An Audience with…Introspection and lyricism from Esa-Pekka Salonen and the New York Philharmonic at The Shed

United StatesUnited States Shaw, Sibelius, R. Strauss: Members of the New York Philharmonic / Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor). The Shed, New York, 14.4.2021. (RP)

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the New York Philharmonic © Chris Lee

Caroline Shaw Entr’acte

Sibelius Rakastava Op.14

R. Strauss Metamorphosen

It was a return to something that one could never have imagined losing: a concert by the New York Philharmonic before a live audience. For this, the first of two concerts, the weather was near perfect. Dark clouds and few rain drops yielded to a beautiful sunset across the Hudson River, of which the poet Paul Goodman rhapsodized that it has no peer in Europe or the East.

The concert was at The Shed, a cultural center in Hudson Yards, as opposed to David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center, with only about two dozen of the orchestra’s members on stage. To be admitted, proof of a negative COVID test within the past 72 hours or of vaccination was required, as well as submitting to having your temperature taken at the door. Once inside The Shed, 150 masked people sat well apart from one another.

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the New York Phil at The Shed © Chris Lee

The protocols and the excitement of once again hearing live music will not be what I remember from this concert. Rather, it will be the depth of emotion emanating from conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and the musicians of the NY Phil. One missed the orchestra’s brilliant brass section and wonderful woodwinds, but the eloquent playing of those on stage was compensation enough.

Salonen briefly addressed the audience before the fifty-minute concert. His remarks were truisms – nothing can replace the art and ritual of a live concert, music is a tool to awaken profound emotions in the musicians and audiences alike, music provides meaning in these troubled times, this concert marks a beginning to happier times ahead – but it took 13 months of doing without to make the comments real and not dismissed as trite.

The music that Salonen programmed for the concert expressed longing, nostalgia and loss. It is intimate, lyrical music, which at times was all but overwhelmed by The Shed’s 18,000-square-foot McCourt performance space with its 115-foot-high ceilings and state-of-the-art MERV ventilation system. Acoustical imperfection, just like COVID protocols, are something that we will have to get used to in the coming months.

Caroline Shaw’s Entr’acte was the first work on the program. Shaw is a New York-based musician – vocalist, violinist, composer and producer – who performs in solo and collaborative projects. In 2013, she was the youngest recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music for her Partita for 8 Voices; and subsequently one of 19 women composers to whom the NY Phil has extended a commission through Project 19, the largest-ever women’s commissioning initiative. The project commemorates the centennial of the 19th Amendment of the US Constitution in 1920, which guaranteed women the right to vote.

Entr’acte was written in 2011 after Shaw heard the Brentano Quartet play Haydn’s Op.77 No.2. Although loosely structured like a minuet and trio, Shaw plays with the form: the minuet is somber while the trio is lively. She also departs from the usual bowing and pizzicato playing by having the violins tap on their instruments and the solo cello strum like a guitar. There is a relentlessness to the evocative, sighing melody of the minuet that in this performance resonated with determination and hope.

Sibelius originally wrote Rakastava for chorus, with a text from the Kanteletar, a nineteenth-century collection of Finnish folk verse, but later orchestrated it for strings and percussion. Even without words, Sibelius’s music paints an intimate depiction of a tryst in a forest, which this performance captured so effectively. The music draws you into the tender drama, and the viola and cello solos were especially moving.

Salonen’s decision to program Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen was a bold one. Not in musical terms, as Strauss looked to the past stylistically, but rather as it is the eighty-year-old composer’s rumination on the total destruction of his native Germany composed during the final days of the Second World War. Another conductor might have opted for cheer, comfort or diversion, but instead Salonen offered a reflection on the unimaginable.

Strauss composed the work for 23 solo string players. Although Salonen imposed cohesion on it, the emotional intensity of the performance was generated by the musicians both individually and as a whole. The despairing chords resonated through the hall, while each of the solos emerged as tragic laments.

The NY Phil’s concerts were the second in The Shed’s An Audience with… series which brings live, in-door performances back to New York. The series opened with singer and cellist Kelsey Lu on 2 April, and the two final performances will feature Renée Fleming on 21 April and comedian Michelle Wolf on the following evening. It’s a sign that the city’s performing arts scene is reawakening. And how wonderful that this special concert combined one of New York’s newest cultural venues with an orchestra that has been around since 1842.

Rick Perdian

For more about the New York Philharmonic click here.

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