"This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before." - Leonard Bernstein, November, 1963
In dark times such as this, when the world is confronted with the prospect of war, when millions are struggling for their very survival, going to a concert may feel a bit superfluous. But, music - and classical music in particular - has always been a powerful source of solace, of catharsis, of articulating things we are incapable of expressing. ("Music begins where words cease," said Jean Sibelius.) In 1963, the New York Philharmonic performed Mahler's 2nd Symphony on national television after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy; in 2001, the Boston Symphony performed Berlioz' Requiem at Carnegie Hall a few weeks after 9/11. Most recently, the Met Opera - having been dark for 18 months - reopened their stage on the 20th anniversary of 9/11 with Verdi's Requiem, dedicated to both the victims of 9/11 and COVID-19.
When the Vienna Philharmonic booked their annual visit to Carnegie Hall this past weekend - their first appearance here in three years - it was meant to be a celebration, the latest sign that things are returning to normal post-COVID. They were supposed to have been led by the celebrated Russian conductor Valery Gergiev in programs of mostly-Russian music, including Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, and Rachmaninoff's 2nd Piano Concerto, to be played by fellow Russian Dennis Matsuev.
And then, everything fell apart. After weeks of build up, Russia's military invaded Ukraine last Thursday, inviting the ire of most of the Western world. Almost immediately, Gergiev and Matsuev - both allies of Russian president Vladimir Putin - were removed, a joint decision between Carnegie and the Vienna Phil that circumvented planned protests both in and outside the hall. The fallout for Gergiev has since extended to his dismissal as Music Director of the Munich Philharmonic, his being cancelled from performances of The Queen of Spades at La Scala, and being dropped by his managers.
Fortunately, there was a ready replacement for Gergiev: Met Opera and Philadelphia Orchestra Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who was already in town to conduct Verdi's Don Carlos at the Met. Yannick has a longstanding relationship with the Vienna Phil dating back to 2010, and was familiar with all of the repertoire they were scheduled to perform. Finding a replacement for Matsuev proved to be considerably more challenging: pianists who can play the Rach 2 on short notice don't exactly grow on trees. Enter Korean pianist Seong-Jin Cho, who got the call at his home in Berlin, Germany barely 24 hours before the performance. After agreeing to take it on, Cho spent all night rehearsing in a hotel lobby, hopped a 7am flight to New York, and had just enough time for a sandwich and a quick rehearsal with the orchestra before going on. Considering Cho hadn't played the Rachmaninoff in three years - not to mention this was his Vienna Phil and Carnegie Hall orchestral debut - the results were pretty impressive. (You can hear the performance for yourself here.)