Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 24 November 2020

New York Philharmonic takes its music to the streets in the back of a pickup truck

'It feels like the city is our orchestra and we're the soloists' say the musicians raising New Yorkers' spirits

With autumn season cancelled and its concert hall closed indefinitely, the New York Philharmonic orchestra is taking its music to the streets.

The famed symphony orchestra, one of America's oldest musical institutions, has been getting creative during the pandemic, playing a number of outdoor pop-up shows for New Yorkers who have been left starved of live music.

Each weekend, small ensembles play at surprise locations across the city, wearing T-shirts and masks in front of their musical "bandwagon".

Sometimes, the musicians get rained on or ignored, but occasionally, a passing delivery truck honks along in exactly the right key.

In those moments, says opera singer and series producer Anthony Roth Costanzo, "it feels like the city is our orchestra and we're the soloists".

"In this moment of pandemic, in this moment of social change, we're exploring new ways together ... to connect to people and to realise that we have to reinvent the concertgoing ritual," the countertenor told AFP following a performance at Brooklyn's Betty Carter Park, a small leafy urban oasis above a subway track.

"It's not just about bringing people into our house. It's about getting our house out in the world, and sharing what music can do."

On a balmy Friday evening, Roth Costanzo and a string duet – Quan Ge on violin and Cong Wu on viola – drew a socially distanced crowd to their show that began with Mozart's Allegro in G Major and ended with the classic New York ballad Somewhere from West Side Story.

Unlike at its traditional classical music concerts, the Philharmonic encourages its pop-up audiences to dance, applaud and interact between songs.

At Friday's show, Costanzo played the role of MC, speaking to the crowd between each song from the bed of the bandwagon, at one point giving a shoutout to the vendor selling sheets and towels next to the makeshift stage.

Drivers slowed to roll down their windows and pedestrians took videos on their phones, as dozens of audience members – children and dogs included – stopped to take in the tunes that featured a string arrangement of Alicia Keys's Empire State of Mind.

"It touched me," one audience member told AFP afterwards, calling the surprise concert "heaven-sent".

Like many musicians, members of the Philharmonic took their shows online when the spread of Covid-19 shut their doors in March.

And while virtual concerts offered a stopgap solution, they are simply not the same, Wu said.

"Music is about communication," he said. "We need the stage. It's nice to feel the energy from people – we play, we share the energy, and we have energy back from the audience."

The Philharmonic isn't publicly announcing when and where each concert will occur, to avoid large crowds gathering.

The organisation is planning three performances a day on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays into at least mid-October, aiming to eventually cover all five city boroughs.

In each audience is the co-president of the League of Women Voters, following the performers and helping those gathering to register to vote before the US presidential election in November.

After Friday evening's mini concert finished at the park, where Brooklyn's Academy of Music towers across the street, Roth Costanzo called it gratifying to be back out performing live.

"There was a moment at the end when the violins finished playing, and there was a perfect stillness, silence like you'd have in a concert hall," he said. "I can feel people connecting – it's not just me to them and them to me – it's them to each other as well.

"That's so important in our world right now," he added.

Updated: September 6, 2020 06:04 PM

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