April 22, 2021, 10 p.m.: I’m flying tomorrow from Newark to Corpus Christi, via Houston, for a concert. Nothing out of the ordinary, except I can’t find my suitcases, my concert costume isn’t where I remember it was, my toiletry bag is empty, and for some reason I’m uncomfortably anxious – until I remembered the last time I boarded a plane was March 13, 2020.
Later that same weekend, Sunday, March 15, would become a landmark day for the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society. Pianists Alessio Bax and Lucille Chung, violinists Cho-Liang Lin and Erin Keefe, violists Paul Neubauer and Hsin-Yun Huang, cellists Colin Carr and Dmitri Atapine, and percussionists Ayano Kataoka and Ian David Rosenbaum have come together to give a concert on the main stage at Rose Studio, playing in an empty room but broadcast live to our audience at home. I was also able to hear the concert, since that same day my concert with Wu Han and violinist Arnaud Sussmann in Grass Valley, California had been canceled due to the COVID outbreak, the first of many. to be continued. After the final work of the CMS concert, Tchaikovsky’s ovation Souvenir from Florence, there was an eerie silence in the Rose Studio. The musicians packed up their instruments and said goodbye faster than usual. The virus was closing in and everyone rushed home. Little did we know most of us wouldn’t be seeing each other or performing in a concert hall for the next 15 months.
The basic instinct of musicians is to communicate, and this natural energy is the fuel that the entire Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center runs on. Although at the time we considered the outbreak to be likely short-lived, CMS sprang into action to stay in touch with listeners. With a library of concert audio recordings from our early days, as well as high definition videos of every performance since 2015, we were equipped to deliver. On Tuesday, March 17, CMS aired daily archived performances, which became a weekly series that ran through June. During the month of May, Wu Han and I designed the artist series, focusing on the musical and personal lives of CMS performers. Audiences received replacement concerts online for our traditional Summer Nights series, which we’ve doubled in size to run through August. In July, we launched our ongoing Front Row National program, which shared our digital concerts and intermissions with over 60 chamber music broadcasters nationwide, helping them maintain their own audiences. As the pandemic persisted, we created additional opportunities for engagement with the art form, such as the Musical Heritage and Performing Art series. September became education month before the main season, with four Inside Chamber Music Plus talks from Bruce Adolphe. Our 2020-21 season opened with a digital concert precisely on the scheduled day, a pattern that came to fruition during the December holidays. Digging through our priceless digital archive, Wu Han and I assembled programs that echoed the thematic ideas of our planned programs, without duplicating the repertoire. These original programs would wait in hibernation until the concert halls open, and by the time you read this, they are experiencing their spring.
The pandemic had called on CMS to reinvent itself. Like most business and arts workers, we and the staff were working from home. Responsibilities shifted heavily to our media department, which kicked into high gear almost overnight, becoming our virtual stage and window to the world as all of our presentations moved online. I have never seen a more successful, more creative and more resilient staff. Without them, we wouldn’t be where we are now, which fortunately is in a very good position.
Wu Han and I are often asked by music lovers: how are the musicians doing? Although we have been engrossed in pandemic programming for over a year, our primary human concern has been for our artists, our extended musical family. Many of our great players rely solely on concert appearances to make a living. We have made numerous phone calls and continue to provide them with all possible support. But we’re not the only ones worried: One of our greatest sources of pride throughout this difficult time has been our entire organization’s commitment to its artists. The result was the creation of our Artist Fund, universally supported by our Board, Staff and Trustees, and matched by so many in our CMS community. This fund has allowed CMS to continue hiring artists throughout the pandemic, for everything from producing videoconcerts to speaking engagements and even social events. Our artists are intensely proud and deeply motivated. None of them asked for alms; what they needed more than anything was to work, to feel useful in their chosen fields, to stay connected and engaged with their colleagues, us and our listeners. The generosity of our Board of Directors allowed us to immediately advance half of their fees to the artists for canceled engagements, with 75% more to come when the concert is finally given. And, what is very important, none of their programs will be lost: they are all eager to play their planned tracks with the original artist distributions.
Has the pandemic been devastating for the arts? The answer is yes. Unexpectedly, has the pandemic in some ways strengthened CMS? The answer is also yes. Our digital programs have reached countless new listeners. Our musicians are more eager than ever to get on stage and their joy of playing is at an all-time high. Our audience’s ears are yearning for the sound of live violins, cellos and pianos like never before. Our golden repertoire has patiently waited for us to revisit it with new insight and depth of feeling. And, perhaps most importantly, CMS has been proactive during the most destructive storms. As the world continues its hopeful journey towards full recovery, CMS is committed to continuing its service to the art of chamber music with creativity and dedication.
Cellist David Finckel has served as Co-Artistic Director of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center since 2004.
For more information on upcoming digital and in-person events and tickets, visit ChamberMusicSociety.org