Keeping it Together: How Professional Chamber Ensembles are Coping with the Challenges of COVID

By David Templeton | From the March-April 2021 issue of Strings magazine

Chamber music is, by definition, small, intimate, together—originally performed in palace chambers, where audience and musicians alike were in close proximity. During a pandemic in which social distancing is the key to remaining healthy and safe, “close proximity” is, of course, no longer a good thing. Though trios and quartets have an advantage over large orchestras in such times—given that it’s perhaps somewhat simpler to keep three or four people safe than 100 or more—the commitment to keep rehearsing and performing as a chamber group during an epidemic is every bit as challenging.

“It’s a balancing act,” agrees Jesse Mills, violinist of the Horszowski Trio, which is based in New York City and named for the late pianist Mieczysław Horszowski, with whom the trio’s pianist, Rieko Aizawa, studied as his final pupil. New to the ensemble is cellist Ole Akahoshi, who joined the Horszowski Trio in the middle of the pandemic. The ensemble’s founding cellist, Raman Ramakrishnan, left the group last summer after nine years, to pursue other paths.

Maintaining the members’ individual safety—and that of their families—while continuing to work as a trio requires a great deal of strategic give-and-take. “We have been consolidating our rehearsal periods throughout this COVID time, setting aside blocks where we rehearse frequently in and around the dates of our performances,” says Mills. “We have been proactively getting COVID tests, and we’re distancing ourselves with masks on as much as we can while trying to keep the air ventilated in our rehearsal spaces.”

It’s not a perfect system, he admits, but it allows the group to continue rehearsing while emphasizing safety. In the Horszowski Trio’s case, they’ve been lucky to have done a lot more than just rehearse. Over the last year, the trio has performed a number of small-audience concerts, several live-streamed performances, and made some video recordings for various music series. The trio has performed pre-recorded concerts for Kaufman Music Center in New York, and Electric Earth Concerts in New Hampshire, and has livestreamed a concert at Bard College’s Longy School of Music in Massachusetts, where they are ensemble-in-residence. They’ve even done one high-profile performance through Dreamstage, music executive Thomas Hesse’s pandemic-inspired tech startup that gives musicians a high-definition, livestreaming platform on which to deliver concerts to fans around the world. 

Among the few live, in-person shows they’ve done was a unique concert sponsored by Howland Chamber Music Circle, which has collaborated with four other local presenters in upstate New York to start a new series together during the pandemic.

“They were specifically looking for artists who live together to perform at their venue with those presenters sitting in the balcony, far from the stage,” Mills explains. “Thus, they weren’t able to present our full trio for safety reasons. But our trio’s pianist, Rieko Aizawa, is also my wife—so we played a duo recital there in November. We very much appreciated those five presenters working so hard for live music.”

That concert was recorded and is still available to view online (watch it below).

While Mills says he is excited about the vaccines now being rolled out, he doesn’t anticipate a return to normal anytime soon. “We are hopeful that there is light at the end of this long, dark tunnel,” he says, “but we do know that audiences are not going to come back immediately.”

The trio’s long-scheduled performance at Music from Kohl Mansion in Burlingame, California was to take place in May, he points out as an example, and the venue just recently requested that the Horszowskis submit a video recording in place of the planned concert.

“We are treating this as an opportunity to produce quality media,” he says. “And one positive is that the music will be available for viewing more than once… perhaps well into the future. This could turn out to be a good way for artists and presenters to reach a wider audience, to connect with more people who usually can’t make it to live concerts. We all have to adapt to this new world of the merging of live and virtual music. There’s really no sense in avoiding that fact, and we might as well enjoy it in all the ways that we can.”


Del Sol String Quartet

“After the initial confusion and lockdown and everything, we actually got back to work pretty quickly,” says violist Charlton Lee of the Del Sol Quartet, based in San Francisco. “We’re fortunate that we’ve got a fairly big space to rehearse in, with a ceiling that goes up a couple of levels. So, we got some air filters, we use our masks and keep our distance, and we’ve been rehearsing and working.”

Founded in 1992, Del Sol Quartet has focused primarily on the works of living composers. The other members are cellist Kathryn Bates, violinist Samuel Weiser, and violinist Benjamin Kreith. Before COVID, the foursome took turns hosting rehearsals, but since March, all rehearsals have been at Lee’s high-ceilinged home. The group, already accustomed to doing online performances, was up and running with livestreamed shows fairly early on in the shutdown.

“Then we launched this new initiative called the Joy Project,” Lee says, describing Del Sol’s ambitious effort to commission composers to write short pieces about joy. “The pieces have come out with a broadly and widely spread range of styles and expressions, from jubilant to meditative and thoughtful. The idea was that we would take these pieces outdoors and share them safely with the public in our communities.”

The theme of joy was purposefully chosen as an antidote to the fear, uncertainty, and negative emotions running high throughout the country.

“We thought, we need to do something to cheer people up,” he says. Since then, Del Sol has given nearly 30 outdoor performances. “It’s been very rewarding,” he says. “We do these outside, so a lot of people stumble across our performances accidentally, which is sometimes pretty powerful. A lot of people immediately start to cry, just from hearing live music for the first time in months.”

“We were in Bernal Heights, a neighborhood in San Francisco,” says Bates, “and we’d been planning on playing near the Bernal Boulder, which is an important landmark in that neighborhood. But it was so windy, there was just no way. So we were sort of scouting for a new place to play, and this man saw us with our instrument cases, and he started following us. He asked, ‘Are you going to play music?’ and then he stuck around, and the entire time he was standing there crying. Afterwards he told us how grateful he was, that what we’d given was the best gift he’d been given since COVID started. That’s why we are doing this. Our community needs an infusion of joy right now.”

The quartet has collected dozens of similar stories since beginning the Joy Project, which is ongoing, with more commissions still expected to be delivered in coming months. When performing outdoors, of course, all safety protocols are observed, including masks and positioning of the quartet members, playing a safe distance away from all observers and listeners.

Such gigs do little to pay the bills of course. Like most ensembles during this time, Del Sol has seen its income drop precipitously, but has found a number of ways to stay afloat, from small paid streaming gigs—including a collaboration with the Library of Congress—to establishing an account with Patreon, the online platform that allows “patrons” to pledge monthly donations to artists of all kinds.

“It’s a combination of things, mostly a lot of community support,” Lee allows. “We have been getting increased donations and grants, and even taking out loans, which is scary, but hopefully a necessary buffer to help us bridge the gap until we can return to playing some paying concerts again.”

Until then, there are always new projects to be working on, even if the circumstances demand innovation and, in some cases, adaptation. With no possibility of recording in a studio, the members have been experimenting with home recordings, both audio and video. Among the more high-profile of these undertakings was the premiere of Huang Ruo’s string quartet “A Dust in Time,” which Del Sol performed live in November from the iconic labyrinth at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral.


“‘A Dust in Time’ is an hour-long piece Huang wrote during this COVID time,” Lee says. “It’s based on the Tibetan Buddhist sand mandalas, the idea being that you are constructing something and then removing it again, in a kind of intentional meditation. It’s a reminder that this too will pass.”

The performance was livestreamed and recorded, and the video will be made available to the public sometime in 2021.

“One thing we’ve noticed,” adds Bates, “is that by doing online concerts and activities, our fan base across the world can tune in. We are much more deeply connected with our community right now than we are when we are touring, because we can only be in one city at a time.” It’s been a nice way, the group has learned, of connecting with people who care about what they are doing, without the usual limits of geography. “In this moment, thinking about our global community, how to connect with and bring joy to them—even during this kind of awful time—has been a good way to stay grounded, and to remember what and who we are doing this for.”

Calidore String Quartet

For violinist Jeffrey Myers, of the Calidore String Quartet, one of the ways the ensemble is staying safe is through regular testing for COVID. “In fact, I just got back from a test this morning,” he says. “Testing is part of the life of a working musician, part of the protocols we set up to operate under. But I get to play music, and to stay safe—and keep others safe—and the testing now and then is just part of the price for that.”

Formed in 2010 at the Colburn School in Los Angeles, the Calidore Quartet—the name combining a portion of “California” with the French word “doré,” meaning “golden”—has been the grand prize winner of dozens of chamber-music competitions across the country. In addition to Myers, the quartet includes Ryan Meehan on violin, Jeremy Berry on viola, and Estelle Choi on cello. The Calidores are currently the quartet-in-residence at the University of Delaware, and released a new album, Babel, last October.

According to Myers, the coronavirus and its subsequent quarantines were a major disruption, one that took a while to recover from, especially given that they’d been doing between 80 and 100 concerts a year until everything stopped.

“The quartet didn’t rehearse at all for about the first three or four months of the pandemic, and that was really kind of shocking to us,” he says. “I decided to leave and go back to stay with my parents in Ohio for a few months. Till then, the longest the quartet had been apart in ten years had been maybe a month or so, when one of us went on vacation or something. We are always on the road together, so when touring stopped, when making music together stopped, it really was a shock to the system.”


The first time the quartet reunited was in June.

“That was a special thing, one I think we will always remember,” Myers allows. “Having been apart for so long, I think it made us appreciate how much we have; we will never take that for granted.”

Because violist Jeremy Berry is the son of a pulmonologist on the COVID team in Bellingham, Washington, the Calidores had some strong medical support in developing the safety protocols they now use regularly. “I always drive when I go to Ohio, rather than fly, to minimize my exposure,” Myers says. “When we are apart for a couple of weeks, like we were over the holidays, we all get tested before we travel to come back, then we get tested again five days after we arrive, so we’re all ready for rehearsals once the negative results come in.”

The quartet’s rehearsal times have been carefully established so the musicians, who all live in upper Manhattan and use public transportation, can avoid the more crowded rush hour commutes. They also wear masks whenever rehearsing or performing together. “That was a real learning curve,” he says wryly. “The hardest part was learning to communicate, while playing, when your face is covered. There is a lot of communication that takes place on your face when you perform music, so to have that be partially covered up was a challenge. We’ve found ways around it by using our eyes more, and developing a system of audible, somewhat exaggerated breathing that we use to communicate with each other.”

During the summer, the ensemble was able to perform outdoors at such venues as Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts in Katonah, New York. “The concerts don’t look like they used to, obviously, but everyone is working hard to find ways to make it work,” Myers says. “Some presenters are now asking for pre-recorded content instead of live, onsite performances, so we’ve turned Jeremy’s living room into a recording studio. We’ve had to learn a lot about video editing on the fly. Another steep learning curve, but we’ve managed.”

Myers admits that the lessons of COVID may take a long time to process and fully understand, and that when it’s finally over, there will likely be negative memories along with innovations and new talents they’ll all be glad to have acquired.

The biggest change, he says, will probably be the most personal: a deeper understanding of why music is so important to so many. “For the Calidore Quartet, and for many other musicians we know and associate with, any chance we get to make music together is really treasured now,” Myers acknowledges. “I don’t think, when things return to normal, we will ever look at this gift we have—the gift of making music together as a group—in quite the same way.”