When Gino Francesconi arrived in New York to study conducting in 1974, one of his first stops was Carnegie Hall. “Because this was where I was going to make it. I wanted to see this hall,” he recalls.
But when the San Francisco native entered the lobby, he was sure he was in the wrong place. “It was dark, it was dingy, there was litter on the floor, and it was small. I didn’t realize that it was bigger than most Broadway lobbies,” he says, laughing, “so I walked into the box office, and, talk about green, I said to the guy, ‘Excuse me, is there another Carnegie Hall around here?’ And he said, without missing a beat, ‘How many Carnegie Halls do you want, buddy?’ And it’s just kind of funny, because there it was, it was all you needed to hear. I didn’t know what it looked like, but I knew what it meant.”
Francesconi has since become intimately familiar with nearly every nook and cranny of Carnegie Hall. Its first and only archivist, he is the concert hall’s walking encyclopedia, a catalog of everything from encounters with legendary artists and landmark performances to obscure facts about the building and behind-the-scenes trivia. But the position is one that he never would have envisioned for himself when he came to New York with dreams of performing on the stage.
After enrolling in a Juilliard class taught by conductor Vincent La Selva, Francesconi applied for a job as an usher at the hall. He was hired and soon became the backstage artist attendant, a position he describes as aggrandized gofer. But it gave him one-on-one time with artists ranging from Vladimir Horowitz and Arthur Rubinstein to Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra.
Francesconi worked backstage for nine seasons while continuing his studies as a conductor. Then a post-concert conversation with conductor Riccardo Muti led Francesconi to pursue his conducting studies full time. Muti asked him, “If you had your way, what would you do?” Francesconi answered that he would study with the Italian conductor Franco Ferrara in Siena. To which Muti replied, “Well, he’s not waiting for you! He’s getting older.” So Francesconi left Carnegie Hall in July 1984.
He found studying with Ferrara to be everything he’d always wanted. But Ferrara died in September 1985, and although another of Francesconi’s favorite conductors, Carlo Maria Giulini, was to replace Ferrara the following summer, he needed a job in the interim. So he returned to New York.
“I came back to Carnegie Hall hat in hand, because they had thrown a big going-away party for me and it was wonderful. I was embarrassed, because they’d said, ‘Don’t come back unless it’s to perform onstage!’” But he arranged a meeting with the late Judith Aaron, then the hall’s executive director, and on his way out of her office, he noticed some old program books on a shelf. He realized there were fewer of them than there used to be, and he told her she should lock the books up, because people were taking them. “And a few weeks later, she called me up and said, ‘I have a job for you. You lock ’em up.’”
She charged Francesconi with creating the hall’s first archive, as part of the preparation for its hundredth anniversary in 1991. An exhibit on the hall’s history was planned, and he had roughly four years to fill a large space at Lincoln Center. He collected a dizzying array of memorabilia—from Benny Goodman’s clarinet to a program signed by the Beatles, along with countless scrapbooks, photos, letters, recordings, speeches, tickets, and memories. He also curated the first exhibit at Carnegie Hall’s own Rose Museum, which opened on the centennial date.
Francesconi stayed on at the hall with the qualifier that the next year he’d go back to Italy. “And then one year became five, and then ten. And here I am. I never went back,” he says.
When he’s asked if he ever thinks about conducting anymore, his face darkens slightly. “It’s like when you realize that someone close to you has died, in your family, or on September 11,” he says, “someone who was taken out so quickly, and you think you’ll never get over it, and you don’t. It’s always a part of you, and yet you move on with your life and you think about it sometimes. I do that with conducting.
“If a performance is not good, I’ll think to myself, ‘I could have done that!’ Or hearing [conductor Gustavo] Dudamel the other day with the Vienna Philharmonic, it sets me on fire. And I think, ‘Wow, yeah, that’s what I should be doing.’ And then I think about the performance in my head, and I realize we’re all put here to do something, and the grass is always greener on the other side, and you have to sometimes just stay on this side. And be happy.”
Since the inaugural exhibit, Francesconi has curated more than 25 others, and he recently refurbished the hall’s permanent exhibition for the first time in 11 years. One of the many new elements in the exhibit is a set of two LED screens playing video clips of performances at the hall that were painstakingly selected by Francesconi.
“Every other one is classical,” he says, “and I wanted something loud to be followed by something soft, just like a symphony is constructed in some ways.” So a patron might hear snippets of Horowitz, Eric Clapton, Rostropovich, Liza Minnelli, Isaac Stern with Jack Benny, and Destiny’s Child during the course of a museum visit. With the videos, as with the entire exhibit, he explains, “I wanted to give a sense of what it’s like here night after night. But at the same time, I have enough that someone who comes here 15 or 20 times a year can focus on something and say, ‘Oh! I didn’t see that before.’”
Francesconi is hard-pressed to pick a favorite item in the museum. “If you had to decide between Toscanini’s baton, Judy Garland’s autograph, the Beatles’ autograph, Martin Luther King, Pete Seeger, Ella Fitzgerald’s glasses, Bernstein’s baton, or Duke Ellington’s baton, which one would you pick? It’s very hard. And then I think, ‘OK, the ship is going down, I can only save a few items. Which ones would they be?’ And that helps, although it’s like Sophie’s Choice. I wouldn’t know what to do. Maybe I’d go down with them.”
Francesconi still occasionally discovers unexpected treasures in his mailbox. “It’s just like the notebook of Leonardo da Vinci, the one that was missing for years. If I remember the story correctly, somebody was taking a box down in the backyard in Spain and there it was, it just wasn’t marked and it had sat there for four hundred years. . . . I’m hoping that my stuff is like that, too. That it’s sitting in a box somewhere, unmarked, waiting to be discovered.”
Kristine Jannuzzi is a writer at New York University. Excerpted from Listen (Spring 2011), a bimonthly magazine that covers “life with classical music. www.listenmusicmag.com