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Musicians on the Move Between the U.S. and Taiwan

December 8, 2020

Much of California and the San Francisco Bay Area went into another strict lockdown Monday as COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths keep mounting in the U.S. and many countries, but fearless musicians travel and perform — taking utmost care to protect themselves and the people around them.

Two chamber-music ensembles with local connections ended up in Taiwan, one of the “safest” places in the world, but getting there and back is a challenge. Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, headed by Wu Han and David Finckel, who also run [email protected], has been acclaimed in Taiwan, where their last concert is on Dec. 11. The Telegraph Quartet, of the SF Conservatory of Music, had a successful combination tour of performances and coaching Nov. 4–27.

As already reported here, the CMS tour has been a saga of difficulties and triumphs. In a fresh missive about the tour, Wu Han quotes Henry David Thoreau: “When I hear music, I fear no danger. I am invulnerable. I see no foe. I am related to the earliest times, and to the latest.” Wu Han reports:

My eyes welled up with tears, and the music was blurry in front of me. I have been on concert stages since I was 11 years old, but the pandemic has taken all the opportunities away. Last night in Taipei, Taiwan, the National Concert Hall was the scene of the first live, public concert for me in eight months. Joining me were six fabulous musicians from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (CMS) and more than 1,500 people who showed up to celebrate culture and to feed their souls with chamber music.

There was no agenda other than the common purpose of being inspired by what music can offer. I could see the smiles between the movements of the Beethoven quartet on the faces of both the musicians and the audience. I could have heard a pin drop during the silences of the Smetana trio, a tragic work composed just after his daughter’s death. I felt the intense concentration for the exciting Tchaikovsky sextet Souvenir of Florence that transported us to a magical world.

Our audience burst into applause, shouted bravos, and demanded two encores: Mark O’Connor’s “F.C.’s Jig” and the jubilant scherzo of the “American” string quintet of Dvořák. The magic of this live event unfolded in front of us, and I felt truly fulfilled to know that at least last night, there in front of a tightly-packed, masked audience, we were all alive, healthy, and able to deeply appreciate being musicians.”

Having gone through multiple tests, various airport problems, and a multitude of regulations, the CMS musicians arrived in the country which conquered the virus as well as New Zealand did. The great success required rigorous discipline — still in effect — with mandatory masks and extensive testing and tracing, so the musicians ended up with a strict two-week quarantine, with regular reports on everyone’s temperature and location.

“The commitment of this country and its citizens to protect each other is an envy for all of us coming from the U.S.A.,” writes Wu Han. “Because of the intense determination to fight the virus, one actually feels safe and relaxed, knowing that everyone is doing their part to beat this invisible enemy.”

Assisted by the government, the Bach Inspiration foundation, the National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts Weiwuying, the Taiwan National Symphony, and three universities, the CMS ensemble had well attended, enthusiastically received concerts

“Live musical events can change lives,” writes Wu Han. “When we attend a concert with no daily distraction of texts, emails, TV, news, and computers, we enter into a special place that can transform us. In chamber music especially, the intense conversations between musicians with their instruments, the interaction and trust displayed on stage, the love and friendships that form right in front of you, is intoxicating.

“A great concert can elevate, inspire, delight, and provoke you. In the U.S. right now, that joy and inspiration has been taken away from all of us. But I do know that when we are able to be back on stage, to play for our beloved audiences, we will play our hearts out just like last night. That joy and appreciation of music and of musical community will come back with an intensity that we never experienced before.”

Four for the Road

The SF Conservatory of Music–Telegraph Quartet partnership has sent the foursome overseas “to nurture and continue an important aspect and quite possibly the spirit of chamber music: How can we help people connect better with each other in any given situation,” says violinist Eric Chin.

Chin explained the impetus for this trip:

In the heat of the pandemic, Telegraph saw an opportunity in Taiwan to host its inaugural ChamberFEAST. Bringing students from different music schools together (SFCM, UCLA, Eastman, MUK Privatuniversitat in Vienna, Soochow University in Taiwan), a wonderful festival erupted, mingling people of different musical ideals and upbringing, and creating a learning experience that increased all of our perspectives, an aspect of being an artist that we believe is of utmost importance.

The students in ChamberFEAST went through 10 days of intensive coaching, masterclasses, sight-reading parties, eating, walking through night-markets, bowling, and it all culminated in a final public festival performance. The 10 days of intensive musical training was designed to give the amount of education one would receive in a semester at our school, but in a more real-world professional timeline.”

Chin and violinist Joseph Maile, violist Pei-Ling Lin, and cellist Jeremiah Shaw did their bonding not only in rehearsals, teaching, and concertizing, but social activities — none of which is possible back home. “Spending time with each other and bonding as people was the energizing backbone of the ChamberFEAST concert and what a moving experience it was to see the students not just wanting to perform music, but wanting to make music specifically with each other.”

In addition to ChamberFEAST events, the Telegraph Quartet also visited nine schools throughout the month of November, including a Chamber Music Summit for 12 Taiwanese high schools, a two-day residency at Taipei National University of the Arts, and concerts, some in collaborations with Taiwanese musicians.”

The tour went smoothly there, but — as in case of the CMS — getting there was an obstacle course most international travelers in the pandemic know well. “Due to the nature of the highly unusual time we are in, and how unpredictable the flights are now,” says Chin, “Telegraph had to reschedule their flights three times, and anxiously waited for documents from the labor department in Taiwan for their work visas.”

Chin enumerates the issues:

The [number] of problems just leading up to the arrival in Taiwan was really a test of our abilities to not just persevere, but discover how many ways we could possibly come up with to solve problems after being shot down again and again. Our training as chamber musicians and our experience rehearsing with each other was truly being put to use.

The pre-flight Covid-19 test was the second obstacle, with the airlines needing to have the test results a maximum of three days before flying and, of course, with testing facilities estimating a result turnaround of 3_5 days. We were all lucky and got our test results in time, but it never occurred to us that the airports would all have different interpretations of what three days before flying actually meant. Was it 72 hours? Do you count the day of the flight? What if you fly at 12:01 a.m., is that an entire extra day? What the heck is a cello and where is its COVID-19 test report?

We had to deal with every single one of these questions (and more) and ended up contacting the Taiwan CDC as well as Taiwan Customs to try to get an official government sanctioned interpretation of the rules. Not surprisingly, it is difficult when they mostly speak Chinese, and most of us don’t. We called in every favor from every person that could possibly help us, and in the end, we were able to get an official letter with a literal government stamp of approval to convince all the different airports that we had abided by the rules and were cleared to fly.

Retrospectively, with the obstacles behind us and the music making fresh in our minds, we would do it again in a heartbeat. Maybe two heartbeats.”

Meanwhile, in the here and now of the new round of coronavirus restrictions in the second week of December, San Francisco performances and even streamed shows are being canceled or postponed by the hour.

SF Performances announced today changes in their schedule for several performances, and SF Opera has postponed indefinitely the planned drive-in screening of Tosca at Fort Mason, telling ticketholders that they will be notified about how refunds will be handled, or they can contact [email protected]

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].