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

John Williams Conducts the Vienna Philharmonic at the Musikverein

John Williams Vienna Philharmonic 1

"Music is not really a job, it’s something that the more you practice in it and work in it, the more interesting it becomes. My activities are the result of my good fortune of working in a field that you become more in love with as you go along through the years." - John Williams

I, like most people, have had a lifelong relationship with the music of John Williams. Widely regarded as the greatest film composer of all time, Williams has written more than 100 scores for film and TV, receiving more than 50 Oscar and 70 Grammy nominations in the process. His soaring, neo-romantic music is so iconic and has reached so many millions of people, he is without question the most recognizable composer alive.

In addition to his work as a composer Williams, now 88, has enjoyed a long career as a conductor, having led the Boston Pops from 1980-93 and returning to conduct them every season at both Boston Symphony Hall and Tanglewood, where I saw him amidst an overflow crowd in 2017.

But even Williams was floored when the Vienna Philharmonic invited him to conduct a pair of concerts of his own music at the legendary Musikverein in Vienna, right before the world shut down due to COVID-19. "One of the greatest honors of my life,” Williams said at the time.

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to be there in person to witness it - the two concerts sold out within hours - but Deutsche Grammophon captured it on both audio and video, both of which are now available for purchase and streaming.

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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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