Siege’s End: I

It’s been 815 days since I started keeping a diary of the siege of our times, and while these writings will continue, I now believe that the idea of “siege”–as I conceived of it, back on March 14, 2020–has passed. I spoke in those early days of an enemy that was still unknown, that constricted movement, that forced people apart, and that killed the vulnerable. Some of this has changed; some of it we have learned to combat through knowledge. Now, though, I can go outside the walls, armed with vaxes and masks and an understanding of my risk tolerance. I will not reach that figure of 891 days that would match the siege of Leningrad. But millions have, indeed, died, and that’s what continues to be sobering. The end of the siege does not mean the end of the battle. In 1944, it did not mean victory, either. And the future remains cloudy. There are new variants, perhaps, to come; and for the immunocompromised, the elderly, and the poor, the risk persists–but I continue to stick to the lessons learned, and so hopefully do what I can.

Why today? I am now decompressing from a trip to the US, the first since January, 2020. There were so many of the old rhythms invoked–the passport, the US cash, the trip to Olive Garden for minestrone soup just before crossing over the border–but now the dance involved vaccine passport apps and making sure I had masks packed and ready. New York City, as it turns out, has an interesting mix of caution and bravado. The two concerts I attended both required proof of vaccine and masks worn at all times; the museums no longer asked for the former but did require the latter. Elsewhere–masks were rare. But I get ahead of myself.

This trip was a dream realized, a dream I almost did not dare to dream. When I learned that the Met was staging Akhnaten again with much the same cast as performed it in 2019–the production I had seen twice in theatres– I knew that if I were to ever get to see it, this might be my only chance. Finding that I could also get in a New York Phil concert with Shostakovich 5 — well, that cemented what had to be a dream sequence of performances. I needed to be there. I bought my tickets early in 2022, just as things began to reopen–and then crossed my fingers. I spent the month of May, in particular, ever vigilant. COVID had shattered plans in March, 2020, plans almost within reach, only to be snatched away. While I was fairly confident there would be no return to lockdown, what if I got sick? But I made it.

Part of the joy of these trips has always been the drive. After an uneventful border crossing (with a genuinely nice border guy who told me about his brother who is in The Lion King on Broadway), Google Maps routed me across New York to Syracuse, then cutting south and into Pennsylvania and New Jersey. All of the toll booths are gone; tolling is completely electronic now. I passed by Binghampton (wondering, once again, what ever happened to Lynn, the ephemeral medievalist I met in my MA year, who lasted only about two months in the program before quitting; he was from there) and down towards Scranton (cue the Office jokes); through the Poconos (which I knew from websites about abandoned resorts) and past the Delaware Water Gap (which I Googled once I arrived at my hotel). I wondered at the origins of the name Netcong (either Indigenous or Dutch, I assumed–it is apparently the former). And New York sort of appeared out of nowhere, but glimpsed only in passing, from afar. I would only see snippets of the famous skyline this time, staying in Englewood, all my activities focused on the West Side and Midtown.

I checked in, changed clothes (donning my embroidered top), and immediately headed out. I was wrong, it turned out, about all of the tolls being electronic–the George Washington Bridge requires $16 in cash if you do not have an EZPass. (Luckily, as I found out later, this is a one-way toll). Having an onboard navigation system (two, actually–I tend to prefer Google Maps, but also still use the car’s GPS) made me brave enough to drive into Manhattan, with its largely-square grid crossed here and there by diagonals. All I had to do is put in an address. In this case, I found parking close to the site of the concert, the Frederick P. Rose Hall, part of the Jazz at Lincoln Centre complex. The New York Philharmonic is currently awaiting the completion of the restoration of David Geffen Hall (once known as Avery Fisher Hall), and so is giving its concerts in other performance spaces. “Restoration” is really a misnomer. The hall’s acoustic issues are legendary (the place used to be referred to as “A Very Fishy Hall”) due to changes made in the original design to accommodate more seats than originally planned; there were attempts to fix them twice, in 1976 (in which the original auditorium was gutted) and 1992. This rebuild–in which the interior is being completely gutted for a second time and reconfigured–has been in the works for almost two decades. So, for my NY Phil concert, I would eventually find myself in a smaller venue, with around 1100 seats, for a concert featuring the pianist Beatrice Rana performing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 1, and the, for me, the main course of Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 5. But that was still hours away when I found a parking garage and headed out on foot towards Central Park. I’d spend a few hours at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and have a chance to see a little of the city–and its celebrated park–on foot.

That turned out to be a wonderful decision. It was a Saturday afternoon, the temperature around 25C, and gloriously sunny, and the park was absolutely alive. Thousands have written about Central Park, certainly the jewel of the designs of Frederick Law Olmstead, and it is indeed beautiful, with its outcroppings of bedrock and mature landscaping, but what makes it special is that this is not a park meant to be simply looked at, but to be enjoyed. All around were people doing things–using the playing fields, busking, picnicking, walking, enjoying a carriage ride, attending a concert, running, riding the carousel. Thousands of people were there–but this is a park designed for thousands of people. I kind of wished I had had more time to explore–but I was very happy I’d come up with this plan.

The Met was, as remembered, wonderful. I was able to finally see the Frank Lloyd Wright room–but part of a special exhibition of clothing that was selected by various film directors and placed in the period rooms that are part of the American wing of the Met. Martin Scorsese ended up with the Wright room, and placed a number of figures in 50s gowns throughout it, creating a kind of film tableau in a single room.

Elsewhere, I was thrilled to find a case of Rus’ kolty–echoing the excitement I remember from my first visit back in the early 90s, when I found the Ostrogothic and Lombardic jewellery.

After an overpriced roast beef sandwich, and a ramble through the gift shop (where I purchased nothing), it was back across the park to get to my concert. I got to Columbus Circle and had to consciously ignore the Trump Hotel there (it didn’t look very busy). The hall was actually on the 5th and 6th floors of one of the towers there, which was interesting. As I mentioned earlier, it was a smaller hall, with seats completely surrounding the stage. Although I was in the mezzanine, I felt quite close.

Although I was not there for the soloist, Beatrice Rana was entrancing. She radiated a kind of unflappable cool while just banging out the tremendous chords of Tchaikovsky, and was enticed to do an encore.

But I was there for Shostakovich. I had wondered, coming in, whether Jaap van Zweden (the orchestra’s resident director) would take the fast ending pioneered by Leonard Bernstein. The New York Philharmonic had been his orchestra, and van Zweden had some association with him. I’d just have to wait. The first movement was excellent, taken at fairly fast pace, with the second nice and crisp, in keeping with van Zweden’s angular, animated conducting style. But it was the Largo that took this performance across the bridge into something special, and it was, in particular, van Zweden’s willingness to hold the orchestra in check for the quiet moments, allowing it to swell, almost overflow in the lushly expressive louder sections. I have my favourite section–at rehearsal 86, a series of chords that are evocative of liturgical chant–and yes, the tears flowed unbidden. At the climax–in the section where so often the cellos can get overwhelmed by the violas and violins–this did not happen; the balance was perfect. And the section after the climax was beautifully, perfectly quiet. And after those celesta and harp notes (note: loudest celesta I’ve ever heard), a brief moment of silence, held–and then–whiplash–into the finale. Again, a crisp tempo. Where would this go? My heart was pounding as that tense chord built to kick off the finishing bars–and then, and then–the ending, taken at a tempo Mravinsky might have taken–not too slow, not too fast–just perfect. And with those thudding final notes, van Zweden drew them out, slowing them down keeping the tension there to the very last note. It was as perfect a 5th as I have ever hear live (perhaps a horn bobble or two, early on), but those two final movements were everything.

One thing I noticed about the orchestra: Except for the brass and percussion, there was a larger proportion of women than I am used to. The violins seemed to be about 2/3 women, with at least one woman in all of the woodwind sections.

Driving back to the hotel, then, I got to drive in New York–along the Henry Hudson Parkway–on a warm late spring night with the window down. That was something, too–something unexpected.

To be continued…