John Williams Conducts the Vienna Philharmonic at the Musikverein

John Williams Vienna Philharmonic 1

"Music is not really a job, it’s something that the more you practice in it and work in it, the more interesting it becomes. My activities are the result of my good fortune of working in a field that you become more in love with as you go along through the years." - John Williams

I, like most people, have had a lifelong relationship with the music of John Williams. Widely regarded as the greatest film composer of all time, Williams has written more than 100 scores for film and TV, receiving more than 50 Oscar and 70 Grammy nominations in the process. His soaring, neo-romantic music is so iconic and has reached so many millions of people, he is without question the most recognizable composer alive.

In addition to his work as a composer Williams, now 88, has enjoyed a long career as a conductor, having led the Boston Pops from 1980-93 and returning to conduct them every season at both Boston Symphony Hall and Tanglewood, where I saw him amidst an overflow crowd in 2017.

But even Williams was floored when the Vienna Philharmonic invited him to conduct a pair of concerts of his own music at the legendary Musikverein in Vienna, right before the world shut down due to COVID-19. "One of the greatest honors of my life,” Williams said at the time.

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to be there in person to witness it - the two concerts sold out within hours - but Deutsche Grammophon captured it on both audio and video, both of which are now available for purchase and streaming.

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Music in the Time of COVID: Christian Sands and Ashley Bathgate

Village Vanguard Empty(Photo: Sabrina Santiago, The New York Times)

Well, it's been a minute. First and foremost, I hope everyone out there is hanging in, staying safe and sane.

But, I won't mince words: this year has sucked. Especially in terms of live music. This just-ended summer had no Celebrate Brooklyn, no Summerstage, no Warm Up or Tanglewood. Frankly, it felt like a missed opportunity to catch some music in the relatively-safe outdoors, especially considering there probably won't be indoor shows for at least another year. Which is particularly painful, given this is normally the time of year when the Met, NY Phil and Carnegie are hosting their festive opening nights. (Carnegie is holding a "virtual opening night" on Oct. 7 with performances by Jon Batiste, Angelique Kidjo, Lang Lang, Wynton Marsalis, and others.)

Oh, I know. There are lots of live streams which can be heard from the socially-distant safety of your desktop/laptop/phone. But, to be honest, I've had a hard time warming up to them. Live music is meant to be heard directly and with other people around, not through earbuds at 1080p. Not to mention these online performances are generally limited to bedroom solo shows, or small ensembles playing in someone's barn or basement.

But, it's what we have for now, and even if it's less-than-ideal, it's been a lifeline for countless musicians who've lost all of their gigs and whatever income they once made from them. And, as I discovered last night watching a pair of streams back-to-back, the quality has improved significantly over the past six (!) months. (Pro tip: get an Apple TV or other streaming device and a decent pair of speakers.) 

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Music at Home

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Ok, being stuck at home sucks, but at least we have modern technology to get us through the day. And no, I don't mean bingeing Tiger King. There is a ton of great, free music streaming online, too much to list here. NPR Music has a great running tally here, which I use as my basic go-to guide. Below are some highlights (all times EDT).

Opera: Just yesterday, I watched John Adams conduct his own Nixon at China at the Met Opera, one of the Met's daily free live streams. Today's opera, Bizet's Pearl Fishers, will be available until tomorrow night. (Pro tip: as long as you start watching before 6:30pm, you can pause it and resume at some later point.) Among other opera companies, the Vienna State Opera is currently streaming Mozart's Marriage of Figaro. Meanwhile, the Met Museum is sharing their recent performance of Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thompson's The Mother of Us All at 7pm.

Classical: The Berlin Philharmonic continues to make its entire archive of high quality digital streams available for free. Closer to home, the NY Phil is offering select videos of past concerts here

Jazz: Fred Hersch has been doing a daily stream on Facebook every day at 1pm. At 7pm, Chick Corea is playing as part of the Live from Our Living Rooms festival, followed by Fabian Almazan and Linda Oh. At 8pm, Lizz Wright appears courtesy of SF Jazz (this one costs $5 for a 1-moth membership.) And, Christian McBride hosts a listening party at Jazz House Kids with Dee Dee Bridgewater, Cecile McLorin and Melissa Walker.

Lots of streaming shows from the rock, roots and experimental worlds listed here and elsewhere.