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.