The classical music industry is changing rapidly these days. The future landscape of live performance is unclear and artists around the globe are doing whatever they can to fill the gap and keep the art form alive. In an effort to survive and adapt to the new conditions this pandemic has imposed on the performing arts, many musicians in isolation have found an outlet through virtual performances, resulting in a bit of a social media phenomenon. Taking a lead in this movement are a few friends of mine who have found themselves in a unique situation. The QuaranTrio is made up of Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt (violist of Dover Quartet), her husband Brook Speltz (cellist of Escher Quartet), and his brother Brendan Speltz (second violinist of Escher Quartet). Together they make up a family affair of some of the country’s leading chamber musicians, who just happen to be isolated in the same place during quarantine in their home in Philadelphia. Having the rare opportunity to play in the same room together, what else to do besides make a little music?
During my conversation with the QuaranTrio, I really wanted to get to the heart of why what they’re doing is important, and how they think this will impact the industry’s future as things start getting back to normal. It all boils down to connection; something we are all deeply craving while maintaining our social distance from one another. In an effort to stabilize the return of live music to the concert hall, the QuaranTrio is going the extra mile to stay connected to their audience and have been so generous as to share their thoughts about this process with me in this interview.
Why did the trio start live streaming performances?
Brook: This is the only platform we have as performers…In the beginning we felt pressure to figure out a way to make money and earn income while we’ve all had every single concert cancelled for so many months.
Why is this important and how is it benefitting your audience?
Milena: The first thing that comes to my mind is just keeping everyone connected and up to date with what we’re doing, and for [our audience] to continue to be able to listen to us play music. Seeing people pop up on our live stream while we’re playing is the closest thing we can get to feeling like we’re playing for a live audience.
And what do you miss about a [physical] live audience? What are some differences you’re noticing?
Milena: We’re not getting the same type of electricity…the feedback, the kind of palpable energy you get from a room full of people. What I love about playing for a live audience in person is that I actually feel less nervous doing that than live streaming because it feels like it’s a living breathing
thing and its easier to be in the moment, you don’t really dwell on the things you mess up on.
Brook: We played a Groupmuse concert on Saturday where we were playing complete pieces, for instance a 20 minute Beethoven Trio, and it was followed by silence. We don’t even have an extra body in the room to operate the camera or microphone, so that was a really weird feeling, its very uncomfortable.
Milena: During that Groupmuse concert, we had an online audience almost to the Zoom capacity of 1,000 viewers. I felt nervous and I got the sensation that there were actually people watching in the room. It had this Alice in Wonderland effect where looking at the camera in the laptop opened this portal. We were like giants and I could see all these little people inside the camera. That moment was the closest I got to having the feeling of a live audience in the last 3 weeks of doing the live streaming.
How does the online platform shape your perception of the product you’re putting out there? How does it affect your performance?
Milena: It can kind of feel like you’re doing a recording session but you don’t get any redo’s.
Brook: There is a bit of pressure, if you make any mistake, there’s a chance that that mistake will live on the internet for a while, so for me that’s the part that adds the extra nerves.
What effects do you think this period of isolation and live streaming will have on the future of live music performance in person?
Milena: The thing that is scary is that we don’t know for how long this is going to last. So we don’t know which organizations will be strong enough financially to be able to put on the kinds of series that they were doing before. I was speaking to a presenter that regularly hires the Dover Quartet and he said that a lot of his audience is older (or in the risk category) and they’ll probably be spooked from congregating for a while, even after things start getting back to normal. So he’s actually planning on continuing with a virtual series along with his live series. He has a feeling that is going to be necessary in order to continue.
Brook: I already know of cancellations happening next season for our quartet [Escher Quartet] because those series no longer have the funds necessary. So as far as the landscape goes, I don’t know what there will be for us, but I definitely think it forever will be changed after this.
More specifically, what place do you think virtual concerts will have in the future?
Brook: I don’t think we’re going to make a recovery that will bring us right back to where we were. I think [concertizing] is going to have to adapt. Maybe live streaming will be a larger component than it was before…I’m sure there is an economically viable way for people to significantly supplement their income from live streaming, and that might take route on a more permanent basis after this.
Brendan: Because this is our only platform and way to reach our audience, we’ll have a learning curve and only continue to get better at doing this and these live streams will only become higher in quality and regularity. I believe it will continue to be a part of our performance practice going forward and we’ll be able to monetize that the way we do live concerts.
Are you afraid that live streaming will replace going to concerts for people in the future?
Brendan: Not at all. People will still want to go to live concerts no matter what; there is nothing that can replace that. Especially after being in quarantine for so long, people are going to be hungry for live performances in person.
Brook: I mean, the last thing we all want actually is to have to look at our screens more than we already do. [Concerts are] one of the great ways of escaping that.
Will you three continue to play together as a trio after you get to return to your quartets and concertize again?
Milena: We’re family, we’re always going to pay together and have a trio. One silver lining of this time is that we have a lot of rehearsal time so we feel bonded and gelled together as a group.
What have you been doing in your free time?
Milena: For me the most fun thing is reorganizing and rearranging our house. We’ve been living here for two years and we’ve barely been home! We’re using this time to get everything set up, and I realized I love building. I’ve been building tables, bed frames, all sorts of stuff.
Brendan: I’ve been learning how to produce music and use different kinds of computer programming applications. I think these skills will be especially useful moving forward after all of this.
Is there anything new you have learned about yourself during this period of isolation and newfound time on your hands?
Milena: As good as I was about doing yoga in hotels while I was touring, I really miss going to class. I can really get on a roll there. When I’m left to my own devices, it’s hard to be self-motivated.
Brook: It just reaffirms what I already knew which is that the greatest motivator for me is fear; fear of a concert, fear of being unprepared for something. And with nothing too official on the horizon, it’s also hard for me to find motivation as well.
Brendan: I’ve learned that I need to be careful of feeding into guilt with social media, especially during the times I want to rest. I’m really just enjoying having a routine and it’s put a lot of things in perspective for me and helping me realize all the other skills I want to sharpen and continue to use once the quartet starts performing again.
What would you like to say to other musicians who are struggling artistically during this nationwide shutdown?
Brook: I don’t know if in our lifetimes we’ll be given a better opportunity to take the time to really be self-critical and work on things in our playing and our business models…you thought that when you were in school, that would be the last time you ever get to do that…the best thing we can do artistically is view this as an opportunity to get some real work done on the instrument.
And what would you like to say to your donors?
Milena: Thank you for even considering us because we know it’s hard right now for everyone. It’s very meaningful to know that others who aren’t musicians know how important it is to keep the art alive.
Brook: As much as we are looking for donations for ourselves for what we do, we also try and give to certain concert organizations that have presented us in the past. Everybody needs a little help. This is a great opportunity for the community at large to be quite self-supported.
What are you looking forward to the most when things start getting back to normal?
QuaranTrio: Being with friends, being with family.
When it comes down to it, I think that’s what we’re realizing we need the most now that everything non-essential has been stripped from our lives. We need the people we love, and we need human connection. We’re all just trying to make it through this crisis remaining as connected as we can to each other, whether that means Face Timing your friends and family, or sharing your music online. I just want to say a personal “thank you” to Milena, Brendan, and Brook, for doing what you’re doing for the survival of our art and helping others to do the same. We are all in this together, and no matter what the future of music performance holds, we will get through this. We will be able to experience music in person again, soon. In the meantime, please support your fellow musicians and give to the arts organizations that need your help.
The QuaranTrio has been receiving donations through their presenters when they perform on their pages, and privately on Venmo through @brook-speltz when streaming independently. They have also been extremely generous by donating a portion of their funds to presenters and organizations in financial trouble. If you are interested in seeing them live online, they have a wonderful lineup of concerts happening this weekend and could use your support. Here’s their upcoming schedule of events:
Chamber Music Society of Detroit Live Stream Concert
April 21, 2020 at 8:00pm EST (“doors open” at 7:30)
Find them @ chambermusicdetroit.org
Manhattan Chamber Players Live Stream Concert
Saturdays at 3:00pm EST
Find them @ Manhattan Chamber Players Facebook Page