As told to Greg Cahill
Keep Connected chronicles the ways in which string players and organizations are supporting and keeping in touch with their audiences or students throughout the global coronavirus pandemic. Even as society reopens, virtual concerts and social-media outreach programs are a phenomenon that have kept performers in the public sphere, since concert, festivals and other large gatherings remain largely forbidden. Strings recently spoke to Patrick G. Jordan, of the period-instrument ensemble the Eybler Quartet, who is quarantined in Toronto, Canada. The Eybler Quartet—Aisslinn Nosky and Julia Wedman, violins; Margaret Gay, cello; and Jordan, viola—boasts seven critically acclaimed recordings, including Beethoven’s Op. 18 (Nos. 1–3 and Nos. 4–6), Haydn’s Op. 33 and world-premiere recordings of Joseph Leopold Eybler, Johann Baptist Vanhal, and, most recently, Franz Asplmayr.
Jordan is also violist with the Gallery Players of Niagara, a member of Tafelmusik, and is on the faculty of the Royal Conservatory of Music and the University of Toronto. When not busy with the viola, Jordan is an enthusiastic cook and student of the culture of food.
Tell me about your daily routine while quarantined.
Because of the time of year, most mornings begin with a tour of the vegetable garden. Breakfast follows, then practicing, reading (I highly recommend Mozart’s Music of Friends by Edward Klorman), typesetting some of the vast backlog of 18th-century quartet music I’ve collected over the years, or dealing with email correspondence and social media. Lunch, coffee! More of the same. And always either a walk or long bike ride. There are many meetings and phone calls sprinkled in on most days, many having to do with things at Tafelmusik, the Baroque orchestra I play in. Dinner, more reading or possibly watching mindless screens, a very recently developed habit. Cooking is a lifelong obsession for me, so it isn’t as if I have had to figure out how to boil water or anything like that.
What have you learned about yourself as a person and as a player while working and living in solitude?
I am not entirely in solitude, as my wife, Margaret Gay, is the cellist in the Eybler Quartet—we also have an 18-year-old son. One of the things we’ve all learned is that our regular schedules have a lot more time away from each other built in. But we’re all coping, and having a fairly spacious house with a garden and nice summer weather makes it a lot easier. The normal pressures and deadlines of recording and offering public performance are great for structuring practice time and prioritizing work. Margaret and I have prepared a streamed concert for Tafelmusik, which replaced some of that structure for a while. We’ve also continued to work together on various quartet music for the Eybler Quartet.
If nothing else, this time has reminded me that what I have sometimes thought of as discipline is really a response to outside pressures, and that genuine discipline is generated more from within. It has also reminded me that taking a break is OK! I had two weeks set aside for a real break in mid-March, just when we locked down here in Ontario. I didn’t stop practicing, mostly out of anxiety I think, but I will soon set aside a few viola-free weeks!
How are you staying connected with your audience and/or students? Tell me about virtual sessions you’ve participated in.
I don’t offer a lot of private instruction, generally, so that has been pretty limited for me, although interesting. Given the technology available to most of us, I have the impression, at least anecdotally, that stringed instruments work considerably better for virtual learning than winds or harpsichord, so we’re lucky in that. I have met virtually with some chamber groups, their members in different locations, addressing strategies for intonation, ideas about repertoire, and things like that. In an effort to stay connected, the Eybler Quartet decided to release our latest recording, Franz Asplmayr, Six Quartets, Op. 2, on our previously agreed schedule, so it dropped mid-pandemic on April 15.
We have put aside for the moment the idea of virtually “playing” chamber music with each other, the essence of which for us is playful, immediate exchange. We instead put our energy into a short promo video and a longer documentary of the production of the latest CD. That was a lot of work, but our engineer, Ron Searles, is a patient wizard, and Julia Wedman, along with Cristina Prats-Costa of the Alauda Quartet, are amazingly creative. The response to both has been very good, and I think they have, as we hoped, touched different audiences, and expanded our reach.
The quartet has also offered and arranged virtual meetings with some of our most important stakeholders—nothing too big a deal, but just some very directed keeping in touch. As for Tafelmusik, they have a crack marketing department—and budget—that has organized a wide variety of offerings from streamed concerts to very creative music videos generated from isolation to personal-interest pieces to panel discussions. That variety has appealed to our core audience, but also attracted new people. There has also been a real effort on Tafelmusik’s part to stay in touch with our local subscribers through telephone calls from the staff and orchestra.
Why is it important to stay connected on social media?
Going into this pandemic, it seemed that “staying connected” meant not losing attention or audience, but it has proven to be a way both to connect to new audiences, and to maintain contact with audiences that generally only see us while we’re on tour.
What have you learned about your audience?
We have learned that the same things that work in the concert hall—honesty in the playing and presenting ourselves as human beings—are the same things that appeal to people virtually. One curious thing I’ve noticed is that in virtual performances with an ongoing chat, people are blabbing at one another all the time!! A very 21st-century version of the 18th– and 19th-century salon in which conversation—and sometimes card games—accompanied the music. I’m not proposing we reintroduce the talking during concerts. . . .
How do you rate your experience with virtual performance?
I assume we’re speaking of live or at least unedited performance here. Mixed, honestly. As a listener, I find the quality of the sound is not dependably great and the weird things that can happen with synching can be disturbing. As a performer, I am very comfortable in a string quartet or smaller orchestral ensemble, and for virtual performances, I have so far only done solo and duo performances—it feels a little bit like I’m in a recording session with no hope of a take two! However, practice makes better, so doing it more often will probably habituate us to all its foibles. Also, playing in larger groups, which will surely come before too terribly long, will certainly feel different.
Is this something you will continue even as venues reopen?
That remains to be seen. The members of the Eybler Quartet are not yet uniformly behind that idea. Tafelmusik has a considerably different approach, with a need to serve a considerably different audience. I can easily imagine that virtual performance will be part of what we do going forward if only because there will be some segments of the audience, both new and old, that will probably prefer that. Why not consolidate those gains? It would not necessarily have to be at the expense of live performance.
Any tips for other string players considering this path?
Lousy content is lousy content, pandemic or no. Don’t miss the opportunity to take a break and think about what you want long-term, even though that can be difficult with the sea of unknowns before us. This is a fantastic time to learn more about recording yourself more successfully. The disruptions to the business create opportunities as well as difficulties, especially for younger players.
What are your goals going forward as performance venues reopen?
I hope it doesn’t sound too depressing, but I’d like to still have the Eybler Quartet around as a viable group when the dust settles.
How will you continue going forward as a player? Will the limitations of the virus change your path?
Lockdown and quarantine already have changed our paths in small and possibly large ways. One of the challenges the Eybler Quartet faces is that our members live in different countries. With the current necessity to self-isolate when crossing borders, whoever did the travelling would be investing four weeks in just changing locations—that’s before we even sit down to a single rehearsal. Given that we all need to make a living, and that we make that living from different sources, that kind of restriction is pretty intimidating.
Tafelmusik is a considerably larger group with a different mandate and so it is a very differently—and better—managed group. Its board of directors and leadership are committed to doing what they can to keep the orchestra whole so we’re ready for the days ahead.
What projects are you working on?
In terms of the Eybler Quartet, we were looking ahead to a new recording of middle Haydn quartets, an interesting new “Inside the Music” concert format with the theorist Suzannah Clark, our summer program at Banff Evolution: Quartet, a tour to the UK, and an expansion of our Beethoven rep. I suspect much of that will still happen, but on a different schedule. We are also looking at delving into works by composers that will be new or nearly new to us, including the fantastic 19th-century Peruvian Pedro Ximenes Abril Tirado and Ignaz Pleyel. Tafelmusik’s music director, Elisa Citterio has been very ingeniously generating a vast array of contingencies for programming that will be true to the spirit of what we had booked for the 2020–21 season, but that will be achievable within the guidelines for public gatherings as we go forward.
Is there a message you’d like to share with Strings readers?
These are definitely difficult times and seeing our way to the unpredictable world that emerges from this will be challenging. But the world will emerge. I think about my teacher Walter Trampler who was a young man in the unpredictable and dangerous Second World War—he drove an ambulance for two years for the U.S. Army and had a career at the end of that time. I can only imagine he had plenty of moments that he was distracted from the viola in those two years.