As told to Greg Cahill
Keep Connected chronicles the ways in which string players are staying in touch with their audience or students during the global coronavirus pandemic and its lingering impact on live concerts and classroom education. Even as society seeks to reopen, virtual performances and social media outreach programs have kept performers in the public sphere, since concerts, festivals, and other large gatherings remain largely unsafe.
Strings asked cellist Hamilton Berry to share his thoughts about the pandemic’s impact on his performing, arranging, and composing projects in the New York area and beyond. Along with violinists Curtis Stewart and Jannina Norpoth, and violist Nick Revel, he is a member of the PUBLIQuartet, which participated virtually in the Banff Centre International String Quartet Festival’s streaming edition held in September. He is also a member of the Toomai String Quintet, Founders, Decoda, and the Con Brio Ensemble. He is assistant program director of the Musicambia program at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, where he teaches incarcerated string students. Hamilton is quarantined in Brooklyn, New York.
Tell me about your daily routine while quarantined.
It’s varied pretty widely since March. Back in the spring when everything shut down, I decided to make a project of home-recording the Bach Cello Suites, so each day for many weeks was devoted to chipping away slowly at that. It’s been nice to have this time at home, after having been out on the road a fair amount in the past few years. My PUBLIQuartet colleagues and I scheduled weekly phone calls to check in with one another—by mid-summer, we had begun getting together again for two or three rehearsals each week, and by September, we had a fairly busy schedule, including taping performances for livestream and playing several outdoor concerts. Now that it’s getting cooler, things have calmed down again.
What have you learned about yourself as a person and as a player while working and living in solitude?
I’ve learned that it can be productive to take an extended break from playing. The first couple weeks of the shutdown were a rare opportunity to put the cello down for a while, re-zero things physically, and reflect on what projects are most meaningful to me currently and where I might like to put my energy moving forward.
What are you thoughts about how the pandemic has changed the string world, and how it will change the string world in the future?
My colleagues and I have been thinking a lot about how we might connect with audiences virtually, but at the same time, we are constantly reminded that there’s no substitute for playing in the same space as our audience. I hope we’ll come out of this with a better idea of what kinds of virtual content are most interesting to audiences. These months have also been an opportunity to bring music to unconventional spaces—for example, a protest at a local prison, or a park, or someone’s front porch; the NY Phil’s recent “Bandwagon” project, on which PQ violinist Curtis Stewart was a guest, comes to mind. I hope that these types of performances, and the spirit of welcoming new audiences and inviting interaction and conversation, will continue to become a bigger part of what we all do.
How are you staying connected with your audience and/or students during the quarantine?
With my colleagues in Decoda, I’ve had the opportunity to perform remotely for doctors and patients at Mt. Sinai Hospital, and also to present an interactive mini-concert for kids (also via Zoom). PUBLIQuartet recently had a fun Zoom discussion with high school students in Newark, New Jersey, who had viewed a video of our Reflections on Beauty project—a 30- minute program celebrating the life and legacy of Madam C. J. Walker, the first Black woman in America to become a self-made millionaire. The quartet has also presented video performances in partnership with the Chautauqua Institution, as well as for the Banff Centre International String Quartet Festival. We also put together a remotely recorded music video of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” And, finally, while my Musicambia colleagues and I haven’t been able to teach our students at Sing Sing Correctional Facility since March, we have periodically mailed sheet music and homework (like practice and warm-up worksheets) to them.
How have you selected your internet programming?
PUBLIQuartet has selected programming much as we would normally, although it seems that most internet performances are shorter (one hour or less). We’re more open to the idea of excerpting a movement or two from a larger work, or modifying an existing improvisation, so it’s a bit more compact. I do think it’s harder to hold an audience’s attention in a virtual concert, since many of them might be tuning in from their phones or computers, or doing some other task around the house.
What is the response like?
Frankly it can be hard to say! One of the things I’ve missed about performing live is feeling the energy from a specific audience, and chatting with audience members afterward to hear their thoughts about a program. But comments “in the chat,” as they say, have been fun in that regard. It’s been a good challenge to try to put together performance videos that are creative and compelling, but for me, ultimately it can’t compare to performing live.
Is this something you will continue even as venues reopen?
Yes. I think virtual programming, when done creatively, can be a good supplement to live performance, as well as a way of increasing access to what we do, and reaching new audiences.
Why is it important to stay connected on social media?
I think social media is useful insofar as it can point one’s audience and colleagues to other places, either online or offline (audio or video links, live concerts) where they might engage with artists on a deeper level.
What have you learned about your audience in this difficult time?
When we were finally able to give a few outdoor performances last month, we were happy, though none too surprised, to learn that audiences have missed the experience of hearing music live and connecting with live performers, just as we have.
Any tips for other string players considering this path?
I’d say, acknowledging that video and audio recording are extremely time-intensive (and potentially costly), and with that in mind, going for quality over quantity, and thinking about how a single taped performance might be re-purposed or borrowed from in other settings.
What are your goals going forward as performance venues reopen slowly?
To continue thinking about unconventional spaces (outdoor, and so on) where we might safely connect with audiences, until things open up again. Also, to see the coming months as an opportunity for recording, since travel and concerts will be limited. I think the coming season will be an opportunity to give some more time to arranging and writing, and to learn more about home recording.
What projects are you working on?
In the coming months, PUBLIQuartet will head into the studio to work on our next album—we’ll also be doing some remote workshops with composition students at Berklee and elsewhere. My Toomai String Quintet colleagues and I look forward to partnering with Midori and Friends to bring interactive virtual concerts to schools in the NYC area.