The Music Stops


"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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Beethoven @ 250: Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique Perform Beethoven's Complete Symphonies at Carnegie Hall

Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique

"Symphonies are the best representation of my true self." - Beethoven

Beethoven's nine symphonies are the foundation of the symphonic repertory, the standard by which all others are measured. His achievement was so brilliant, so daring, it paralyzed composers for decades to come; Brahms was so terrified of comparisons to Beethoven, he didn't finish his First Symphony until he was 43.

Of course, I've heard all of the Beethoven symphonies performed in concert, several multiple times. They are burned into my memory from countless hours of listening to them on vinyl, cassette, CD, and Spotify. Could there be anything left to discover at this point, anything to make them sound fresh and vital?

This past summer, I was driving around the Catskills when Beethoven's 5th came on the radio. I was about to change the dial - ugh, not again - until I realized that this was a performance unlike any I've ever heard. It was visceral, intense, almost hyperreal. I had to pull off of the road so I wouldn't accidentally miss a hairpin turn.

Who was this? The Berlin Phil? Vienna? Imagine my surprise when the announcer said it was the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, led by Sir John Eliot Gardiner. I was dumbstruck: the London-based ORR, founded by Gardiner 30 years ago, practice historically informed performance, using outdated, often inferior instruments that were in use at the time this music was written. Honestly, I've never been a big fan: sure, vintage violins are great, but valveless horns? Wooden flutes? Compared to a modern symphony orchestra, period instrument ensembles feel to me like an affectation, stuck in low gear.

Gardiner, obviously, disagrees:

"My enthusiasm for period instruments is not antiquarian or in pursuit of some bogus and unattainable authenticity, but simply a refreshing alternative to the standard, monochrome qualities of the symphony orchestra... I just love the sounds they make."

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