Walking through Central Park during the summer may reveal to you the most delightful sight of fireflies rising from the long grass. It creates a sense of enchantment and transient stillness in the heart of the thrumming city. Well, lo and behold: even before a note has been played in the remodelled Wu Tsai Theater, David Geffen Hall the audience is coo-ing as the newly installed ‘firefly’ chandeliers glow, twinkle and rise to the ceiling (the Phil’s version of the Met’s ‘sputnik’ equivalent). Okay, things are looking different around here, but how do they sound…?
‘AHOY!!’ hollers the unmistakable voice of our Grammy-award winning, MacArthur-genius-ed host: mandolinist, singer and ring-master Chris Thile. There’s no conductor’s podium for tonight’s concert at the Phil. The 65th Street Session is styled after ‘The Session’ at the 11th Street Bar, a project that aims to lure musicians and audiences who might not otherwise step into the acoustic setting. With that sense of congregation and musical communion at the forefront of the concept, it’s apt that Chris leads the evening off with ‘Lay Song’ from his 2021 Nonesuch release Laysongs — a secular exploration of spirituality well-suited to the religious experience of this concert. Once Chris has finished some mandolin shredding he grins at the final notes as they disappear the same way the fireflies just flew. ‘They done good,’ he muses before launching into the first jam-styled moment of the evening: ‘it’s fiddle tune request time — you know the rules!’.
After finger-blistering renditions of ‘Liberty’, ‘Jerusalem Ridge’ and ‘Back Up and Push’, the jam kicks into a new gear as our MC invites serial collaborator Brad Mehldau on stage to add some piano licks to proceedings. In the pristine acoustic of the new hall, this rendition of pieces such as ‘The Old Shade Tree’ sound different to the way they played together in 2015’s wintery duo performance at the Bowery Ballroom, and in that newness there is a new character being invited into the space, that the hall will give musicians a chance to play with it. And play they do with Merrill Garbus shuffles shoe-less on stage, teases her collaborators and then soon has them padding around in their socks as well. They jam, Tune-Yards take the spotlight for a while —Chris remaining on stage, to enjoy their talent like the rest of us— before the jam enjoys another molecular reformation with Brad adding piano to three otherwise naked voices, crystal clear in their expensive, fresh setting. What’s that? We’re also getting poems from Camille Rankine! And more? Hilary Hahn’s the drop-in fiddler for the evening?? Hilary’s moment may be unavoidably classical (an adaptation of the 3rd movement of Bach’s double violin concerto) although in that there’s a nod to the many genres that this hall was built to accommodate. That classical is in the minority tonight is its own sort of victory.
‘My sense of home as a New Yorker with a small apartment…is that it’s the places you go,’ reflects Thile. Tonight, what Chris, his collaborators and the planning team of the NY Phil have shown is that this hall has re-emerged with the intention of being one of those places that New Yorkers go to find home, to feel at home. Warm and welcoming, curious and connected, gregarious and gentle — this was a special reintroduction to the space and its ambitions to bring the city’s residents in. If you are thinking of giving it a go, look no further than the Dylan-penned lyrics of the evening’s penultimate song: ‘don’t think twice, it’s all right’. In fact, it’s better than alright: it’s home.
The 65th Street Session is a four-concert series across the 2022-23 season — you can find out more about it here. Photo credit Chris Lee.