An open letter to Ronald Perelman

Dear Mr. Pereleman,

A couple of months ago I had the great fortune of scoring 2nd row tickets to see one of my favorite performers, one Ian Anderson, lead singer and driving force behind the great band Jethro Tull. This was perhaps the fifteenth time I have seen him in concert, and in the past I’ve taken advantage of backstage passes to have a long and hilarious conversation with him. 

I’ve notice that one thing he always mentions in his between song monologue is the famous concert in 1970 when Tull played Carnegie Hall. It was obviously a highlight in his long career, and if you don’t know the performance I recommend that you check it out. Here’s a little taste. I smiled knowingly when he mentioned it this last time I saw him because I, too, have had the chance to stride onto the main stage at Carnegie. My orchestra, the Edmonton Symphony, was fortunate enough to participate in the Spring for Music Festival. To headline at Carnegie is a feeling like no other, and I am incredibly glad that I had the opportunity to do that at least once in my life.

Despite Mr. Anderson’s recollection I read with total horror your interview in the NYTimes today. I find it profoundly depressing that Carnegie Hall, the one true place in this hemisphere with a history specifically inculcated by the art form that I practice, will now be in the hands of someone who, in their first major interview as Chairman, has just managed to disparage and antagonize every single classical musician on the planet.

You can diversify your audience all you want, but the bottom line is that Carnegie was built for classical music. There is a backstage tradition – before a conductor walks on stage it is mentioned to them that the first person to conduct there was Tchaikovsky. That, Sir, is history. That is a major reason why Carnegie Hall exists today. Isaac Stern and a determined bunch of people saved it from the wrecking ball precisely because they understood the importance of this venue to our art form.

Carnegie’s importance is not only historical. It was designed for what we do, with some of the best acoustics in the world. The other art forms (and yes, I do call them art forms) that you mention – pop and country – frankly, acoustics is not their bailiwick. They are electric, as we say in the business. What, are you going to get Kanye to do an unplugged set? I think not. Bieber? As for Jazz – they have a tremendous venue just up the street dedicated full time to that art form. That should be a hint to you. They think enough of their art form to build and maintain a grand venue.

But we, we classical musicians, we have Carnegie Hall. What would you do to have more pop or country in Carnegie? Will you add rows of lights into the proscenium? Fly banks of speakers? Is this your vision for a hall built on natural acoustics? This is most certainly not what Carnegie Hall is about, and if you take the time to go season by season to see what it is this hall has offered in its glorious history you will be forced to come to this conclusion as well.

Having just turned fifty I hope I will have learned a little more patience in life, and so I must contemplate the idea that perhaps you were misquoted, or in the rush to publication your vision was truncated. If this is not the case I would desperately hope that you reconsider your ideas. If not, I hope at the very least that the artistic leadership of Carnegie has enough sense to try and minimize the damage that this vision will do to Carnegie Hall specifically and classical music in general.

If you want a younger audience, a more hip audience (and again, you’ve denigrated most of those who set foot in Carnegie already) why don’t you offer the same kind of programs that Jazz at Lincoln Center offers? Outreach to the schools, workshops, an academy, and a resident ensemble that plays the music their venue is designed for! If you offered that it would be truly enlightened leadership.

If, however, you’re just interested in less silver hair topping those butts in seats – well, Sir, when it comes to your vision you have most definitely not made a Belieber out of me.


William Eddins

20 thoughts on “An open letter to Ronald Perelman”

  1. Mr. Eddins,
    I say this with all respect for your huge career of great music-making, and for your always bold and thought-provoking posts, but this one strikes me as endemic of a big problem in the classical music community today and I have to say I think your criticism is misguided.

    We need a world where different types of music coexist more, not less. We should be arguing for meaningful concert series that feature the great artists from all musical genres, searching for common ground and potential points of contact that can breed new fusions and dialogues. Our music is a reflection of ourselves, and we are a divided an unequal society. Maybe a richer cross-pollination of sounds (and audiences) can work against that instead of reinforce it.

    I’m not saying that the answer is more crappy crossover concerts, but it certainly isn’t walling off one of our country’s greatest musical institutions to exclude tons of genius artists just because their particular medium hadn’t been invented at the time the building was constructed. And Carnegie isn’t just a building, it’s a presenting organization – ostensibly one for the highest quality of artists, period.

    Classical musicians are too often unwilling to engage with the ways musical thought has progressed since the bygone eras of the music they have learned to play – committed to interpreting the genius of Beethoven but unaware of the similarly shapeshifting innovations of more contemporary (and mostly nonclassical) composers. At its best, this narrowness renders their capability for musical communication outdated and somewhat obsolete; at its worst, it breeds elitism in classical audiences and musicians. Either way, the separatist instincts of many in the classical community are more responsible for dwindling and ever-more-privileged audiences than anything else.

    Now I’m not saying Perelman is the right person to lead Carnegie — and if his only motivation for presenting more nonclassical artists is a financial one, well that’s just boring and makes him no different from most American orchestra leadership. But a more diverse and younger audience is a good thing, and a programming culture that values orchestral music alongside jazz and hiphop and other musical/cultural traditions is a good thing.

    • Mr. Hearne, if you knew anything about me you would know that I have spent a good deal of my career trying to do exactly what you are mentioning. I won’t go into the boring details of who I’ve worked with, and where I’ve worked with them, but I think I would be the last person in this part of the business that could be considered anything approaching conservative in that regard. Frankly, I find your criticism a reflection of the same tired canard so often thrown at classical musicians these days. I, for one, reject it. I grew up in the same era that everyone else did. I would wager a great deal of money that my tastes in music are much more eclectic than most peoples and these taste were honed at a music school in consort with my friends and colleagues. Perhaps you should come up to Edmonton sometime and see our growing, openminded, and engaged community that regularly attends the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. My audience is a good deal younger and more diverse than you will find at a Dave Matthews concert.

    • Same crap about “elitism” and “privilege” that was thrown at the Minnesota Orchestra musicians and their audience and supporters by the multimillionaires wanting to take over Orchestra Hall for their own little corporate venue (talk about being a “divided and unequal society”). We all know how THAT turned out, don’t we? Carnegie Hall is doing just fine as it is, thank you, and to say that, if it doesn’t change in a big way, then music isn’t coexisting is bunk.

      • Sarah,
        It’s interesting you equated my sentiments with the people who tried to dismantle and sell out the Minnesota Orchestra. It surprised me at first, because I am coming from a completely different place, but I understand how you made that connection, and it’s my fault for not being more clear. I have disdain for the commercial and completely anti-art forces behind the Minnesota lockout, and Perelman’s appointment at Carnegie may very well represent the same awful trend.

        My only point was that to react to these threats by seeking to further separate and isolate classical/orchestral music from other genres of music is misguided. Doing so promotes musical and cultural narrowness in a time of incredible cross-pollination.

  2. Bravo, Mr. Eddins, for your most eloquent letter. This move by Mr. Perelman and Carnegie Hall is indicative of the terrible triumph of money over art. We’re going to need a lot more impassioned, articulate statements like yours to have any impact on such Goliaths.

  3. Ok!
    I don’t know you, but I’m a fan of yours and a follower of all your writing. I hope to know you sometime and would love to come see one of your shows in Edmonton. So no ill-will or offense intended whatsoever.

    I think it’s great your orchestra has a more diverse audience than a Dave Matthews concert, but that’s a pretty low bar. DMB is the prototypical white college jam-rock 90’s band. DMB is so milk toast. Anybody cool makes fun of them. DMB sux. Why compare yourself to them?

    What about Jay-Z’s show at Carnegie a few years ago? That had an incredible feel to it, and had an extremely diverse audience. Jay-Z is an artist a lot of different Americans can relate to and grapple with. Jay-Z deserves a show at Carnegie Hall. He is a true artist with a perspective that is respected by a cross-section. And the very fact that he was performing there was special because it meant his music was interacting with the whole history of that incredible place. That fact made it an important concert for him, and for the audience.

    To me, that’s the real power of Carnegie — harness the history, make the programming about music as a whole, not just music from a Euro-Classical tradition.

    It seemed like you were sort of arguing for the opposite– restrict the programming to a narrow focus of only orchestral music. I apologize if I am mischaracterizing or misunderstanding…

    • Your bringing up Jay-Z unwittingly proves Eddins’ point. Jay-Z doesn’t need to play Carnegie, as he can sell out Madison Square Garden, Shea Stadium or Yankee Stadium easily, all of which can hold a lot more people than Carnegie. The point of Carnegie Hall as a venue is that it is, by its nature, a non-profit music-based organization. Jay-Z doesn’t need to work with a non-profit to be successful, given the stronger presence in popular culture of hip-hop (with the attendant corporate muscle behind it).

  4. YesSIR, Mr. Eddins. Having had the honor and thrill to play under your baton, I agree that your vision and enthusiasm for “classical” music would fill any hall! Your words are vital and true.

  5. Aren’t you over-reacting just a bit, Maestro Bill? You talk about the Carnegie Hall “tradition.” Carnegie Hall has always presented all genres of music. That is its tradition. Why is it OK for Ian Anderson to play there but not others? What about Benny Goodman – the historic 1938 concert or John Hammond’s “Spirituals to Swing” concerts in ’38 and ’39? The Clef Club Orchestra (James Reese Europe) played there in 1912. Lenny Bruce played there. Heck, I played there with the New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble. (Eubie Blake was in the audience – we did his “Charleston Rag.”)

    Relax Bill, our beloved Carnegie Hall is going to be OK. Thank goodness the Carnegie Deli is still there, too!

    • And there are hundreds of other concerts you could have mentioned, Larry. That’s not the point. Does it not bother you, just a teensy weensy bit, that the only mention of the art form for which the hall was built is in a negative connotation? Does it not bother you that there’s not a single mention of continuing the long traditions associated with the most famous hall in the western, if not the entire world?

  6. Exactly! Mr. Perelman’s ONLY mentions of classical music are that “he’s not much of a classical music enthusiast” and that “he won’t be taking violin lessons.”

    And he’s a self-described “frustrated musician.”

    If someone (maybe Mr. Billionaire Perelman?) would provide weekly plane tickets for me, I’d gladly come to New York one day a week and give him those violin lessons at no charge…maybe then he might actually learn to appreciate classical music.

  7. We already have dedicated spaces in NYC which are designed for Pop music and Jazz. Why would we turn Carnegie Hall into one?

    The whole idea that a Multi-Billionaire gets to dictate what is elitist is enough to make one’s blood boil.

  8. One other thing about that appalling article was this little nugget: “Mr. Weill cited Pharrell Williams’s performance of the song “Happy” with accompaniment by the classical pianist Lang Lang at the Grammy Awards this month.” Nothing will kill classical music faster than this sort of garbage, the mindless pursuit of celebrity and a total disregard for what has allowed the art form to survive over the centuries, which is a reverence for true greatness that transcends mere popularity. Here in Chicago we have seen this sort of idiocy destroy the once wonderful institution that was Ravinia. Now practically all the Chicago Symphony does at its summer home is slog through hackneyed repertoire with mediocre conductors, accompany Broadway musicals, and play film scores. To nobody’s surprise except the criminally inept Ravinia management, attendance for the classical offerings has plummeted. As Richard Pryor remarked after meeting Ronald Reagan, “We in trouble!”

  9. What dismays me the most in Ms. Pogrebin’s New York Times article is the latter part from the same Sanford Weill quote excerpted by “opus 131” above, in which Mr. Weill continued: “We want to think about, how can we do more in pop music, country music, in jazz, to get a younger audience here?”. How very sad, that it would never occur to Mr. Weill, nor most likely to Mr. Perelman to ask, “how can we do more in the classical repertoire, and in new, contemporary concert music, to get a younger audience here?”. These are the much better, and yes, much more challenging questions that many of us are asking every day and discovering answers to, through our own pursuits. I feel what’s needed in this case is a helpful and congenial conversation between those of us working in the field and those at Carnegie’s helm, to share our insights and successes and assure them that there are options beyond “turning the amps up to 11” when it comes to attracting diverse and enthusiastic audiences.

  10. I find it so strange that so much of this commentary is focusing on “attracting a diverse audience”. As important as that is for classical music, it is beside the point of Bill’s letter, which is that Carnegie is a busy hall with wonderful acoustics. Having amplified music there is like bringing NASCAR to a horse race track- it would certainly attract a crowd, but would be a completely inappropriate use of the facility.

  11. Hi I just discovered your comments as I was googling around trying to see the response to Perlman resigning as chair of Carnegie Hall. If he is resigning it is just too good to be true, and probably isn’t true. We shall see. Bravo for you and your comments, you are so right and thank god, thank god, the power hungry cretin known as ron perlman resigned – he has already caused enough trouble for the poor Artistic Director and for the Warner Music prize. Perlman’s interest in music has always been a bit of mystery as his every other action seems to indicate he has no sensibility or feeling at all, how could he possibly like music…if he actually does, and not the prestige and glitz surrounding high level music, then more power to him, but that is just it, more power is what he lives for.

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