Unable to open its concert hall, New York Philharmonic brings its music to the streets

New York Philharmonic members Yulia Ziskel, Sumire Kudo and Cynthia Phelps perform in Brooklyn Bridge Park.

(CNN)The New York Philharmonic was stuck in traffic.

It was late afternoon on a Friday, and the red, white and black Ford F-250 pickup truck at the heart of the Philharmonic's new "pull-up" concert series was traveling at speeds familiar to anyone who has ever tried to cross a few miles worth of Brooklyn during rush hour.
It has been more than five months since the New York Philharmonic, the nation's oldest symphony orchestra, closed the doors to its famous Lincoln Center concert hall in early March, as the coronavirus pandemic started to take hold of the city. In that time, over 23,000 New Yorkers are suspected to have died from Covid-19. Told to close their doors in the spring, many city stores, restaurants and museums remain shuttered.
    "We like to think of the Philharmonic as New York's orchestra," orchestra president Deborah Borda, a violinist, told CNN. "Our musicians, their life is making music. They have been completely cut off from being able to give their gift to people."
    Borda's solution, for now, is the rented Ford pickup, which made its debut on Friday. Dubbed the "Bandwagon," it travels New York's five boroughs each weekend with a sound system, support staff and a handful of musicians in tow. If the people can't come to Lincoln Center, Borda figured, bring the music to the people.
    "It's a little rough and ready," she admitted. "That's just typical New York."

    'Forget everything and do what we do'

    A light but persistent rain raked across the asphalt at Brooklyn Bridge Park, scattering the few dozen New Yorkers who, minutes earlier, had been placing orders at an idling ice cream truck, waiting in line for pizza or otherwise trying to fit in on a summer Friday, face masks in place.
    The bandwagon arrived unceremoniously and parked under a "No Standing" sign at the corner of the park. A handful of staff began to unload as the rain tapered.
    Everything was designed to minimize coronavirus risk, Philharmonic spokesman Adam Crane said as he prepared to wipe down a music stand with bleach.
    The concert locations aren't announced ahead of time, in an effort to keep crowd size low and social distancing possible. Similarly, the concerts are kept short: 15 minutes at most, to keep large crowds from gathering. Each week's musicians and staff members are supposed to travel together to limit potential exposure to the virus.
    "We all get tested," Crane said. "I got tested Wednesday and today. Wednesday was for today. Today was for tomorrow."
    In the wings, three musicians stood under umbrellas, getting ready to play.
    Yulia Ziskel  performs in Brooklyn Bridge Park.
    "This is a way that we can connect with people," said Cynthia Phelps, the Philharmonic's principle violist. "It allows us to forget everything and do what we do."
    "It gives us hope," violinist Yulia Ziskel said.
    "We haven't played together since March," said cellist Sumire Kudo.
    The trio had just finished their first pull-up concert, two miles away in the Fort Greene section of the borough. "We started with Beethoven, and did you notice how quiet it got?" Kudo asked Phelps.

    'Remember me but forget my fate'

    Once every music stand had been cleaned and the sound system plugged in, the concert began.
    Anthony Roth Costanzo, acclaimed countertenor with the Metropolitan Opera, hopped into the bed of the pickup with a microphone.
    "We're so excited to find you here in Brooklyn Bridge Park!" he shouted with a smile.
    The trio began a serenade in C major by Hungarian composer Ernst von Dohnányi, the frenetic, almost percussive bowing blending with the exhaust note of a passing sports car. A crowd began to gather.
    When the song ended and the applause subsided, Costanzo introduced what he called "the saddest aria"-- Henry Purcell's "Dido's Lament."
    From the bed of a rented truck, Costanzo wailed the repeated refrain to a city still mourning its dead: "Remember me but forget my fate. Remember me but forget my fate."
    "Those are powerful words," Costanzo said to the audience when the aria ended. "They stick in my head."