The famed New York Philharmonic orchestra had not gathered before an audience for exactly 400 days. But last week, guest conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen crossed the stage. He stood before the assembled musicians and raised his arms. The concert hall—though not completely filled with spectators—was filled with music.
“On behalf of all us on stage, welcome back,” the conductor told the crowd Wednesday night. “We have been dreaming of this moment for a long time.”
The philharmonic gave its first public performance after a historic hiatus of more than 13 months. It played at the Shed in Hudson Yards, about two miles from its under-renovation Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
“I’m kind of on a euphoric high right now, because I missed it more than I realized,” concertmaster Frank Huang said afterwards.
There was a reduced force of 23 strings—all masked—and no brass or woodwinds for a program that lasted one hour. The cavernous Shed, which opened in April 2019, hosted a masked audience of just 150. Listeners were spaced out in groups of one and two folding chairs, about 10 feet between each set, in a venue that usually seats about 1,200.
During the gap between performances, many musicians taught. They had the benefit of continued but reduced salaries, a contrast to their Lincoln Center neighbor the Metropolitan Opera (the Met), which stopped pay for its unionized employees for long periods.
The last time the Philharmonic had gathered before an audience was on March 10 last year for a night of Claude Debussy compositions. Since then, at most a handful of Philharmonic musicians had played together in public, at small, outdoor performances that moved around the New York City area and as a quartet in Florida where there were less stringent COVID-19 regulations.
The Philharmonic hopes to resume regular subscription concerts in September. Its musicians will open the summer series of Picnic Performances in New York City’s Bryant Park with four nights starting June 9 and also hope to play in Vail, Colorado. The limited return is ahead of Broadway shows, which could resume in September, and the Met, which will open September 27 if it can reach new labor agreements.
“If there’s one thing we musicians have loved during these 14 months or so, it is that nothing—absolutely nothing—can replace the act and the ritual of a live concert,” Salonen told the audience. “The three works we have chosen to play tonight all share a sense of moaning, nostalgia, and loss elevated to something deeply and essentially human by sheer beauty. Of course, no single program can even begin to sum up our feelings and emotions after these months. Instead, we should see tonight’s concert as a new beginning, a signal for happier times ahead, filled with music and other things that give meaning to our existence in this troubled world.”
The Lord will save me, and we will play my music on stringed instruments all the days of our lives, at the house of the Lord. — Isaiah 38:20
(Concertgoers take their seats before a live performance of the New York Philharmonic, which performed for the first time since March 10, 2020, at The Shed in Hudson Yards on Wednesday, April 14, 2021, in New York. AP/Kathy Willens)