A Milestone for the Philharmonic Archives

Classic Arts Features   A Milestone for the Philharmonic Archives
As the New York Philharmonic Archives celebrates its 25th anniversary, it launches a forward-thinking project to preserve and make available its treasure trove : digitally. Erik Ryding uncovers the behind-the-scenes story of this ambitious endeavor.


"The Philharmonic has always saved its history," says Barbara Haws, Archivist/Historian of the New York Philharmonic. "We've always had a really grand idea of our own importance." Indeed. Consider this: in its first season, consisting of a whopping three concerts, the Philharmonic Society issued a printed annual report.

That was in 1842. Those guys were thinking ahead. From that point on, the Philharmonic saved every program and preserved key information about what the Orchestra played, where it played, when it played, and who played what. They even gathered data on their audience, keeping track of who bought what tickets.

Before the Philharmonic moved to Lincoln Center in the early 1960s, the Orchestra's librarians and other caretakers stored valuable artifacts in their offices wherever there was room. Some sublime creations wound up in less-than-sublime surroundings: according to an old record book, one score was squirreled away "on the shelf in the toilet room." By 1984 the scores, letters, batons, ledgers, recordings, and countless other treasures that constituted the Orchestra's history filled up 1,000 boxes that were stored in the drab, windowless basement of Avery Fisher Hall. They needed a new home and a full-time custodian.

Enter Barbara Haws, a historian professionally trained as an archivist, who jumped at the opportunity to head the most extensive orchestral archive in the world. "I have the greatest job," she says. She supervised the design of the state-of-the-art new Archives in the Rose Building, which opened in 1991, and, after a quarter of a century on the job, she plainly hasn't lost any of her initial excitement. Zubin Mehta, the Philharmonic's Music Director when she began, recently commented: "Looking back at Barbara Haws's accomplishments over the last 25 years, one can only conclude that she was the right person to oversee the organization and development of this incredible treasure. That she is a walking encyclopedia is common knowledge. That she is also one of the New York Philharmonic's greatest enthusiasts and its number-one fan is not exactly a disadvantage."

My own acquaintance with the Archives and Ms. Haws began in the mid-1990s, when my wife and I were researching the life of the conductor Bruno Walter. A tentative call to the Archives elicited an instant invitation to visit the collection. "You're writing on Bruno Walter?" she said. "Well, you'd better have a look at what we have."

What they had, along with his much-worn conducting jacket, was a stash of some 800 letters and other items unavailable anywhere else. They afforded priceless insights into his personality, his thoughts on music, and his frank opinions about some of his colleagues (such as this, on his rival Wilhelm Furtwängler: "he is a weak person, ambitious, jealous, egocentric : but he is no Nazi, tried his best to help Jews in their need, ... and he certainly cannot be considered a moral leper").

Ms. Haws led us through the papers, called our attention to useful items in out-of-the-way places, and eased what had seemed to be the daunting task of fishing out what we needed from the endless rows of boxes : all catalogued and neatly arranged on rolling shelves.

Now, I love handling old letters and get a rush from visiting "special collections," but if you need to consult a collection for days or weeks or months at a time, you've got a problem, unless you're blessed with Robert Langdon's expense account. Traveling and taking time off from work will cost you.

All that is changing now, thanks in part to a new project spearheaded by Ms. Haws. With a $2.4 million grant from the Leon Levy Foundation, the Archives is about to embark on an exhilarating new venture: digitizing its entire collection and making it available online to any reader with access to the Internet : any time, any place. Shelby White, founding trustee of the Leon Levy Foundation, said about the project, "My husband, Leon, grew up in New York and loved going to hear the New York Philharmonic. I am delighted that the Leon Levy Foundation can help make available to thousands around the world this magnificent collection. using groundbreaking technology, the digitized pages on the screen look almost better than the originals!"

In the summer of 2008 a panel of students historians, librarians, journalists, musicians, and educators joined Ms. Haws to discuss where to begin this monumental project. They decided to start with the years 1943 _1970, the Orchestra's "International Era" that included Leonard Bernstein's artistic leadership, the creation of Lincoln Center, and the rise of the Philharmonic as an international touring orchestra.

Master photographer Ardon Bar Hama is coming to the Archives to capture each item in a high-resolution digital image that will allow readers to zoom in and catch details they might miss even in the original. The 1943 _1970 phase alone will involve 1.3 million images. Then a team of music and history students will tag each folder, score, program, and photograph with key phrases and dates, and provide transcriptions of important handwritten items. You'll be able to check a name : say, "Shostakovich" : against the Archives' online collections, and immediately find every occurrence in thousands of pages, as well as relevant photos, contracts, marked scores, press clippings, recordings, video footage, and other related paraphernalia.

This project is a game changer. With performers, scholars, teachers, journalists, and other interested readers in Helsinki or Kansas City or Tokyo mining the Philharmonic's rich history day and night, our collective knowledge will grow exponentially. Remember those 1990s visions of the information superhighway? Archive lovers, get ready to pull into the fast lane.


Formerly senior editor of publications at Carnegie Hall, Erik Ryding is co-author, with Rebecca Pechefsky, of the award-winning biography Bruno Walter: A World Elsewhere.

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