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Music in Time of War: Vienna Philharmonic Returns to Carnegie Hall

Vienna Philharmonic, Yannick Nezet-Seguin Carnegie Hall, February 2022(Photo: Steven Pisano)

"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.)

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Weekend Preview: Vienna Philharmonic Returns to Carnegie Hall

Vienna Philharmonic Carnegie Hall, March 2019It's been three years since the vaunted Vienna Philharmonic has been to NYC - in pre-COVID times, they came here each year - but they'll be back this weekend with three concerts at Carnegie Hall. Dodging certain protests with the last-minute cancellation of Russian conductor Valery Gergiev - a known ally of Russian President/Dictator/Asshole Vladimir Putin - the concerts will instead be led by Met Opera and Philadelphia Orchestra director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, in between rehearsals of Don Carlos at the Met.

Not the best timing with current events, but there will be a heavy-Russian theme to the three programs. Friday's concert - which will be live streamed by WQXR - features Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2 and 2nd Piano Concerto (to be performed by Berlin-based pianist Seong-Jin Cho after Dennis Matsuev - another Putin partisan - also cancelled.) Saturday night's concert brings Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade alongside music by French Romantics Debussy and Ravel. And Sunday's matinée will offer Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet and Tchiakovsky's 6th Symphony. Is it possible to separate art from real life? We'll see.

Tickets for all three concerts are available at the box office and online

Weekend Preview: 2/11-2/13

Friday, 2/11

Ethan Iverson at Roulette, 8pm

Ever since leaving The Bad Plus, the rock-jazz trio he co-founded in 2000, pianist Ethan Iverson has flourished as a solo artist while also branching out into composition.  This double bill features Iverson wearing both of his hats: on the first half, The New England Conservatory Jazz Orchestra performs Ritornello, Sinfonias, and Cadenzas: a 45 minute through-composed work premiered in Italy last summer. Then, Iverson plays selections from his just-released album Every Note is True (Blue Note) with an all-star trio featuring bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Nasheet Waits.

New York Philharmonic with Yuja Wang at Alice Tully Hall, 8pm

The always captivating (and occasionally cringe-inducing) pianist Yuja Wang returns to the Phil to perform Franz Liszt’s explosive First Piano Concerto, part of an Eastern European program led by the young Czech conductor Jakub Hrůša that also includes Zoltan Kodály’s colorful Concerto for Orchestra and Bohuslav Martinů’s richly textured First Symphony (Repeats on Saturday).

Saturday, 2/12

Tristan Perich, Lesley Flanigan and Christopher Tignor at National Sawdust, 7:30pm

Very excited to see these three electroacoustic mavens, who haven't performed in NYC in more than two years. Tristan continues his exploration of 1-bit music with "Tone Patterns," (see above) featuring cascading harmonies of 1-bit tones generated by his own custom-built hardware. Lesley will perform "Subtonalities," featuring two sine-wave oscillators generating low-frequency tones that she'll combine with pitches from her own voice. And Christopher debuts new music for violin and percussion, along with his custom-built interactive live processing platform.

Flying Lotus at Carnegie Hall, 8pm

Part of Carnegie's ongoing (and somewhat curious) Afrofuturism festival, Grammy Award–winning producer, composer, and rapper Flying Lotus takes over the Stern Auditorium with a performance that promises "a transportive electroacoustic musical blend in Carnegie Hall’s unrivaled acoustics." Should be...different.

Sunday 2/13

No live music, but I (like most of America) will be watching the Super Bowl Halftime Show, which features hip hop for the very first time. Not exactly cutting edge - nothing the NFL does is - the show features a billionaire (Dr. Dre), a beer salesman (Snoop Dogg), a shill for the Home Shopping Network (Mary J. Blige), and a white kid from Detroit (Eminem). Fortunately, someone had the presence of mind to include the brilliant lyricist Kendrick Lamar, though I doubt he'll get as much airtime as his elders. Should start around 8pm.