The MET Orchestra Returns to Carnegie Hall
by Pete Matthews
Life has never been easy being a member of the MET Orchestra, the concert stage orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera. For 33 weeks a year, these 120 musicians - widely considered to be the finest opera orchestra in the world - toil anonymously in the opera pit, playing eight performances each week of everything from Donizetti to Brett Dean. But, much like the Vienna Philharmonic, which draws its members from the Vienna State Opera, the MET Orchestra emerges for a precious few evenings each season to appear onstage, demonstrating how their virtuosity extends to the symphonic repertoire. To my ears, they are hands down the best orchestra in the Western Hemisphere (sorry, NY Phil.)
But, as difficult as life is normally in the MET Orchestra, things got a whole lot harder after COVID-19 shut down the opera house in March 2020. After cancelling the remainder of the season, and then the entire 2020-21 season, General Manager Peter Gelb essentially locked out the orchestra, refusing to pay them in a bitter dispute that lasted for more than a year. The musicians were left to fend for themselves, playing chamber concerts in parks and churches streamed on demand for a fee, and depending on donations and other contributions to keep them afloat.
Aside from a pair of benefit concerts in May 2021, when 50 orchestra musicians traveled to Texas to perform with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, the full orchestra didn't play together as one until their triumphant performances of Mahler's 2nd "Resurrection" Symphony at Damrosch Park last September - a layoff of some 18 months. They followed that up the following week with a performance of Verdi's Requiem on the 20th anniversary of 9/11; the only other time the MET Orchestra would appear onstage this season was the special Benefit for Ukraine in March that included Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Strauss’ Four Last Songs, and the choral finale to Beethoven’s 9th.
Finally, after a very full season of some 22 operas at the Met, the MET Orchestra returned to the limelight of Carnegie Hall last night for the first time in three years. They were led by Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who's been just about everywhere this season, including stints conducting the Vienna Phil and Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra on tour, not to mention his full time jobs at the Met and Philadelphia Orchestra. The crowd roared its appreciation when the orchestra rose at Yannick's request.
Richard Strauss' Don Juan was the ideal showcase for this remarkable orchestra. The strings were taut and crisp, the percussion explosive, the horns perfect. Clearly, this is an orchestra that can play anything - and play the shit out of it.
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