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Zoom Concerts & Lockdown Music

Updated: Dec 16, 2020

Originally published in SUZUKI JOURNAL | SPRING 2020 VOL 31 NO 3

Helene finds unexpected bonuses during the making of lockdown music. Fourteen weekly zoom concerts co-hosted with Wellington Suzuki violin teacher Lynley Culliford brought together students of all ages and their friends and families.

World premiere of Ross Harris’ trio - Peter, Rolf and Helene all dressed up on Zoom in the living room

From March 29 until June 28, Wellington Suzuki violin teacher Lynley Culliford and I were the hosts of 14 weekly concerts on Zoom. Looking back, a serendipitous set of circumstances made the concerts possible, right from the first weekend of NZ’s first lockdown. Lynley had asked me to give a workshop on Bach’s solo violin music to a group of her senior students, and we set the date to coincide with Bach’s birthday March 21, with a concert to follow on the 29th. Covid-19 was already very much in the air, and in fact one of her Christchurch-based students decided not to come because her mum had recently returned from overseas and was feeling unwell. New Zealand was at Level 2, but with social distancing – a bow’s length apart, we decided we were able to go ahead.

Looking back from the current Level 2 in Wellington, there was a much greater sense of unease and impending potential disaster at that time. No contact tracing systems were in place, masks were not being used, and we all felt the virus could be lurking around any corner. Victoria University, where the NZSQ are a resident ensemble, was discussing going all-online and had begun training staff about using Zoom. I told the students that if we were to be locked down, their book of solo Bach could potentially become their best friend for the enforced practice retreat. And, if we were to be locked down before the 29th, we would run our concert on Zoom!

A mere two days later our prime minister announced Level 4 to commence that week. Even after only four days of lockdown, it was a very moving experience to see all our Suzuki friends at the Zoom concert who we knew we couldn’t see live for the foreseeable future. Other Suzuki families and some of my university students tuned in, having been tipped off by their friends. And at the end we all agreed it was an experience worth repeating! And repeating, and repeating…. So Lynley and I were kept busy giving pieces to our students that they could play alone or with family members, and by Friday each week we had a nice programme together. It became a tradition that everyone dressed up, which itself was something special in lockdown, when we all spent our days in sweatpants!

Friends and family overseas (Holland, UK, Germany, Vietnam, Malaysia, Australia) joined in to watch, and some even to play. Louis van der Mespel performed repertoire from his master’s degree bass recital from his aunt’s living room in England. Emma Ravens, stuck in a village in Germany where she was on exchange, played on a borrowed cello in her bedroom. Olivia Coustance, locked down since late January in Ho Chi Minh City, played Bach and Paganini. Claudia Tarrant-Matthews, back from London where her master’s degree had gone all-online, contributed Ysaÿe.

And families created all sorts of wonderful chamber music. Parents and siblings accompanied violinists on piano or on violin. Donald Maurice and family ended up playing a string quartet every week, sharing a kaleidoscope of rock music arrangements. My husband Rolf, son Peter and I played various combinations of violin/ viola/cello, revelling in the Wienawski Opus 18 violin duos and in Bach organ sonatas that work terrifically as string trios. Composer Ross Harris heard of the concerts and wrote us two trios which received their world premieres. Sibling duos included ranged from young Suzuki students to NZSM and Adam Summer School student and alumni Lucas and Grant Baker romping through the violin and viola repertoire.

Various of the NZSQ’s university students performed from their lounges, bedrooms or stairwells. Other instruments that found their way onto the programmes were oboe, guitar, harp and gamba – and voice. Lots of heretofore unknown solo music was discovered, learned, and performed. And always, there was solo Bach. The word kept spreading until we had up to 72 computers worldwide tuned in, and we had to ask all audience members to turn off their video to increase the faltering audio quality.

Unexpected bonuses appeared in the virtual gathering of far-flung family members. In my case, it was the most regularly I had ever had visits with my German cousins – and an opportunity for them to “meet” many of our NZ friends! They invited Emma to visit them before she returned to NZ. Other performers were heard on the Zoom concerts and were invited to perform live as a result.

In May, Lynley had a big birthday, and a massive conspiracy was launched to create a virtual Happy Birthday orchestra YouTube video, which was shown at the end of one of the concerts to her great surprise and everyone’s delight.

Once Level 3 was announced, the NZSQ was able to begin rehearsing, and friends began to get together to play chamber music, some of which found its way into the Zoom concerts.

When the NZSQ finally was allowed to run our Chamber Music Weekend for secondary student chamber groups at the university, we held the concert on Sunday evening June 21, and with the brilliant assistance of Suzuki dad Chris Harrison, we live streamed the concert both on Zoom and YouTube. You can watch the student concert in full here below.

After that, with the school holidays looming and everyone raring to go on trips around NZ, we held one last concert June 28.

Playing live for live audiences has been particularly meaningful since the enforced hiatus. But the focus the weekly concerts gave those who played and those who taught them, and the pleasure their performances gave the listeners, was of real value during those extraordinary times.

Originally published in SUZUKI JOURNAL | SPRING 2020 VOL 31 NO 3


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