Maestro of Memories

How an aspiring conductor became Carnegie Hall’s archivist

By Kristine Jannuzzi

When Gino Francesconi arrived in New York to study conducting in 1974, one of his first stops was Carnegie Hall. “Because this was where I was going to make it. I wanted to see this hall,” he recalls.

But when the San Francisco native entered the lobby, he was sure he was in the wrong place. “It was dark, it was dingy, there was litter on the floor, and it was small. I didn’t realize that it was bigger than most Broadway lobbies,” he says, laughing, “so I walked into the box office, and, talk about green, I said to the guy, ‘Excuse me, is there another Carnegie Hall around here?’ And he said, without missing a beat, ‘How many Carnegie Halls do you want, buddy?’ And it’s just kind of funny, because there it was, it was all you needed to hear. I didn’t know what it looked like, but I knew what it meant.”

Francesconi has since become intimately familiar with nearly every nook and cranny of Carnegie Hall. Its first and only archivist, he’s the concert hall’s walking encyclopedia, a catalog of everything from encounters with legendary artists and landmark performances to obscure facts about the building and behind-the-scenes trivia. But the position is one that he never would have envisioned for himself when he came to New York with dreams of performing on the stage.

After enrolling in a Juilliard class taught by conductor Vincent La Selva, Francesconi applied for a job as an usher at the hall. A few months after he was hired, he became the backstage artist attendant — a position he describes as aggrandized gofer. But it gave him one-on-one time with artists ranging from Vladimir Horowitz and Arthur Rubinstein to Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. “The most spectacular part of it was the variety,” he says. “And if I had known that I was going to be the hall’s first historian, I certainly would have taken notes!”

Francesconi worked backstage for nine seasons, all the while continuing his studies as a conductor. “I actually had a fantasy of wanting to revive the Staten Island Philharmonic.” He was hoping to find an orchestra within close proximity to the hall so he wouldn’t have to give up seeing the concerts for free, not to mention the firsthand access to some of the world’s most renowned maestros.

It was a post-concert conversation with Riccardo Muti that led Francesconi to pursue his conducting studies full-time. Muti said to him, “You’ve been back here an awfully long time. If you had your way, what would you do?” Francesconi’s answer was to study with the Italian conductor Franco Ferrara in Siena. To which Muti replied, “Well, he’s not waiting for you! He’s getting older.” So Francesconi resigned that season and left Carnegie Hall in July of 1984.

Fracesconi found studying with Ferrara to be everything he’d always wanted, and says Carnegie Hall seemed increasingly distant. But Ferrara passed away in September of 1985, and although another of Francesconi’s favorite conductors, Carlo Maria Giulini, was to replace Ferrara the following summer, he needed a job in the interim. So he returned to New York.

“I came back to Carnegie Hall hat in hand, because they had thrown a big going-away party for me and it was wonderful. I was embarrassed, because they’d said, ‘Don’t come back unless it’s to perform onstage!’” But he arranged a meeting with the late Judith Aaron, then the hall’s executive director, and on his way out of her office, he noticed some old program books on a shelf. He realized there were fewer of them than there used to be, and he told her she should lock the books up, because people were taking them. “And a few weeks later, she called me up and said, ‘I have a job for you. You lock ’em up.’”

She charged Francesconi with the task of creating the hall’s first archives, as part of the preparation for its hundredth anniversary in 1991. An exhibit on the history of the hall was planned to coincide with the centennial season, and he had roughly four years to fill a space at Lincoln Center that, he says, “looked like you could land a DC-10 in.” He collected a dizzying array of memorabilia — from Benny Goodman’s clarinet to a program signed by the Beatles, not to mention countless scrapbooks, photos, letters, recordings, speeches, tickets and memories. He not only filled the original space, but also curated the first exhibit at Carnegie Hall’s own Rose Museum, which opened on the centennial date in 1991.

Before the anniversary, Francesconi went back to Italy one summer to study with Giulini and was suddenly caught up in conducting again. “I was really confused because I thought, ‘If I stay here, I bet my career will take off; I can really feel a connection with this conductor. But if I don’t do that job at Carnegie Hall, I don’t know who else will.’” So he discussed the dilemma with the maestro. Francesoni recalls Giulini asking him how many conductors had performed at Carnegie Hall, and he guessed some four thousand. Then Giulini asked him how many archivists they’d had, and of course the answer was none. And Guilini replied, “Think about that a little bit.”