A Bold Break on the Pandemic’s Grip Over Music Tours

Janos Gereben on November 23, 2020
Musicians on the move — Wu Han on the right, arriving at Taiwan’s Tao Yuan Airport | Credit: Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center

Travel is the lifeblood of music, and until this year we saw guest artists from hither and yon visting the SF Symphony, SF Opera, Cal Performances, SF Performances, and listened to the buzzing of the Bay by the Freeway Philharmonic. Until recently, there were a dozen orchestras visiting the Bay Area each season, and there were plans for the SF Symphony’s (canceled) grand farewell tour with Michael Tilson Thomas to crisscross Europe.

But this year everyone is trying to comply with stern orders to stay home and dealing with a partial quarantine in California. Meanwhile, reopened concert halls and opera houses in Europe are closing again. There are a few exceptions, such as Daniel Hope hopping from Berlin to San Francisco with NCCO (check ARTE.TV for their wondrous concerts), Val Caniparoli and Carey Perloff going from SF to Finland, and Esa-Pekka Salonen making the reverse trek from Finland to SF.

Now this:

Artistic Director Wu Han and a handful of artists from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (CMS) are touring in Taiwan — the first American ensemble to embark on a concert tour since March.

Getting there has been a great challenge, and the CMS musicians are in quarantine until Nov. 28. But once there, it will be a relief to be in Taiwan, where have been precious few of pandemic casualties and resistance to COVID-19 is on par with New Zealand. (As of now, Taiwan, with a population of 24 million, reported just 611 cases and seven deaths for the virus’ entire run.)

The CMS tour begins on Dec. 2 in Taipei’s National Theater and Concert Hall

Friends in Taiwan are happy to report “normal life,” having attended, in recent days, concerts by Yo-Yo Ma and Daniil Trifonov, among others. Normalcy comes at a price, the difference between Taiwan and the U.S. described by a friend traveling between the two countries:

“I was shocked that nobody took my temperature or asked questions at SFO. In Taiwan, they take your temperature, register your information; they will track you the next two weeks. Your clothes and luggage are sprayed, even the bottom of your shoes, before you get in a COVID-clean taxi.”

Violist Matt Lipman arrives at the quarantine hotel | Credit: Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center

Wu Han and David Finckel are artistic directors of both CMS and [email protected], whose 2020 season has been postponed by a year, and still hoping for clearance to resume performances next summer, even as many organizations are postponing once again. Of the CMS directors, cellist Finckel is staying in New York to hold down the fort there.

Giving up Thanksgiving, pianist Wu Han and the other CMS musicians went through what has been described as a hair-raising, roller-coaster ride to get to Taiwan marked by the hurdles of obtaining visas, meeting Taiwanese and international guidelines, and following ever-changing air-travel regulations.

Center for the Arts in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, where the Dec. 4 and 5 concerts will take place

The musicians from New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Seoul went through individual obstacle races to Taiwan during the resurgent coronavirus pandemic, supported by the CMS staff, all working remotely from home. Once quarantined in individual hotel rooms for 14 days, the musicians are reporting their temperature to their respective contact tracers four times daily. Behind closed doors, one musician said the situation reminds him of being again in a conservatory dorm, practicing in isolation. All in service of the cause as described by Wu Han:

This is the second year of our Discovering Chamber Music series in Taiwan, and I am so glad to see that, through the tremendous efforts of presenters and supporters, the series is growing even deeper and broader this year. We will once again have a very full schedule, with concerts, masterclasses and outreach activities, after we complete our 14-day quarantine in the hotel, of course.

Weiwuying National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts, a major presenter on the tour, is not only hosting two concerts, but also organizing an education program for elementary school students and masterclasses for conservatory and music department students. This will be a wonderful opportunity to bring chamber music to many different parts of the community.

One of the two concert programs will be presented in Taipei National Concert Hall by Bach Inspiration Music and Culture Association. We have also been invited to visit three universities to provide lectures, chamber music demonstrations, and masterclasses. And at the end of the tour, we are looking forward to a special collaboration with musicians in Taiwan.”

Poster advertising the CMS concert | Credit: Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center

Programs on the tour are generously rich and fascinatingly varied. For example, the Dec. 11 concert in Taipei:

— Ravel: Introduction et allegro for Harp, Flute, Clarinet, and String Quartet
— Ernst von Dohnányi: Quintet No. 1 in C minor for Piano, Two Violins, Viola, and Cello
— Purcell: “Nymphs and Shepherds” for Four Cellos from The Libertine (arr. Michael Finckel)
— Tomás Luis de Victoria: O magnum mysterium for Four Cellos (arr. Michael Finckel)
— Jacob Obrecht: “Tsaat een Meskin” for Four Cellos (arr. Michael Finckel)
— Mendelssohn Octet in E-flat Major for Strings, Op. 20

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