New York City’s premier orchestra performed live indoors for the first time in 400 days.
“If we’ve learned anything during this time it’s that nothing can replace the act and ritual of a live concert.” Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen’s words, echoing off high ceilings and through the haze of blue stage lights, faithfully captured the spirit of the audience gathered before him. On a particularly windy evening on the west side, Salonen led New York Philharmonic string musicians through an emotive performance, marking the orchestra’s momentous return to the stage. It was Thursday, April 14th, and it was the first time in 400 days the New York Philharmonic was performing live indoors for an audience.
A first in a series of music and comedy acts planned as part of The Shed’s “An Audience With” program, the concert was soundly executed. It took place in the cultural center’s McCourt space, a sleek 18,000-square-foot venue. As the musicians warmed up, ushers quietly led over 100 attendees to socially distanced seats. Tattooed on each armrest was a QR code through which you could access the night’s program.
A socially distanced audience watches the New York Philharmonic perform at The Shed, 4/14/2021
If the pandemic was an experiment in sensory deprivation – robbing us of experiencing live music in a communal space – Thursday’s event was a much-welcomed nourishment. The pre-concert soundscape in itself was a comforting moment of respite. I reveled in the low muffled chatter that buzzed along a dozen instruments being tuned. The energy of mere sound vibrations felt restorative – as did the way this refrain dissipated as methodically as it began in anticipation of the conductor’s entrance.
Salonen, a friend of the NYP and current music director of the San Francisco Symphony, addressed the crowd briefly, speaking to the themes of longing, nostalgia and loss reflected in the night’s programming. The first piece – Caroline Shaw’s Entr’acte – evoked the simple sensations of making contact with nature. Reminiscent of a freshwater swim…or the feeling of grit under your fingernails after an hour spent in the garden. The piece began steeped in melancholy and closed on a hopeful note, strings resounding in harmony. The two subsequent works – chosen from Jean Sibelius’ Rakastava and Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen – felt lighter and flighty. Compositions wherein following the thread of one violin led to a synchronized unit, suggestive of how memories form maps of the mind and can be expressions of both an individual and collective consciousness.
The New York Philharmonic is the heart of American symphony. And performances like these make it evident that a society’s good health depends on a thriving art and entertainment ecosystem. In this long-awaited period of revival, no longer do you need to close your eyes to remember that last concert, or a film on the big screen. In New York we can rejoice once again at the return to experiencing performances in their most organic form.