May 19, 2003
New York Daily News

City Beat: “Music For All Ears” by Clem Richardson

Pair bring free concerts to the masses

Jacqueline Taylor and Omus Hirshbein may have changed the way audiences listen to classical music. 

Taylor and Hirshbein are the force behind Free for All at Town Hall, four free concerts at the venerated W. 43rd St. musical palace that has been the site of many historic occasions, including the New York operatic debut of black artist Marian Anderson in 1935. 

Free for All is just that. Tickets are free, limited to two per customer, and are available on a first-come, first-served basis at the Town Hall box office starting at noon the day of the 5 p.m. performance. All the tickets were snapped up for the first two shows in the 1,500-seat hall.

Violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and pianist Anne-Marie McDermott kicked off the series with a Schubert, Fauré and Beethoven concert on April 6.  Then it happened: The two had just completed the first movement of their opening piece when the audience began applauding wildly. 

“Traditionally, audiences don’t applaud between movements,” Hirshbein said. 

“But that’s an adopted convention,” Taylor said. “There is nothing that says you can’t applaud between movements.” 

Taylor said the artists told her afterward that they were flattered by the display. And Hirshbein said several seasoned concertgoers who did not join in the applause noted that several newcomers seated nearby got the hint and stopped clapping between movements as well.  Hirshbein and Taylor just enjoyed it. 

“We didn’t tell people not to clap,” Hirshbein said. “It was wonderful to be in a concert hall and have something that spontaneous take place. Whatever happens, happens.” 

If this quirk catches on, classical music can thank Hirshbein and Taylor, friends and business partners in Twin Lions Inc., who created Free for All as a way of bringing classical music to a wider audience.  A board member came up with the name, and philanthropist Patti Cadby Birch contributed $100,000 to rent Town Hall and book the artists for the first year.  Taylor and Hirshbein both came to New York to become professional musicians.  Both decided that was a dream best left unrealized and instead got into the musical promotion business.

Hirshbein created the orchestra and chamber music programs at the 92nd Street YMCA in the late 1970s. Taylor met Hirshbein at a Y program and “as soon as I shook his hand, I knew I wanted to work for him.”  Taylor did just that, eventually being named the Y’s acting director of the performing arts department. She went on to become executive director of Lincoln Center’s Chamber Music Society.  Hirshbien concentrated on the speciality he developed at the Y, finding and introducing emerging classical artists, such as pianist Shura Cherkassky, before they were well known to the general public. 

“Omus had the reputation of getting behind an artist and sticking with them,” Taylor said. “He said our program should be ‘artist-driven.’ He would go to the artist and ask them what they wanted to do, not tell them what he wanted them to do.” The longtime friends decided to collaborate on Free for All because they believed the potential audience for classical music was “much larger and diverse than people imagined.” 

“We thought the problem was economic,” Hirshbein said. “Great music touches everyone. Many people just could not afford a ticket.”  

Society doyenne Kitty Carlisle Hart took Hirshbein to the Virgin Islands last year to meet with Cadby Birch, who sits on the board of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Over a swim in her pool, Cadby Birch agreed to put up the $100,000 to fund Free For All’s first year.  Taylor and Hirshbein are looking for sponsors – and artists – for next year’s series.

©2003 New York Daily News

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