Oberlin Blogs

I Performed at Carnegie Hall for the UN *not clickbait!*

December 10, 2022

Ilana McNamara ’24


This December, I had the honor of being invited to perform with the Oberlin Orchestra for the United Nations General Assembly at Carnegie Hall. Oberlin has a newly-announced partnership with the UN, and as a part of this, the Oberlin Orchestra and Choir were invited to perform to an invitation-only audience consisting of UN diplomats and their families at the famed Carnegie Hall. Here’s a breakdown of my experience!


We had a pretty intense six-week rehearsal cycle leading up to this concert during the semester in Oberlin, which is more time than we usually spend preparing orchestra programs. Most of the orchestra consisted of Juniors and Seniors, with the assumption being (we hope!) that Oberlin will continue to do cool touring opportunities for the underclassmen. Already, the orchestra is going back this January to Carnegie Hall to perform The Ordering of Moses by Nathaniel Dett (a prominent Black composer and Oberlin grad). 


On this concert, we performed Fanfare on Amazing Grace by Adolphus Hailstork, Piano Concerto No. 2 by Sergei Rachmaninov, and Symphony No. 9 by Ludwig van Beethoven. It was a massive program (the Beethoven is over an hour long!), and I’ll be honest, my back really hurt by the end just from all the music that we had to play. Our soloist for the Rachmaninov was Byron Zhou, a concert pianist from Shanghai who took the piece at an incredibly fast tempo, and our soloists for the Beethoven were four singers who were all really characters, and some of them were even Oberlin graduates! 


The program definitely wasn’t what I would have chosen, and from what I heard, it wasn’t what Oberlin would have chosen either. Apparently every detail down to the programming and choice of soloists was decided for us by the UN, so you can come to your own conclusions about what they were trying to promote with this concert. Even though this kind of programming (genius-ifying dead European White men like Beethoven and adding in a Black composer for ~diversity~) is what I’m trying to move away from, I have to admit that I really did enjoy the repertoire. There’s something to a purely beautiful piano concerto like Rachmaninov’s, and the vastness and majesty that is Beethoven 9. While I would never go so far as suggesting that Beethoven 9 is the greatest accomplishment of art ever, as some have done, I definitely had more of an appreciation for large orchestral works after working on and performing this program. 


We prepared a lot for the performance, having multiple late-night rehearsals with the choir and soloists in the weeks leading up to the performance. We performed the whole program once in Finney Chapel in Oberlin the week that we were set to go to New York. I thought the energy of that first performance was even better than at Carnegie, because we were playing for people that we knew and that were rooting for us. 


Then, it was "wake up at 6am for the 10 hour bus ride to New York" time! We left on a Thursday morning and came back on Saturday night, so we had to miss two days of school, which was unfortunate, but luckily all of my teachers were very understanding. We were able to get transportation, lodging, and food in New York City for two days for free, which is pretty incredible. I actually ended up making money on this trip because I didn’t use my full per diem (ka-ching!). We left for New York at 7am with five large coach buses that said “Precious Cargo” on the sides, which I thought was very cute. I know I’m precious cargo, but now everyone else on I-80 could know as well!


white coach bus with red lettering on the side that says "precious cargo" parked at a gas station.


The bus ride was long and fairly uneventful. I mostly worked on my problem set for my math class (#doubledegreelifestyle), and our bus captain even made some trivia for us on the way there and back. Everyone on the trip had an app called TeamReach, which was supposed to be a way for the people in charge of the tour to get in touch with us, and very quickly devolved into antics that I’m not going to describe here, but it was quite annoying. We eventually got to our hotel around 6pm that night. I was super surprised to hear that we were staying at the Hilton in Midtown Manhattan because it’s a really nice hotel!


Ilana waves to the camera in a large and well-furnished modern hotel room.
Our room!


Funny story about this hotel - once when I was in high school, I had a twelve-hour layover in Newark. Instead of just sitting in the airport, I got out and went into New York City. I really wanted to visit the MoMA (Museum of Modern Art), but when I got there with all of my luggage and my viola, they said that they couldn’t let me into the museum with all of my stuff, and they couldn’t store it there. So I went across the street to the nearest hotel (the Hilton in Midtown Manhattan!), waltzed up to the luggage storage, and conveniently didn’t mention to them that I wasn’t actually staying in the hotel. I got a place to store my luggage for $5 and I got to go to the MoMA! Actually staying there and leaving my luggage not questionably illegally felt like an incredible closure to that story.


Anyways, after we checked into the hotel and got used to the room, my roommate and I went out with another friend for dinner at a Korean place near Times Square, which was really good. 


Ilana sits with two other people at a table that has many dishes of food.


We then of course had to see the iconic Times Square in December at night, which is always so overwhelming but kind of cool. Both of the people that I went with had never been in New York City before, so I was acting as a bit of a tour guide even though I’ve only been a few times myself. After that, we went back to the hotel, which was luckily only a five minute walk away. We called it an early night and got some sleep, because we had a big day ahead of us the next day!


many people walk along a road with flashy billboards all around.
Times Square!


On Friday morning, I woke up early to go experience a bit of the city before we had to head to rehearsal. Central Park was only a few blocks away from our hotel, so I started the day off with a long walk in the park and breakfast at a little café in the middle. One of my favorite things to do in a big city is just walk around and experience the anonymity and a taste of the real life that the people there have. 


a coffee cup and a pastry sit on a table with trees and a field in the background.
shhh...the pastry is actually from my co-op back in Oberlin - gotta save money somehow!


Then, I decided to revisit one of my favorite museums in NYC - the MoMA! I was able to see an exhibit on Meret Oppenheim (a Swiss Surrealist artist), and an installation that took pieces in the museum and turned them into color schemes and textures using AI software. I love modern art in general, so it was really cool to get to see these and the other things on display. 


a teacup, saucer, and spoon covered in fur sit in a glass case.
"Object" by Meret Oppenheim - an important piece in art history! Yes, it is a teacup, saucer, and spoon covered in fur.


It was time for a quick falafel lunch at one of the many Halal Guys food carts all over the city (yum!) and then off to Carnegie Hall for the dress rehearsal and performance! 


a foil-wrapped pita with tomatoes, lettuce, and other toppings is held in the street
great lunch-on-the-go!


Standing in line at the stage door, I could really hardly believe that I was actually going to be playing at Carnegie Hall! The dress rehearsal went well, and it was super fun to hear what we were going to sound like in the hall. It’s well-known for being one of the best concert halls in the world, and after playing there, I understood why. It was so much easier than any hall I’ve played in to hear all of the other parts coming from different sections of the orchestra, which meant that sometimes I actually found it hard to hear myself because I was getting distracted by all of the other things that I’d actually never heard before. 


people carrying instruments line up outside a fancy door.
lining up at the stage door


We then had to wait around backstage for a few hours in between the rehearsal and the concert. And the backstage of Carnegie Hall is kind of a nightmare! It was really hard to navigate because it’s like six floors of different dressing rooms and lots of elevators that don’t go where you think they should. Luckily, I was able to eat a sandwich for dinner and change into my concert black before the show. 


Then it was go time! It was pretty cool to be there in front of a bunch of diplomats from all over the world, and even cooler when the President of the UN General Assembly spoke before our performance. One of my favorite moments was after the opening fanfare when Maestro Jimenez (our conductor) motioned to the audience to thank the composer, which is the custom. Then Adolphus Hailstork stood up at the back of the auditorium, raised his hand, and said “If you’re looking for the composer, he’s right here!” 


Overall, I thought the performance went pretty much without a hitch. I guess I thought that I would somehow change while performing at Carnegie Hall, so I was surprised when I had a lot of feelings that I usually feel during a performance - I was a bit nervous, I was concentrating, I felt slightly lightheaded. I hadn’t expected that I would feel such human things - I thought that somehow I would be elevated by the space, I guess, but that wasn’t really the case. I hate saying this, but it was kind of just a normal performance in a cool venue for an interesting audience. And the audience was interesting - they clapped politely in between every movement, which I thought was adorable, and it means that they really appreciated the music. Afterwards, we were able to go back on stage to take a few pictures, and then that was a wrap for our Carnegie Hall performance!


a group of people wearing concert black dress smile on a stage.
We even got a picture with Dean Quillen, the dean of the Conservatory!


We packed up, then headed back to the hotel to put our stuff away and change. Some of the violists had planned to meet up with two other violists that graduated Oberlin last year and now live in NYC. It was super nice to get to see them, because I was pretty close with both of them but haven’t gotten the chance to talk much since they graduated. We went out to ice cream and got a picture with past and present members of the Docter’s Office (my studio’s name, since our teacher is Kirsten Docter). 


five people in coats smile at the camera outside of a store. one is holding an ice cream cone.
Docter's Office = best studio (this is a real equation from a certified math major)


Afterwards, we had to do a run to Ray’s Famous Original Pizza (or Original Ray’s Famous Pizza? Famous Original Ray’s Pizza? I never can keep track of all of them) for a slice past midnight on a Friday night. And we might have even seen some members of the Oberlin administration there as well (if you’re reading this, no we didn’t)!


Ilana and another person take a mirror selfie with a giant neon reading "PIZZA" in the background.


The next morning, I woke up early again to grab a bagel before we left. If you’ve read my previous post, you’ll know about my love affair with Cleveland Bagels, but I’m also a big fan of an authentic New York bagel, and this one was no exception. 


Ilana holds a foil-wrapped everything bagel with cream cheese.
my usual bagel order: everything with whipped cream cheese


I walked around a little bit and passed by the Rockefeller Center, where I got to see the iconic Christmas Tree. 


a huge Christmas tree stands in between skyscrapers.
one thing about me is I love a good Christmas tree!


And with that it was time to go back home! It was kind of unbelievable that it was all over so soon, but nice to get back to Oberlin. On the bus ride back, I channeled my own sad music video persona and mostly listened to music on my headphones while staring out the misty windows (#soartsy) and I very much did not work on the paper that I was supposed to finish by Monday, but alas. We made it back to Oberlin before dinner, and overall, it was a crazy and amazing few days!


a rainy bus window.
call me if you need a protagonist in your next sad music video!


I am definitely grateful for the opportunity to play in the venue that has been seen as the goal of every musician, and for a body that has been extremely important on a global scale, but it gave me a chance to question why we take some of these things for granted. When I was in high school, I was offered and I knew people who went on programs where if your parents shelled out a couple thousand dollars, you too could perform in an orchestra at Carnegie Hall! Regardless of talent, it has always been the case that in Western Classical music, money is the real decider of who’s in and who’s out.


When I first heard about Oberlin’s partnership with the UN, I was a little bit weirded out. A partnership where students from “third-world” countries come to the United States to learn the “right way’’ to play music? Especially focused on Southeast Asia, where the US and China are having a not-so-secret battle for influence? Sounds like classic American soft colonialism to me. I don’t mean to say that the US doesn’t have a duty to help other countries around the world, but maybe do it in a way that’s not so America-centric. How about sending Oberlin students to other countries to learn about their cultural music? I’m glad that we’re working towards helping other countries, but I’m not convinced that us performing at Carnegie Hall really did so much to bring “Joy to the World” as Beethoven promised. However, I’m really grateful for the opportunity from Oberlin, and I hope many other musicians can have the same chance that I was given to hopefully make a difference worldwide!

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