It seemed that concert life had returned to normal, even though the audience was clumped into socially distanced groups separated by empty seats and the intermission was replaced by a short pause. The crowd before and after the music milled about without much presence of masks, and the musicians on-stage sat in their normal configuration. Even the lawn looked well-occupied, despite the steady drizzle, with groups on blankets sitting under umbrellas. The concert began without much ado, Andris Nelsons and the musicians launching enthusiastically into Carlos Simon’s brief and rousing opener, “Fate Now Conquers,” bringing the chatter and bustle of the audience to a halt.
Matt Haimovitz is a one-man contemporary music impresario, as well as a virtuosic and versatile cellist. Unlike older-school virtuosos, he is thoroughly attuned to current trends in both composition and historical performance practice, as attested to by his Zoom webinar master-classes during this past strange year. The pandemic has not put a damper on his musical activities; if anything, it has had the opposite effect. Monday night’s concert included a demonstration of some of the outcomes of his on-going activism on behalf of new music.
It’s rare that a recording for strings alone wows listeners as a sonic blockbuster, but I celebrate this one from its first plucked, throbbing, filigree-laced chords. John Wilson has effectively reconstituted the Sinfonia of London, known to many in fond memory for Sir John Barbirolli’s unsurpassed 1962 LP of Vaughan Williams and Elgar. Wilson has set himself up for recording purposes in St. Augustine’s Church, Kilburn with stunning results. I don’t think I have ever heard an acoustic more flattering to strings. He also exercises tact in not trying to reproduce the magic of Barbirolli’s program, bringing us instead string works by four of the major “B’s” of twentieth century English music. Only Bax is missing.
The streaming experience, June 27 at 5 PM, depicted Mr. Hamelin behind a view of gray skies on a rainy seacoast day replete with undulating seagulls underscoring Schubert’s somber and dark study with the neatly folded ensemble of insouciance, ribbons of color, and fleeting flights of weightlessness.
Miranda Cuckson and Conrad Tao held the stage at PS 21 on two successive Friday nights as part of a series of mostly contemporary music concerts at the semi-open stage in Chatham NY, on August 28 and September 4. Both performers captivated their audiences with superb focus and transcendent technique, conveying a fierce commitment to contemporary repertory that gained force by virtue of the context of the pandemic. Played to masked listeners seated in a distanced pattern, the intense performances knitted musician, audience, and composers together into a powerful matrix of expressive power and imaginative adventure.
Let’s now return to more hopeful times during the summer with further—and concluding—reports on PS21’s Modern Music Fest by Larry Wallach on concerts by violinist Miranda Cuckson and composer-piano virtuoso Conrad Tao and myself on a recital by another, no less virtuosic composer-pianist, Timo Andres. I am unaware of any other organization to have offered professionally presented, socially-distanced live music in the Hudson Valley or Berkshires during the summer season, and that in itself was most welcome. But, beyond that, the Modern Music Fest, organized by PS 21’s Artistic Director, Elena Siyanko, only weeks before it opened, to replace an ambitious program of visitors from abroad which was planned last year, long before anyone thought of Covid-19. Most impressive were the coherence and focus of the programming, as well as the level of musicianship among the performing artists, all of whom hailed from New York City. As we all know, New Yorkers were not entirely occupied with surviving a readily spread and often lethal microbial threat, but hostility from the federal executive, an equally dangerous disease threatening the basic rights of not just themselves but of all American citizens. Mr. Andres and Mr. Tao, as well as the leadership of PS21 were energetically participating in movements which, have, from this retrospective point in time, have preserved the right to vote and have reminded Americans of their duty to vote, so far. These urgent concerns brought them together while they were pursuing their daily lives under these radically altered circumstances, including the planning and rehearsal of the music that brought us all together in Chatham.