New York Philharmonic Orchestra Pandemic Performances

Everyone knows by now that all live music and dance performances on Broadway, jazz clubs, Lincoln Center and elsewhere in New York City are on indefinite pause. For those of us who can’t get enough of these extraordinary “gifts” of this city, this is a particularly dark time on top of the, obviously more serious, general lockdown that has necessarily been imposed.

But, thanks to human ingenuity and determination, all is not lost. Among the many arts institutions offering online streaming of past performances is the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Every Thursday at 7:30 pm on the NYPO Facebook page, one can link to a truly amazing experience. Last night, for example, the NYPO showed a May 1994 performance conducted by Kurt Masur that was “attended” electronically by people all over the world. Three Beethoven masterpieces were performed: the “Leonore” Overture No. 3 by the orchestra, the Piano Concerto No. 1 (with Emanuel Ax on piano) and, finally and oh so remarkably, Symphony No. 5. You can see the performance at: https://www.facebook.com/nyphilharmonic/videos/525953654947771/ and also at https://nyphil.org/playson

[As an aside, check out https://www.facebook.com/nyphilharmonic/videos/630361074485568/ where cellists of NYPO perform J.S. Bach’s Suite No. 1 for Unaccompanied Cello in G major]

In May 1994, Masur, then the music director of NYPO, was approaching 67 years of age and Ax was just 44. They “brought the house down.”

The program actually began with an introduction by Hugh Downs followed by an interview in present time, with Alec Baldwin engaging Ax from another location where he was holed up. The two artists from different disciplines shared some of their similar feelings of nervous tension experienced before performances, with Baldwin wisely noting that “I would never compare what I do to what you do.” It’s fair, I think, to say Ax is a “genial genius” whose talents were shortly on full display in his execution of the Piano Concerto.

Masur, the more mature of the two in 1994, is described in Wikipedia as “one of the last old-style maestros.” I am not qualified to comment on that but watching Masur conduct is an extraordinary sight. He speaks to the orchestra with his hands, of course, but also a lot with his eyes and facial expressions. He goes from an apparent passivity to what reminded me of lightning in a storm. His passion transfers to the musicians, each of whom is surely a virtuoso in his/her own right. He stood on the riser for all three pieces with no sheet music, an imposing presence at 6 feet 3 inches height and in full command of the music and the orchestra.

Again, I am not qualified to judge but Emanuel Ax’s performance of the Piano Concerto No. 1 is breathtaking to watch and hear. You can see him “talking” to himself as he blasts through some of the faster passages, fingers moving through muscle memory alone over dozens of notes in seconds. He too has no sheet music.

A unique aspect of these presentations is that there are multiple cameras that are regularly used by the unseen director to capture closeups of the musicians, lingering briefly and moving on to another section of the orchestra. Even from the best seats in the house, you could not see these details of what the musicians are doing at any time.

The concert closed with a remarkable performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. The playing was preceded by a talk of a number of musicians who explained some of the features of the symphony that everyone experiences without actually understanding why. It was like auditing an advanced class in music theory and practice. The concert itself was supernatural, all the more so because of new insights gathered beforehand.

Finally, note that on April 3 the Philharmonic did a special presentation of Ravel’s Balero as a tribute to healthcare workers everywhere. Not only were the music and musicianship extraordinary, but the musicians were each playing from home using Zoom. You can see/hear it here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D3UW218_zPo For a similar experience, by a flash-mob in Spain (2013 when public gatherings were still possible), see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IsF53JpBMlk complete with cymbals and kettle drums.

How glorious it is that these masterpieces can be shared this way and enjoyed over and over. I can’t wait for the day when we can return to a live concert hall, theater or club to experience the unbelievable skill and creativity that will once again, one fine day, be on display.

 

Carnegie Hall – Iconic in More Ways Than One

An evening at Carnegie Hall, the most iconic of New York music venues, has been on our must-do list for some time. When the Winter 2019 schedule was announced and individual tickets became available to see YoYo Ma perform Beethoven with Emanuel Axe and Leonidas Kavakos, we were ready to pounce. It turned out that most of the tickets had been scooped up before I got online and the price of what remained was simply too much. To see this caliber of performance, you’ve got to get up early.

Not to be defeated so easily, I fell back to the offering of Beethoven symphonies and found acceptable balcony seats two places off the right aisle for performances of Beethoven’s Fourth and Fifth (my favorite). I registered and completed all the required information, including credit card, only to be greeted by a message that an unexplained “error” had occurred. The instruction was that if you received the error message you should send an email to a provided “feedback” address. I did that, but it felt like sending a complaint to the moon.

Not to be defeated so easily, I tried again, but now the offer was for seats I did not think were acceptable and at the same price as the better seats previously offered. I wrote the “feedback” email address again with my final moon-shot, telling Carnegie Hall that we were going to pass and why. I emailed my wife with the bad news that I was defeated and that Carnegie Hall was not in our immediate future after all.

Within a few minutes, literally, my phone rang – I answered to hear a young man at Carnegie Hall [YMACH], “I see you’re having a problem buying tickets?”

I am not fantasizing; this actually happened (I have the confirmation).

Me: “Yes,” explaining in passing that I had really been hoping to get two seats starting on an aisle.

YMACH: “You want an aisle seat?”

Me: “Yes, but … (thinking, this is going nowhere but at least I can convey how disappointed I am).”

YMACH: “I can put you in an aisle and adjacent seat closer to the center, better than the seats you were trying to buy.”

Me: “Done and done.”

That, dear readers, is how it should be done. I am now a devoted fan of Carnegie Hall for life. Humans over computers – is that great or what?!  I did not spoil the moment by asking why the computer offered me worse seats than were available at the same price. The young man likely could not explain it anyway, but the lesson is clear. Next time I just call or go to the box office. Now the waiting begins – the performance is in February!