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  • Alexandra Simpson

Just Keep Streaming

Several weeks ago, as my concerts started getting cancelled, I sat in a poetry class at San Francisco Conservatory of Music led by the brilliant Paul Hersh. In a paper I’d written in response to John Crowe Ransom’s “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter”, I lamented the amount of life we were all beginning to give up for fear of death. Clearly, I had yet to find out how serious the pandemic was and how important “flattening the curve” would be to saving many lives. I only saw that my livelihood was gradually eroding, concert by concert, and I was more scared of losing performances than of contracting and potentially spreading Covid 19. (Within several days however, I was curled up in a blanket on the couch at 2 in the morning reading article after article, and the severity of the situation eventually got through my denial defenses). Then, the class shifted toward a larger conversation about live performance and its place in a world where any music, and many extraordinary performances, lay available in seconds to anyone with an internet connection. Paul Hersh made the point that we all have to distinguish ourselves as performers. Without something unique, musicians can’t expect the average audience to choose live performance over the countless other entertainments and diversions. My counter argument to this was honestly pretty pitiful, and I’m a little ashamed of it now: “Maybe I’m a more compelling performer than you”. Yikes. Paul, ever witty, came back with “If that was the case, I’d be the first to tell you.” Touché. What I‘d meant to convey was that my experience with audience members is that they came to performances not because they thought I played better than Yo Yo Ma or Paul Hersh, but because they got something they deemed worth their time from attending a concert in person. There is an inarticulable communication between audience and performer in live performance, a sense of “feeling” each other through the transmission of music. I have always loved performing, whether it was tumbling around in a diaper before I could talk (my dad loved to tell that story) or beating out all the boys to play the male lead in our third grade play (I peaked in third grade) or playing a mini concert each Saturday while visiting my mom. I realized how much I had depended on the fragile world of live performance for both my income and my sense of fulfillment. As I scrolled through Facebook, I’d see posts about my friends worrying about making rent and musicians in top orchestras getting laid off. It seemed the problem that classical musicians have been managing for generations- how to remain relevant- had now been multiplied infinitely. While our craft demands that we look into the past for traditions of techniques and performance practices, our careers demand that we find a way forward in unprecedented times. So, in the words of Marcus Aurelius, “The impediment to action advances the action”. My only performance space left was online, so it became time to find a way in this arena. In the first days concert cancellations and work from home, Philadelphia Orchestra livestreamed a performance of Beethoven 9th Symphony. It seemed like all of my friends were tuning into the Facebook Live broadcast, and I was electrified with emotion and motivation- live performance still has a space. I began working with friends to create a livestream chamber music concert. It was supposed to be a clarinet quintet, but the day after our first rehearsal, Shelter in Place was ordered. So, no more in person collaboration. It eventually became a concert of solo performances by each of the musicians who were to make up our ensemble. With the combination of tireless work by Saul Richmond-Rakerd to figure out the technology, the institutional support of Groupmuse and its audience, and probable the lack of any other concerts to watch, we had an audience of almost 90 watchers and raised over $1700 for the Equal Sound Musician Relief Fund. Here is the livestream, the music starts about 25 minutes in).


I was so inspired by this performance and its success that I couldn’t wait to organize the next. I had been in touch with leaders at SFCM about this livestream to ask for any possible resources or advice, and I was very excited to hear that the school was organizing a series of livestream concerts. Tiny Dorm Concerts would follow a similar structure to our Groupmuse livestream: a Zoom conference of performers with an emcee to announce and broadcast each musician in turn onto Youtube Live. I was so excited to curate one of these concerts, and even more excited when I received resounding yes after yes from my musical idols. Dana and Jean-Michel Fonteneau, SFCM faculty and all-around excellent humans, have been live-streaming inspiring words and music each Sunday. It means so much to get advice and advice on coping from them in these streams, and to hear Jean-Michel’s incredible cello playing.

Elizabeth Dorman, an award-winning pianist, has also come aboard to play Scarlatti on the program. Praised for her “excellence and verve” by the SF Chronicle, Liz has been forging a career I’ve long admired and hoped to emulate. Her enthusiasm for this project has lit a fire under me to make sure that it gets the viewership and attention it deserves!


Another musician I’ve been looking up to has taken rigorous classical training and applied it to extraordinarily creative and unique projects. Shaina Evoniuk combines a keen business sense and a limitless imagination to her career. She continues to push the boundaries and create new and fascinating works, and I’m so grateful she has agreed to play her song “Silent City” in our livestream!


And speaking of pushing the envelope, Sam Weiser has made a career out of performing new works and continually challenging the classical canon with the Del Sol String Quartet. I’m so excited to hear his performance of Stargazing for Violin and Electronics by Takuma Itoh.


Pie-Ling Lin, violist of the Telegraph Quartet and one of my Viola Heroes, will be playing Bach. Her career has taken a path that every violist dreams of: after studying with Hsin-Yun Huang and attending Marlboro Music Festival, she formed a one of the top quartets in the world, winning that won Naumburg Chamber Music Award and touring and recording regularly. As my chamber music coach, she manages to push us to think past our basic notions of “playing together”, opening our ears to ever-deeper layers of matching colors, sounds, strokes.


I’m also excited to present the performances of my peers, current SFCM students. Jazz trio Knox Barber, Julian Archer, and Eli Braddock from RJAM will play a couple of my favorite standards, “I Love You” by Cole Porter and “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” by George Bassman. Christine Lee, with two degrees from Juilliard in cello performance and a year of Fullbright study under her belt, will treat our ears to her honey golden sound and precision. Cynthia Sun, piano, has that rare ability to take your breath away when she plays, both with emotive artistry and stunning technical prowess.

Going forward, I've been connecting with old friends from Yale School of Music to organize a alum livestream. I'm looking forward to contacting former classmates and reconnecting over zoom meetings. It means so much to feel agency, to feel community, and to feel like my work still has a place. Stay tuned, and just keep streaming.

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©2020 by Alexandra Simpson.