No other neighborhood in New York (in fact, in all likelihood, none on the planet Earth) can seriously compete with the Upper West Side when it comes to free and inexpensive music. For starters, of course, there’s Lincoln Center, with a profusion of complimentary programs. But that accounts for just a fraction of the UWS’s offerings—without even considering the summer months, when it’s hard to walk more than a few blocks without bumping into another free concert. Given their relatively low profile, this article focuses on an even more bountiful source of free and cheap music, the City’s premier music schools, all three of which lie within the bounds of the UWS.
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Most everyone’s heard of the Juilliard School, groomer of some of the most talented musicians in the world. But did you also know that the public can attend literally hundreds of concerts and recitals during the school year, the bulk of which are free? You can find full orchestral concerts, student and faculty recitals, chamber music, jazz, master classes, competitions, operas and more. Most events are held at the school, at 155 W. 65th, or other West Side venues. The great majority of players are college level, but even when the Pre-College Division performs—they accept applicants as young as seven—the standards are the highest (Juilliard’s admission rate is below 8%) and I’ve never been disappointed by the quality of the playing.
The school’s user-friendly event calendar (http://events.juilliard.edu/) displays each month’s performances and, if you hover over a listing, you can usually find the venue, principals, ticketing and program. Admission ranges up to $30 for fully staged operas, but most performances are free. For smaller events, like student recitals, you just have to show up. For the most popular groups, like the Juilliard Orchestra, limited numbers of tickets (2 per person) are distributed at the box office about two weeks in advance (Monday to Friday, 11 am to 6 pm; 212-769-7406). These often go very quickly, but you can usually gain admission from the standby line that forms on 65th St. an hour before curtain time. Depending on the weather and the program’s appeal, an hour’s wait might actually be needed, but for many concerts, last minute arrivals can make it in as well.
The Manhattan School of Music (MSM)
Strict constructionists might argue that the Manhattan School of Music sits slightly beyond the Upper West Side and is really located in Morningside Heights. But at 120 Claremont Avenue (enter at 122nd St., just west of Broadway), where most performances are held, it’s well within a liberal interpretation of UWS boundaries. Less famous than its downtown counterpart, MSM is still one of the most distinguished music schools in the country, graduating such luminaries as Harry Connick Jr., Herbie Hancock, Hugh Masekela and the composer David Amram. And with over 800 college students and another 550 in its pre-college program, there’s an abundance of talent.
MSM’s college performance calendar, at http://mastercalendar.msmnyc.edu/MasterCalendar.aspx, like Juilliard’s, is quite informative and simple to use, though you may have to navigate to the calendar from MSM’s home page (http://www.msmnyc.edu/). (The Pre-College version is at http://www.msmnyc.edu/Precollege/Calendar/Performance-Calendar). You can scan each listing for time, date, and a “$” if you need to buy tickets (which can generally be purchased online without service charge). Hover over an event for the venue and you may find the full program and even a photo of the performers. Tickets are $30 for operas but almost all other events are well below that (and most performances are free). The range is extraordinary. In addition to orchestral music, you might enjoy anything from a baroque aria ensemble to an evening of saxophones to a marimba concert to an afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra. Among hundreds of options, you can find competitions, student and faculty recitals, guest artists like Kurt Masur and Midori, lectures, master classes and more. And though the performances are top flight, you rarely have to line up much in advance for tickets. The box office (917-493-4428) is open Monday to Friday, 10 am to 5 pm.
The Mannes School of Music
Surely Juilliard and MSM’s presence would satisfy any reasonable neighborhood. But, oh no, not the Upper West Side. With its insatiable appetite for music, the UWS hosts yet a third prestigious institution, the Mannes School of Music. If it weren’t overshadowed by its more renowned brethren, Mannes would be the pride of almost any city—not to mention a single neighborhood—with such esteemed graduates as Burt Bacharach, Grammy-winning pianist Murray Perahia and mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade.
A bit smaller than its peers, the calendar at http://www.newschool.edu/Mannes/events.aspx, isn’t quite as chock-full or informative, and a larger share of events may be outsourced to venues beyond its UWS address (150 West 85th), but there’s plenty of music to choose from, including student, faculty and alumni recitals, opera excerpts, master classes with notables like Vladimir Feltsman and full orchestral concerts. And, best of all, almost all of it is free. Many of the programs aren’t released until a week before the performance, but you can call the Concert Office at 212-580-0210 x4817 for more information.
Columbia’s music program may not be in the same league as those of schools where it’s the primary mission, but it does provide opportunities for its students to play—and its neighbors to hear—a wide range of genres. The University’s orchestra offers free Fall, Winter & Spring concerts (see http://www.columbia.edu/cu/cuo/schedule.html) and its Music Performance Program supports several ensemble groups (bluegrass, klezmer, Latin American, etc.). The events calendar for the latter (at http://www.music.columbia.edu/mpp/calendar) is pretty sparse at the start of the school year, but it fills up with dozens of on-campus performances (Broadway and 116th or nearby) as they’re scheduled. Another Columbia events calendar at http://www.columbia.edu/events/today.html, covers a multitude of university activities, including music performances. It’s a little unwieldy and only goes 30 days forward, but you can try it to find a variety of additional musical programs.