Cellist Josh Halpern found himself at Greenwood Cemetery during the fall of 2020. He was performing his first live concert since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, surrounded by masked audience members in the solemn, sprawling field of somber memories. It was here he first gave a concert of Mieczysław Weinberg’s Cello Sonata No. 1, a work written in 1945 that encapsulates the complexity of heavy emotions.
Halpern moved to New York in the fall of 2019, right before the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Metropolis Ensemble was one of the first groups to hire him upon his move, asking him to play on their 2019 Ecstatic Music Festival concert that highlighted the work of Gaby Moreno. His work with Metropolis bookended his pre-pandemic New York life; his second performance with the group, a live accompaniment for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, came during March 2020. It was his last live performance for months.
He first discovered Weinberg’s music while attending Krzyzowa Music, a summer music festival in Poland. Weinberg’s practice was prolific—he wrote more than 20 symphonies and 17 string quartets, to name just a few of his accomplishments—but his music remains to be lesser known than Russian counterpart Dmitri Shostakovich. His life was deeply affected by the changing borders, socio political unrest, and displacement brought about by World War II; in his music, he unites influences from Bela Bartok, Shostakovich, and Gustav Mahler to create rich, poignant vignettes of sound.
Here, Halpern plays the first movement of Weinberg’s first cello sonata, which has a bleakness that unfolds across its cinematic texture, beginning with a deep rumble that blossoms into climactic resonance. In performing this piece for the House Music series, Halpern hopes to convey the cautious optimism that colors our current moment. — Vanessa Ague