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Mahler Said What to Whom?

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Leonard Bernstein AT the height of the civil rights movement, two black musicians, a double bassist and a cellist, accused the New York Philharmonic of racial discrimination. It was July 1969, and soon the case, which had been brought before the New York City Commission on Human Rights, was making headlines. The National Urban League called on the orchestra to put affirmative action in place.

The orchestra at the time had a lone black member, one of just a handful in the nation's five biggest orchestras. In the next months, the Philharmonic contacted music schools, the Ford Foundation and people in the music industry in an almost frantic search for black candidates. It compiled a seven-page list of “Negro Musicians" and summoned several in for special auditions.

The effort is detailed in one tiny part of a mass of archival material made public on Thursday by the New York Philharmonic, the first phase of a project to put most of its vast archives on the Internet.

This phase encompasses the Bernstein years, running from 1943—when he made his last-minute debut as a substitute for an ailing Bruno Walter—to 1970, the year after his formal tenure ended. During that period the orchestra opened its doors to women, toured extensively, moved to Lincoln Center and entered the television age. The first release will include 1.3 million pages when finished next year. The next two phases will cover 1842, the founding year, to 1908; and 1909 to 1943.

Paid for by a $2.4 million grant from the Leon Levy Foundation, the release contains 3,200 programs; hundreds of documents; more than 1,000 scores marked by past conductors, including Mahler; letters; handwritten notes; old clippings; and yellowing Western Union telegrams.

They are broadly organized according to category, like scores, business documents, programs. Searches can be narrowed to individuals, works or subject matter. Word searches within folders are not yet available. “It'll happen," said Barbara Haws, the orchestra's archivist and historian.

The orchestra expects the trove to be a resource for the public as well as for scholars, who have always had access to the material at the archives office on request.

The trove serves another purpose. It fits into the Philharmonic's strategy of projecting itself as the Orchestra With History, a venerable institution that stands apart even if it does not have a Tanglewood, like the Boston Symphony Orchestra; a great hall, since it left Carnegie; or the tradition of a characteristic sound, like the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony.

“One of the great distinguishing factors of the New York Philharmonic is its history, its longevity and also its ability to reinvent itself," said Eric Latzky, the orchestra's spokesman.

Ms. Haws said the archive benefited from the pack-rat mentality of its founders: the players themselves, who governed the Philharmonic for its first 75 years and kept meticulous records.

“They were partners," she said, “and the way you trust each other when you're a partnership is you keep great audited records. That set the pattern."

To this day, the orchestra numbers every concert. (The next outing, on Friday evening, is No. 15,134.)

The archives depict the mundane details of commissioning, scheduling, auditioning, hiring and ego massaging that go into running a symphony orchestra. Finances are discussed, programs debated, critics fended off. The documents give texture to the age-old tensions that exist between orchestra management and board—generally, but not always, on the same side—and the maestro.

The civil rights material shows up in a Bernstein file. Bernstein, who was vocal in his support of civil rights, testified before the commission.


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