From September through June, a week rarely goes by when I don’t find myself occupying an aisle seat in Verizon Hall, ready to listen to the Philadelphia Orchestra. I’ve been a freelance classical music critic for Broad Street Review since 2017, and I write about our city’s musical scene for several national and international publications. The “Fabulous Philadelphians” are a huge part of my beat.
Suddenly at home
But like everyone else, I learned on March 12 that my weekend wouldn’t be going ahead as planned. Along with many other cultural institutions worldwide, the Orchestra cancelled its public performances in response to the rapidly spreading COVID-19 pandemic, initially through March 23. (The date was later extended to April 11, in keeping with Mayor Kenney’s month-long prohibition on gatherings exceeding 1000 people.) A planned program of Beethoven symphonies, along with the world premiere of Iranian-Canadian composer Iman Habibi’s Jeder Baum spricht, seemed destined for the scrap heap.
Not so fast—the enterprising organization decided to perform the concert to an empty hall on Thursday night, broadcasting it to anyone with a bandwidth connection over Facebook Live. WRTI, Philly’s classical music station, rebroadcast the program on Friday and Sunday. And over my suddenly empty weekend, I listened to it from my home office in Collingswood, New Jersey, across the river from Broad Street. It was a revealing performance—and I don’t just mean the musical interpretation.
A world restored
If you’re a live-performance lover like me, the experience of remote viewing can be somewhat jarring. The distractions that melt away inside a theater or a concert hall seem ever present. The cell phone I’ve been dutifully turning off for more than a decade as the lights dim constantly beckons. The ability to pop open a new browser and check my email remains a constant threat to my attention span. Grateful though I am that technological advances have brought us to a place where the world’s top artists can be transmitted directly into our living rooms, I still prefer the “real thing” any day.
Yet as I watched and listened to the Orchestra’s livestream, I didn’t feel the overwhelming pull of my attention in any other direction. I suspect there are several reasons for this. If, like me, your career involves attending live performances between four and seven nights a week, the past few days have been nothing if not unsettling. Over the course of 24 hours, my full-to-bursting March calendar was wiped clean. The next event I’m scheduled to cover is on April 2—and that’s if the cancelations don’t continue. As a freelance writer, it goes without saying that the loss of assignments means loss of income in many cases.
So even though I was home rather than downtown—in sweatpants, nursing a glass of wine, and within earshot of my neighbor’s children blissfully playing in their backyard—seeing music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the orchestra members take the stage in their best dress restored a sense of normalcy, however fleeting. Art serves as a balm to society and to the soul even in the hardest of times. The fact that the Orchestra took the step to continue with their performance rather than cancelling outright was a signal that art and culture will persevere.
Beethoven and Nézet-Séguin
The performance itself maintained the generally high standard I’ve come to expect under Nézet-Séguin’s leadership. It was the first outing of a planned cycle of Beethoven’s symphonies to celebrate the composer’s 250th birthday—an undertaking that is now in jeopardy. Symphony No. 5 in C minor and Symphony No. 6 in F major (“Pastoral”) are two of the biggest barnburners in Beethoven’s catalog, recognizable and gripping even to classical music agnostics. In some ways, you couldn’t pick a better program to impart to a streaming audience.
Nézet-Séguin has shown himself an adept interpreter of later Austro-Germanic music—Bruckner, Mahler, and Strauss especially—but he hasn’t made Beethoven a central part of his repertoire in Philadelphia. On the one hand, I’m grateful: It suggests that Nézet-Séguin has a greater interest in under-programmed works (like Strauss’s Eine Alpensinfonie) than symphonic warhorses. But after hearing the quality of his Beethoven, I will certainly welcome more.
This too shall pass
Many contemporary interpretations of Symphony No. 6 neglect the narrative that builds across its five movements. (The work is an early forerunner to the “program music” of Berlioz, Strauss, and others.) Not so here. Beethoven’s love of nature emerged in the opening sections, culminating in the third movement’s country dance, which unfolded with haunting delicacy. The fourth-movement “thunderstorm” that followed naturally seemed all the more jarring. It felt as though the instrumentalists were giving musical voice to the uncertainty of our current moment, through a sweeping swell that arrives and obliterates everything in its path. Yet a sense of relief returned with the fifth movement’s resolution—as if to say, this too shall pass. I don’t need to tell you why such a sentiment is valuable right now.
Jeder Baum spricht (German for “Every tree speaks”) also reflected on the natural world—specifically, the urgent issue of global warming, which rages on even as we necessarily turn our attention to other crises. The 10-minute work had a frantic quality that suited its subject, but I confess I found it largely unmemorable. But it was fascinating to watch the orchestra shift seamlessly, without a break, from the conclusion of Habibi’s brand-new work to the unmistakable opening chords of Symphony No. 5—a reminder that classical music is one long, continuous tradition.
Chances to discover
The Philadelphia Orchestra is not the only cultural institution investing in digital streaming as a stop gap. On March 12, just as our orchestra was announcing plans to migrate its concert online, I tuned into a performance of Carmen from Die Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin. The cast included Academy of Vocal Arts graduate Michael Fabiano as Don José and star mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili in the title role, conducted by Daniel Barenboim.
Germany is facing a similar spate of cancellations and social distancing. Bizet’s opera similarly rang out to an empty auditorium. Still, it was an exhilarating experience, one that conferred all the drama a viewer would expect from this timeless thriller. Unlike my regular trips to Verizon Hall, it was an experience I would not have been privy to without technological intervention. It reminded me that every day, someone is discovering classical music for the first time, probably through their computer. To which I say—play on.
What, When, Where
Habibi, Jeder Baum spricht. Beethoven, Symphony No. 5 in C minor and Symphony No. 6 in F major (“Pastoral”). Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor. The Philadelphia Orchestra. Streamed live from Verizon Hall on March 12, 2020. The concert is available to experience online.