Primary tabs

Two for the Road: A Pair of Violinists Make the Best of a Bad Year

September 19, 2020

The greatest ride of my life was about to come up. — Jack Kerouac, On the Road.

As the clock ticked down to midnight on Dec. 31, 2019, the 25 members of Delirium Musicum had a great deal to celebrate. 2020 was going to be the year they’d dreamed of filled with high-profile concerts at venues like Walt Disney Concert Hall; signing contracts with a star-powered management firm and a top-of-the-charts record company and setting out on their first national and European tour! It was going to be the happiest of new years.

For 35-year-old French/Hungarian violinist Etienne Gara (Delirium Musicum’s founder and artistic director) and 32-year-old South Korean violinist YuEun Gemma Kim (a core member and managing director of DM) , the ensemble’s positive outlook corresponded with the upward trajectory of their individual careers. He had begun to play regularly with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and was on-call for studio recording sessions. She was establishing herself as a featured soloist and recital artist. Love was also in their future. Having met as students of Midori Goto at the USC Thornton School of Music, they had become romantically aligned and discovered (at least according to their bios) that they were both avid skydivers.

“Then COVID-19 changed everything,” Gara recalls, all too painfully. “It happened so fast you couldn’t keep up with it. One day we had two major record labels getting in touch with us and a major agent wanted to sign us. We were talking about a European tour. Suddenly they were saying, ‘We don’t know now when that may happen.’ Some of our concerts have been postponed, but we have no idea until when. Then we just found out our February 2021 tour has been cancelled.”

Another blow Delirium sustained, Kim explained, was that several of the group’s members who were studying for advanced degrees at USC were forced to return home to Taiwan and South Korea when the university shut down.

“We don’t know when or if they will be able to return,” Kim said, clearly frustrated. “If they finish their school degree work from home it may be very tricky for them to come back. It will be much harder for them to get a Green Card or an artist’s visa. One of them is one of our core players. He’s very important.”

Instead of giving up, Gara and Kim began to realize that the limitations imposed by the pandemic could provide an opportunity, a time for self-examination, reconnection, and maybe even an adventure. The were on the verge of discovering what On the Road’s author, Jack Kerouac, described as “the dharma of if.”

With the future of Delirium Musicum indefinitely on hold, Gara and Kim sought other ways to perform and connect with people. On April 11, they began a series of 12 weekly “Courtyard Concerts,” duet performances that people watched from their balconies. It reconnected them to performing and re-energized their spirits. That’s when Gara had an epiphany.

“These things didn’t happen to us because we’d done something wrong and it hadn’t taken away our artistic voice,” he explained to me with real passion. “It’s made us go deeper. It’s made us face bigger issues, like what is our role as musicians in society, our roles as humans on this planet, real philosophical questions.”

He began to envision an entirely different road ahead they could travel together.

“For the first time in our lives we were not bound to a place or a schedule,” he explained. “Everything we were doing musically, we realized, could be done anywhere. It was something I had been dreaming about, the idea of being on the road, performing and meeting people— a life journey.”

Then in May the vehicle of Gara’s dreams presented itself in the form of a forlorn 1971 Volkswagen bus. A Westfalia model with a pop-top, it had “good bones” but was definitely a “fixer-upper.”

“It needed quite a bit of work and had been painted with this ugly black primer,” he recalls. “But through a friend we found a guy with a body shop. It needed a lot of work and the restoration took a month and a half.”

When it was complete, Kim said, it was fitted out for sleeping and cooking, included a solar-heated shower arrangement and enough space for the ample audio and video recording gear they planned to use to document their journey. And it sported a glossy new coat of red and white paint.

Etienne may have been the driving force behind the project, but it fell to YuEun to pose the practical questions.

“When we first talked about it, I thought it was a brilliant idea,” she said. “It sounded like it would be a real adventure and so much fun. But talking about it and doing it are two very different things. First, we needed the bus. Then we needed money. We needed to know where we wanted to go.”

In keeping with their “green consciousness,” the two decided to focus their attention on performing at organic farms and wineries.

“We searched the Internet and contacted about 100-200 farms and wineries,” Kim said. “But because of COVID, many were closed, or we couldn’t get in touch with the right person. It took a long time. We had to call and email them again and again. We also had restrictions on how we could perform. It couldn’t be a formal concert so we decided that we would play just for the workers in groups of 10 or less.”

“The problem, said Gara, “was that the ones that did reply said they would be happy to have us play, but they needed 10 days to two weeks to prepare. That’s when we decided we needed to be completely spontaneous and stop planning. We would make contacts, meet people every day, play for them and live in the bus.”

 After a test run performance to Oceanside that went really well, their plans were once again delayed when a family emergency forced Kim had to fly home to Korea. Finally, in early September everything was ready. Dubbed the “MusiKaravan,” Gara and Kim drove north from Los Angeles headed for Ojai, the idyllic valley that served as a stand-in for Shangri-La in the 1937 film Lost Horizon.

Their first stop, appropriately named, was the Clos des Amis (“Circle of Friends”) winery run by winemaker Bruce Freeman and developer Martin Ramirez. As the workers gathered, Gara and Kim set up their recording equipment and performed works from a repertory of more than 50 selections that includes works as diverse as Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins, Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No. 6, The Sabre Dance by Aram Khachaturian, Farewell to Stromness by Peter Maxwell Davies, Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca, Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” and Nicky Sohn’s “Musikaravan Rag.

As the day wore on Gara and Kim played duets among the vines, helped pick the grapes, joined in a communal dinner, and ultimately were invited to park the bus and stay the night.

The next day found them playing for the workers of the Ojai Olive Oil Company, performing Shostakovich a stone’s throw from olive trees that were planted in the days of the Spanish missions.

“Playing for the workers is so different,” Kim said. “It’s very meaningful for us because it is not just about the playing, it’s about meeting these people and having them tell us their stories. At the same time, we are documenting what we do, playing for them and sharing their lives.”

As this story goes to press, Gara and Kim and the bright red VW bus are headed for the wineries of the Santa Ynez Valley.

For information about the MusiKaravan project and how to provide support, visit the MusiKaravan website.

NB: This article has been corrected: Midori Goto's name has been spelled correctly (Goto, not Moto), Etienne Gara and YuEun Kim's positions in Delirium Musicum have been corrected.

Jim Farber wrote his first classical music review in 1982 for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal. Since then, he has been a feature writer and critic of classical music, opera, theater, and fine art for The Daily Variety, the Copley Newspapers and News Service, and the Los Angeles Newspaper Group (Media News).