As an introverted homebody who enjoys sitting in bed while listening to music, I confess that quarantine hasn’t changed my life too much. Although I do feel restricted at times, I’ve adapted quite well. But even I, the laziest person I know, have my limits. I’ve had moments when I despised quarantine, and they became more common when school started and even more when upperclassmen talked about fun things they did at Penn.
But as someone who enjoys music, I felt this frustration most acutely when I watched one of the best classical performances I’ve experienced, not in a hall filled with a cacophony of wonderful sounds, but through a screen. But the performance was far from anticlimactic: it was beautiful and soothing. It was just the thing I needed during a gloomy stretch of school and quarantine.
On Thursday, Oct. 15 at 8:00 p.m., the Philadelphia Orchestra premiered the Ax/Mozart Piano Concerto No. 14 performance. The concert kicked off with a short commissioned piece dedicated to Beethoven for his 250th anniversary, which was both haunting and hopeful. Then the concert transitioned to the main event: Emanuel Ax, a Grammy–winning pianist, gifted us with a beautiful rendition of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 14. Ax gracefully weaved the notes out of the piano and poured them into a clear river of sound. In dark times, art reminds us of why we live—and Ax did exactly that. The concert then closed with Brahm's Serenade No. 2, filled with the depth, beauty, and conviction that viewers will need going forward in quarantine.
I was thrown off a bit by the start: instead of the usual musicians filing into their seats amid awkward coughs, there was an interview. The interviewee was Jessica Hunt, a composer that the Philadelphia Orchestra commissioned to write a piece, titled "Climb," as part of the celebration of Beethoven’s anniversary. Hunt exuded confidence, humility, fascination, and pure passion in describing Beethoven and her work. This extended to the other interviews: Daniel Matsukawa, the Principal Bassoonist, also displayed this attitude about Brahms (the composer of the third and final piece of the concert) and Ax did so about Mozart. All three also expressed gratitude and relief that they were able to finally perform. After all, music is like breathing to musicians as passionate as Hunt, Matsukawa, and Ax.
But of course, although they were able to perform, things weren't the same. All the musicians were spaced apart. The string players didn't share stands and wore masks.And the wind players, who couldn’t wear masks, had huge glass panels surrounding them. I’ve performed in an orchestra before, so I imagine that the musicians might have felt restricted by the masks because orchestral performance requires extensive coordination by breathing and feeling the pulse together. But they were still able to find this through physical movements like swaying and lifting.
By chance, Hunt’s "Climb" complemented this dystopian setting in a haunting yet hopeful manner. This is because, coincidentally, her music is about illness. She was diagnosed with a life–changing illness recently, which grew her connection with Beethoven, who was also chronically sick. She decided to express this in her latest composition with rather experimental sounds. The piece started with tense anxiety often seen in horror movies created by panicky trilling woodwinds, creepy string glissandos, and dissonance. But the horror was internal. In the interview, Hunt mentioned that the sounds were supposed to remind the audience of tachycardia, nausea, and other fearful things the body does. As I watched the musicians play with masks on or separated by glass, these sounds forced me to confront the terror of the pandemic.
Then, the focus shifted from fear to excitement. It made you embrace anxiety and find meaning in overcoming it. But for a while, the music remained ambiguous: I couldn’t tell whether to feel excited or nervous, as if soaring through the sky one moment and then breathing into a paper bag in a cramped hospital waiting room in the next. In the middle of a particularly grandiose and hope–filled phrase, there was a sudden off–putting glissando or slight dissonance that sets off alarms somewhere far in the back of your head, barely noticeable. But in the end, this short piece managed to pack a complicated and meaningful message that showed both the dark and opportune aspects of the pandemic.
The Mozart concerto was interpreted by Ax in a casually manner. The first movement, “Allegro vivace,” started with a fittingly energetic arpeggio, and Ax hit the keys of the piano with just enough force for it to be satisfying. This movement felt like a pleasant little adventure, and Mozart sounded almost conversational, as if the orchestra is a group of travelers. At one point, it felt like the piece would end in typical Mozart fashion with a trill and a note below the trill to finish the phrase. But then it transitioned into something intense, seguing into the cadenza. It was as if Mozart was playing fun little tricks.
The next movement, “Andantino,” started with a lazy afternoon on a floatie on a peaceful Greek beach then transitioned to a sunny autumn sunset filled with warmth. With grace and confidence, Ax dragged the notes ever so slightly, leading the orchestra and reminding them to take their time. Although a slow piece, he played every note with emotion and deliberation, paying careful attention to pace and dynamics. So despite Mozart’s formulaic classical style, Mozart and Ax together managed to produce music that flowed without restriction.
The last movement, “Allegro ma non troppo,” was bouncy enough to bob your head to. But within this bounciness existed a heaviness. However, overall, the movement conveyed joy with conviction, leaving the audience with a final note of happiness.
The concert closed with Brahms' Serenade No. 2. It was beautiful, with haunting moments that juxtaposed the grandiose bursts of energy embedded throughout. What’s especially interesting about the serenade, however, is that there are no violins. But you don’t really miss the violins—without them, Brahms appropriately creates dark and heavy sounds. The first movement, “Allegro Moderato”, sounds like mahogany wood. The second movement, “Scherzo: Vivace” is a perfect mix of instruments that feels like a storm and the drawn–out descent towards silence at the end draws you in. The third movement, “Quasi Menuetto,” features relatively high–pitched solos that feel like twinkles in a night sky. And “Rondo: Allegro” is so stately that it sounds like the orchestra should be marching around the concert hall.
The ending of the serenade, however, was a little too light for my personal taste. But it might have been on purpose; maybe the musicians wanted to end on a light–hearted tone, since the purpose of the concert, after all, was to keep people happy in dark times.
Overall, the concert was like a trip through heaven, and one that made me wish I was on campus. But whether the concert is virtual or physical, the Philadelphia Orchestra is always a must–see.