For Classical Music, Spring Was the Season of Solos
Large ensembles typically dominate the classical calendar. But the coronavirus turned the spotlight on individual artists.
By Joshua Barone
At a time when days can feel longer than months, a reminder: Spring has come and gone.
When that season began, on March 20, the coronavirus pandemic had just brought much of the world to a standstill. In the months that have followed, classical music — an industry more precarious than its moneyed veneer lets on — has been devastated. In this country, live performances probably won’t return before next year, at the earliest. Some institutions have continued to pay their musicians, but indefinite furloughs have become the norm. Freelance artists are suffering most.
With the arrival of summer, bits of pre-lockdown life are returning. Restaurants are open for more than just takeout. You can get a haircut. And while American theaters remain dark, some European ones are beginning to offer live music to houses that are half empty — or half full, depending on your worldview.
But all spring, musicians globally were isolated. For months when orchestras and opera companies would have dominated the classical calendar, the spotlight shifted to individual performers. Call it the season of the solo.
The violinist Alexi Kenney performs with a charm and virtuosity that have made his quarantine videos glimmers of joy. He has already shown precocious mastery in the solo canon, like Bach’s sonatas and partitas. But his latest offerings have been transcriptions. Bach hasn’t been absent — he played an arrangement of a piano work in a closet — yet Mr. Kenney has also made room for Ariana Grande and Joni Mitchell.
As Liszt did in the 19th century, Mr. Kenney has been expanding on the melodies of popular songs — “Thank U, Next,” “Blue” — with elaborate accompaniment that creates a Bachian illusion of polyphony. Mr. Kenney also wrote a busy yet lyrical transcription of Robert Schumann’s “Widmung,” as Liszt famously did for the piano.
Mr. Kenney’s videos include links to purchase the sheet music of his arrangements; this may be more helpful to fellow violinists than the general public, but giving money to artists online is vital as classical music continues to be available almost entirely for free during the pandemic. “Donate here” buttons accompany many livestreams; click them, and pay what you can.
Created within 48 hours of Ms. Koh’s last concert before the closures began in March, “Alone Together” is her attempt to help artists whose careers are just getting started. “As soon as all this happened, it was like getting PTSD from when I was younger, because I was so poor,” she said in an interview. “If I had lost one single gig, I would not be able to make rent. My immediate reaction was: Oh my God, we have to help the younger generation.”
She reached out to 21 composers she knows with salaried jobs, like teaching posts, and commissioned tiny works for solo violin from them, while also asking each to recommend a younger composer for another micro-commission. Every Saturday since early April, Ms. Koh has been premiering four of the resulting pieces on Instagram, Facebook and YouTube. The Library of Congress is planning to archive the videos.
Remarkable as a musical feat, “Alone Together” also provides a much-needed vision of the classical industry. All but one of the younger composers are people of color, female or nonbinary, with talent in abundance; Angélica Negrón’s joyfully bouncing “Cooper and Emma” held its own on a bill with Andrew Norman’s “Turns of Phrase” and Tania León’s passionate “Anima.”