April 22, 2021, 10pm: I’m flying tomorrow from Newark to Corpus Christi, through Houston, for a concert. Nothing unusual, except I can’t seem to find my suitcases, my concert suit is not where I remember it being, my toiletries kit is empty, and for some reason I’m uncomfortably anxious—until I remember that the last time I boarded an airplane was on March 13, 2020.
Later that same weekend, Sunday March 15, would become a landmark day for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. 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 gathered to perform a mainstage concert in the Rose Studio, playing to an empty room but live-streamed to our audience at home. I was able to hear the concert as well, since on this same day, my concert with Wu Han and violinist Arnaud Sussmann in Grass Valley, California, had been cancelled due to the COVID outbreak, the first of many to follow. After the concluding work on CMS’s concert, Tchaikovsky’s ovation-provoking Souvenir de Florence, there was an eerie silence in the Rose Studio. The musicians packed their instruments and said hastier-than-normal goodbyes. The virus was closing in, and everyone scurried home. Little did we know that most of us would not see each other or perform in a concert hall for the next 15 months.
The basic instinct of musicians is to communicate, and that natural energy is the fuel on which the entire Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center runs. Even though at that time we regarded the outbreak as probably short-lived, CMS sprang into action to keep in touch with listeners. With a library of concert audio recordings from our earliest days, plus high definition videos of every performance since 2015, we were equipped to deliver. By Tuesday, March 17, CMS was streaming archived performances daily, which became a weekly series that stretched 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 were provided with online substitute concerts for our traditional Summer Evenings series, which we doubled in size to span into August. In July, we inaugurated our ongoing Front Row National program, which has shared our digital concerts and intermission features with over 60 chamber music presenters nationally, helping them sustain their own audiences. As the pandemic persisted, we created additional opportunities for engagement with the art form, such as the Musical Heritage and the Art of Interpretation series. September became education month in advance of the main season, with four Inside Chamber Music Plus lectures by Bruce Adolphe. Our 2020–21 season opened with a digital concert precisely on its scheduled day, a pattern which was fulfilled through the December holidays. Digging into our priceless digital archives, Wu Han and I assembled programs which echoed the thematic ideas of our planned programs, without duplicating repertoire. Those original programs would wait in hibernation until the concert halls opened, and as you read this, they are experiencing their springtime.
The pandemic had called upon CMS to reinvent itself. Like most of the business and arts workforce, we and the staff worked from home. Responsibilities shifted heavily towards our media department, which kicked into high gear practically overnight, becoming our virtual stage and window on the world as all our presentations moved online. I have never seen a staff perform harder, more creatively, and more resiliently. Without them, we would not be where we are now, which thankfully is in a very good place.
Wu Han and I are often asked by music lovers: how are the musicians doing? Although we’ve been absorbed in pandemic programming for over a year, our overriding human concern has been for our artists, our extended musical family. Many of our great players rely solely on concert appearances to make their livings. We have made many phone calls, and continue to give them every kind of support we can. But we are not alone in our concern: one of our greatest sources of pride throughout this challenging era has been our entire organization’s commitment to its artists. The result was the creation of our Artists Fund, universally supported by our board, staff, and directors, and matched by so many in our CMS community. This fund enabled CMS to continue to engage artists throughout the pandemic, for everything from video concert production to lectures and even social events. Our artists are intensely proud and deeply motivated. Not one of them asked for a handout; what they needed more than anything was to work, to feel needed in their chosen fields, to stay in touch and engaged with their colleagues, us, and our listeners. The generosity of our board allowed us to advance artists half their fees immediately for cancelled engagements, with 75% more to come when the concert is finally performed. And, very importantly, not one of their programs is going to waste: they are all looking forward to playing their planned pieces with the original casts of artists.
Has the pandemic been devastating for the arts? The answer is yes. Counter-intuitively, has the pandemic in some ways made CMS stronger? The answer is also yes. Our digital programs have reached countless new listeners. Our musicians are more eager than ever to take the stage, and their joy in performance is at an all-time high. Our audiences’ ears are hungry for the sound of live violins, cellos, and pianos as never before. Our golden repertoire has waited patiently for us to revisit it with new-found insight and depth of feeling. And, maybe most significantly, CMS has shown itself proactive during the most destructive of storms. As the world continues its hopeful journey towards a full recovery, CMS pledges to continue its service to the art of chamber music with creativity and dedication.
Cellist David Finckel has been co-artistic director of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center since 2004.
For information on upcoming digital and in-person events and tickets, visit ChamberMusicSociety.org