.

You know the old expression “You had to be there”. I WAS. So might you have been, reading this blog. Let me tell you this was an Occasion.

The Columbus Symphony had begun performances in 1951, conducted by George Hardesty.

I interviewed George Hardesty in 2001. He told me “I worked hard to get the business community involved. Would you believe, they bought it!”

Fifty years later the gala committees were meeting and funding was secured. Not only was there a great season planned for the Ohio Theater, but the trip to Carnegie Hall, the band’s New York debut, was suggested and funded.

What about WOSU? The station had long been the broadcast home of the Columbus Symphony. Program Director Dave Carwile got behind the idea of a live broadcast back to Columbus of the Carnegie Hall concert. Yes, the program had already been heard in Columbus itself. But come on, this was Carnegie Hall. The symphony management and Maestro Siciliani were enthusiastic about the idea.

I don’t know who found the money for Dave, radio operations guru Kevin Petrilla and myself to tag along to New York, but tag we did. Fancy duds and radio equipment in tow.

Now, I had lived in New York for many years. I knew my way around. I thought I knew my way around Carnegie Hall. Sure, I had often been in that magnificent auditorium. I knew where the bathrooms were. I had seen Callas, Horowitz and Bernstein in and out of the stage door (56th St.). How cool would it be to broadcast from the world’s most famous concert hall? This has to be state of the art. I saw us liberated from the basement of the Fawcett Center, or the broom closet at the very top of the Ohio Theater (those stairs!) I saw us practically lounging in a state-of-the-art facility, while interns brought us coffee and strawberries dipped in chocolate, and the Columbus Symphony played Brahms on the air.


The Carnegie broadcast studio wasn’t even in the building in 2001. It was on 56th street, in a narrow six-story walk-up. It was on the sixth floor of course. The elevator had failed to pass the latest city inspection, so up we climbed. For this we left the Ohio Theatre?

It’s a good thing I don’t mind broom closets…because there we were.

There were two guys affiliated with Carnegie helping us set up. No challenge to Kevin Petrilla –he knew the drill better than anyone. I stood there in my tux, all dressed up for radio.

I knew the music. I could speak knowledgeably, and I could vamp. Nothing about that fazed me. I adjusted to the broom closet on 56th St.

I had planned a live intermission feature. Columbus Dispatch critic Barbara Zuck would join me for her take on the proceedings. The problem was telling Barbara where we were. We were NOT in Carnegie Hall. Kevin had a cell phone. This was 2001--but Kevin, God love him, had a cell phone. But Barbara didn’t! Somehow, we got word to her where she needed to be and when. It’s live radio. Climb the stairs. Don’t be late (I should add that it was pouring rain).

There was no TV monitor. I wouldn’t be able to see anything in the hall. How was I to know when the conductor gave the downbeat? How would I anticipate the concertmaster?

Nothing to do but listen to the audience noise, the occasional pause… and make it up. Audience pause. Slight silence. Some applause. “Good evening ladies and gentlemen and neighbors in Columbus…” Charles Wetherbee was tuning the orchestra (please God). At least I said he was. When the applause got louder, that HAD to be Siciliani coming on stage. It was. Downbeat. Brahms.


The performance was sensational.

Those logistics weren’t my responsibility. Talking to Barbara Zuck at the intermission was. How would she cope with rain and six lights up? Would she even get here? We had twenty minutes to fill. I had some back up of course. But ninety seconds into a station ID and back announcements, describing the hall and the audience (which I couldn’t see), all of a sudden a wonderful voice rang out, “Ok! Ok! Jesus! I’m here.” There was Barbara. Live radio.

About the show itself. I wondered, who was going to come to see the Columbus Symphony in Carnegie Hall?

The joint was packed. Seriously. Earlier in the day, WOSU’s Marilyn Smith called me to tape a quick interview. I told her there were huge posters outside the hall, advertising The Columbus Symphony conducted by Alessandro Siciliani, on 57th St. and on Seventh Avenue. CSO posters next to those for Yo-Yo Ma and the Vienna Philharmonic. The buzz was on.

The Brahms Second Symphony was an easy choice for Carnegie. The Columbus Symphony played this beautifully and Brahms was a specialty of Siciliani’s.

What about the chorus? They wanted to sing in Carnegie Hall. The splendid prologue to Boito’s opera Mefistofele was chosen. Angels, seraphim, a laughing devil and God himself--all performed by the Columbus Symphony Orchestra and chorus and the Columbus Children’s Chorus.

“Ave Signor!” they sang and played. The angels smiled and so did Carnegie Hall. So did the radio audience in Columbus.

Christopher Purdy is Classical 101's early morning host, 7-10 a.m. weekdays. He is host and producer of Front Row Center – Classical 101’s weekly celebration of Opera and more – as well as Music in Mid-Ohio, Concerts at Ohio State, and the Columbus Symphony broadcast series. He is the regular pre-concert speaker for Columbus Symphony performances in the Ohio Theater.