What it’s like to safely play music for 1,500 people during the coronavirus pandemic
Written by Wu Han: Taiwanese-American pianist and Co-Artistic Director of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (CMS) and Music@Menlo.
In the words of Henry David Thoreau:
“When I hear music, I fear no danger. I am invulnerable. I see no foe. I am related to the earliest times, and to the latest.”
My eyes welled up with tears, and the music was blurry in front of me. I have been on concert stages since I was 11 years old, but the pandemic has taken all the opportunities away. Last night in Taipei, Taiwan, the National Concert Hall was the scene of the first live, public concert for me in eight months. Joining me were six fabulous musicians from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (CMS) and more than 1,500 people who showed up to celebrate culture and to feed their souls with chamber music. There was no agenda other than the common purpose of being inspired by what music can offer.
I could see the smiles between the movements of the Beethoven quartet on the faces of both the musicians and the audience. I could have heard a pin drop during the silences of the Smetana trio, a tragic work composed just after his daughter’s death. I felt the intense concentration for the exciting Tchaikovsky sextet “Souvenir of Florence” that transported us to a magical world.
Our audience burst into applause, shouted bravos, and demanded two encores: Mark O’Connor’s “F.C.’s Jig” and the jubilant scherzo of the “American” string quintet of Dvorak. The magic of this live event unfolded in front of us, and I felt truly fulfilled to know that at least last night, there in front of a tightly-packed, masked audience, we were all alive, healthy, and able to deeply appreciate being musicians.
To make this happen during the pandemic took heroic efforts from so many extraordinary people. First, I need to mention the Taiwanese government’s successful effort of managing the pandemic. There have been no COVID cases for more than 250 days now on this Island, but still, everyone has to wear masks. Contact tracing is rigorous, with case workers checking in on us twice daily by phone during our required 14-day quarantine period. Now that we are out, they check on us by text for another seven days, and we report our temperatures and whereabouts. The commitment of Taiwan and its citizens to protect each other is an envy for all of us coming from the USA. With this intense determination to fight the virus, one actually feels safe and relaxed, knowing that everyone is doing their part to beat this invisible enemy.
Our local presenters — Serene Hu from the Bach Inspiration Foundation and the National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts Weiwuying — were determined to keep their commitment to bring the best chamber music to Taiwan after all the other foreign ensembles dropped out of this tour. With great effort, Serene brought in the Taiwan National Symphony and three different universities to join in the effort. Taking advantage of one of our artists, the young Taiwanese superstar violinist Richard Lin, who had already returned to Taiwan to be with his family, Serene and Richard visited 10 elementary and junior high schools to spread awareness of and increase interest in our concerts.
At the last minute, the incredible Chimei Foundation stepped in to help deal with the unpredictable air travel. In New York, the CMS office worked tirelessly on the tricky work visas, ever-changing travel arrangements, and specially required COVID tests that can only be obtained in specific hospitals (one of our musicians had to drive 8 hours each way in order get this test). Another one had to manage a difficult passport/visa situation. All of our musicians committed to the required 14-day quarantine in a designated hotel, giving up Thanksgiving with loved ones in order to walk on the stage again.
The incredible devotion and courage from everyone involved in the project shows us nothing is impossible. The strong belief in the power of music drove all of us forward. We cried before we walked on stage and cried after we played, but they were tears of joy and appreciation. Last night was likely the most extraordinary concert that I have ever played in my long career, and the vivid memory of it will be with me for the rest of my life.
Live musical events can change lives. When we attend a concert with no daily distractions of texts, e-mails, TV, news, and computers, we enter into a special place that can transform us. In chamber music especially, the intense conversations between musicians with their instruments, the interaction and trust displayed on stage, and the love and friendships that form right in front of you are intoxicating. A great concert can elevate, inspire, delight, and provoke you.
In the U.S. right now, that joy and inspiration has been taken away from all of us. But I do know that when we are able to be back on stage to play for our beloved audiences, we will play our hearts out just like last night. That joy and appreciation of music will come back with an intensity that we never experienced before. I can hardly wait to be there.