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9 concerts in 7 days at the world's most famous concert hall

Carnegie Hall manages to present the vast sprawl of the classical field in the 21st century better than almost anywhere else

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A dizzying musical marathon at the Carnegie Hall is a concentrated reminder that what is special about classical music as an art form is its variety - its intimacy and its grandeur - its capacity to draw inspiration from the past yet speak to the present.

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A single piano on that huge stage remains one of the most dramatic images in music. András Schiff played Janacek's episodic suite On the Overgrown Path with searching insight, rhapsodic freedom and uncompromising musical integrity.

New York

SAY the phrase "classical music" and many will imagine a renowned symphony orchestra playing masterpieces of the distant past at Carnegie Hall.

Last week, you could live that fantasy again and again at Carnegie, probably the most famous concert space in the world.

The Vienna Philharmonic played towering works by Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and Mahler over four programmes. The Philadelphia Orchestra played Schubert's Ninth Symphony.

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But music is about more than big symphonies, and it's about more than the past. I went to nine concerts over seven days at Carnegie, a dizzying musical marathon, and it was a concentrated reminder that what is special about this art form is its variety - its intimacy and its grandeur - its capacity to draw inspiration from the past yet speak to the present.

How to foster new music, support emerging composers and connect classical music - that inadequate term - to today, while also maintaining the legacy of major ensembles performing the great works of the past?

And how to preserve that legacy? Faithfully honour historical performance styles? Jolt timeless scores with new approaches?

Last week was just a random one at the hall, but it showed how Carnegie manages to engage all sides of these debates - the vast sprawl of the classical field in the 21st century - better than almost anywhere else.

The hall's three spaces make this range of repertory and experience possible. Sleek and modern Zankel Hall, down in the basement, hosted the premiere of a powerful multimedia piece dealing with racial profiling and a prison system that inordinately targets young African-American men.

Zankel was small enough for the Chiaroscuro Quartet's period instruments and mellow gut strings to be heard in a lean, dusky-toned account of Schubert's Death and the Maiden.

Snug, politely classic-looking Weill Recital Hall practically vibrated from hip French harpsichordist Jean Rondeau's concert, a walk on the wilder side of Bach and Scarlatti, while master pianist Andras Schiff played Janacek and Schumann in the main auditorium.

A single piano on that huge stage remains one of the most dramatic images in music.

The tension between innovation and tradition was on display during the Vienna Philharmonic's first programme, March 2, when Adam Fischer led a robust, majestic account of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony.

As always, you could bask in this magnificent orchestra's resplendent sound - the warmth and body of the strings, the reedy tang of the woodwinds, the dark richness of the brass. Even during intense passages, the transparency of the playing was marvellous.

Yet, for all its splendour, there was a slightly self-important quality to the performance that kept me a little distant, as if the orchestra was claiming ownership of a work from the glory days of Viennese classicism and showing an American audience how it's played at home.

Discovering Beethoven anew

That the Vienna Philharmonic, so beholden to tradition, can discover Beethoven anew was triumphantly proved a few nights later, when pianist Igor Levit was the soloist in the Third Piano Concerto, with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting.

In Levit's hands, a probing performance can seem excitingly dangerous. A telling example was the extended development section of the first movement.

This episode, lasting a few minutes, is marked to be played softly. At first, the movement's stern main theme is recalled by the piano - but mysteriously, quietly, in octaves. Then, supported by the orchestra, the piano elongates the theme and takes exploratory excursions into genial-sounding passages of spiralling triples.

But there was nothing genial about Levit's approach. He played the whole episode not just softly, but as if whispered. Crucial notes were given just enough extra nudge to make them startling. The music-making was ruminative yet purposeful, unsettling yet assured.

On Thursday, alas, I had to leave Rondeau's recital early to make it to Schiff's concert downstairs. Rondeau, with his long hair, scraggly beard and rumpled shirt, exuded wild-eyed charisma and channelled it into his performance. Dispatching Baroque passagework with impeccable clarity, even at breakneck tempos, he brought improvisational flair to his playing - he also plays jazz - especially an impetuous account of Bach's Fantasia in C minor.

It was a different mood in the main auditorium, where Schiff, wearing a three-piece suit, looked every bit the distinguished master as he bowed to the audience.

Once he began Janacek's episodic suite On the Overgrown Path, he played with searching insight, rhapsodic freedom and uncompromising musical integrity.

And talk about bringing freshness to familiar repertory: Immensely gifted pianist Jan Lisiecki practically kick-started Mendelssohn's youthful Piano Concerto in G minor into action on Friday with the Philadelphia Orchestra, led by Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

But it was the raw, cry from the soul new work, The Just and the Blind, that has stayed with me from my marathon.

Part of Carnegie's 125 Commissions Project, begun in honour of the hall's 125th birthday in 2016, it's a 60-minute piece by poet Marc Bamuthi Joseph, with music by Daniel Bernard Roumain.

Although it includes a dancer (Drew Dollaz), a vocalist (Somi) and projected animations and videos, the work is driven by Joseph's stinging, brilliant words and is structured as a series of vignettes.

Alternately jazzy and modernist

Joseph voices the thoughts of a black father who admits to being afraid when, at night, he walks past young black men who look the same age as his son.

Every day, he tells his son, the boy's main mission in life is "to come home to me". Stretches of Roumain's score, which he mostly plays on piano and violin, are alternately jazzy and modernist.

A rhythmically frenetic section will segue into a breezily cool passage. But Roumain knows when to pull the music back so Joseph's searing words can do their work.

Is this classical music? Perhaps not by traditional definitions. But it speaks to where Carnegie has come that it fit in at the hall just as well as the Vienna Philharmonic. NYTIMES