A week ago, they still thought it would be possible to maintain some kind of public of artistic life, even if it meant adapting: “we had just arrived at Annecy with the Quatuor Akilone”, violist Tess Joly tells me. “At the exact moment at which we reached the city, events with more than a hundred people were banned. We tried to do mini-concerts in small groups to substitute!” 

Renaud Capuçon sounds a similar note: “before self-isolation was being discussed, I had already formed a project in my head, to go every day to a different place, to play chamber music with friends, simply for pleasure, to be filmed and shared”.

As the days went by, various decrees were issued and the musicians have had to face reality. If everyone stays home, the coronavirus will be prevented from spreading. The health authorities haven’t just banned every concert, they’ve dissolved all chamber music groups and orchestras, scattering the musicians – social animals par excellence – into isolation that’s unconducive to the exercise of their craft. So what’s happening, in these troubled times, to musicians? To chamber players, soloists, composers? I’ve been ringing round members of a classical music world that’s fallen strangely silent.

The deserted auditorium at the Maison de la Radio © Radio France / Christophe Abramowitz
The deserted auditorium at the Maison de la Radio
© Radio France / Christophe Abramowitz

Artists have taken a beating, but they are refusing to sink into despair about their condition. Renaud Capuçon’s twenty-one concerts cancelled between now and April 19th? “It’s a disaster, but I’m playing so many concerts in the year...” But you can imagine that the violinist might lose his nerve when it comes to the Aix Easter Festival, of which he is artistic director and which is also on the casualty list. But still: “When I wrote to the culture minister, Franck Riester, I wasn’t speaking about myself. I was principally thinking about all these musicians who are in very precarious positions, who are playing in non-subsidised orchestras. There are plenty of them in France: all the baroque ensembles, all the orchestras like Les Siècles! These are people finding themselves with nothing.” Often called in as reinforcement for the viola section of the top Paris orchestras, Tess Joly is one of those members of the gig economy whose contracts are signed at the last minute – sometimes on the day of the concert – and who have been knocked cold by the cancellations. “All my projects for a month and a half were cancelled in a single day. It amounts to twenty-one lots of rehearsal fee”, she calculates. But Joly prefers to work on sharpening her weapons than to do the accounts: “For a lot of musicians, this period is going to be the time to work on technique... which we don’t always get time to do under normal circumstances, when we’re continually playing and putting on programmes.”

For composers, the shock of the cancellations is just as severe, with important premières cancelled with no appointed date in the future. The loss is a financial one: composers’ royalties, which are calculated on a per-performance basis, are often a greater part of their income than the initial commission. But there’s also a human cost. “I won’t be seeing my performers, I won’t be hearing my music, I won’t be living with it”, laments Camille Pépin, whose work was due to be played in the United States for the first time this month, by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. “What I should be doing right now is to compose, I really want to... I’ve often said that if I had whole days to do nothing but compose, that would make me really happy! But I’m don’t seem able to concentrate, I feel like there’s something blocking me. When I see all these Parisians who have been out all week-end and then got on the train to go elsewhere, that makes me angry. We don’t think enough about the medical staff and their families. I’m angry with the whole world and that doesn’t result in good music.”

Camille Pépin and Aaron Pilsan working on <i>Number 1</i> © Miguel Bueno
Camille Pépin and Aaron Pilsan working on Number 1
© Miguel Bueno

While this unforeseen availability and isolation might be favourable to composition, the circumstances don’t really lend themselves to the creative process. Paris Conservatoire former director Bruno Mantovani confirms this: “it’s a kind of speeded up, nightmare version of the Villa Medici”, he explains [referring to the Rome retreat of several French composers], isolated in the depths of the Normandy countryside with his family at a time when he should have been conducting the Ensemble Orchestral Contemporain in a series of concerts. “Fear of disease isn’t an inspirational emotion! It’s a highly anxiety-inducing time, but it’s also a moment for resistance. Writing allows us to resist those things which pull us down.” Mantovani has challenged himself to double his concentration on composition, by “starting on two string quartets simultaneously. Times like this happen very rarely. I’m going to test my ability to invent two things which are different but which have the same forces, in the knowledge that generally, for me, it’s the musical forces which guide all the material”.

While the music world has been placed into a kind of artificially induced coma, one could be tempted to seek a glimmer of hope: could this silent isolation conceal the seeds of a return to an artistic life more spectacular and abundant than ever? One can but hope for this and it isn’t impossible, determined as musicians seem to be to use this period of self-isolation to make progress, sometimes with unexpected projects. Take the example of Lucas Henri, double bass player with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, who plans to perfect his proficiency with a second instrument – one at which his level is already not to be sneezed at, as he demonstrated in Written on skin at the Paris Philharmonie: “It so happens that I have set about learning the mandolin about a year ago”, he explains. “I signed up for an online course, with videos. This will give me the chance to push my level a bit higher, to make contact with other musicians to make exchanges.”

Albeit forcibly exiled from the concert hall, therefore, musicians aren’t short of ideas. And even if most are now working away from the spotlight, a number have managed to keep some sort of contact with the stage, regularly posting content on social media. “I’ve given myself the goal of recording a video every day”, explains Renaud Capuçon. “The day before, I decide what I’m going to record, and I’ve created a kind of mini-studio in the house which I can set up and tear down. It’s a little regular rendez-vous which means that every day, I get the feel of giving a mini-concert. It’s just five minutes, but psychologically, it’s a way of keeping in touch with the idea of an audience. The fact of getting out the instrument, to tell oneself that one is working for this particular goal, that’s a way of moving forward. I’m afraid of a vacuum, as you can imagine.”

That vacuum also frightens some of his followers, who don’t understand how the soloist manages to play with piano – without a pianist. In point of fact, Capuçon uses NoMadPlay, an app that provides its users with a catalogue of scores and recordings which can be turned into a kind of classical karaoke, muting at will one instrumental part or another in order to play it oneself. In present circumstances, it’s a godsend for instrumentalists! And proof that even in music, a sort of teleworking remains possible, with the use of digital tools and social networks. 

Lucas Henri sums up the self-isolation game in a nutshell – both in the artistic world and beyond: “it’s the time to turn all these networks into true zones for sharing.”


Translated from French by David Karlin