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ENCOUNTERS by George Sturm
Judith Arron

Judith Arron

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 Hall's programs.)

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."

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