By Rick Koster, Day Staff Writer | November 5, 2020
Photo: Freelance filmmaker Zac Nicholson adds a scrim to a light in the balcony while he and fellow filmmaker Tristan Cook, not shown, prepare to record and shoot the Musical Masterworks performance by pianist Andrew Armstrong and violinist James Ehnes. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
On a temporary stage erected in front of the pulpit in Old Lyme’s lovely but mostly empty First Congregational Church on a recent October Saturday morning, classical pianist Andrew Armstrong is seated at a Steinway grand piano. Standing next to him with an 18th-century Stradivarius perched on his shoulder is concert violinist James Ehnes.
The carpeted aisles of the nave and balcony are clustered with thick electrical cables that lead behind the apse into the church offices beyond — all in service to a number of strategically placed video cameras and room microphones. Technicians in jeans and T-shirts stride purposefully, duct tape in hand, from one station to the next, performing final tasks on a checklist of readiness. In one of the rear offices, sound engineer Ian Dobie and producer Erica Brenner are respectively positioned at a mixing board and a laptop equipped with musical scores.
In casual fashion, without seeming to have any particular plan or starting point, Armstrong and Ehnes, dressed in dark suits, start playing their instruments, engaging in elegant contrapuntal jabs or interweaving rapid and disparate melodies in back-and-forth, catch-me-if-you-can fashion.
A dazzled observer, curious to know what demanding bit of repertoire the pair is finessing, turns to Edward Arron and whispers, “What are they playing?”
Arron, a cellist and the creative director of the Musical Masterworks chamber music series, smiles and says, “Oh, they’re just fooling around.”
“Fooling around.” Such is the elite classical musician version of the “soundcheck” stereotype.
In this case, Ehnes and Armstrong are on hand for the inaugural concert of the 2020-21 Musical Masterworks season. This is the 30th anniversary of Musical Masterworks, and the series’ home has always been First Congregational Church with its superb acoustics and intimate sightlines.
In this year of plague, though, the Masterworks organization is having to adapt to comply with safety concerns and regulations. And, as with untold numbers of artists across multiple disciplines, the solution is virtual performance.
As such, the only “audience” is comprised of Arron — on site in a supervisory capacity since a program of Beethoven violin/piano sonatas doesn’t require his musical contributions — a few members of the Masterworks board and team, a four-person crew of video, audio and production professionals, and a reporter and photographer.
Starting today and over the next several months, each of the five concerts in the 2020-21 Musical Mastworks season will be separately pre-recorded, mixed and edited, then individually posted for subscribers and those who’ve purchased individual tickets.
Ehnes and Armstrong — world-renowned artists typical of the artists who perform for Musical Masterworks — will today play an “All Beethoven” program consisting of Sonata No. 5 in F Major, Opus 24 “Spring”; Sonata No. 7 in c minor, Opus 30, No. 2; and Sonata No. 9 in A Major, Opus 47 “Kreutzer.” A link to a video of the edited and mixed concert, along with instructions, will be sent to season subscribers or those who’ve purchased a ticket to the individual concert; the video can be accessed from Saturday to Nov. 28.
With everything in order, just after noon, Ehnes and Armstrong briefly consult with Brenner, whose Cleveland-based Erica Brenner Productions specializes in classical music recording, audio and video production and digital online content creation. After a literal “two-minute warning,” it’s all systems go — and with smiles and casual nods at one another, Ehnes and Armstrong launch into Sonata No. 5.
When the virus struck in March, Musical Masterworks was about to embark on an unprecedented bit of programming. Over the last three concerts of the 2019-20 season, they would present the entire cycle of Beethoven String Quartets in honor of the composer’s upcoming 250th birthday. The musicians had just gathered for rehearsals in early March when the decision was made to cancel the season’s remaining concerts — and of course the complete string quartet cycle.
“We were aware the world was spiraling and that this was something extremely serious,” Arron says. “On our level, it was devastating to have these programs taken away from us. But it set a tone for what became a healthy defiance of the lockdown — trying to find creative ways to make music. Between myself and the staff and board of Musical Masterworks, we started thinking ahead: ‘How can we have a “next season”?’
“As with a lot of arts groups, the internet is the obvious solution. But we wanted to ensure that we had the best video and audio team we could find to capture what goes on in (this) magical space. There’s still incredible uneasiness and it’s not going away, but the art for all of us is still here — so our goal is to convey what we do for as many people as possible.”
In terms of programming for 2020-21, Arron was faced with a variety of virus-related challenges, including finding musicians available and willing to travel to Old Saybrook. In that context, he says, the decision was to avoid larger-scale productions.
“I was already in the middle of putting together ideas (for ’20-’21) when the virus struck,” Arron says. “Suddenly, though, I was reeling after having put together and anticipating that cycle. There was a hole in terms of what we’d planned and what I was planning.” He laughs. “But Beethoven as of this fall is still only 249 years old (he was born in Dec. 1770), so while we can’t undertake the whole cycle, so we’re starting with these excellent sonatas.”
THEY’RE JUST LIKE YOU AND ME. SORT OF.
Watching Armstrong and Ehnes from close range as they committedly perform a concert with essentially no other crowd is an exceptional experience. Both are pleasant looking guys with the sort of “young professional” appearance associated with someone you might see enjoying a string of successes on “Jeopardy.” Before playing, they check their iPhones and chat and make jokes as might be expected since they’re longtime friends who have together performed in many of the greatest concert halls in the world. At one point, glancing out the church windows at an overcast sky punctuated by colored leaves twirling lazily from tree branches, Armstrong grins and says, “I feel like we ought to be doing ‘Autumn Sonata.'”
While negotiating through the Beethoven sonata, each has his own reverie despite a shared fluency and grace that seems almost instinctual and lulls the viewer into a mindset that doesn’t acknowledge the hundreds of thousands of hours the artists have put into rehearsal and study — and presumably that’s the idea.
Armstrong is the more demonstrative of the two. He leans into the piano and arches his eyebrows at slower passages, seeming to coax melancholy from the keyboard like a wise nurse who knows the best way to get a child to share “where it hurts.” Then, for more spirited measures, he frequently grins with the exuberance of a kid on a particularly notorious roller coast, clearly enjoying the thrills and challenges of the moment.
Ehnes gently sways as he conjures notes from his violin, conveying emotions mostly with his eyes. He might dip with his knees if the rhythm of the piece requires a bit of body English, and he occasionally offers a quick but deep exhalation as though he’s forgotten to breathe in sheer appreciation of the majesty of the composition. Frequently, the two exchange glances that seem to instantly convey messages or telegraph nuances possible only through myriad shared experiences.
“Andrew and James have recorded these works and performed them all over the world together,” Arron says. “They’re glorious together. This is unbelievably stirring music, and to have these two here to play them as a way to entry into the season seems ideal.”
When the piece is completed, Anderson and Ehnes smile at each other, eyes locking as the final notes dissipate — and then turn to acknowledge the clapping from the crew and bystanders. Paradoxically, the applause in the hollow confines seems to resonate with outsized warmth, not just in genuine appreciation for the performance but also in tacit realization that those on hand are witnessing what amounts to a private concert.
After only a few moments, though, the musicians begin discussing certain measures in the score they feel could have been done better. Brenner, a former flutist with a master’s degree in performance from Yale, and who spent 20 years as a producer and audio editor at Telarc, one of the elite classical music labels in the world, joins the conversation.
Amidst more joking, a few calm observations are considered: “I’m not sure where you’d cut in, but …” “I had a bit of trouble with my left hand there …” “I don’t know if it would make any difference, but what if we maybe tried the first 25 bars …”
One luxury of pre-recording the concerts with such a high level of technical equipment and expertise is that overdubs are possible. And so a few sections of the piece are quickly and efficiently dispatched to the satisfaction of all.
Throughout, Brenner is calmly assured and clearly fluent in the musical score and all manners of technical minutiae. “Well, it might seem that way,” she laughs, “but I’m intimidated, too. These artists are on an extraordinary level. But I do know what they need me to do and what Ian needs to do to make this work at the top level. It’s completely collaborative. They want me to have my finger on the trigger and to trust me to get it right. And that’s a privilege.”
After a break for a quick lunch, it will be time for the musicians and crew to move on to the final two pieces on the program.
Home field advantage
“That was pretty amazing,” says Robbin Myers, marketing director for Musical Masterworks, as she stands in the church foyer after the performance. “We’ve been talking about this and planning this, and, the truth is, we just trust Edward. Still, when you actually get here and see the professionalism of the crew and how well it went, you start to realize that this really will work. It can’t replace the actual concert experience, but I feel like we’re doing everything we can to give our patrons the best representation possible.”
Arron, who will contribute musically in the season’s remaining concerts, is cautiously excited for the new season and its circumstances. Having done a number of live stream virtual performances over the summer, he feels the musicians are adapting to these realities positively and certainly in the context of Musical Masterworks.
“It’s an eerie feeling,” he admits. “Because you’re performing, there’s always going to be the excitement and even stage nerves, but I felt a bit out of my element (this summer) because, while we’re performing to an audience, you can’t see and feel them. But all the musicians taking part in our new season are, by designs, veterans of Musical Masterworks and this wonderful (First Congregational Church). We all feel at home here and inspired here, and we’ve all of course rehearsed here in the past without an audience. And we all agree that, in this unusual season, we can take comfort in this space and anticipating the feelings of empathy and inspiration from the Musical Masterworks audiences.”
MUSICAL MASTERWORKS 2020-21 SEASON
In addition to the Saturday concert, here is the remainder of the Musical Masterworks schedule. The date refers to when the concert will be taped in Old Lyme’s First Congregational Church. Each performance will be released for online viewing within two weeks of taping.
Dec. 19 — Beethoven Birthday Celebration with Ehnes Quartet including James Ehnes (violin), Amy Schwartz Moretti (violin), Che-Yen Chen (viola), Edward Arron (cellow)
String Quartet in c minor, Opus 18, No. 4
String Quartet in C Major, Opus 59, No. 3 “Razumovsky”
String Quartet in B-flat Major, Opus 130
Feb. 13, 2021 — Rieko Aizawa (piano), Todd Palmer (clarinet), Edward Arron (cello)
Mozart: Trio in E-flat Major, K. 498 “Kegelstatt”
Poulenc: Sonata for Clarinet and Cello
Bernstein: Sonata for Clarinet and Piano
Ravel: Jeux d’eau for Solo Piano
Brahms: Trio in a minor, Opus 114
March 13, 2021 — Randall Scarlata (baritone), Jeewon Park (piano), Edward Arron (cello)
Mozart: Variations on “Ah! vous dirai-je, maman” for Solo Piano, K. 265/300e
Schubert: Das Rosenband, Im Frühling, and Frühlingssehnsucht, for Voice and Piano
J.S. Bach: Suite in C major for Solo Cello, BWV 1009
Schumann: Dichterliebe (A Poet’s Love) for Voice and Piano, Opus 48
May 1 — Gilles Vonsattel (piano), Tessa Lark (violin), Edward Arron (cello)
Handel: Sonata in D major for Violin and Keyboard, HWV 371
Ives: Piano Trio
Corigliano: STOMP for Solo Violin (2010)
Mendelssohn: Piano Trio in d minor, Opus 49