Ralph Gardner Jr: A Live Performance, Finally
When opera comes back it’s going to be big. I’m not even a particular opera fan but that thought crossed my mind as I watched cellist Yehuda Hanani and his fellow musicians perform several works, among them Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2, at Great Barrington’s beautifully restored Mahaiwe Theater Wednesday afternoon. That’s the piece whose third movement includes Chopin’s famous funeral march.
What do a Chopin sonata and Bizet’s Carmen have in common? Not much, I’ll concede, beyond memorable music. But what triggered the association was the sheer pleasure of experiencing live music after months without it. The concert, before an audience of approximately twenty lucky socially distanced guests, had an effect similar to that a thirsty hiker feels tripping across a fresh mountain spring. You didn’t realize how much you missed it until the water touches your lips. The therapeutic effect felt as much on the soul as the body.
The concert was being recorded for Close Encounters with Music, Mr. Hanani’s Berkshires chamber music organization. The cellist, discovered and brought to the United States from Israel by Leonard Bernstein and Isaac Stern at the age of 19, is also the host of WAMC’s “Classical Music According to Yehuda.” My wife and I were guests of a guest, Stanley Cohen, a mutual friend, whose birthday that day Yehuda and pianist Max Levinson, who performed the Chopin sonata, celebrated before the official program began with the spirited performance of a brief work, though not by Chopin or the day’s other composers – Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn. You’d recognize the tune as “Happy Birthday To You”.
The only reason opera popped into my mind – and not just any opera but one of those lavish Metropolitan Opera productions with jaw-dropping scenery and a fully costumed cast of hundreds – is because there’s no other art form that so unapologetically pulls out all the stops, that revels so unselfconsciously in its own excess. And that’s what we need at the moment. Something huge and collective as a civilization that says “We’re back!”
The afternoon’s delights came in many forms but the most visceral in a way wasn’t the music itself, as good as it was, but the joy the performers took in performing it. Mr. Hanani and Mr. Levinson were joined by Romanian violinist Irina Muresanu for Felix Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in D minor Opus 49 and Ms. Muresanu and Mr. Levinson performed Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel’s Adagio for Violin and Piano. In a performance that took what felt like a very short hour Mr. Hanani and Mr. Levinson also combined for Chopin’s Largo for Cello and Piano.
The Piano Sonata No. 2’s funeral march feels the musical equivalent of the Mona Lisa. You’ve heard it so often, and on some of the saddest of occasions, that it’s easy to overlook what a simple and beautiful piece of music it is.
While performing on Zoom has its virtues – Mr. Hanani told the audience that Close Encounters with Music has been able to gather talented musicians from around the globe virtually for performances – there’s no way it can match the physicality, if not the sheer musicianship, of a live performance. You felt an element of rapture, as if the performers were indulging in an act of collective relief. The connection they were making wasn’t just to their audience, limited though it had to be, but with the joy that comes from exercising one’s talent after months of isolation, the uncoiling a home run hitter feels summoning his talent and launching a ball over the right field fence.
Another curious effect of a live performance after so many months without is that it causes your life, at least your life as an audience member and that you might previously have been tempted to take for granted, to flash before your eyes. I thought of all those evenings at Lincoln Center when I was fortunate to hear the New York Philharmonic, or attend the Metropolitan Opera, or the ballet. It’s hard to put your finger on exactly what it is about those shared experiences but you know it’s part of what makes you human, one of the better parts.
If I had any criticism of the performance it’s only that we were told by a Mahaiwe staffer before the show started not to applaud. It had something to do with it being recorded. After the final piece was performed we were informed we could now applaud and made as much noise as twenty people in a theater that seats almost 700 can. When the artists took their bows they confessed gentle mystification that we hadn’t applauded after the other pieces; the edict not to show our appreciation hadn’t come from them.
Restraining ourselves had taken some effort. There was nothing we would have wanted to do more than put our hands together after every work.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
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