"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.)
I wasn't at Friday night's concert, but I was in the hall the following evening for a program that combined French and Russian music, all squarely in Yannick's wheelhouse. From my seat in the Parquet, I could hear Russian being spoken all around me: not surprising given that these patrons had been expecting to see one of their compatriots on the podium. Most of them spoke softly, probably wishing they were somewhere - anywhere - else.
After a delayed start due to the huge lines of ticketholders waiting to get their vaccination cards checked - Carnegie's entrance is a bottleneck under the best of circumstances - Yannick took the podium to a loud ovation. They opened with Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (1894), an early example of musical impressionism. The lush, atmospheric work is a showcase for flute, played here to perfection by Principal flutist Walter Auer.
If Debussy's Prelude is hazy and enigmatic, Ravel's Daphnis and Chloë Suite No. 2 (1913) is vibrant and ecstatic, full of color and texture. As always, the Vienna Phil's playing was seamless, even in the deafening crescendos which Yannick took at full tilt. The flutes flew at almost impossible speed while the staccato brass was brilliantly on point. The final Danse générale built to a violent eruption reminiscent of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, which would be written later that year for the same troupe that commissioned Daphnis and Chloë (Diaghilev's Ballet Russes).
(Photo: Steven Pisano)
Inspiring both Debussy and Ravel, Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade (1888) is one of the earliest examples of musical exoticism, full of cinematic tropes that have influenced generations of film composers. In this 45 minute work - based on the classic tale Arabian Nights - the title character is represented by the violin, played here by the Vienna Phil's concertmaster Volkhard Steude. Other characters include the Sultan (trombone), Kalendar Prince (bassoon), even the sea (strings and winds). In the finale, the strings soared while the winds and brass were fleet and crisp, fading to a soft, plaintive melody carried by the violin.
After several curtain calls, the audience thought for sure there would be an encore of a Strauss waltz or two, as is often the case when Vienna comes to town. Not this time. "If you want an encore," Yannick told us from the stage, "you'll have to come back tomorrow afternoon."
Which I did, gladly. Sunday's concert - which was completely sold out - began with the Suite from Prokofiev's ballet Romeo and Juliet (1936). The music opens with a crescendo to a dissonant roar so violent, it shocked me right out of my seat. Vienna played with power and finesse throughout, yet always careful not to let things spiral out of control. The final section, "Romeo at Juliet's Tomb" featured sweeping strings, blaring trombones, and a thunderous bass drum, all eventually yielding to a tender, tragic final chord.
After intermission, the Philharmonic's Chairman Daniel Froschauer (also a first violinist) came out onstage alongside Yannick and Carnegie Hall Executive and Artistic Director Clive Gillinson to ask for a minute of silence following Tchiakovsky's 6th symphony, which they were about to perform. "This minute of silence expresses for us our wholehearted support of the people of Ukraine. We musicians stand together against any form of violence, aggression and war." The hall exploded in emphatic applause: it was perhaps the most electrifying moment I've ever experienced in three decades of Carnegie Hall concerts - or anywhere for that matter.
Although the "Pathétique" symphony (1893) had been programmed by Gergiev months before, I can't imagine a more appropriate piece of music for the moment. This was the last work Tchiakovsky completed before his death, and it is filled with a darkness and despair uncommon in his output. Right off the bat, the opening Adagio-Allegro was filled with foreboding, marked by a tender theme first played by the strings, then later the winds. The second movement (Allegro con grazia) flowed like an elegant waltz reminiscent of Tchiakovsky's peerless dance music. This gave way to the 3rd movement's propulsive march (Allegro molto vivace) filled with majesty and fire: Vienna played it like a beast unfurled.
As the movement drew to its titanic close, you could tell the house wanted to erupt, but Yannick wouldn't allow it, proceeding directly into the finale (Adagio lamentoso). This final movement is irrepressibly sad: only death and darkness lie ahead. The fact that it was written by a Russian - who incidentally wrote a first draft while in New York to conduct the inaugural concert at Carnegie Hall in 1891 - only added to the pathos of the moment: this was a cry of pain, a reminder of man's inhumanity to man. As promised, Yannick held the silence for a full minute after the final chord, and for once New York held up its end of the bargain: you could hear a pin drop in that packed, stunned hall. I'm sure there were a few dry eyes in the house, but I couldn't see them myself.