Musicians Reflect on the Pandemic
Tell us about your normal, pre-pandemic life:
In my non-pandemic life, I juggle a variety of performing and recording commitments as a mobile freelance musician based in New York City. (Being a freelancer means being totally responsible for your own calendar and traveling, which means a lot of emails, strategizing, negotiating, scheduling, re-scheduling, and general admin. When I am not doing admin or practicing, I would say I play around 3-6 concerts or recordings per month during the typical September-June season, though it can be a lot more or less depending on who knows what…if anyone figures out what, let me know!) My string quartet, the Momenta Quartet, collaborates frequently with living composers and explores music from a wide variety of aesthetics and time periods. We self-produce a four-concert Momenta Festival in NYC every fall, where each of us has carte blanche to curate an evening of music. We have a circuit that includes recurring residencies at institutions such as Binghamton, Brown, and Cornell Universities, and Bates, Williams, Haverford, and Simons Rock Colleges, to name a few. Some of the most rewarding work we do is guiding student composers, many of whom are just beginning to explore the endless possibilities, and occasional pitfalls, of the string quartet medium. Other groups I play in include A Far Cry, Argento Ensemble, Talea Ensemble, Princeton Symphony, Orpheus, Sejong Soloists, and IRIS Orchestra. I am a founding member of both the Gamut Bach Ensemble (dedicated to Bach) and Ensemble Échappé (dedicated to 21st-century music), so I cast a wide net with my musical interests. In the summers I usually have a handful of festivals I might participate in: for example playing chamber music at the Marlboro festival in Vermont, or working with composers and coaching student ensembles at the Brandeis University Composers Conference, and of course, MSCM, which I can’t wait to return to.
Tell us about how your 2020-2021 concert season has been. As you adjusted to pandemic living, did gigs come back at all? Did you dive into more virtual work? Find something else to keep you busy entirely?
The 2020-21 season started off with a handful of outdoor and virtual/remote gigs, and has become increasingly busy, as virtual projects mix with the in-person work that is quite rapidly returning to the NYC area. I generally evaded the home-recording craze that took over the earlier part of the pandemic; nevertheless I did manage to finally learn the basics of video and sound editing (with thanks to the ever-patient teacher Google, who fielded some pretty incoherent questions from me early on). This season has seen an explosion of virtual and streaming performance projects, which just illuminates the creativity and perseverance of our colleagues in the performing arts community. Among the several activities I was involved in this season, two collaborations stand out in particular: my quartet’s Virtual Momenta Festival presented by the Americas Society, and participating in an online concert series, Jukebox Concerts, created by my dear friend and colleague (and fellow MSCM violinist) Keiko Tokunaga.
Were there unexpected silver linings for you amidst the upheaval, anxiety, and loss of the past year?
This past season, there were some projects I participated in that actually couldn’t have come together without the benefit of remote interaction. One was a series of interactive educational performances with the Toomai String Quintet, presented by the music education nonprofit Midori and Friends for multiple NYC public schools. Toomai was scattered across the country in the wake of the pandemic, but thanks to programs like Zoom and Google Meet, we were able to collaborate and connect with a large number of students. I’ve also done several remote composition workshops this season in collaboration with Binghamton University, Ithaca College, and Juilliard, with students tuning in from places as far-flung as LA and Tehran, which wouldn’t have been possible before the advent of Zoom. I also joined the roster of SoundScore, a virtual platform connecting performers with composers looking to workshop and record their works.
On a personal level, I was finally able to clean out my Gmail inbox…
Do you have apprehensions about whether people will return to concert halls? What do you think the post-pandemic concert experience might be like?
At least where I am in the NYC area, it feels like everyone’s ready to return to concerts! I’m reminded of the resurgence of culture and arts in the Roaring Twenties after the 1918 pandemic (though that also makes me think of the ensuing Great Depression, so maybe that’s enough history for now). I do think we’re all pretty burned out with the limitations of screens and virtual engagement; there’s no substitute for the collective thrill and exchange of energy that happens with live performing. I wonder if the post-pandemic concert experience will continue to include a lot more outdoor performance options when weather allows. Although playing outside can be risky on the performers’ end (wind, precipitation, humidity, bugs, loud motorcycles), it can feel festive and fun when the weather is nice, and seems to be a big hit with audiences these days.