Gotham Early Music – A Tribute

As I write these words in early May 2001, it seems probable that unless a miracle occurs, there will be no 2001/2002 season for Gotham Early Music. The splendid concert on April 29th at the church in Cobble Hill was the swan-song in a series like no other.

The reason is not obscure: in its five magnificent seasons, Gotham Early Music has simply not been able to get on a stable financial footing. The losses incurred to date have been, in the words of its founder, massive. A sixth season would demand commitments of up to a quarter of a million dollars in the next weeks.

Let no-one think that the losses have been caused by extravagance. Not the least of the many astonishing things about Gotham Early Music was the leanness of its administration: all of that activity, that faultless organization, was essentially the work of two individuals, Gordon Beals, the founder, and Douglas Dunn, the president.

Indeed, in searching for reasons that Gotham Early Music did not attract sufficient support from foundations, corporate sponsors, and individuals, a cynic might suggest that it operated so competently that it appeared not to need help. The same cynic might reflect that there are lesser institutions presenting Early Music that attract more support out of sympathy, sympathy for their incompetence.

But this is not a time for cynicism. Nor is it a time to indulge in the wasted exercise of reflecting how small in the budgets of a city like New York, whether public or private, is the sum that lacks. It is certainly small in comparison with the richness and diversity that the Gotham concerts brought to our local musical life. This is not a time to reflect on the civic leaders who could steer a sum like this towards such an end: in a city where a taste for 19th century Italian opera in a mayor counts for a cultural breakthrough, such handwringing is wasted effort.

This is a time instead for thanks and congratulations. Yes, congratulations. In mourning the loss, we must never forget the achievement. Mr Beals and Mr Dunn have shown extraordinary courage and generosity. For five short years they have acted with unparalleled boldness in their presentations. They have tried so hard to bring Early Music in New York and its presentation up to a standard that befits a world city. That they have in the end not succeeded is not their fault, but ours.

Recount their achievements: during the five years they have brought us an astonishing array of international performers performing music from the mediaeval to the late Baroque. Concert after concert introduced us to revelatory performances of the freshest of ancient music. Their taste was impeccable. More important, their concerts were presented with a professionalism that any producer might envy. They had loyal audiences of the highest quality: there were surely more people who actually listened to the music than one can remember at any concert in New York. (New York, where the audiences for serious music are notable mostly for the depth of their slumber until ten minutes before the end, when they prepare to race towards the exits in relief.)

But in the end, the audiences, though larger than one recalls for any other early Music series, were not sufficient. Despite serious (and massively expensive) advertising in the recognized media such as the New York Times that put Early Music advertising on a par with that of the subsidized presentations of the 19th century warhorses, there was still an insufficiency of people interested enough to support new experiences listening to old music.

So, it is over. We shall not see its like again soon. People with the boldness of Mr Beals and Mr Dunn are sadly lacking in a timid world. But while it lasted, it was magnificent. Perhaps that is all we can ask. The performer steps onto the stage, addresses the instrument, performs, and it is over. Only the memory lives.

To adapt an old saying: they may have rashly burned the candle at both ends, but Egad, while it burned it gave a wonderful light.

Thank you, gentlemen. The program for your last wonderful season will remain posted as a reminder of glories past.

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