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Facelifts at the Met and the Phil 

Like Charlotte's skyline, the Lincoln Center cultural campus has been perpetually pocked with construction sites over the past two years as the facility primped up for its 50th anniversary, currently in a yearlong celebration. When one eyesore gives way to a decorous renovation, another unsightly zit pops up elsewhere. Last summer, the new Alice Tully Hall was ready for its closeup as the Music Critics Association of North America toured the grounds, but work on a bosky outdoor concert site in front of Vivian Beaumont Theatre was barely begun, a new kiosk for advance tickets a block south on Columbus was too hazardous to tour, and the new fountain in the main plaza wasn't quite done.

By winter, when Sue and I revisited, there was substantial progress in the fountain area, and the grounds in front of the Vivian Beaumont were at an advanced stage of landscaping. Efforts now are concentrated on improving car and taxi access in front of the campus at its Columbus Avenue entrance. During the transition, we found it no more difficult to snag a cab than before, but underground access via the subway has been suspended. When the mercury hits 18°F, and the wind slaps the windchill below 0°, you feel the difference. And you don't mosey over to the site of the ticket kiosk to check on progress.

Aging plays a role in the changes that are happening at The Metropolitan Opera and at the New York Philharmonic. Since taking over as the Met's general manager, Peter Gelb has launched a frontal assault on a phenomenon that seems to have afflicted all the performing arts: the aging of their audience. He has launched the pioneering Live in HD broadcasts with an aggressive approach to hosting, camera coverage, and intermission programming. New rep, like The First Emperor and Doctor Atomic, has moved more to the forefront, and Gelb has reinvigorated the kids' rep, which once upon a time began and ended with Hansel and Gretel.

New productions of old rep favorites are on an accelerated assembly line. Sometimes, as with last year's Macbeth and -- even more so -- this year's Tosca, the more contemporary sensibility of the new productions clashes with the luxuriant realism of the old, and with the longtime subscribers who love them. Others, like La Fille du Regiment in 2008, last season's La Rondine, and this season's Carmen, have been more warmly welcomed. As a group, these successes prove that updating repertoire doesn't automatically alienate Met audiences. Instead, they reinforce the notion that if directors and designers aim to shock audiences, then they will be repelled.

Since 1958, when Leonard Bernstein took the reins of the New York Philharmonic, the youngest -- and only -- American to take up the music director's baton had been Lorin Maazel when his tenure began in 2002 at age 72. So at age 42, the new maestro, Alan Gilbert, is a breath of fresh air in numerous respects. With Gilbert. the railing on the podium serves discreetly as protection; Maazel used it as a support to lean on. And unlike more than a couple of his esteemed predecessors, Gilbert doesn't hold it beneath his dignity to informally address his audience in an effort to make new or difficult music palatable.

On the contrary, before Gilbert pointed out what to look for in Webern's Symphony -- and why he likes it - he wrote two notes for the program booklet. First, there's a blurb on the thinking behind programming Webern, Mozart, and Schumann together. Later, he follows up with more extensive reflections on Schumann's Symphony #2. From a populist standpoint, Gilbert is already proving to have strongest educational impulse of any Phil maestro since Bernstein.

As the son of two violinists who played for the Phil, Michael Gilbert and Yoko Takebe, Gilbert certainly isn't a maverick choice to lead the orchestra. His professional pedigree includes stints as the first music director at Santa Fe Opera and as chief conductor with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, auguring well for a long sojourn at Lincoln Center. Gilbert isn't conducting Live in HD broadcasts, but the Big New Idea at the New York Phil surely fits hand in glove with Gelb's mass marketing: the Phil's first season under Gilbert is being released piecemeal at iTunes.

We crammed five trips to Lincoln Center into a schedule of theatergoing during our annual arts pilgrimage to the Big Apple. Here's what we found:

Tales of Hoffman (***1/2 out of 4) -- There's only one question I can level at the Met's newly designed production of Jacques Offenbach's melodic epic, but it's a big one. Why? The previous Hoffman was a technological wonder, with whole sets that either rose into the flylofts or sank down below. Michael Yeargen's new set designs clear away the wow factor without putting a vivid new concept in its place. Where some tech wizardry was needed in Act 2, when Antonia gets fatal counsel from her dead mother via a portrait on the wall, there was none.

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  • On Saturday, Oct. 21, hundreds gathered at Camp North End on Statesville Avenue for Charlotte's first black alternative music festival. We captured some of the bands in action on stage, but mostly we surveyed the grounds as fans, families, vendors and more lounged around the sprawling, colorful Camp North End site. It was a great day of music, food, fun, and sweet, autumn sunshine. (Photos by Mark Kemp)
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