Morristown, N.J. - Live performance ended abruptly in March as the coronavirus spread around the world, putting musicians out of work and audiences out of concert halls. Artists have taken to the internet, sending out livestreams, prerecorded streams, streams from the archives — almost all with the implied caveat that nothing beats the real thing, the real sound.
That sound is slowly, cautiously re-emerging. On Thursday evening, two of our classical music critics, Joshua Barone and Zachary Woolfe, did what they used to do several times a week: They went to a concert. The JACK Quartet was appearing as part of the modest Lot of Strings Festival in the parking lot of the Morris Museum here — the series continues Aug. 27 and Sept. 3 — and the critics chatted the next morning about how an everyday experience had become something precious.
JOSHUA BARONE It’s been so long since I attended a concert, I almost couldn’t find my notebook on Thursday. When I did, I saw that the last date in there was March 5, the New York Philharmonic. Since then I haven’t heard any live music except for my own amateur playing, which even my dog doesn’t want to be in the audience for. What about you?
ZACHARY WOOLFE I understand you’ve even been pecking out the “Goldberg” Variations on the piano! But I digress. My last performance before the lockdown was on March 8: “Sweet Land,” an intense and atmospheric new opera in Los Angeles about Manifest Destiny and colonization, about how our country’s history has always been about giving to some people and taking from others, about national conditions of incomprehension and fear. So it was actually appropriate — and appropriately keening — preparation for this tragic season.
BARONE “Sweet Land” was, thankfully, recorded. So I saw it virtually, which is how I’ve taken in all performances since March. But in the same way that we all quickly tired of Zoom happy hours, I struggled to maintain enthusiasm for music on the small screen. We’ve been trained to treat digital media as never requiring our full attention, and that’s not an easy habit to break.
WOOLFE It’s been difficult but clarifying to see how mightily classical music struggles in an online-only format. Experiencing sound in person, among others, turns out to be even more essential than I’d assumed. This art form has long been devoted to recordings — but always as a counter, an implied (or screamed) comparison, to real performances. Theater and dance have in some ways effectively recast themselves for this new medium, but five months in, there has been lovely work on offer but not any true, truly satisfying adaptation of classical music or opera for the digital space.
BARONE Thursday’s concert was still something of a substitute. We were seated in lawn chairs within socially distanced, spray-painted squares on top of a parking structure, with the JACK players — Christopher Otto and Austin Wulliman, violins; John Pickford Richards, viola; Jay Campbell, cello — performing, amplified, from a platform in front. Yet there was the thrill of live music-making, and also what I’ve missed just as dearly: people. Sure, there were distracting sounds from audience members fumbling with their snacks. A man nearby was straight up reading The New York Times instead of watching. But the novelty of company made me giddy, even when someone’s cellphone went off during the opening remarks. It was familiar; we were together.
WOOLFE With the players framed by a beautiful sunset behind rolling hills on a mild night, I thought of all the idyllic outdoor music I was supposed to have heard these months, in Ojai, Calif.; in Santa Fe; at Tanglewood; in Aix-en-Provence, France. I couldn’t stop thinking last night of those communities and their losses — in art, in jobs. Yet it was joyous to be in Jersey. Not just to hear music, but also to schmooze with a publicist, to run into a friend, to glimpse a composer I recognized in the audience. (To see you, Josh, my deskmate at the Times office, for the first time since February!) Music isn’t just a pretext for gathering, but simply gathering was for me almost as satisfying as listening to John Zorn and Bach.
BARONE Satisfying not just to listen, but also to react. During the applause for the Zorn, his “Cat O’ Nine Tails,” you and I shared a smile — at least that’s what I think it was under your mask — of contentment. I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t be happier that this piece ended up being the first thing I heard live: It’s a whirlwind of musical styles, relayed in a series of jump cuts that, miraculously, never lose the sense of a coherent whole. At least as performed by the JACK men, some of Mr. Zorn’s most able and enthusiastic interpreters, who leaned into both the piece’s gritty aggression and its moments of cartoonish levity, like when Mr. Richards cued his fellow players with whips of his bow.
WOOLFE People tend to think of Mr. Zorn as a composer of harsh buzz, but this work — on this night, especially — moved me in its quieter moments. A bit of folksy song, a little tango, a quiet lament. His postmodern grab-bag style is broadly shared by a younger generation of composers, including Zosha Di Castri, whose quartet came next on the program. With its jittery evocations of swiping, popping electronic sounds, this could have been a Zorn piece, too — though it’s less lighthearted in its skittishness than “Cat O’ Nine Tails.”
BARONE Ms. Di Castri’s quartet shared an episodic nature with Mr. Zorn’s, a vibe that carried through the entire program, which could have easily been titled “Episodes.” To close, JACK intertwined sections from Marcos Balter’s “Chambers,” Bach’s “The Art of Fugue” and John Luther Adams’s “The Wind in High Places,” creating a new, nine-part suite. The juxtaposition didn’t reveal anything particularly new about the individual pieces so much as it played on what they share — mainly, the use of elemental sounds to build layered complexity.
WOOLFE The Bach selections perhaps began to sound a little more dreamlike under the influence of the contemporary, delicate, amorphous Balter and Adams coming between them. “Chambers” and “The Wind in High Places” were perfect in this setting — faint, glassy, slowly glinting and softly flittering, like the crickets and birds audible in the woods around the Morris Museum.
BARONE Mr. Adams’s music, which so often absorbs and reflects nature, thrived here, the airy harmonics joined by the chatter coming from the trees. It was the high point, though the emotional peak for me may have come during the Bach. Which I didn’t expect, because the “Art of Fugue” selections otherwise betrayed stylistic shortcomings in the JACK, a group whose reputation is built on extended technique and fearless experimentation. They seemed out of their element, even misguided in how they played it, like they were performing late Beethoven.
WOOLFE I’m all for a richly Romantic, vibrato-heavy take on Baroque music, but I agree that the Bach seemed stilted. As I listened, I felt a little guilty to be reacting that way. Shouldn’t my relief at returning to concerts make everything sound wonderful? But I realized that making distinctions between better and worse, flexing the muscles of judgment, both appreciating and analyzing, was a crucial part of the happiness of finally being back.
BARONE That’s something I’ve had difficulty with watching virtual performances: Critical judgment is obscured by so many caveats. It was good to be back, however briefly. At the risk of sounding rosy, I couldn’t keep from reading into the final section of Mr. Adams’s work, “Looking Toward Hope.” The cello enters on its lowest string, and rises with open fifths. It’s an awakening.
Joshua Barone is a senior staff editor on the Culture Desk, where he writes about classical music and other fields including dance, theater and visual art and architecture. @joshbarone • Facebook
Zachary Woolfe has been the classical music editor since 2015. He was previously the opera critic of the New York Observer. @zwoolfe
Originally published in the New York Times August 21 2020.
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