Since the pandemic drastically affected everyone’s lives, the New York Philharmonic has been less actively involved in recording new streamed performances than many other great American orchestras. Nevertheless, the organization proposed earlier than others a return to live indoor performance, playing a pair of concerts at The Shed, part of a cycle named “An Audience With…” and meant to “celebrate the irreplaceable, communal experience of a New York audience”. Irrespective of how architecturally stunning The Shed’s flexible McCourt space is, it is not exactly optimal for classical music performances. On Wednesday night, fewer than 150 spectators, admitted after passing through multiple checkpoints, had to contend with the usual city sounds (including the enthusiastic participants in a SoulCycle class in an open tent nearby), as well as the buzz of the hall’s HVAC system. Each of the two dozen Philharmonic musicians on stage had their own dedicated microphone, leading to a sound which was at times unnatural. Yet, as Esa-Pekka Salonen reaffirmed in his brief introductory statement, “nothing can replace the ritual of a live event”.

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the New York Philharmonic at The Shed
© Steven Pisano for Bachtrack

Caroline Shaw cites a performance of a Haydn String Quartet (Op.77 no.2) and, specifically, the surprising shift from Minuet to Trio as a direct source of inspiration for her Entr’acte, initially composed for string quartet and later adapted for string orchestra. Harmonies that sound vaguely familiar and somehow uplifting are frequently interrupted by moments of eeriness that take listeners out of their comfort zone. Transitions sliding into dissonances and infused with varied rhythms and textures tend to become permanent, taking the overall ABA structure far from its origins. What seems simple and straightforward proves to be rather complicated in this score, conducted with his trademark elegant and expressive gestures by Salonen. The last bars featured principal cello Carter Brey plucking his instrument as if it would be a lute, the music slowly descending into silence, directionless, asking itself and us “Quo vadis?”

Esa-Pekka Salonen and the New York Philharmonic at The Shed
© Steven Pisano for Bachtrack

Sibelius’ little known Rakastava (The Lover) was the only work where the evening’s string ensemble was extended (with timpani in the outer sections and a triangle in the middle one). Like Shaw’s, this orchestral work was a transcription of an earlier composition, a song cycle based on Finnish folk poems. Also, similar to Entr’acte, its third movement fades away in a coda, but here the tender dialogue between Concertmaster Frank Huang’s violin and Brey’s cello was slowly overwhelmed by sad orchestral harmonies. On familiar territory, Salonen underlined not only the folk connotations prevalent mainly in the first movement, but also the flexible textures of the brief middle section and the sorrow describing the lovers’ parting in the Finale.

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the New York Philharmonic at The Shed
© Steven Pisano for Bachtrack

The evening's longest work, Strauss’ Metamorphosen, has had many performances in the last year, with orchestras having to avoid placing too many players on the stage. Bemoaning the composer’s aging as much as the destruction of culture during the war, the 1945 work is full of amazing chromatic and textural “metamorphoses”, rendered here with the greatest care for every detail. As he did, to a lesser degree, in Entr’acte, Salonen allowed the members of the string ensemble a certain degree of freedom in deciding how their individual sounds should blend in this “Study for 23 Solo Strings”. Even in this less-than-ideal acoustic space, the balance between individual voices and the tutti string sound was exceptional.

Full of reminiscences of different pasts, the entire evening’s music was imbued with tristesse and nostalgia. An homage to all we have lost in the last year, the event at The Shed clearly signaled the potential of a new beginning.

****1