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Chamber music in the time of covid

Emotions run high at return to live classical concerts in Ashland, featuring the Ying Quartet and Castalian String Quartet

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As a board member and current artistic committee chair of Chamber Music Concerts in Ashland, Alice Hardesty interviews two chamber musicians for their take on coming back to live performances. She also offers some of her own observations.

Chamber Music Concerts (CMC) in Ashland opened its in-person series on Friday, October 29th with the Ying Quartet, followed three weeks later by the Castalian String Quartet on a Friday evening and a Saturday matinee. Our audience embraced these concerts with gusto. Although these concerts were also streamed live, the hall was nearly half full for each.

In accordance with Southern Oregon University’s requirements, everyone had to show proof of vaccination at the door (or ahead), to wear a mask over nose and mouth for the entire time, and to go directly to their seats without stopping to greet their friends. Intermissions are not allowed at this point, although social distancing is not required in the hall.

Our last concert before Covid was with the vocal ensemble Cantus on March 6, 2020. We had a large reception for the ensemble, board members, and donors after the concert, where we innocently bumped elbows instead of shaking hands. The chorus even serenaded us in my living room, with no known adverse consequences! After that it was lock-down.

Streaming to fill the void

Undaunted, CMC did manage to stream several concerts during the 2020-2021 season, including the Borromeo String Quartet, the Danish String Quartet, the Smetana Piano Trio, Quartetto di Cremona, and the string band collectif9. We managed to postpone two groups–the wind ensemble WindSync and the Harlem String Quartet with John Patitucci–until summer, when they performed at the Grizzly Peak Winery in a “quasi-outdoors environment,” defined as a large airy room with oversized doors wide open.

For all of the streamed concerts we charged a $20 ticket fee, but went back to full price for the two at the winery. When streaming, the musicians tailored their performances specifically to our audience and even thanked our sponsors by name. People seemed happy paying for them, and our concert sponsors and other donors came through like troupers. We felt blessed.

At last – Live chamber music

The Ying quartet’s concert this October was the first one back at the recital hall, a truly indoor situation. Several audience members admitted to being skeptical at first; one planned to sit in a place that gave her an easy escape route. The check-in process went smoothly, which provided reassurance to audience members, all of whom appeared to be fastidious about keeping their masks on. Ed Wight–our resident musicologist–filled the classroom provided for the pre-concert lecture, and people didn’t seem to mind sitting next to strangers.

Ying Quartet in Wolk Atrium, Eastman School of Music, 2015. Photo by J. Adam Fenster.
Ying Quartet in Wolk Atrium, Eastman School of Music, 2015. Photo by J. Adam Fenster.

Executive Director Jody Schmidt was able to observe the audience response at all stages – on the phone when they bought tickets, then at the door during check-in and leaving afterward. She reports that one of CMC’s patrons shed tears when she bought her first ticket to a live performance in almost two years, and the same patron nearly cried again at the door when she had trouble finding her vaccination card. Emotions were running high.

According to Schmidt, “their relief is palpable. They’re all so excited to have chamber music as part of their lives again. I think everyone is just grateful to attend concerts, and inconveniences like wearing masks and showing vaccination proof are small things. There’s an emptiness to life without the arts, and streaming chamber music just can’t compete with the real experience.“

Several of us noticed that there was much less coughing than usual, possibly because people hadn’t been traveling as much (or they had traveled masked), and therefore hadn’t caught colds. Also it could be because people feel guilty about coughing lately, wishing they could say to their neighbors, “I’m not sick! Really!” However, guilt didn’t prevent a cell phone intrusion during the Castalian’s brief rest between movements of the Sibelius D minor string quartet, and first violinist Sini Simonen deftly repeated the tune, much to the delight of the audience.

Streamed versus live

As a lover of chamber music, I listened to all of our streamed performances with high quality earphones, and I did enjoy them. One aspect that is lacking from our otherwise exceptional recital hall is the beautiful environments like churches, palaces, and museums in which some of our European groups recorded their concerts, and that added a lovely visual element.

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But what I noticed in the first live concert after the Covid famine seemed visceral. During the Ying’s “showcase” for students and faculty on Friday afternoon, violinist Robin Scott was the first to strike his strings, and it felt to me like Everybody Wake Up! This is Real Music! It was a reminder of the inter-relationship between hearing and feeling.

Granted, live music provides a broader frequency spectrum than is available online, as well as a greater dynamic range and other more subtle nuances. Still, I don’t think that’s the whole story. Music opens the ears, and somehow it also opens the body. This just isn’t the same with music streamed.

The role of fellow listeners may also be important. At this first live concert I was conscious of a room full of silent, masked people, sitting almost motionless, having an experience similar to mine. While I appreciated a sense of camaraderie, I soon forgot they were there. This relationship would prove to be somewhat different upon interviewing the musicians.

Ying comes back to life

Cellist David Ying reports that during the 4-5 month lockdown period it felt like being on pins and needles, and it was hard to make any plans. “It took awhile before we felt ready to rehearse again. And what are we going to rehearse for? Well, kind of nothing at first because there weren’t any concerts. Then it was like, let’s just play some music together because we missed it! It was the longest that Janet, Philip, and I had not played together since the quartet started 20 some years ago.”

They decided to start with Dvořák and Beethoven. The group has a lot of history with Dvořák, who came to the U.S. to develop a new music conservatory in New York City in 1892 and spent the summer in the tiny town of Spillville in Iowa. Right after graduating from Eastman, the young Ying Quartet went to Iowa 100 years after Dvořák for a year-long residency. They played quartets for the Iowans, many of whom Ying felt may have never heard a string quartet before. “So for us it’s about connections – the connection between us and Dvořák, between Dvořák and his people, between himself and Iowa, and between us and Iowa.”

The other composer with whom the Ying chose to end the Covid famine was Beethoven. The quartet knew how the feeling of isolation, epitomized by Beethoven’s deafness, was particularly hard for musicians, especially chamber musicians. “This idea of direct human communication started us thinking about Beethoven. He knew the harsh reality of being isolated more than any of us, even during the pandemic. So being able to express these feelings of isolation in music seems like a great metaphor for our time.”

The Ying Quartet spent much of the Covid months presenting streamed concerts, both with the Chautauqua Institution as well as the Bowdoin Summer Festival, with live audiences–restricted by the pandemic–consisting mainly of students and faculty. They recorded for some chamber music presenters who wanted to continue to provide music for their audiences as well as to keep musicians employed. David Ying has a lot of empathy for musicians who have not had steady employment as teachers (as the Ying has at Eastman) or have been part of groups that have been hired to stream concerts online. He expressed admiration for presenting organizations that kept musicians on the payroll.

Castalian’s new violist

I was amazed to find out that violist Ruth Gibson only joined the Castalian Quartet this past October, right before the quartet actually left the U.K. for their American tour. When asked about how they all became accustomed to playing with each other she said that she felt lucky to be starting that way because “the best place to learn how to play together is actually on the stage.” She had only a few days to practice with them, starting immediately with the Schubert G major D 887, the Mozart K 590 “Prussian,” and the Sibeliius “Intimate Voices” Op. 56–the latter two of which they performed in Ashland. Despite these challenges, their ensemble playing seemed faultless.

Gibson wasn’t as negatively impacted by Covid as many of her colleagues. During those months she was busy performing with other groups, particularly Ensemble 360, with whom she had performed for years; the Manchester Collective, known for its experimental programming; and the Aurora Orchestra, a virtuosic chamber orchestra. During Covid they did a lot of recording and filming for streamed concerts. They also did a few live concerts, since the pandemic situation was somewhat on and off in the U.K.

Playing for real people

While streamed concerts kept her busy, Gibson says that she really missed the audience. “It’s incredibly important, this exchange between musicians and an audience. When you just have cameras at your face, it ends up feeling kind of invasive. I actually love it when audiences are super close, kind of like voyeurs over your shoulder.” But that feeling isn’t there with cameras and sound engineers.

When asked about any differences in the audience between pre- and post-Covid, she responded instantly: “Masks! That was very strange!” When talking to the audience about the music before playing she remembers wondering if these semi-faceless people were even interested. “You miss a lot when you don’t see people’s faces. We show all our emotion on our face, and when that’s taken away, it feels like we’re getting a bit of a raw deal.”

Castalian String Quartet. Photo by Paul Marc Mitchell.
Castalian String Quartet. Photo by Paul Marc Mitchell.

David Ying’s opinion of streamed concerts: “It’s better than nothing! But it’s nothing like playing for real people in a room and being with them.” When asked about how it is to play in front of a large audience, like 300 people, after doing only small concerts and streaming, he replied, “Butterflies.” To my look of amazement, he responded, “Yeah, butterflies again. I think there’s something wrong if you don’t have butterflies.”

He is not particularly put off by a masked audience, having gotten so used to seeing people with nose and mouth covered. With respect to the audience, he observed, “Presence goes far beyond the mask.” Actually, he finds it more unsettling to watch performers wearing masks. At Eastman, performers have had to keep their masks on, but he feels fortunate that for the concert in Ashland the quartet could take them off. 

Throughout the interview he stressed the importance of connection. “The whole point of music,” he observes, “is that it brings us together in a shared communal experience. I’m still looking forward to the normal way we used to enjoy music. But the one thing I can say about all of this is that it definitely made me realize what I have taken or granted.”

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Alice Hardesty has served on the boards of Friends of Chamber Music in Portland and Chamber Music Concerts in Ashland, where she also put in her time on the Ashland City Council. She has an eclectic approach to writing, with publications appearing in places like Technology Review, The Washington Post, The Ashland Daily Tidings, Street Roots, and several poetry journals. Her book-length memoir, An Uncommon Cancer Journey, was a finalist for the 2015 International Book Awards. Visit her website at bachopress.com.

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