Let’s raise the tone, and our spirits, and enjoy some proper culture; in the face of two years of pandemic pressures and endless social distancing, we’re not all where we hoped or planned to be right now. Those who plan, participate in or enjoy live events have been hit hard; Tristan Cook’s two-hour documentary for the Public Broadcasting Service details how the Chamber Music Society of New York’s famed Lincoln Centre learned to roll with the punches in the face of a public health emergency. Chamber Music Society Returns provides an absorbing look at how music, and the musicians who play it, just won’t quit in the face of adversity.
Cook’s film comes in two halves; the first, Setting The Stage, looks at how the Chamber Music Society players navigated the isolation, the separation and the loneliness cause by the on-going Covid-19 outbreak. There’s plenty of personal stories to consider, not least the artistic directors who battled to keep the flame alive; their names are David Finkel, and, as chance would have it, Wu Han. With staff haunted by the desolate feeling of the empty Alice Tully Hall, the challenge is to find a way to observe security protocols and keep everyone safe; not an easy task if your job is to play a wind instrument.
The second hour is entitled Bringing Down the House, and follows what happens when the Chamber Music Society go out on the road for a six city tour; spoiler alert, it doesn’t entirely go smoothly. My alternative title would be Harpsichords in Danger, since a malfunctioning sprinkler system comes agonisingly close to destroying the society’s priceless handmade instruments. Workarounds are somehow found at every juncture, and the tour is completed with the players returning to the Lincoln Centre itself for their climactic homecoming concert,
If the pandemic seemed to accelerate the dumbing-down of today’s culture, Cook’s documentary acts like a tonic to reverse that slide; there’s plenty of drama, but none of it is contrived in the manner of today’s reality-television. Instead, Cook allows the performers to talk, and crucially puts the music centre stage, allowing us to sit back and enjoy world-class musicianship via Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and other balms for the soul.
In today’s febrile times, Chamber Music Society Returns offers a welcome parting of the mist as we climb the mountain together; it’s a journey that means nothing if we don’t keep music in our hearts. Right now, it’s hard for many of us to imagine that the air still crackles with electricity around the Lincoln Centre on a performance night, that the crowds still chatter; Chamber Music Society Returns offers long-distance admirers a chance to see that the wonderful world we once knew is still there, and that’s a huge relief in 2022.
The Chamber Music Society’s new two-part documentary film Chamber Music Society Returns will air nationally on PBS across two nights – April 8 and 15. Tune in on PBS, Check your local listings