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How Do You Get To Carnegie Hall? No, Seriously.

Stern Auditorium/Perelman Stage at Carnegie Hall: one of the world's greatest stages.
Jeff Goldberg / Esto
courtesy of Carnegie Hall
Stern Auditorium/Perelman Stage at Carnegie Hall: one of the world's greatest stages.

We all know the punchline to the old joke, right?

Even people who wouldn't know Yo-Yo Ma from Yanni know Carnegie Hall is where the world's greats play. So how do unknown students and amateurs get to perform at one of the world's most celebrated venues?

Carnegie Hall is without doubt one of the most prestigious facilities in the world. And saying that you've played at Carnegie Hall might just be one of the ultimate badges of musical honor. Last year, "Tiger Mom" Amy Chua's parenting memoir/instruction manual reached its apex when Chua proudly reported that all of her struggles as a parent were justified by her daughter Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld's "Carnegie Hall debut" at age 14 — a factoid that was dutifully repeated by media across the globe.

With the next concert season nearly upon us, we wanted to take a closer look at how performers actually get to Carnegie Hall. So we spent a while crunching some numbers and digging in deep to get to a real answer to this ancient question.

First off: There are actually three performance spaces at Carnegie Hall. The largest — the one that people usually mean when they say "Carnegie Hall" — is now dubbed the Isaac Stern Auditorium/Ronald O. Perelman Stage; it seats 2804. The second venue is the underground Zankel Hall, which opened in its current incarnation in 2003 and seats 599. The most intimate is the salon-like Weill Hall, with 268 seats.

Secondly: Ever since Carnegie Hall first opened in 1891, it's been available for rent. In fact, it originally operated solely as a rental hall. To this day, while many concerts at Carnegie Hall are put on by Carnegie Hall itself, even more are put on by outsiders who have just rented the space — and there's no special hoop you have to jump through to get there, aside from paying the fees. There's no invitation you need to obtain, nor is there an audition process.

And there's no stated limitation on what kind of events can be held at Carnegie Hall, whether it's a Carnegie Hall presentation or not. In the extra-musical realm, for example, there was a five-day "Columbian Congress" organized by the Salvation Army in 1893, and 40 years later one Fulop Voros conducted a "series of unusual tests of telepathy and hypnotism." Just this this past season, Weill was the setting for a "Japanese-style cultural and floral event." The concerts held under Carnegie's own auspices also range broadly. There are always tons of classical music performances, but last season included a performance of the Sound of Music and a jazz concert by saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa. Carnegie Hall presented neighborhood concerts of classical, kids', Latin and world music at sites across the five boroughs.

Historically, only about a quarter of all performances at Carnegie are actually presented under the auspices of Carnegie Hall, according to the Carnegie Hall Treasures book the venue published last year for its 120th birthday. But those numbers may be shifting. By my own count, in the 2011-12 season, Carnegie Hall hosted 663 total public concerts and events; this includes activities in each of its three performance spaces, plus Carnegie-presented events held citywide at other venues ranging from Juilliard's Paul Hall to Brooklyn's central library. Of those events, 381, or 57% of the total, were rentals of various sorts.

The range of size, scope and ability among these rentals is extremely broad. Many of the "visiting presenters," as the renters are called, are top-drawer performers and organizations, as well as younger artists hoping to make their mark on the classical music community. For instance, the famed Orpheus Chamber Orchestra's annual season at Stern is a rental, as were performances this past season by the Grammy Award-winning classical clarinetist Richard Stoltzman in Weill and a Stern recital by violinist Clara-Jumi Kang, who was the 2010 gold medalist at the very prestigious Indianapolis Violin Competition. And a famous recent example of a youthful musician who turned a self-funded Weill recital into an international career is pianist Simone Dinnerstein.

But those rentals also include many concerts for a string of local music schools that use Weill for their student recitals — including Ms. Chua's daughter, who actually performed in Weill. (Writes Chua nearly parenthetically: "I noticed that the Weill Recital Hall, where Sophia played ... was a relatively small venue, located on the third floor of Carnegie Hall ... I learned that the much larger, magnificent hall that I'd seen on television ... was called Isaac Stern Auditorium. l made a mental note that we ought to try to make it there someday.")

And here's an interesting thing: The organization who presented the younger Chua, the Bradshaw & Buono International Piano Competition, has a picture of the interior of Stern [update: actually, not Stern, but a nearly look-alike hall] front and center on their competition home page; it's only on another page, in very small type, that one learns that their winners' recitals are actually given in Weill instead.

Meanwhile, there are also promoters who help small and regional ensembles — who often hail from other parts of the country — arrange Carnegie Hall concerts. Also a rental was hip-hop kingpin Jay-Z's two-night fundraiser at Stern in February (for which, may we note, he donned a tux).

That's not to tarnish the shine of these performances. When you stand at the corner of 56th St. and Seventh Ave. near Carnegie Hall's stage door, you see hordes of proud and excited teenagers, children and amateurs pouring in and out night after night, and their enthusiasm fairly radiates. Singing at Carnegie is a huge, huge event in their lives — and rightfully so.

So how much does a Carnegie Hall rental cost? It really depends. The base cost of renting out Stern on a Friday or Saturday night during the 2012-13 season is $16,810; a Saturday afternoon at Weill can be had for $2,025, before any other charges are considered. (Getting front-of-house personnel for a show at Stern during normal hours, for example, runs another $6960.) How much you actually pay to rent one of these spaces depends on a variety of factors — and they vary tremendously. These include which hall you're booking, which day or night of the week you want to play and your technical needs, such as the size of your ensemble and what it requires, like a sound system or special ;ighting. And there are all sorts of other costs to factor in, from stage labor to tickets to insurance to overtime charges.

So what's the answer to that old joke? Practice, practice, practice is good advice — but while you're waiting for an invitation to play there, you might want to practice saving your pennies, too.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.