NEW YORK -- Spend an hour with Gino Francesconi, Carnegie Hall's director of archives, and you'll feel you've walked through the annals of music history with your own personal tour guide.
As the concert hall's first and only archivist in its illustrious 123-year history, the passionate historian once set on carving out a professional conducting career still can't believe how the stars aligned to ultimately bring him to his life's work.
"If you had told me back in 1984 when I was studying Beethoven symphonies in Italy I'd someday be standing in my own museum at Carnegie Hall, I'd have said you're nuts," Francesconi -- who also serves as director of its Rose Museum -- says during an interview in his Manhattan office. "And for the longest time, I still wanted to be a conductor."
But fate had other plans for the ebullient 61-year old, whose own life has invariably become interwoven with the hall's history.
After arriving in New York in 1974 to further his musical studies, the San Francisco native was hired at Carnegie Hall first as an usher, and then backstage attendant ("basically an aggrandized gopher," he says with a laugh) whose nightly duties included shepherding a staggering array of world-renowned artists including Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Isaac Stern, Yo-Yo Ma, Yehudi Menuhin, Vladimir Horowitz, Leonard Bernstein and Robert Shaw, among others.
Ask him anything and he'll nonchalantly respond with personal observations gleaned from closely interacting with famous musicians every night for 10 years.
Sinatra? "Extremely professional. You could set your clock by his timing," he says. "Ella's talent combined with her humility was just awesome," he says of the legendary jazz singer. "And Horowitz was fun! He was like a little imp." Isaac Stern, for whom the hall's main concert venue is named? "He was just wonderful -- he saved the hall from demolition during the late 1950s, so he was like the father to us."
But his heart still lay in making music, so the aspiring conductor packed his bags for Italy to study conducting with Franco Ferrara, but that was cut short with the maestro's death in 1985. Broke and in need of a job, Francesconi returned to New York and was quickly rehired by the hall to spearhead a special archival exhibition in honour of its centenary, celebrated in 1991.
Even then, he dreamed of leading orchestras, vowing every year to return to Italy to conduct. His grandmother finally set him straight once and for all.
"At one point she said, 'Face facts. This is what you were born to do,'" he says. His conducting teacher at that time further affirmed his destiny.
"He asked me, 'How many conductors have been at Carnegie Hall?'" Francesconi says. After replying "four or five thousand," he was next quizzed how many historians Carnegie Hall has had over the years. "I said none," Francesconi says. "And he said, 'Well, think about that.' And so I did."
Francesconi now leads a four-member team that collects, collates, preserves and digitizes 300,000 programs, ticket stubs, letters, photographs, scrapbooks and recordings amassed for posterity from 50,000 events held at Carnegie Hall's three concert venues. It's clearly a labour of love for the enthusiastic archivist who freely peppers his conversation with "cool" and "fun." He checks eBay and social media daily, and advertises in the AARP (formerly American Association for Retired Persons) magazine to locate treasures. One of those was the hall's opening-night ticket dated May 5, 1891, led by great Russian composer/conductor Tchaikovsky.
"It found us," he says with wonder when the ticket eventually surfaced in near-perfect condition. It's now proudly displayed in the Rose Museum inaugurated 100 years to the day after the hall's opening concert.
"I was so excited. I wanted to jump up and down because I thought if that exists, than maybe everything else does, too," he says.
One night he still remembers is the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra's glittering, star-studded debut at Carnegie Hall on March 8, 1979, led by maestro Piero Gamba and hosted by Peter Ustinov. Its astonishing bill included Maureen Forrester, Byron Janis, Jorge Bolet, Jean-Pierre Rampal and Yehudi Menuhin, among others, and also attended by Canada's prime minister at the time, Pierre Trudeau.
"It was just amazing," Francesconi recalls of witnessing the backstage activity. "It was also a bit of an obstacle course because the concert was being recorded and there were microphones, wires and cables everywhere. It was pure chaos, but also fun for us because we were used to it. We only had one green room, so people were sitting on the stairs." And the security people said, 'This is nuts; how can you keep order back here?' But we did. We had our own order."
Francesconi has great things to say about the four-year-old Spring for Music festival that wrapped up last weekend -- and where the WSO made its second Carnegie Hall appearance last Thursday night.
"I thought it was a brilliant idea," he says, adding that he slips downstairs to the hall as much as possible to watch daily rehearsals. "This festival has been wonderful because it's allowed orchestras to come here with repertoire that you could never program otherwise," he says.
So, four decades after first setting foot in the historic venue... was his grandmother right?
"Absolutely. I hate to admit it, but she was about this," he says of his life's passion. "We're privileged to keep the flame going for the future. And then we pass it on to someone else, which is really wonderful," he says, adding he has no imminent plans for retirement.
"And besides, the perks are great. You're typing in your office and say, oh... Bruce Springsteen is downstairs.
"Even now, after 40 years, when I come out of the subway every morning, I'll look at the hall and think, gosh I'm just so lucky. I'm privileged to do this work and it's been a true honour and joy."