Lincoln Center attracts new audiences with '24-7' ethos

Friday, March 11, 2005

NEW YORK -- High above Central Park, around midnight, a saxophone player jams to Thelonious Monk, his riffs stroking the curved bamboo walls of a new jazz club. The lights of Manhattan glow through the picture window behind the stage.

Suddenly, a sparrow flutters by on the other side of the glass.

This is Jazz at Lincoln Center in its new home at Columbus Circle, at the edge of Central Park, the first complex devoted to America's original music. A few blocks up Broadway, on Manhattan's West Side, the main campus of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts spreads over 16 acres.

The world's largest arts mecca has grown artistically from the symphonic music, opera, ballet and theater that were its bedrock when it opened in the 1960s to today's embrace of every style from Handel to hip-hop.

Web-based technology is being used to lure new audiences to such acts as the indie rock band Yo La Tengo, who will perform at a May concert while screens flash underwater footage by oceanographer Jean Painleve. In July, audiences can catch Senegalese rappers Daara J.

And for the first time in its history, Lincoln Center will celebrate gay pride week with a variety of events in June starring Patti Labelle, Cyndi Lauper, Mario Cantone, Charles Busch and others. An evening of gay and lesbian literature titled "In Search of Family" includes Pulitzer-winning playwright Paula Vogel.

With jazz after midnight and late-morning breakfast concerts of classical music, Lincoln Center is evolving into an almost "24-7" performing arts hub, says Reynold Levy, president of Lincoln Center Inc., the umbrella group for the center's dozen arts organizations.

As it adds edgy creativity to its mainstream fare, the center is expanding culturally and physically. It also has enlarged its board of directors to include leaders in non-artistic fields raising money from donors who might never before have given to the arts.

In January, one-time opera star Beverly Sills quit as chairman of the Metropolitan Opera, to be replaced by longtime arts benefactor Christine Hunter. At 75, Sills cited health and family reasons. Also leaving is the Met's general manager, Joseph Volpe. His successor is Peter Gelb, a Sony recording executive who will start working alongside Volpe from August until Volpe leaves next year.

Bruce Crawford, the 75-year-old chairman of Lincoln Center Inc., is relinquishing his post in June.

During their tenures, Sills, Volpe and Crawford helped present innovative programs that could only be imagined when the cluster of buildings was first erected on the one-time slum of the urban gangs that were the inspiration for Leonard Bernstein's musical "West Side Story."

Still, the classical arts form the core of the center's thousands of annual performances, offered by the dozen constituents that also include Lincoln Center Theater, the Juilliard School, New York City Ballet, the Chamber Music Society, School of American Ballet, New York City Opera, the Film Society and the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

They are housed in a sprawling campus of buildings that rose, one by one, through the 1960s -- the work of famed architects such as Philip Johnson, W. K. Harrison, Eero Saarinen and Max Abramowitz.

A pair of massive Marc Chagall murals on the Met facade dominate the fountain plaza, along with a "sunburst" crystal chandelier in the foyer of the opera house. Inside is a touch of luminous charm: smaller "sunburst" crystals that rise to the ceiling before each performance.

Period of uncertainty

Lincoln Center is emerging from a period of gloomy uncertainty following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which put a squeeze on ticket sales and fund-raising while some of the center's executives bickered over ideas for the renovation of the aging campus.

But the renewal plans are finally "on track," Levy said. "There's been a bounce-back since 9/11."

"We have spaces in which artists perform with more than 22,000 seats ... more than Madison Square Garden. And we're having a better season than the Knicks!" joked Levy, who expanded the center's board from 49 to 58, tapping his experience from teaching Harvard Business School students about new philanthropy efforts.

The center's push to attract new audiences has resulted in $20 student tickets for best-available seats. There was an increase last season of about 25 percent in such sales.

Lincoln Center, with an annual operating budget of more than $500 million, combines a dozen arts organizations that have a $1.5 billion economic impact on the New York City area -- money spent on tickets, taxis, restaurants, shops and so on, according to an independent study by the Boston-based Economic Development Research Group.

"What our audiences are telling us is that what appears on the stage is not their only experience," Levy says. "There's also what they do before and after the event -- having a cup of coffee or a drink and relaxing, having places to sit, to just hang out together."

As for the actual performances, "we want to keep Lincoln Center on the cutting edge. We want to have surprises for audiences -- things they're unlikely to hear or see elsewhere," says Levy.

He takes occasional breaks from his intense job, grabbing a basketball off his executive bookshelf and dashing to a nearby public playground to shoot hoops.

Luring diverse crowds

On summer nights, wine glasses dot tables lighted by candles at a "Mostly Mozart" series of chamber music concerts that start at 10:30 p.m. in the penthouse of the building that houses Levy's office. The Kaplan Penthouse, with a view of car lights flickering on Amsterdam Avenue below, fits 200 people at most who pay $25 each to hear such renowned musicians as pianist Emanuel Ax.

The alluring atmosphere draws first-time listeners -- and diversity.

"I've never seen so many backpacks and shorts," says Jane Moss, a one-time theater producer who heads programming at Lincoln Center Inc.

"Linc Inc" -- as insiders call it -- also creates such series as "American Songbook," which recently featured Audra McDonald, and "Midsummer Night Swing," whose popular music is staged around the main fountain, with spectators invited to dance.

Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, the nightclub under the huge picture window, was named for the late bebop trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie -- and the soft drink company that sponsors it. The 140-seat club opened in October as part of Jazz at Lincoln Center, which is led by Wynton Marsalis at its new home in the Time Warner towers on Columbus Circle. A new Jazz Hall of Fame is part of the new complex.

During the day, toddlers arrive for "We Bop" to learn about jazz while banging on percussion instruments -- a program that's only a few months old.

In February, Dizzy's was the site of a high-octane, late-night show starring Brazilian percussionist Cyro Baptista and his "Beat the Donkey" band, whose music is improvised from jazz, hip-hop, rock and just about anything else.

Once a penniless musician living in a New York subway station, Baptista has played on several Grammy-winning albums, including cellist Yo-Yo-Ma's "Obrigado Brasil" and Cassandra Wilson's "Blue Light 'Til Dawn."

Baptista dazzled the live audience with virtuoso rhythms scrubbed from a metal washboard hanging from his chest. Then he grabbed some flip-flops to drum a plastic pipe he had retrieved from the renovation of his family kitchen in Tenafly, N.J.

"Taking chances is what music is about," he says, summing up Lincoln Center's artistic ethos.

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