As told to Greg Cahill
When the Eureka Chamber Music Series returns to the historic Pacific Northwest city of Eureka, California, in fall of 2021, the concert series will have new co-artistic direction under violinist and educator Tom Stone and classically trained singer Maggee VanSpeybroeck. Stone and VanSpeybroeck are hardly strangers: he spent 20 years with the acclaimed Cypress String Quartet, before the ensemble’s amicable dissolution in 2016; she served as that quartet’s arts-program director. Together, they will face the challenge of returning live chamber music performances to Eureka in the wake of what already has been a nearly yearlong lockdown.
Strings caught up with Stone—who also has served as artistic director of the Centrum Chamber Music Festival, vice president of Strategic Initiatives for Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale, treasurer of InterMusic SF, and a board member of Chamber Music America—to discuss his experience with the quarantine and his plans for the future. He is quarantined, with his family, in San Francisco.
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 struggles to reopen, virtual performances and social media outreach programs have kept performers in the public sphere, since live concerts, festivals, and other large gatherings remain largely unsafe.
Tell us about your daily routine while quarantined.
I’m not much for routine. During my 20 years in the Cypress Quartet, between touring and my other responsibilities, no two days were alike. Those decades addicted me to variety and a certain level of chaos. Every day I try to include some exercise, practicing, and planning work for the Eureka Chamber Music Series that I’ve recently taken on. I also try to listen to a recording or performance and manage my other professional responsibilities, which includes work in the rare-instrument field and an executive role at a video game incubator. My routine remains varied and chaotic.
What projects are you working on?
Right before the pandemic I had some piano trio performances with pianist, Awadagin Pratt and cellist Sophie Shao. We’ve since formed a trio and named ourselves Duende—after Lorca. I can’t wait to play concerts with them when live concerts are safe again! I’m also working with my co-artistic director, Maggee VanSpeybroeck, to direct the Eureka Chamber Music Series.
Maggee was the Cypress Quartet’s executive director and is one of my favorite people in the world to work with. Taking that series, which has a 27-year history. and building on its strengths while charting a new future is a great challenge. I also am working as a consultant in the rare-instrument field and am the vice-president of a video-game incubator. Keeping my responsibilities straight is a challenge.
What have you learned about yourself as a person and as a player while working and living in solitude?
This has been such a tough time for so many of us that it’s nice to be reminded by your question that there are opportunities in the disruption. One thing I’ve learned is how much I enjoy and rely on performing and human contact to feel fulfilled. Spending more time with my wife, son, and daughter has been very important to me during this time. I know them much better than I did before the pandemic and that has been great!
It’s also been an important time to delve deeply into myself and reflect. One change I’ve made is that I’ve turned my practicing on its head. Before the pandemic, I was always in a hurry to learn music quickly so I would able to perform new works in short order. Now I am taking the opposite approach and asking myself how much time can I spend on a new piece before performing? In other words, I’m trying to put performances off and simply luxuriate in the work of exploring a new piece. This difference in mindset has been a revelation and has allowed me to make some important strides. I’m sure I’ll come out of this period a very different performer than I was.
What are your thoughts about how the pandemic has changed the string world, and how it will change the string world in the future?
I’m asked this question a lot. There will certainly be changes and some of the adaptations we’ve made such as virtual concerts and other presentations will stick. I don’t think these will ultimately substitute for live concerts, but I am optimistic that reaching our audience through their electronic devices can drive greater participation.
I’m optimistic about the prospects of string music, it has never been mainstream but has endured to some extent as an antidote to popular tastes. I think the art form will come out of this crisis more adaptive and strong.
I also think we don’t talk enough about monetization. It seems that with every technological advancement, those in control of new technologies carve out a bigger slice of the pie for themselves at the expense of us musicians and other creators. My biggest concern is that we lack leverage and need to figure out how we can utilize technology to create secure and sustainable financial lives. Focusing on how to stem this tide and claw back some of the fruits of our labors needs to be an important post- pandemic focus that unites our field.
How are you staying connected with your audience and/or students during the quarantine? Tell us about virtual sessions you’ve participated in.
I’ve given online talks and participated in virtual concerts. Inter-Music SF presented a wonderful virtual day of music and it was well produced. My former quartet colleague, Cecily Ward, who now teaches at the Royal College in Manchester, has created a series of both violin and chamber-music masterclasses with participants and teachers from all over the world. She’s had members of the St. Lawrence, Castalian, Tetzlaff, and Danish Quartets helping students from Texas to Vienna, Tokyo to Brazil. She also has made a point of including students of all ability levels, so that the class is truly inclusive. This would have never happened pre-pandemic and these are only a two examples of the amazing work happening throughout the world.
How have you selected your internet programming?
I think one key is knowing your audience. I gave a talk with cellist, Eric Alterman of the Delgani Quartet on Beethoven. The audience was largely Delgani Quartet season concert subscribers and we gave a two-hour presentation on Beethoven Opus 95 and Opus 132. My sense was the audience would have been happy if we went for another two hours.
Other situations benefit from more brevity. In my new role as co-artistic director of the Eureka Chamber Music Series, we are planning the “live” re-launch of our series in September of 2021 and while we haven’t done any virtual events yet, I expect that will change.
What have you learned about your audience in this difficult time?
Our audience is hungry for live music and connection. There is a social role that concerts play giving all of us an important way to draw together and create community. Remember a time when you could hug a friend and even a pat on the back felt good? Our audience really misses that.
How do you rate your experience with virtual performance?
One thing I’ve learned is that quality and production value matter. Computer speakers are no substitute for a great instrument, but if something is well recorded, you get part of the way there and it’s a worthwhile experience. It’s tough to balance cost and quality, but it’s important to strive for the best quality possible.
Is this something you will continue even as venues reopen?
Ironically ECMS hasn’t been producing virtual concerts. As we plan for the fall, I really want to add virtual events as part of our upcoming season. This not only gives us the ability to share the amazing work of our performers around the world, but it allows us to reach members of our local community who can’t make it to concerts in person.
What are your goals going forward as performance venues reopen slowly?
During my 20 years in the Cypress Quartet my work was non-stop and the pace mostly relentless. The pandemic has helped me to focus on my version of what’s most important and as venues slowly re-open I want to take it slow and be mindful and perhaps more selective about what I take on. That said, I want to be part of an explosion of live music and am planning to experiment with all kinds of innovative presentation approaches both as a presenter and performer. Stay tuned…
Is there a message you’d like to share with our readers?
We all need to stay positive, be ambitious, and focus on the big picture. I remember launching my career in the Cypress Quartet in the mid-1990s and reaching out to leaders in our field for advice. I invariably was warned that there were fewer opportunities than ever before, more competition and, in effect, the sky was falling on the industry. Well, we had 20 great and productive years as a quartet and the sky never fell. I’m sure classical music will come out of this crisis and if we battle with a missionary’s zeal we can make the case both through our work and advocacy that classical music is essential to modern life and should be well supported.