Chamber Music in the Time of COVID: Rethinking a Concert Series Invited Creative Solutions

By Anthea Kreston | From the January-February 2021 issue of Strings magazine

Music has taken on a different meaning for all of us during the pandemic. I was fortunate, in some ways, that I had a glimpse into the world of COVID-19 before it hit the States in March. One of my online students, Kevin from Chengdu (the gateway to Tibet in China), was on lockdown in January, and his family warned me that the virus would come here—something that seemed almost impossible at the time. For many weeks, Kevin and I had daily meetings to keep his spirits up, give him goals, and keep him engaged while he was stuck inside his high-rise in a densely populated city. His family was clearly in distress, and yet they took the time to advise me on preparing and stocking my pantry, and later sent multiple packages of personal protective equipment (PPE) that we donated to our local hospital during the darkest of those early days. Kevin grew tremendously as a violinist during that time. He came out stronger, more fearless—his hunger for new repertoire, new technical hurdles, and expanded emotional challenges remains unending.

Music gives us a path to process our feelings, to get our anger out, to allow deep sadness, to push through difficulties with determination. It’s more than ever about each of us as individuals—an aural representation of our goals and desires. It’s purposeful alone time, and yet the humanity in the music we play connects us to each other in a fundamental, timeless way.

When I moved back to the United States from Berlin, Germany, after four years as a member of the Artemis Quartet, my husband (cellist Jason Duckles) and I returned to a small Pacific Northwest college town—a place where we knew everyone. Jason began to conduct the local youth symphony, and I restarted my dormant concert series, Majestic Chamber Music.

That is until COVID intervened in March and the series went on indefinite hiatus.


Months later, I was pleasantly surprised when the manager of the Majestic Theatre, a 300-seat historic venue in the charming downtown of Corvallis, Oregon, asked me to restart the concert series. This theater, originally a vaudeville house, recently celebrated its 106th anniversary and showcases and supports a wide variety of art forms—from community theater to dance. It is the heart of culture in this valley. They hadn’t had classical music in this space before I began Majestic Chamber Music in 2013 (bolstering the piano on wedges to accommodate the raked stage is a hoot), and since that time (not including the four years I spent in Berlin) we have presented collaborative chamber music with local and guest musicians to a loyal and enthusiastic crowd.

I normally run a tandem festival surrounding each set of concerts—free community performances and events, educational outreach with the schools and youth orchestras, master classes, and concerts for retirement communities. In addition, I launched “Listen:Taste:Shop:Corvallis,” which offers every ticketholder discounts in the historic downtown—clothing stores, restaurants, bookstores, coffee shops. It seemed a natural extension of the spirit of the series: Come downtown, shop, get a bite to eat, watch a concert, and enjoy a local brew after the show.

But this series would clearly need a new model. The first thing we did was to imagine what our concert could look like during the pandemic. What purpose does music serve during these troubling times? What restrictions do we need to take into account? Who would be able to play? How long should the concert be and what repertoire would be best?


Being in a small community with diverse tastes, I decided that we needed a concert of familiar, reassuring music, something accessible to everyone—parents of young musicians, classical connoisseurs, and students. Familiarity can also expand to who is onstage, and I decided to open up the opportunity to perform to anyone in our town. People uploaded videos of themselves playing the first movement of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and I chose six members of our community to perform the piece in a socially distanced octet, alongside myself and my husband. These guest performers are two college violin students, a violist who works at Hewlett-Packard, a high-school cellist, a junior-high violist, and a professor of political science at Oregon State University.

No audience is allowed to attend in person, so the theater staff will be recording the concert, lightly editing the video, and livestreaming it. Attendees will determine their own admission price. This idea has excited our community, and I have videos from middle-schoolers to college-age players, as well as many adult amateurs, uploaded to Flipgrid—a free, user-friendly collaborative video app. The idea to include everyone serves several goals: people will see familiar faces from the community; we will have a festive and social end to the concert; and people will have practiced and invested in the performance.


Our last consideration: concert length. Our concerts are normally full-length, with intermission. But, as the mom of two young daughters, I can see that most families are becoming weary of screen time. So this will be a one-hour concert, music interspersed with interviews of the community members joining us for the performance.

Our group is excited—it’s a welcome diversion from the monotony of COVID-19, and we are getting to know one another while rehearsing on Zoom. We all have our own challenges through these times: online learning, teaching, being parents. One of our musicians is currently undergoing treatment for cancer, and another has a sibling who is experiencing a mental health crisis. Incomes are precarious, the future is uncertain, and the balance between burnout and trying to find inspiration or optimism is delicate.

Someone from our group suggested playing some Bach chorales. When we get together in the empty hall, masks on and far from one another, the resonance of our eight instruments brings to life a kind of warmth from our commingled sounds, our unspoken struggles and hopes for the future coming together to create our own world.