400 Days Later, the New York Philharmonic Returns

400 Days Later, the New York Philharmonic Returns

The middle section of Sibelius’s “Rakastava” is a quiet, glassy dance of joy. It’s not untroubled. There’s dissonance; the celebration is muted, reticent, almost secretive. It lasts two minutes or so, then vanishes into the night air before you know it.

But it’s joyful, nevertheless. And it was the most affecting part of the concert I heard after I walked into a building for the New York Philharmonic on Wednesday evening.

Yes, that’s right: the New York Philharmonic, inside. Exactly 400 days after it last gathered indoors to play in front of an audience, the orchestra returned. As part of the series “An Audience With,” at the Shed’s cavernous McCourt space, about two dozen of the Philharmonic’s string musicians performed under a roof in front of a small, distanced, masked, vaccinated-or-tested crowd.

That such a simple act was so momentous speaks to the deprivations of the past 13 months, and the compromises we’ll gladly make to move past them. The McCourt is not a classic concert hall; some amplification is required to make acoustic instruments penetrate what’s essentially an enormous box. And however reassuring it is these days to know that the ventilation is working overtime, the space’s HVAC system was a very audible accompanist.

But it had been over a year since I had been hit by the vibrations of a sizable contingent of musicians sitting in front of me, and the sensation was sweet. I felt grateful and almost abashed, exposed — just as I felt last summer when I first heard a string quartet outdoors after months of sound coming from my computer and earbuds. (The Philharmonic, too, went outside for chamber music last year, delivering pop-up performances with a rented pickup truck that is expected to be back on the road as the weather warms.)

Wednesday, the first in a two-night stand at the Shed, lacked this orchestra’s characteristic sonic glories. There were no Mahlerian trumpet blasts, no cymbal crashes. But after so much time away, there was arresting impact in the pluck of a single violin, in hearing instruments interact in space, a viola line emerging from a few feet behind the cellos. The feathery shadows that open Caroline Shaw’s “Entr’acte”; the velvety basses anchoring “Rakastava” (“The Lover”); the overflowing counterpoint and mahogany unanimity of “Metamorphosen,” Richard Strauss’s elongated elegy on the final months of the Second World War: Very little was loud at this muted, reticent dance of a concert, but every detail felt etched in the air and the ear.

On the podium for the milestone was not the Philharmonic’s music director, Jaap van Zweden, who had a previous commitment overseas after a stint in New York a few weeks ago taping programs for the NYPhil+ subscription streaming service. The conductor, rather, was Esa-Pekka Salonen, a longtime friend of the orchestra who many hoped would become its leader a few years ago instead of the punchier, less creative, less engaging van Zweden. (The San Francisco Symphony got Salonen instead.)

There was a bit of awkwardness in this, as there is in so much of life in this spring season of burnout and tentative re-emergence. “What time is it?” Sarah Lyall asked plangently in 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 staring at an old clove of garlic?”

Performing arts institutions are no different. They’re rusty, too, and standing, like us, in front of the fridge wondering what they’re doing. Salonen spoke from the stage of “the three works we have chosen to play tonight.” But that elides the fact that the initially announced Shed program paired the Sibelius and Strauss works with Arvo Pärt’s extravagantly, if self-effacingly, mournful “Fratres.”

Someone apparently realized that it was not a good look for the Philharmonic to return after the year we’d had — the uprisings for racial justice, the intensity of the suffering in New York City in particular, a heightened sense of awareness of our local communities — with three pieces by white European men, two of them dead since the middle of the 20th century and the other turning 86 in September.

So Pärt was out, and Shaw, a 38-year-old white New Yorker, was in. This aroused in me the mixture of feelings that a lot of these institutional gestures toward diversity do: the desire to pat the Philharmonic on the back for belatedly moving in the right direction; some astonishment that they had, after a year to think about it, conceived that initial program in the first place; guilt that I hadn’t noticed the homogeneity until it had been adjusted; some more incredulity that even after adding Shaw’s piece, the Philharmonic would be coming back to a city that is only a third white without any Black or Latino players onstage and any music by composers of color.

Since “Fratres” and “Entr’acte” are almost exactly the same length — 11 minutes — the situation was also a kind of joke about the stale traditions of orchestral programming. A piece of those proportions is the standard concert opener, often leading to a rather longer concerto before intermission and, after it, a meaty symphony.

Works by living composers — and therefore by most women and artists of color — are usually relegated to the brief amuse-bouche position. What diversity happens in programming, then, tends to be where people will notice it least; the canon marches on, with an 11-minute bit of window dressing.

That is what the Philharmonic should reflect on in the wake of Wednesday’s sober, poignant performance. Not on commissioning a bunch of little pieces that fit into the old models, but on how the fundamental structures of its season, its concerts and its personnel must change to reflect its values — if diversity, in all senses, is indeed among its central values.

Perhaps helpfully, the slate will be wiped cleaner for this orchestra than for many cultural organizations: It has found a silver lining in the enforced closure of its theater to power through what was originally planned as a stop-and-go renovation. When the ensemble returns to David Geffen Hall in fall 2022, it will be to a space utterly transformed. May a transformed Philharmonic fill it.

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