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Chamber music spring: Virtual concerts for employment, hope and communication

by Auli Särkiö-Pitkänen

When Finnish symphony orchestras whipped up series of chamber music recitals to fill the vacuum amidst coronavirus restrictions, claims of the inflexibility of these publicly funded institutions were thoroughly debunked. Online concerts have proved a godsend for musicians for keeping up their skills and for maintaining contact with audiences. The crisis has also demonstrated that a safe job provides a foundation for creativity. How have musicians experienced working in these extraordinary circumstances?

In this Spring of the Pandemic, we have suddenly become aware of how valuable the sense of community innate in live music and a concert setting actually is. We have discovered just how vulnerable the structures of the cultural sector are, but on the other hand – as in other areas of society – we have seen how determined and adaptable people can be in the face of a crisis.

Several operators, large and small, have shown a willingness to keep in touch with their audiences, to continue to employ musicians and to keep the torch lit, resulting in a veritable flood of digital performances, from home concerts on Facebook to carefully designed live streamed events. An incredibly varied range of operators, from the Vox Virtuosa concert series in Oulu to the contemporary-oriented defunensemble and the Baroque orchestra Ensemble Nylandia, have been producing remote concerts. Freelancers suddenly faced with a financial abyss have found these job opportunities a lifeline and a channel for exercising their professional skills.

Those fortunate enough to be in a stable position have felt the need to do as much as they can. Symphony orchestras around Finland stepped up with a diverse offering of digital services. Although the online culture of the pandemic has raised concerns that people will grow accustomed to getting music for free, orchestras run on public funds have seen it as an important part of their public function to continue ordinary operations under extraordinary circumstances. Their unusual concerts occupy a sort of middle ground between their usual performances and audience outreach work.

An example of their efforts is the huge virtual orchestra consisting of members of orchestras belonging to the Association of Finnish Symphony Orchestras that appeared in a mosaic video performing the finale of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony as a musical greeting card to pupils and teachers celebrating the end of the school year. Involving some 300 musicians, the project formed part of a spring celebration package for schools put together by the Ministry of Education and Culture and by the National Agency for Education, with Esa-Pekka Salonen as musical advisor.

There’s nothing that can replace a live gig

April Jazz showed its tenacity in April when, instead of cancelling the festival, it went online at short notice, presenting a four-day festival titled April Jazz Subgrooves streamed live from G Livelab in Helsinki. One of the invited performers was pianist Kari Ikonen, who performed a solo set from his recent album.

“There’s nothing that can replace a live gig, but this was a brilliant and well organised replacement,” he says. Like many musicians, Ikonen had been sitting staring into the void and wondering when he would be able to work again.

 His joy at the unexpected job opportunity trumped the confusion at the absence of a live audience. “It was glorious. Because there were cameras there and I knew there were people listening in real time, it was almost like playing a normal gig. The only thing I had to get used to was that there was no applause at the end of a number,” Ikonen recalls. In the end, April Jazz Subgrooves remained his only actual performance this entire spring. “But now my calendar is starting to come back to life.”

Ikonen 16Nov Kari Ikonen Trio 1 Foto Gerhard Richter
Kari Ikonen
Photo: Gerhard Richter

In classical music, the largest orchestras of course had the best potential for creating remote concert series, as they already had experience of streaming concerts, the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra most prominently. The Helsinki Philharmonic, Tampere Philharmonic, Tapiola Sinfonietta and Turku Philharmonic were also remarkably quick to act, the two latter offering a dozen online concerts each, including children’s concerts.

The Jyväskylä Sinfonia and Kuopio Symphony Orchestra boldly joined ranks with their larger counterparts. The Jyväskylä Sinfonia launched a series of eight remote concerts on 1 April and posted greetings from orchestra members on YouTube on a daily basis. The orchestra also produced online content to support remote home schooling, and a brass quartet toured old people’s homes and assisted living facilities to play music under their windows.

Musicians can do good

“This time has highlighted our desire for shared experiences. We are all desperately waiting for live concerts to come back – they are so irreplaceable as acoustic, auditory, emotional and social events,” says Ville Matvejeff, Chief Conductor of the Jyväskylä Sinfonia. The orchestra’s remote concerts and Karanteeniklubi videos had more than 10,000 views during the spring, meaning that they were able to reach new listeners too.

The Kuopio Symphony Orchestra conjured up a remote concert series almost from scratch – with no prior experience of streaming concerts – calling it the ‘Good Vibes Music Kiosk’.

“When the crisis overtook us and we found ourselves idle, we felt a sense of confusion and loss of professional identity,” says Päivi Väisänen, who plays flute with the Kuopio Symphony Orchestra. “Everyone else seemed busy and important, and we were twiddling our thumbs. The city officials were very strict at first, banning meetings of even a handful of people. Then we were allowed to do something more, and ideas began to emerge. It felt good to be able to work again.”

Music has become more important during the crisis. Päivi Väisänen, having spent time walking in the woods and observing the coming of spring, explains that she has become sensitive to the fact that some things just cannot be eliminated no matter what: enjoying nature and enjoying music.

Condensing orchestral activities into small chamber music groups has allowed musicians to take the initiative – similarly to what orchestras with chamber music programmes do in normal circumstances. “Our audiences have now been able to see orchestra members in different roles, more like soloists, in smaller ensembles,” says Väisänen.

Above all, it was hugely important to be able to return to work after the initial shock of everything shutting down. “It was a privilege to be able to make music with my colleagues again,” says Väisänen. “It now looks like we’ll be able to stream our last concert of the spring with the full orchestra, because there are fewer than 50 of us!”

Tapiola Sinfonietta bassoonist and visual artist Bridget Allaire-Mäki has been improvising charcoal drawings inspired by performances of Bach.

Crisis begets creativity

Conductor Ville Matvejeff considers it important for both listeners and musicians to have the opportunity to come together for important events and a sense of community regardless of the absence of live performances. “Although a remote concert can never replace a live experience, this has been an excellent way to present new and different repertoire and also to allow our audiences to become more familiar with our wonderful and talented musicians.”

The message is pretty much the same everywhere in the field: live music is irreplaceable, but online concerts have been invaluable for musicians to maintain contact with audiences and to uphold their skills. There have been many positive outcomes: orchestras have been able to experiment with new practices, many of which will probably be retained as new tools in audience outreach work, for instance.

Panu Pärssinen, who plays double bass with the Tapiola Sinfonietta, is pleased with how the coronavirus crisis helped the orchestra to update its digital capabilities. He is particularly delighted with the opportunities for creativity, which is not perhaps the first thing that comes to mind when the music sector is suddenly forced into limbo. “Of course, it’s sad that we haven’t been able to perform at full strength, and above all that we haven’t been able to play for live audiences. But this crisis has brought out all kinds of ideas and creativity.”

As an example of this in the Tapiola Sinfonietta, bassoonist and visual artist Bridget Allaire-Mäki has been improvising charcoal drawings inspired by performances of Bach by her colleagues, in videos that have been posted on YouTube. “We have not had much of an online presence until now, so there was potential for growth. Normally you would have to go through umpteen meetings to introduce some new technology, but this has forced our hand in a good way,” says Pärssinen with a smile. “When we realised that it would not be possible to hold concerts any more, our members came up with dozens of programme ideas within a few days.”

Pärssinen has been able to leverage his considerable range of talents, both performing and arranging besides also editing videos. He has also performed on his second instrument, the mandolin, and explored his long-standing love for the choro music of Brazil. He has racked up double his normal working hours this spring.

Pärssinen points to the stereotype that municipal arts institutions are stagnant and inflexible. “This crisis has demonstrated that a steady job allows for wild experimentation. Finnish orchestras were already quite versatile in their output, but this spring has really raised public awareness of the fact.”

What about performing concerts to empty halls in these exceptional times? “Having an audience there is really important. It’s such a great source of support!” says Pärssinen. “The average time that someone spends watching a stream or a video online is quite short. It’s a very different way of consuming the product. When you play music under those circumstances, you can find yourself wondering whether the people at the other end are interested at all. But when you are able to make music with your colleagues in the same space, you can trust the music.”

Tfo Aikojenlopunkvartetto Screenshot
Turku Philharmonic musicians performing Quatuor pour la fin du temps by Messiaen.
Photo: screenshot from TPO's online concert archive.

Meet your local musicians on stream

The remote concerts of Finnish orchestras have featured repertoire that musicians have been hankering to play, in some cases for quite some time. The pieces featured range from classics to rarities. Many have favoured music perceived as calming or hopeful – Bach or Sibelius being safe choices.

At least the Turku Philharmonic and the Tampere Philharmonic programmed the Quatuor pour la fin du temps by Messiaen – a hypnotic and searing work written in a prisoner-of-war camp and reflecting on a life turned upside down. Henna Jämsä played clarinet in the performance in Turku. “The Quatuor pour la fin du temps was already on our chamber music programme planned by orchestra members this spring in any case,” she says. “We pre-recorded the concerts but did not do any patching, so they were like live performances in that sense.”

The Turku Philharmonic, like the Tampere Philharmonic and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, managed to play one symphony concert to an empty hall in mid-March when the first assembly restrictions were imposed. “It was a really curious and intense experience,” Jämsä recalls. “A huge group of musicians and no audience. I had never realised just how much background noise an audience generates even if everyone is sitting still. I feel like we put more energy into it than ever before.”

Jämsä says that she felt nervous about the online concerts just as with live concerts. Knowing that the recording would remain online added to the pressure. “You just have to let it go. What is important for the audience is that the music is being performed by the musicians they know – not world stars, but the familiar people that they go to see every week,” she explains.

For musicians, making music together in these extraordinary circumstances had a unique feeling of its own, like being on a knife’s edge. “We were like, let’s do this really quickly now, before someone is quarantined,” says Henna Jämsä, recalling the first weeks. “Then it began to feel like a luxury to be able to make music with someone else. Every rehearsal was also something of a therapy session; everyone had an incredible need to talk to someone.”

Jazz pianist Kari Ikonen has also identified a particular kind of optimism in these troubled times. “As soon as it becomes possible to play music in public again in some shape or form, it will happen. People need art and culture. It’s like the food supply chain, really. Composers write music, musicians play it, and people listen.”

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Featured photo by Petra Tiihonen / Alias Creative: Kuopio Orchestra