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alice tully hall

Long-Distance Conversations

By Vivien Schweitzer

Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall. The organization transitioned to digital programming in late March.
Photo: Tristan Cook

Classical chamber musicians adapt to a musical life lived online.

Chamber music is often described as a conversation between friends, but it’s a very tricky conversation to have over Zoom. Many solo musicians began livestreaming from their living rooms during the Covid-19 lockdowns, but for chamber musicians it’s proven far more complicated. Latency issues mean that playing in sync is almost impossible, as anyone who’s tried to sing happy birthday during a Zoom cocktail hour is aware. But amidst the avalanche of summer and fall cancellations, ensembles are being creative, experimenting with different tech, and exploring strategies to keep playing, stay in the public eye, earn some money, and perhaps even grow their audiences online.

Livestreaming has of course been around long before Covid struck. Live from the Metropolitan Opera offered fans the chance to enjoy performances in their living rooms as far back as 1977. The Met continued to set the bar high with its Live in HD series, inaugurated in 2006, two years before the Berlin Philharmonic Digital Concert Hall. Many of the performances that went viral in lockdown were not live, but videos consisting of individually recorded performances edited together, such as the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra’s Ode to Joy and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s Appalachian Spring.

Miro Quartet

Miró Quartet

The Singapore-based Concordia Quartet, however, was determined to retain a ‘live’ element to performance, overcoming innumerable technical obstacles to stream a concert with each musician in a different location. The group, founded in October 2019, had just made its debut in February 2020 when Singapore went into lockdown. On June 12, Concordia performed a concert on YouTube Live, using Zoom for video and Jamulus, a low-lag sonic software that enables the musicians to hear each other. Microphone levels were set beforehand, and nothing was adjusted during the concert. The musicians went through dozens of rounds of troubleshooting to navigate the new process, which they documented on a series of Vlogs on YouTube.

There were a few technical issues (including a false start) during their performance of Mozart’s Divertimento K.136, the first movement of Borodin’s String Quartet No. 2, and an encore arrangement of Eleonor Rigby by Singaporean composer Jonathan Shin. In a Q&A after the concert, Mervin Beng, founder of Resound Collective (a Singapore-based initiative that includes the Concordia and a chamber orchestra) explained that the downside to Jamulus, until now rarely used by classical musicians, is that “the musicians can’t see each other, because video would lag behind the sound. It’s like they are playing blindfolded and six meters apart.” Thus instead of cueing each other visually during the concert, someone counted them in out loud. The only upside? “I feel we learned to trust each other much more by listening to each other virtually. We can’t rely on visual cues as there is a lag,” said cellist Theophilus Tan.

Anthony McGill Inon Barnatan Alisa Weilwerstein Lincoln Center

Anthony McGill, Inon Barnatan, and Alisa Weilerstein
appear in an archived video from Lincoln Center

When asked by a listener whether they would repeat the experiment instead of taking the much more straightforward route of recording tracks and creating a video, violinist Edward Tan replied: “We live for the moment. There is no substitute for live performance, and we miss playing together.” Even with the myriad issues of latency, he added, “the audience can experience the chemistry between four people.”

Whatever audio and video blemishes may surface, there is indeed no substitute for enjoying the chemistry of musicians performing in the same space together, as the hugely talented UK-based Kanneh-Mason family have demonstrated to their enthusiastic online audience. The siblings’ lockdown livestreams included a concert on April 18 that had garnered 1.1 million views and more than seven thousand comments as of late June. Clad in sweatpants and socks, the family formed a chamber ensemble to accompany pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason, who had been scheduled to perform Beethoven's 3rd Piano Concerto at the Royal Albert Hall in London that evening. The spontaneity and superb music making compensated for the sometimes-shaky camera work and imperfect audio. Facebook offers a donation option but Instagram Live, where the cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason livestreams, does not. The violinist Daniel Hope has also attracted a large audience for his Hope@Home chamber music series. After an event in early April, he told the audience that half a million people tuned in for his living room soiree, a professional quality livestream with multiple microphones, cameras, and good lighting streamed on

Wu Han

Wu Han

Instead of streaming duo performances from their home, the husband and wife team of cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han, artistic directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, have been relying on the organization’s extensive archives. CMS has been streaming live from the Rose Studio for years, offering high quality broadcasts created with multiple cameras, HD quality and multi-tracked sound installation. But the members of the Brooklyn-based Tesla Quartet had to scramble to buy decent recording equipment at the beginning of the lockdown, a need that coincided with a sudden loss of income. Ross Snyder, one of Tesla’s violinists, said he quickly discovered that a decent mic and audio interface are vastly preferable to built-in mics on smartphones or cameras. Snyder, who lives with violinist Michelle Lie (also a member of Tesla), has been using AudioTechnica AT2020 microphones; Serafim Smigelskiy (Tesla’s cellist) used a Neumann TLM 103. These side-address condenser mics are often used for vocals or spoken word, said Snyder, but he described them as an affordable option for at-home recording. In addition to the mics, the group uses audio interfaces in order to record into their computers: Snyder a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2, and violist Edwin Kaplan a Zoom H6. The quartet learned that connecting directly to ethernet is crucial, as even the fastest WiFi isn’t reliable enough to guarantee an uninterrupted livestream.

Avoiding rooms that are too ‘live,’ adding materials such as a carpet, and experimenting offline with the placement of a microphone can help fine-tune a recording or livestream, but even with high quality equipment there are limitations to what musicians living in cramped city apartments can do without the luxury of soundproof walls. During one attempt to record tracks, said Snyder, kids started yelling outside the apartment and “at the final diminuendo there was a scream from down the hall.” Attempts to record the track the following morning were stymied when a landscaping crew began work at 9 AM. The Tesla Quartet has launched a commissioning project called “Alternating Currents,” for which twelve composers will create 20-30 minutes pieces for the ensemble’s “Quarantunes” video series. Snyder encouraged the composers to reflect on the current situation and “see how creative they could be in using teleconference software.” Some of the pieces are intended to be played simultaneously over Zoom, and thus incorporate a degree of temporal freedom.

Amit Peled

Amit Peled performing for an An Die Musik livestream in July.

As lockdowns ease, musicians have begun to form pods with their colleagues, just as families are creating quarantine pods. “But there are so many safety hoops to jump through,” said Wu. “Should we all be tested before we get together?” The Miró Quartet, which offered a few quirky videos early in lockdown (including an excerpt from Schubert's Death and the Maiden performed on a Japanese toy called the Otamatone), will form a pod in order to stream the Beethoven quartets together. The cycle will be presented on by the Orcas Island Chamber Music Festival from July 16 to August 8. Musicians will also gather together to perform at the Seattle Chamber Music Festival (July 6-31), where concerts (priced at $15 each) will be streamed from the festival’s venue downtown. Musicians will be tested for coronavirus upon arrival and departure. One musician who will fly to Seattle is the violinist Augustin Hadelich. The videos he has recorded during lockdown and posted on his Facebook page sometimes feature him playing both parts of a violin duo or accompanying himself with a piano track he recorded himself. String players can also use apps such as MyPianist, designed by pianist and CMS regular Juho Pohjonen, which uses artificial intelligence to accompany a musician in real time.

At the beginning of the lockdown in March, Henry Wong, director of An Die Musik, a series that presents classical and jazz concerts in a historic townhouse in downtown Baltimore, wrote to the governor and asked to stay open, a request that was granted. Musicians, masked and socially distanced, have performed concerts for YouTube Live, with livestreams accessible for one week. Tickets are $5 and purchasers are encouraged to add a donation. Wong hires engineering students from Peabody, who bring their own equipment, such as external microphones, a vital component of high-quality livestreaming. The Village Vanguard in New York City has also been livestreaming, and its website includes a reminder that even the best quality livestream depends in part on the listener’s devices: “We strongly recommend using headphones or an analog connection to speakers for the best audio experience. Bluetooth connected speakers are NOT recommended—the video and audio will likely not be in-sync. If you choose to use a Bluetooth connection for audio and you experience latency, please be aware that this is a result of the Bluetooth connection, not the livestream.”

Tesla Quartet Quarantunes

Behind-the-scenes images of the
Tesla Quartet's "Quarantunes" video series.

Many presenters have discovered that the rare benefit to being forced online is the ability to attract a broader audience. Wong asks attendees to write in the chat where they’re located, noting that he’s had audience members from a wider geographical area than typical for his events. Pianist Ian Scarfe, director of the Trinity Alps Chamber Music Festival in North California, said that in the past almost all his visitors have been local, but that for his online concerts, 10-20 percent of guests are tuning in from out of state. Even online, he said, “the feeling of live interaction is what continues to fuel chamber music. We have stuck with Zoom as our medium.” There are other livestream platforms that offer better audio quality, he said, such as YouTube Studio and Facebook Live, although all have their downsides, he added, noting the 10-20 second delay when broadcasting on YouTube. “On Zoom you can be creative” he said. Indeed, the platform has inspired its own compositions: the composer Elena Ruehr wrote her Zoom Quartet after the premiere of her seventh string quartet was cancelled because of the shutdowns. The score advises players to “begin staggered, play as written, see what happens.”

According to Scarfe, his festival’s Zoom events “are an opportunity to make a concert about more than just a single performance of the music and open it up to new ways of storytelling. With chamber music, if an audience has a little bit of a story they will be more engaged listeners. In the formal setting of a concert hall it’s harder to create an intimate storytelling atmosphere. Zoom has less to do with a flawless performance and more to do with creating a personalized experience.” In the future, he will continue to livestream the festival concerts. Some ensembles are focusing on education and outreach instead of performance during lockdown. Doyle Armbrust, the violist of the Chicago based contemporary music ensemble Spektral Quartet, told the Chicago Tribune that “One thing that is important to us is that what we offer virtually is not some sort of square peg in a round hole—shoving something into a virtual format. To us, that would be a giant mistake, to take the Chicago season we’ve had planned for a year now and try to shove that online somehow.” Instead, the ensemble launched New Music Help Desk, a conversation (held via Zoom, of course) to offer students, composers, and performers a chance to ask questions about musical elements such as tuning and notation.

Tesla Quartet Quarantunes

Behind-the-scenes images of the Tesla Quartet's "Quarantunes" video series.

Wu also believes that the lockdown offers “a great opportunity for institutions to build a community and keep listeners engaged. People should know more about the music they are hearing. It shouldn’t be a theory class, but a historic education exploring why the Op. 59 quartet is important, for example. That’s how we can build live audiences.” She added that online visitors have increased substantially in every age group for the CMS’s online offerings, with a 387 percent increase in the 18-24 age group and 589 percent increase in the 50+ bracket.

“Nobody is taking for granted the special nature of chamber music,” he added. “We miss the spontaneity, and the unpredictable and magic moments.”

Vivien Schweitzer is a music critic and the author of A Mad Love: an Introduction to Opera, which was published in September 2018 and named one of the Ten Best Books of September by the Christian Science Monitor. She is also a pianist who loves playing chamber music.

© 2020 Chamber Music America