400 Days Later, the New York Philharmonic Returns
The middle section of Sibelius’ “Rakastava” is a calm, glassy dance of joy. It’s not undisturbed. There are dissonances; The celebration is subdued, reserved, almost mysterious. It takes about two minutes and then it fades into the night air before you know it.
But it’s still joyful. And it was the most impressive part of the concert I heard after entering a building for the New York Philharmonic on Wednesday night.
Yes, that’s right: the New York Philharmonic inside. Exactly 400 days after they last gathered inside to play in front of an audience, the orchestra returned. As part of the series “An Audience With”, around two dozen string musicians from the Philharmonie performed under one roof in the cave-like McCourt room of the Shed in front of a small, detached, masked, vaccinated or tested crowd.
That such a simple act was so significant speaks for the hardships of the last 13 months and the compromises we will gladly make in order to get past them. The McCourt is not a classical concert hall; Some amplification is required to allow acoustic instruments to penetrate into what is essentially a huge box. And while it’s comforting these days to know that ventilation is working overtime, the room’s HVAC system was a very audible companion.
But it had been over a year since I had been hit by the vibrations of a sizeable contingent of musicians sitting in front of me, and the feeling was sweet. I felt grateful and almost ashamed, exposed – just like I felt last summer when, after months of listening to my computer and earphones, I first heard an outdoor string quartet. (The Philharmonic also went outside for chamber music last year, delivering pop-up gigs with a rented pickup truck that is expected to be back on the streets when the weather warms up.)
On Wednesday, the first in a two-day stand in the shed, the characteristic sonic successes of this orchestra were missing. There were no Mahler trumpets, no pelvic crashes. But after such a long time there was a startling impact while plucking a single violin, hearing aids interacting in space, with a viola line emerging from a few yards behind the cellos. The feathery shadows that open Caroline Shaw’s “Entr’acte”; the velvety basses that anchor “Rakastava” (“The Lover”); The overflowing counterpoint and mahogany unison of “Metamorphoses”, Richard Strauss’ elongated elegy in the final months of World War II: In this muted, restrained dance of a concert there was very little loud, but every detail felt up in the air and in the ear engraved.
On the podium for the milestone was not the Philharmonic Music Director, Jaap van Zweden, who previously had an overseas engagement after a stay in New York a few weeks ago and recorded programs for the NYPhil + subscription streaming service. Rather, the conductor was Esa-Pekka Salonen, a long-time friend of the orchestra, who many hoped would lead a few years ago, instead of the more powerful, less creative and less committed van Zweden. (The San Francisco Symphony got saloons instead.)
This was a bit of a hassle as there is so much burnout and temporary resurfacing life this spring season. “What time is it?” Sarah Lyall asked the New York Times earlier this month. “What day is it? What did we do in October? Why are we standing in front of the refrigerator and staring at an old clove of garlic?”
April 15, 2021, 7:18 p.m. ET
Performing arts institutions are no different. They are also rusty and, like us, stand in front of the refrigerator and wonder what they are doing. Salonen spoke from the stage of the “three works we want to play tonight”. This eliminates the fact that the originally announced Shed program brings together the works of Sibelius and Strauss with Arvo Pärt’s extravagant, albeit selfless, sad “Fratres”.
Someone apparently realized that it was not good for the Philharmonic to return after the year we had – the racial justice riots, especially the intensity of suffering in New York City, heightened awareness of our local communities – with three pieces of white European Men, two of whom had been dead by the mid-20th century and the other turned 86 in September.
So Pärt was out and Shaw, a 38-year-old white New Yorker, was in. This awakened in me the mixture of feelings that many of these institutional gestures towards diversity have: the desire to pat the Philharmonic on the back, moving belatedly in the right direction; astonishment that after a year of thinking about it, they had devised this first program in the first place; Fault I hadn’t noticed the homogeneity until it was adjusted; Even more incredulous that even after adding Shaw’s piece, the Philharmonic would return to a city that is only a third white, with no black or Latin American players on stage and music by composers of color.
Since “Fratres” and “Entr’acte” are almost exactly the same length of 11 minutes, the situation was also a kind of joke about the outdated traditions of orchestral programming. One piece of these proportions is the standard concert opener, which often leads to a lengthy concert before the break and a meaty symphony afterwards.
Works by living composers – and thus most women and artists of color – are usually relegated to the short amuse-bouche position. What diversity happens in programming is usually where people will least notice it. The canon marches on with an 11-minute window display.
The Philharmonic should think about this after the sober, poignant performance on Wednesday. Not about commissioning a few small pieces that fit into the old models, but about how the basic structures of his season, his concerts and his staff have to change to reflect their values - when diversity is actually at its core in every respect Belongs to values.
Perhaps helpful, the slate is being wiped cleaner for this orchestra than for many cultural organizations: it has found a silver lining in the forced closure of its theater to come to power through what was originally planned as a stop-and-go renovation come. When the ensemble returns to David Geffen Hall in the fall of 2022, it will be transformed into a completely transformed space. May a transformed Philharmonic fill it.