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Reprise of the Local Musician

Today the Met Opera announced it will not put on performances again until 2021. If nothing else, this is a sure sign that classical music in a time of upheaval and that our culture is ripe for reform. We’ve seen the giants of our industry settle into hibernation mode for survival, leaving a vacuum that small, nimble organizations are working to fill. We saw their slow and/or inadequate responses to the Black Lives Matter protests in June, foreshadowed by lumbering responses to the pandemic. I’m proud that my school, SFCM, was not only quick to create a virtual concert series called Tiny Dorm Concerts, but also responded to BLM protests by issuing a statement condemning racism and committing to anti-racist actions both immediately and long-term. In normal times, a thoughtful and considered approach is highly valuable. In unprecedented times, however, procedure loses to innovation and daring.

Many of the structures we may have depended on (resentfully or no) have indefinitely suspended or decreased operations. In the field of classical music, a discipline dedicated to looking backward, deciding where to take the next step feels deeply uncomfortable. Outdoor small-scale concerts for neighbors and community members present an opportunity for musicians to engage with their local audience and build connections on the individual level.

Last month, my sister Christina and I took an impromptu camping trip. It was the kind of day-of decision that’s only possible when your performance calendar suddenly has gaping holes punched through it. We considered it a retreat to discuss and strategize Simpson Duo’s future. We booked the only available campground spot left on the bank of a remote mountain lake and hopped in the car.

After driving about 100 freeway miles, we pulled off onto a road along a steep ravine with dramatic views of the river far below and arrived at the site in the last of the gray light. As we set up camp, the unmistakable sound of a guitarist practicing licks wafted over the air. We wandered over and discovered the campground managers were traveling musicians; after being grounded with the pandemic, the owners had asked them to stay on and look after the site.

They were delighted to share their music when we asked to listen, and their renditions of country classics brought tears to my eyes. It was some of the first live music I’d heard in months, and their performances were raw and powerful. It felt like we had traveled back to ancient times when encountering traveling musicians and a warm fire to share was a rare treat to be savored. As they thanked us for listening, I realized that our appreciation was as healing to them as their music was to us: it's so meaningful to feel valued in a time when there are almost no performance opportunities.

Weeks later, this experience sticks with me. Since then, I’ve given several outdoor “pop up” concerts with Open Air Music Festival. We play on the Stern Grove Festival stage to large outdoor audiences to raise money for Equal Justice Initiative. Thanks to the courage, planning, and ingenuity of founder Michelle Sung, the festival has raised thousands of dollars. One of Michelle’s most brilliant maneuvers was tapping into her community by advertising on NextDoor- her neighborhood is walking distance from the stage and her neighbors came out in force, armed with picnic blankets and cash donations. Kody Thiessen has also been organizing an outdoor concert to raise money for wildfire victims. I so admire his action in a time when everything feels apocalyptic and hopeless.

At one of these concerts, I spoke to an elderly audience member, 6 feet away of course, for whom cultural experiences were a much needed balm: “I can’t thank you enough for doing this. All my friends have passed in the last two years and before the pandemic, the only thing keeping me sane were museums and concerts.” It was a powerful reminder of the value of art in trying times.

Ever since, I’ve been reflecting on the role of the musician in their neighborhood and community. With travel restrictions and large events on hold, it seems like the time is ripe for musicians to tap into every community available to them for mutual survival. My friend Saul Richmond-Rakerd saw this when he began playing on his stoop and attracted huge audiences and national recognition. Outdoor, small-scale concerts seem the safest route to continue connecting to audiences.

Community engagement can also happen virtually: Home2Home serves the Yale Alumni community through online concerts. The key to bringing viewers in is a feeling of connection- so much happens online that it’s hard to hold onto anything random.

Christina and I have been exploring this with Simpson Duo. Individually, we have circles of friends and audience members who have enjoyed our playing in the past. Together, we have a powerful story- a unique sister act of two violists. The result has been a beautiful experience of reconnecting with the communities of our hometown, our high school faculty, and the avid Groupmuse audience. Our collaboration has led to many virtual concerts over the past months, and a series of videos and recordings which we have been releasing on social media. We have also taken on a commitment to performing works by living composers in our area: our last concert featured works by Bay Area composers Steven Juliani and Lewis Patzner.

It’s so wonderful to see the support of our communities- people sharing our videos and Facebook page to encourage their friends to like and follow us. Christina has an incredible talent for drawing people in, along with an innate sense for how to ask for support- a skill essential to creating art. 

In this time of upheaval, I recently turned to Man’s Search for Meaning, hoping to learn from Viktor Frankl's reflections and psychological insights from his experience in Auschwitz and other concentration camps. I was struck by both the capacity for human resilience and hope, but also by his observations on prisoners’ need for art and beauty even as they suffered beyond imagination: “As the inner life of the prisoner tended to become more intense, he also experienced the beauty of art and nature as never before.”

While obviously my experience does not even register in comparison to that of Holocaust victims, I learned that humans look to art even in the most extreme situations. My feelings of upheaval and chaos have been calmed by seeking out and enjoying music. There seems to be a limitless amount of music and performances to enjoy but like many people, I find I'm most drawn to those artists to whom I have some sort of connection. I assume that most listeners, even unconsciously, follow a similar pattern of seeking out even a bit of familiarity and association. The feeling of "knowing" or sharing something in common with an artist makes their super-human abilities somehow even more impressive to me.

Similarly, I'm inexorably drawn to the sound of outdoor live music. Since the pandemic halted travel even by car, shared location seems as strong a connecting force as ever. Walking around Lake Merritt or down Valencia on a weekend provides so many options to stop and listen, and I take a special pride in knowing that these musicians represent the Bay Area. From performances by SF Opera musicians to a band playing traditional Colombian music to freestyle rappers making up rhymes about me as I walk by (was deeply impressed by that), musicians have found a way to bridge a much-needed connection to the listener.

While most live outdoor performances are still fringe, small-scale operations, I look forward to a time when we can use these public spaces in a structured, safe way. Until then, we can look to leaders like Michelle Sung and Kody Thiessen to rally, organize, and revolutionize live performance.

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