Following 556 days of pandemic-inflicted cancellations and unconventional concerts, the New York Philharmonic opened its new season Friday, a "homecoming" for musicians limited to live streams, one-off and outdoor shows for more than a year.
After enduring months of crisis, the Phil, one of America's oldest musical institutions, re-opened its subscription season with a program featuring Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4, Anna Clyne's "Within Her Arms," Aaron Copland's "Quiet City" and George Walker's "Antifonys."
The pandemic forced the famed symphony orchestra to cancel its 2020-21 season, resulting in more than $21 million in lost ticket revenues.
Hundreds of people queued outside Alice Tully Hall in Manhattan's Upper Westside in evening wear, showing mandatory proof of vaccination in order to gain entry for the night of orchestral music.
Catherine Colson arrived with friends ahead of what she anticipated would be "a memorable night of phenomenal music."
"It was a really long year. I feel rejuvenated," she told AFP. "It's like a rebirth in a way."
Adam Baltin said he wanted to attend opening night to "celebrate the city and the arts."
"It's been so long."
- 'Feels like a homecoming' -
On top of the challenges presented by Covid, the Phil is homeless: the orchestra's longtime base, David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center, is in the middle of a major $550-million renovation.
Most of the 2021-22 season will be played at two other venues at the Lincoln Center arts complex on Manhattan's Upper West Side.
Despite everything, Chris Martin, the orchestra's principal trumpet player, said the start of a fresh season "feels like coming home."
"I'm very excited. I feel like almost like a rebirth as a musician," he told AFP at a dress rehearsal ahead of the evening.
"We play 130, 140 concerts a year, and you never take it for granted, but sometimes you think, 'Oh, I'm a little tired today, I've got to play this again', but not anymore -- I feel really such gratitude."
During the Phil's canceled season, members began playing small pop-up concerts at surprise locations throughout the city, getting creative for New Yorkers starved for live music.
"To play outdoors is wonderful," Martin said, adding it allows artists "to connect with the city in a different way."
"But to come back in this space... to have an audience again, that's the part that really feels like a homecoming."
- 'Exciting new beginning'-
Friday's show comes days after news broke that Jaap van Zweden, the Phil's maestro since 2018, will step down after the 2023-24 season.
The conductor spent much of the pandemic in his home country of the Netherlands with his family, and cited shifting work-life balance priorities in announcing his decision.
"It is not out of frustration, it's not out of anger, it's not out of a difficult situation," van Zweden told The New York Times.
"It's just out of freedom."
The pandemic, which dealt an early and particularly deadly blow to New York, hit in the middle of the violinist-turned-conductor's second season as music director.
He was isolated from his musicians, prevented for months from traveling to New York due to a ban on European travelers visiting the United States.
Friday's show comes amid a ramped-up arts schedule in the city, days after the extravagant fashion-centric Met Gala and ahead of the Governors Ball music festival along with the Metropolitan Opera's re-opening on September 27.
Kathy Greene, a Philharmonic violist for 30 years, told AFP she feels the orchestra members "are an important part of bringing New York back to normalcy, even though it's starting very slowly, and it's still very tentative."
"We are aiming in the right direction -- this is a very optimistic and exciting new beginning and we hope that things will grow from here," she said.