I’ve never been one for celebrating New Year’s Eve, and I usually just stay at home those nights, but in 1978 I decided to make an exception as a friend and I headed to New York City, the locus classicus of New Year’s Eve celebrations, to ring in the New Year with panache.
Pat and I climbed into my blue VW Rabbit, late on the morning of December 31, 1978, and off we went. We stopped for lunch at a rest stop on the New Jersey turnpike, and then arrived in NYC around two or three in the afternoon. Then we dropped in on Bill Cox, a friend who lived in an apartment in the east 30s; I had called him in advance to warn him that we might stop by.
Bill was a gracious host, and his apartment had wrap-around windows that gave a magnificent panoramic view of Manhattan.
Refreshed from our stopover, we headed on to our ultimate destination.
It didn’t take long to reach Seventh Avenue and 56th Street, and there were already throngs of people, many of them clutching copies of the score to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, as they funneled into Carnegie Hall. I was beginning to feel sorry that I hadn’t brought my score with me, but it just hadn’t occurred to me. This was going to be a concert performance with Eve Queler conducting the full, uncut version of the opera, so of course, the lights wouldn’t be completely dimmed, making score reading quite doable.
When we got to our seats and opened the programs we were disappointed to find that sadly there would be the traditional cuts in the score after all. We knew that the lead singers had bowed out because of illness, but the substitutes had decided that they just weren’t up to the rigors of the full love duet (few singers were in those days). [At least that’s how I recall it; the review that I found doesn’t mention the cuts. Perhaps I’m misremembering?]
Still, we were going to celebrate the New Year with a performance of Wagner! Five and a half glorious hours of some of the most sublime music ever conceived (that included two one hour intermissions) beginning at five in the afternoon. Could there be any greater way of ringing out the old year?
Needless to say, the concert was wonderful. The orchestra played superbly, and I heard details that hadn’t registered with me before, but I also noticed that Queler wasn’t playing the score the way I was used to hearing it. For example, when Kurwenal dies, his leitmotif sounds in the orchestra for the final time, and normally conductors emphasize it by slowing the tempo, but Queler sailed right on through without slowing down. When I returned home and checked the score I realized that she was conducting it exactly as Wagner wrote it; he didn’t indicate any tempo change at that point.
Later on the reviewers would carp about the voices not being up to snuff. Oh, piffle! What do reviewers know anyway?
When the concert was over, Pat went on his way to spend the rest of the night in NYC, and I headed back to my car. I think I had parked it near Bill’s apartment in the east 30s, so I walked within a few blocks of Times Square where the crowd (this was maybe around 11 PM or shortly after) was already way too crowdy for my taste. Got in my car and headed back to Harrisburg.
Alas, I had neglected to fill my gas tank on the way to the city and I noticed that the gauge was dangerously close to Empty once I got out of the city. I was just hoping I could make it as far as that rest stop before running out of gas.
Happily, I made it, but it did take the edge off the warm glow I had gotten from the concert.
Alas, although I’ve saved the programs for probably 90% of the concerts and plays I’ve attended, I can’t find the one for this concert. However, I searched the nytimes archives and found the article describing the event. The pdf is below. There’s also an audio recording of the event available on Youtube, but the quality is only so-so and serves mainly as a document of the occasion for those of us who were there.