It’s one thing to simply watch a performance. It’s another to be immersed in it. When Carnegie Hall reintroduces Zankel Hall Center Stage this January with a wide range of concerts and events, the venue will be transformed from its familiar end-stage setting with auditorium-style seating into an in-the-round configuration for one week. A raised stage in the middle of the room will allow concertgoers to encircle the performers, offering an intimate setting with new vantage points that encourage performers and audiences to interact.
“The artists featured on these concerts have created programs specifically with Center Stage in mind,” says Clive Gillinson, Carnegie Hall’s executive and artistic director. “They will be focused on consistently connecting with audience members all around them, no matter where a concertgoer’s seat is located, helping us all to gain new musical perspectives.”
Indeed, says David Harrington, co-founder of Kronos Quartet. “We’ve been playing at Carnegie Hall for a long time, but this will be the very first time we have a surround situation. I’m really looking forward to it. And in fact, we’ve made a program where no two audience members will have the same experience.”
Center Stage begins January 19 with yMusic, which NPR has called “one of the groups that really helped to shape the future of classical music.” The series continues with Third Coast Percussion and Movement Art Is, featuring Jon Boogz and Lil Buck, in a multisensory evening of new works by composers who play with electronic soundscapes accompanied by mesmerizingly fluid, gravity-defying choreography.
One of the cornerstones of Claire Chase’s season-long residency as the Hall’s Debs Creative Chair is her weekend of events in the round, starting with her spotlight on works by Pauline Oliveros in a singular musical experience created by artists and audience alike. Building on Oliveros’s concept of “Deep Listening,” Chase also hosts a two-part Day of Listening event designed to engage audiences of all ages in Zankel Hall as they blur the lines between listening, learning, and performing.
On January 24, Perspectives artist Rhiannon Giddens returns to Carnegie Hall with Francesco Turrisi in a performance that highlights their recent album "They’re Calling Me Home." “I love the idea of Center Stage,” Giddens says. “Playing in the round shakes you up as a performer. We’re so used to ‘us versus them.’ Surrounded by people, there’s nothing to hide.”
Kronos Quartet concludes the week of events in the 360-degree configuration. “When we were putting this program together,” says Harrington, “I thought it was important to think of it as our opportunity to be closer to each member of the audience. We will be expanding our setup a little bit to give more people a chance to interact with each of us.”
Among Carnegie Hall’s three venues, the underground Zankel Hall is the only one that allows for a stage to be physically relocated. Change is nothing new to this renowned venue, however. Originally called the Recital Hall, it boasts a history that stretches back to the late 19th century. The space has been used to present theatrical events and as a film house. During another period in its long lifespan, the property was leased to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
It became Judy and Arthur Zankel Hall in 2003, “providing a transformational opportunity for Carnegie Hall to add new dimensions to its programming,” says Gillinson. “Over the last two decades, this versatile third stage has enabled us to expand the range of classical, jazz, popular, and international music featured at the Hall, and welcome students and families to exciting educational events.
It’s been a destination for those seeking the best in contemporary music and new works. Above all, it’s been a place that has inspired artists to explore, imagining adventurous programs that fit perfectly in a contemporary, mid-size concert hall.”
Center Stage adds another dimension to the Zankel experience. “At its heart, Zankel Hall has enabled us to invite artists to break down boundaries, encourage them to experiment musically, and try out new ideas,” Gillinson continues. “The addition of these Center Stage programs is an extension of that ongoing aspiration.”
The Center Stage programs were not chosen at random, he adds. The January events are, collectively and individually, intended to demonstrate the potential inherent in the format. Considering the work involved repositioning a stage from the far end of the room to the center, and then of course moving the seats as well, the goal is to fully maximize the concept. For that reason, Center Stage is presented as a consecutive series of shows, not occasional individual performances.
“Because of the time and work needed to make this transformation,” says Gillinson, “we have always known that it wouldn’t ever be practical to present single performances in the round, interspersed throughout the season. We needed to identify a stretch of time when we could present multiple performances over consecutive days to make things work operationally. We weren’t interested in simply transferring programs originally intended for a traditional concert setup over to performances in the round. We wanted to partner with artists interested in shifting the dynamic from one-way musical communication—from the stage to the seats—into a multidirectional experience
where they engage with listeners all around them and fully explore the use of space.”
“I think it’s going to propel us into many possibilities, including bringing movement and dance into the setting,” says Kronos’ Harrington. “Performing [in the round] has always been my favorite, whether it’s in a public-school classroom or in someone’s home. Now it’s going to be in Zankel Hall, where more people are closer.”
“We are greatly looking forward to finally having the opportunity to experience music making in this new setting,” concludes Gillinson. “I’m certain the upcoming series will inspire exciting new ideas for Zankel Hall Center Stage programs in future seasons. We are thrilled to be able to offer audiences the opportunity to experience the hall in this new way.”