By Yvonne Juris
In yet another indicator that the pandemic’s grip on normalcy is being squarely relegated to the past, the New York Philharmonic recently announced its return to the stage.
On pause for some 15 months after COVID-19 forced most major music and art venues to come to a screeching halt last March, the renowned orchestra is in full swing for its 2021/2022 season.
It will hold its first concert Sept. 17, 2021 and offer a dynamic program with works by Copland, Beethoven, George Walker — the first Black composer to win the Pulitzer Prize — and Anna Clyne.
“It’s been really surreal and very meaningful to get to actually sit in close proximity to somebody again and play with them,” said Leah Ferguson, a violist for the Philharmonic. “And just that feeling you get from working with somebody and making art with them, it was really moving for me, actually. I wasn’t fully expecting it at that moment.”
The orchestra’s calendar release coincided with N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s declaration that COVID-19 capacity restrictions would be lifted in New York, in what became a day of highly welcomed announcements, shortly after 70 percent of New Yorkers had received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccines.
The unveiling also came after a weekend of milestone concerts in New York City’s Bryant Park. The concerts, held on June 9-12, 2021, were the first the celebrated orchestra performed without masks for a live, outdoor audience and also featured the largest number of Philharmonic musicians sharing a stage since the start of the pandemic.
Evoking the feeling of the “New York Philharmonic Concerts in the Parks” – which were cancelled last year due to the pandemic — the orchestra presented a dynamic and layered program, which featured works from Stravinsky, American music pioneer Ruth Crawford Seeger and Mozart. A composition by Ilana Rahim-Braden, a member of the Philharmonic’s Very Young Composers Program, was also showcased. The orchestra was led by Colombian American conductor, Lina González-Granados, who made her debut with the Philharmonic.
The thunderous and dramatic opening of Mozart’s Symphony No. 25 resonated throughout the iconic park as enthused audience members watched from picnic blankets and chairs. Attendees exuberantly clapped in-between movements of the symphony, relishing an experience that audiences have craved throughout the quarantine’s isolation.
Carter Brey, the Philharmonic’s principal cellist, said it was being able to once again share music with a stand partner — as opposed to the social distancing employed on stage during two smaller indoor performances held in April in the Shed, located in Hudson Yards — that gave the feeling of belonging to a full-fledged orchestra.
“It makes a huge difference,” Brey said. “That, more than anything, makes you feel normal.”
Sitting side-by-side another musician also enhances the sound and makes it easier to obtain a blend, Brey added. String musicians typically share a stand, which also prevents “sudden dropouts of sound,” which can occur during page turns. Having a friend to share the music with, also adds to the experience, he said.
“It’s important to have all of the ingredients for the live performance experience,” Brey said. “A big part of that is to have communication with your colleagues. It’s much easier when you have stand partners.”
Brey added that sharing music with a stand partner gave the feeling of the orchestral experience he was used to.
“You have a friend sitting next to you, you can make your usual bad jokes, compare fingerings, bowings,” Brey said.
Ferguson also partook in “Hymn to the City,” a series of concerts held in early June in Brooklyn’s historic Green-Wood Cemetery that featured NY Philharmonic musicians. The performances took place in collaboration with the cemetery, the NY Philharmonic and Death of Classical — an organization that curates performances and places them in distinct settings such as crypts, churches and cemeteries. The performances showcased more than a dozen NY Philharmonic musicians, with a stated theme of survival, loss and rebirth following the pandemic. Local musicians and performing artists also took part in the series.
“It feels so good to be back,” said Ferguson. “Just feels so natural — like we’re kind of slipping back into it – and I know everybody missed it so much.”
Towering monuments, statues and a rarely-opened crypt served as a dramatic backdrop to the experiential performance, which featured a tour of some famous sites with musical selections to accompany the journey.
Ferguson and fellow Philharmonic musicians violinist Jin Suk Yu and bassist Max Zeunger, performed Syrian-born composer Kinan Azmeh’s Café Damas — a piece that had been commissioned by the Philharmonic. Azmeh’s work was performed along with an interpretive dance by Liana Kleinman.
Played atop the historic Hill of Graves, a section of smaller stones that could be purchased by lower-income individuals — the diverse and textured music echoed eerily during the final nighttime performance. A heartfelt and moving rendition of Paul Simon’s American Tune, by singer and guitarist Marco Foster, was also performed at that location in the cemetery.
Being afforded the chance to play in that intimate chamber setting was a reminder of what musicians were meant to do, Ferguson said.
Another standout moment of the cemetery concert was a performance by the Philharmonic’s brass —quite literally a brass quintet performance — which featured a selection of songs from Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” – just a stone’s throw away from the maestro’s resting place.
Other Philharmonic musicians found ways to perform and practice their craft during the pandemic, either virtually or in-person chamber or group concerts.
The New York Philharmonic Bandwagon presented pop-up performances last Fall, which enabled musicians to give unannounced concerts throughout the five boroughs. In its second iteration, which took place in May, the Philharmonic collaborated with local performers.
Brey gave performances in other states with the New York Philharmonic String Quartet — which is composed of concertmaster/violinist Frank Huang, principal associate concertmaster/violinist Sheryl Staples, principal violist Cynthia Phelps and Brey.
The Philharmonic also gave a concert at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on Memorial Day. That concert was streamed live, but was not open for a public audience.
The Philharmonic, led by music director Jaap van Zweden, will be navigating playing in various locations as the David Geffen Hall undergoes renovations. The season, although somewhat reduced, will feature performances at Alice Tully Hall, Rose Theater at Jazz of Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall and The Riverside Church during the upcoming season. The Philharmonic will also give a concert in Damrosch Park on July 8, 2021, as part of Lincoln Center’s Restart Stages program.
Deborah Borda, the Chief Executive Officer of the Philharmonic, hailed the Philharmonic’s return as a symbol of triumph and celebration.
“What a singular and unique time for the New York Philharmonic, filled with hope and rebirth,” Borda said in a released statement. “During the past 15 months, we have so often used the word ‘unprecedented,’ for it truly has been just that.”