by Steven Pisano
The year 2020 will be remembered as a vacuum in the New York City performing arts world for quite some time. For more than a year, the city's varied musical nightlife has been shut down. No soaring violins, no beating drums, no squealing guitars. Considering how profusely rich the city was with music before the COVID-19 pandemic, it is almost too difficult to comprehend how long we have been without live, in-person music.
Last Thursday, the New York Philharmonic offered their first indoor performance in more a year at The Shed, the cavernous performance space located in the fast-developing Hudson Yards neighborhood. Numerous safety protocols were in place, as they will be for the other live programs The Shed is offering this month, including music and comedy. To gain admittance, all patrons needed to provide proof of full vaccination, or to a recent negative PCR test result. Everyone wore a mask. And, after the concert, the audience was allowed to leave by rows, like students being dismissed from a school auditorium.
For these performances, the Philharmonic was guest-conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, former music director of the L.A. Philharmonic and current conductor of London's Philharmonia Orchestra. Salonen can be a subdued presence on the podium, with hands held high like a bird's wings and little of the fiery gesticulations and stabbing of the air that some other conductors are known for. But it was clear how moved he was to be in front of an audience again, even if that audience was a mere 150 people (in a venue that can hold 1200). In a sign of the times, Salonen read notes from his phone that he had written for the occasion.
Onstage, it was a far cry from the full Philharmonic. It was mostly just strings, along with a miniscule percussion section. No brass, no woodwinds - basically, nothing which would require the players to be unmasked. During an amplified concert, the non-distinct buzz of the Shed's HVAC system would hardly be noticed, but when a pair of violins were playing pianissimo, or Principal Cellist Carter Brey was playing pizzicato in Caroline Shaw's "Entr'acte", they could barely be heard.
Also on the bill with were Sibelius's "Rakastava (The Lover)", and Strauss's "Metamorphosen." Both pieces are meditative, almost melancholic works. They seemed reflective instead of looking forward, as if we need to acknowledge the incalculable losses of the last year before we can start again. A reminder that this is still a time for remembrance, and not yet celebration.
The orchestra will be leading a nomadic life for another year or so, as its longtime home, David Geffen Hall, finally receives a long overdue renovation. Up next: the return of the roving NY Phil Bandwagon pop-up chamber concerts. More photos can be found here.