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The New York Philharmonic Returns to Live Performance at The Shed

by Steven Pisano

New York Philharmonic at The Shed, 4/15/21(All photographs 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.

But recently, the city has begun to experience more and more live performances, both in-and-outdoors, and they could not have come too soon!

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.

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Beethoven @ 250: Jonathan Biss Performs The Late Piano Sonatas

Last night, pianist Jonathan Biss was supposed to appear at the 92nd Street Y to perform Beethoven's last three piano sonatas. Unfortunately, as with just about everything these days, Biss was unable to perform the recital in person. Instead, he filmed himself performing the sonatas on his own piano in his living room and posted it last night on the 92Y website, via Livestream.

Like the late string quartets, these sonatas (Op. 109, 110, and 111) are powerful, visionary works that completely reinvented the genre, influencing composers for decades to come. Before his penetrating, trance-like performance, Biss spoke about the particular resonance Beethoven's sonatas have in this strange time of social distancing.

"They are products of Beethoven's isolation - especially his profound deafness. He was a person of infinite imagination and idealism, and shuttered off from the rest of the world, those qualities blossomed into something even more extraordinary than they might have otherwise. Which led him to produce these documents of beauty, power, and truth."

The full recital is posted above. You can read Biss' own insightful program notes here. And, if you're inclined to help out, you can donate to 92Y here

Call me an optimist, but I'm still hoping to hear these sonatas in person when the great Italian pianist Maurizio Pollini is scheduled to perform them at Carnegie Hall on May 17, less than a week after Carnegie's last already-canceled performance. I can think of any number of reasons why it won't happen, but it feels better right now to imagine that it will. 


The Music Stops

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"How do you keep the music playing?
How do you make it last?
How do you keep the song from fading
Too fast?"

- Alan and Marilyn Bergman, "How Do You Keep the Music Playing?"

Monday nights are usually quiet in New York: Broadway is shut, museums and galleries are closed, jazz clubs are either dark or have a house band playing. But, this Monday is different: there is no music, no art, no activity to be seen anywhere. Life as we know it has shut down for an unknowable period of time, thanks to this horrible, contagious, deadly coronavirus that has spread unchecked throughout the city, and around the world. Everything is on Pause.

Art and culture certainly come second to health and welfare, but looking at the impact COVID-19 is having just on music in New York City shows just how extraordinary and unprecedented a moment this is. As of today, both the Met and the Phil have canceled the remainder of their seasons, and the loss of income from ticket sales (estimated in the tens of millions of dollars) is compounded by the impact the concurrent stock market crash has had on their endowments. Carnegie and BAM and the Met Museum will try to reopen in May, but I wouldn't bank on it. All that planning, all those sets, all those bookings made years in advance - gone.  

Of course, these are major institutions with the resources to continue providing their employees with full benefits, if not at least partial pay. They should survive (I think.) But, what about all of the independent musicians: the new music peeps, the jazz players, the indie rockers, the bluegrass and old time fiddlers? Most of them get paid by the gig, and have little, if any safety net.

What about the clubs? Blue Note and the Vanguard aren't going anywhere, but what about Smalls or Smoke? I'm sure Bowery will be fine, but what about the standalone places, like LPR or Elsewhere, not to mention the dozens and dozens of bars that showcase live music on a nightly basis? I assume the better-capitalized new music venues like National Sawdust and Roulette are ok, while others can probably just go into hibernation and come out fine on the other side of this. 

Hopefully, this thing will blow over before long (though probably not as soon as some irresponsible leaders would like) and we'll all be back to gigging with a beer or two. In the meantime, go stream some opera, symphonies, or random bedroom gigs. And remember what live music brings to your life, now that we don't have it. DSC06308Stay safe, and remember to wash your hands.


Louis Langrée Conducts the New York Philharmonic in Debussy, Ravel and Scriabin

DSC06209This has been a sad, sobering day in the cultural life of New York City. As of today (3/12), all major NYC arts organizations - Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, the Met Museum, Broadway - will shut their doors until at least the end of the month. This is to comply with Governor Cuomo's statewide order banning all gatherings of more than 500 people, in order to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 virus. That includes the New York Philharmonic, who were supposed to begin a three night run of concerts tonight with Valery Gergiev

Little did I realize this would be the new normal when I arrived at David Geffen Hall on Tuesday night for a program of (mostly) French Romantic works, led by Louis Langrée in his NY Phil debut. Langrée, of course, is familiar to New York audiences as the Music Director of the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, which he's led in Geffen Hall every summer since 2003. Since 2013, he's also been the music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, so he has a sure hand in music for larger forces.

Claude Debussy's Prelude to the Aftenoon of a Faun (1894) is a quiet masterpiece for flute and orchestra, hallucinogenic in its hazy effects. Principal flute Robert Langevin played it beautifully, careful to never overwhelm the swirling orchestra underneath.  Nocturnes (1899) is in three sections, each a gem of aural painting. Nuages (Clouds) portrays slow moving clouds that speed up with the arrival of a thunderstorm; Fêtes (Festivals) is a festive jaunt; and Sirènes (Sirens) features an octet of sopranos (here the Juilliard Women's Chorus) singing an intoxicating vocalise.

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Beethoven @ 250: Orchestra of St. Luke's and La Chapelle de Québec at Carnegie Hall

Jeremy Denk, Orchestra of St. Luke'sAfter consecutive cycles of all of Beethoven's string quartets, followed by all of his symphonies, where does one go? For me, it was back to Carnegie Hall last Thursday to hear the Orchestra of St. Luke's perform an adventurous program of Beethoven's choral and orchestral music, part of Carnegie's ongoing Beethoven 250th birthday celebration. Led by their Principal Conductor  Bernard Labadie, many of these works are rarely heard in concert, for logistical and, well...other reasons. But, they are an essential part of Beethoven's orchestral output, presaging many of his better known masterpieces.

The Leonore Overture No. 2 (1805) was Beethoven's first crack at an overture for his sole opera, FidelioCompared to the more famous Leonore No.3 - or No.1, which the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique performed on Feb. 20 - this one felt  disjointed, taking a bit long to build up to the main theme. It was more of a tone poem than a tight introduction. Still, there were some neat effects, like placing trumpeter Carl Albach in the balcony.  

The chamber choir La Chapelle de Québec - also directed by Labadie - joined the OSL for Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage (1815), a cantata that was completely unknown to me. Completed about a year after the final version of Fidelio, it colorfully sets a pair of nautical poems by Goethe. The first, "Calm Sea", is soothing, almost Brahms-like as the sailors are adrift at sea. Then, things pick up and we segue into "Prosperous Voyage": a swashbuckling shanty with a real Yo-Ho-HO! feel to it. You could almost feel the wind in your hair as Beethoven cheerfully carries us across the water, perched high up on the mast. 

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