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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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It's Been a Year

Prospect Park BandshellAlmost impossible to believe, but it was a year ago today that I saw my last live concert: the NY Philharmonic with mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard and conductor Louis Langrée. From what I recall, was a fine concert, mostly memorable for Leonard's radiant performance and Scriabin's massive Poem of Ecstasy ("basically a 20 minute sexcapade, slowly building from soft murkiness to a deafening crescendo.") At the time, it felt like something of an afterthought after having just sat through complete cycles of Beethoven's symphonies and string quartets. Had I known, I would have appreciated it more. 

Most New York performing arts institutions - the Phil, the Met, Carnegie Hall and the lot - are tentatively scheduled to return in the fall. Still no word about the summer outdoor festivals, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed that Celebrate Brooklyn and Summerstage can pull something together.  I'm less optimistic about the Bowery venues, jazz clubs and other indoor spaces that get their energy from teeming, exuberant crowds; personally, I'd rather wait until everyone gets their shot than see a show in a half-full Bowery Ballroom. 

For music lovers, this has been a nightmare year; for musicians and venue personnel, it's been far more devastating. But, everything looks up when you're down on the floor, and I know we'll all be back out there someday. Until then, stream away and drop a dollar in the bucket of your local busker. IMG_8893


Music in the Time of COVID: Christian Sands and Ashley Bathgate

Village Vanguard Empty(Photo: Sabrina Santiago, The New York Times)

Well, it's been a minute. First and foremost, I hope everyone out there is hanging in, staying safe and sane.

But, I won't mince words: this year has sucked. Especially in terms of live music. This just-ended summer had no Celebrate Brooklyn, no Summerstage, no Warm Up or Tanglewood. Frankly, it felt like a missed opportunity to catch some music in the relatively-safe outdoors, especially considering there probably won't be indoor shows for at least another year. Which is particularly painful, given this is normally the time of year when the Met, NY Phil and Carnegie are hosting their festive opening nights. (Carnegie is holding a "virtual opening night" on Oct. 7 with performances by Jon Batiste, Angelique Kidjo, Lang Lang, Wynton Marsalis, and others.)

Oh, I know. There are lots of live streams which can be heard from the socially-distant safety of your desktop/laptop/phone. But, to be honest, I've had a hard time warming up to them. Live music is meant to be heard directly and with other people around, not through earbuds at 1080p. Not to mention these online performances are generally limited to bedroom solo shows, or small ensembles playing in someone's barn or basement.

But, it's what we have for now, and even if it's less-than-ideal, it's been a lifeline for countless musicians who've lost all of their gigs and whatever income they once made from them. And, as I discovered last night watching a pair of streams back-to-back, the quality has improved significantly over the past six (!) months. (Pro tip: get an Apple TV or other streaming device and a decent pair of speakers.) 

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Music at Home

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Ok, being stuck at home sucks, but at least we have modern technology to get us through the day. And no, I don't mean bingeing Tiger King. There is a ton of great, free music streaming online, too much to list here. NPR Music has a great running tally here, which I use as my basic go-to guide. Below are some highlights (all times EDT).

Opera: Just yesterday, I watched John Adams conduct his own Nixon at China at the Met Opera, one of the Met's daily free live streams. Today's opera, Bizet's Pearl Fishers, will be available until tomorrow night. (Pro tip: as long as you start watching before 6:30pm, you can pause it and resume at some later point.) Among other opera companies, the Vienna State Opera is currently streaming Mozart's Marriage of Figaro. Meanwhile, the Met Museum is sharing their recent performance of Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thompson's The Mother of Us All at 7pm.

Classical: The Berlin Philharmonic continues to make its entire archive of high quality digital streams available for free. Closer to home, the NY Phil is offering select videos of past concerts here

Jazz: Fred Hersch has been doing a daily stream on Facebook every day at 1pm. At 7pm, Chick Corea is playing as part of the Live from Our Living Rooms festival, followed by Fabian Almazan and Linda Oh. At 8pm, Lizz Wright appears courtesy of SF Jazz (this one costs $5 for a 1-moth membership.) And, Christian McBride hosts a listening party at Jazz House Kids with Dee Dee Bridgewater, Cecile McLorin and Melissa Walker.

Lots of streaming shows from the rock, roots and experimental worlds listed here and elsewhere.