ENCOUNTERS by George Sturm
Like the chief executive of any large corporation,
Judith Arron has an admirable command of a profusion of facts and details.
She is highly articulate and has a bright, disarming smile. And like many
leaders in government and business, she probably plays her hands pretty close
to the vest. But there's one thing that she cannot hide: her unbounded, unqualified
enthusiasm for the arts in general and for music in particular. Judith Arron
is the executive director of Carnegie Hall.
Born in Seattle and brought up in a musical household in
Tacoma, Arron studied cello and piano. By the time she graduated from the
University of Puget Sound, she knew that she didn't want to play professionally,
but that she was eager to know more about symphony management. And where,
in those days in the '60s, could she have had a better look at the intricacies
of symphony administration than in the offices of the American Symphony Orchestra
League in Washington? Soon she was the protégée of the fabled
Helen M. Thompson, the woman who ran the ASOL from 1950 to 1970 and is largely
credited with its development as the effective umbrella organization for
symphony orchestras in the United States, from the biggest of the "Big
Five" to the most modest community ensemble. There, at the League, Arron
had her first opportunity of observing the fine points of management and
at the same time working on orchestra youth-concert activities.
When her violist husband was engaged by the Cincinnati Symphony
Orchestra — Max Rudolf's last appointment there — Judith Arron moved from Washington
to become director of regional and educational programs at the CSO (1970).
Her ability was at once apparent. In Philip Hart's 1973 book Orpheus in
the New World, the author already acknowledges her as "an extremely
energetic and imaginative young woman" who immediately went to work
on a variety of innovative programs. "Her primary responsibilities are
the Area Artist Series, the Mini-Festivals, and the in-school concerts in
Cincinnati.... she is in charge of the coordination, planning, and logistics
for nearly 150 concerts for adults and children in Cincinnati and vicinity.
In the execution of this work, she often travels as much as a thousand miles
a week by auto, making personal visits to the various schools and local committees
with whom she is working." Arron was a major component in the musical
life of Cincinnati for over fifteen years, throughout the Schippers and Gielen
music directorship. "We loved living in Cincinnati," she recalls.
"I learned so much there."
Her reputation as a vigorous and energetic organizer grew.
She adroitly managed to continue her career while being mother to two boys,
the elder of whom is now a budding immunologist, the younger — following in
the footsteps of mama — a cello student at Juilliard. Being considered for
the top job at Carnegie Hall, she says, was something she would never have
anticipated. But, being the top job and being Carnegie Hall
with its incredible 100-year-old tradition, it was an invitation she could
not refuse. In 1986 — five years before its Centennial Season — Judith Arron
became general manager and artistic director, the title being changed to
executive director in 1988.
Carnegie Hall Corporation, like any big business — it employs
some 250, about 90 of whom work in an administrative capacity, and its annual
budget has grown from the 11 million dollars at the time of Arron's arrival
to over 30 million today — fulfills a number of functions. It is a producer
and presenter in its own right; it offers facilities to visiting artists
and ensembles; it operates the Weill Recital Hall nextdoor; and it is even
a landlord, renting out 130 studios and 30 or so private living spaces within
its historic premises. (See front page story for more details on Carnegie
For the first 75 years of Carnegie Hall's existence, it was
the only major concert venue in town, the home of the New York Philharmonic
and sole New York showcase for the world's leading recitalists and ensembles.
With the establishment of Lincoln Center (and particularly the first of its
halls, Avery Fisher Hall, originally called Philharmonic Hall), Carnegie
was faced with a previously unknown concept: competition. The Philharmonic
left to take residence in the new emporium at 65th Street and an alarming
number of touring bands announced that they would give the shining uptown
hall a try. "It certainly changed what Carnegie Hall had to do in order
to survive then," says Arron. "Suddenly there wasn't someone in
here using the space many nights a week. And we learned not to take one single
ticket sale for granted." But she is quick to point out that she is
delighted that Lincoln Center exists because the metropolitan New York area
is large enough to warrant it, and it is one of the few cities that can truly
give people a choice of arts and entertainment fare.
We brought up the inescapable question of the Carnegie Hall
acoustics — subject of one of the more unusual renovation stories of recent
time. It seems that someone, during the remodeling work before the centennial
season, had dropped cement and then covered it up with the floor boards making
up the stage. This was not known to anyone but when the floor began to warp
to such a degree that moving pianos became precarious, it was abundantly
clear that moisture was accumulating somewhere. Meanwhile, musicians were
grumbling that they couldn't hear each other play and one increasingly heard
laments that the once universally revered Carnegie Hall sound had been ruined
by the reconstruction. Arron and her technical advisors decided that something
had to be done and had the floor carefully lifted once again, only to discover
the culprit in the form of the errant cement. Just how it got there remains
a mystery to this day, but it is gone now and the problem is fully solved.
Arron says that performers and listeners alike are completely satisfied that
Carnegie Hall's acoustics are as glorious as they have ever been.
Having convinced herself of the importance of getting around
during her Cincinnati tenure, she has expanded her contacts globally with
the result that Carnegie Hall has made networking arrangements with a number
of European venues. Her membership in several trade organizations assure
her ongoing interchanges with colleagues in other American cities that she
visits each year.
When Judith Miller, a journalist for The New York Times,
wrote a front-page special report on the "graying" of American
symphonic audiences (February 12, 1996), she relied heavily on information
gleaned from Judith Arron, coming to some conclusions that surprised the
Carnegie Hall executive. "I don't necessarily agree with her,"
she smiles through her unmistakable bristle. "I suppose it's nice to
have your name on the front page of The New York Times, but the age
of the audience hasn't changed much over the years, at least not here. Yes,
it's true that we have moved aggressively in recent years to diversify and
broaden our audience, but that's an obligation that we have. It would be
boring here if we didn't do that. The best thing I have to give to Carnegie
Hall is my imagination and, having been here for ten years, if I don't reinvent
my own imagination, the job could become very ordinary for me. And I don't
want that to happen. But if I can continue to challenge my own imagination,
we will be able to give more to the audience."
Arron does agree with Miller's statement that the basis
for arts funding has changed disturbingly in that the possibility of family
patronage, as evidenced in the past with the Carnegies, Rockefellers and
a handful of others, had diminished, if not disappeared entirely. Couple
that attrition with a national political climate that has produced general
cut-backs in governmental assistance to the arts, and you face a serious
dilemma. "We must all be anxious," Mrs. Arron says, immediately
finding a new, positive path by looking to the corporate sector to fill the
growing void. But she admits to being embarrassed by having to go to other
parts of the world and having to admit that our government does not care
as much about arts and humanities as other governments.
Arron's principal function, as she sees it, is "coming
up with new ideas" and the idea she is committed to more than any other
is education. It is no sheer coincidence that Carnegie's intensified educational
programs coincided with her debut season and became the so-called "Link
Up!," a classical music program for public elementary school children.
In 1992, the "Jazzed" program, focusing on the musical elements
and cultural development of jazz for public high school students, was added.
And in 1995-96, soprano Roberta Peters launched the first Professional Development
Workshop for Teachers, designed to give primary and secondary school teachers
an opportunity to work for a day with a well-known artist in an effort to
apply musical disciplines in the classroom. Arron points with pride and total
conviction to Carnegie Hall's mission statement "to continue to be one
of the world's leading institutions in presenting great music, and in promoting
education, to bring music to a wider audience through educational programs,
media technology, and community outreach."
Hearing Arron hold forth on her role at Carnegie Hall,
it becomes clear that she views herself as a facilitator, a bridge between
the past and the future. She is confident that music will go on. She may
not know exactly what it will sound like in the time ahead, but that doesn't
matter. To her the important thing is that the people who will be making
it feel the same way about their music as she feels about hers. "The
tradition of what this place has represented over the years is so important
to me. I just love music. I want future generations to love Beethoven and
Brahms and Mozart and Bach the way I do, and in order to allow them to love
it, you have to make it available to them."