Watch and Listen: An Evolving Archive at the Chamber Music Society | Playbill

Classic Arts Features Watch and Listen: An Evolving Archive at the Chamber Music Society

How the pandemic prompted one organization to take advantage of its resources.

Clarinetist Anthony McGill performs in the New Milestones series. Tristan Cook

Reviewers who attended the 1969 opening concert of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center were impressed—not just with the music they heard, or the impromptu violin switching that took place when James Buswell’s E-string snapped at the end of Schubert’s Cello Quintet, but with the aesthetics of Lincoln Center’s new concert space, inaugurated at the same performance. “Alice Tully Hall is warm and colorful without being garish,” Harold C. Schonberg wrote for the New York Times. “It is all of a piece, with colors flowing into each other.”

Since it also sounded good, CMS’s founding artistic director Charles Wadsworth decided to audio record every concert from the very first season. When I spoke with her, current co-artistic director Wu Han expressed gratitude that “Charles hit the record button on the very first night.” The resulting archive was a primary source of inspiration when, a few years into their tenure as artistic directors, Wu Han and David Finckel decided to start videotaping Chamber Music Society events. LG donated recording equipment to tape and livestream in CMS’s intimate venue, the Rose Studio, and eventually CMS received support from the Hauser Foundation to capture high-definition concert videos in the “warm and colorful” Alice Tully Hall.

“A concert is like a light breeze,” Wu Han explained when I asked about their motivations for starting a video archive. “You play it, it passes, and then it just disappears from the world. I thought it was a pity that these great concerts would just disappear. With these videos, our aim is to record the work of this generation of performers, but we are also trying to capture and preserve the spirit of live performance.” 

On CMS’s Watch and Listen page, anybody with an internet connection can see nearly every CMS performance given in the Rose Studio since 2011 and in Alice Tully Hall since 2014. Rose Studio events are also livestreamed. What prompted this digital open-door policy? “A big part of our mission with this archive is to educate our audience,” Wu Han explained. “That’s why we also capture all of the lectures, and the master classes, so people get to know chamber music on a deeper level.”

The annual Young Musicians Program, which gives high school chamber ensembles the chance to perform on CMS stages. Tristan Cook

Michael Schwartz is the Department Head of Performing Arts at William A. Shine Great Neck South High School on Long Island. He runs the school’s chamber music program, which offers students extra credit for watching and writing reports on videos from the Watch and Listen page. Thirty-three of his student chamber groups have been selected for CMS’s Young Musicians Program over the years. “We are fortunate to have many serious, dedicated, and talented students who watch videos as a resource toward their own musical advancement and enrichment. The videos are extremely helpful since students infrequently travel to the city to watch a live event, especially if it occurs during the week.”

In addition to concert videos, master classes with CMS artists, and lectures given by Bruce Adolphe and others, the Watch and Listen page hosts a number of newly developed online audience engagement programs. In The Art of Interpretation series, artists explain their performance choices in a particular work. Adolphe’s Inspector Pulse@Home videos present the basics of music in a highly interactive format. The Musical Heritage webinar series explores the contributions of important figures in the history of chamber music, often featuring never-before-seen footage and remembrances. The website also has content aimed at helping audiences engage with music programmed on New Milestones performances, CMS’s modern and contemporary music series. Each concert has a dedicated landing page featuring thematic essays, playlists, and other learning activities. These are complemented by Composers in Focus sessions, which mix interviews and recorded performances of the work of one living composer.

“Of course, we did not expect the pandemic to happen,” Co-Artistic Director David Finckel told me. “But CMS was incredibly lucky: we had so much recorded material already. We were able to quickly reinvent ourselves, design new programs that showcase past concerts, and share our material not only with our audience here in New York but with presenters all around the country.”

When lockdown started, CMS staff and artists looked for ways to use the existing videos. These early activities eventually developed into CMS’s Front Row program: curated digital concerts that integrated artist features and interviews with new and existing video content. CMS then allowed presenters who joined a new sponsorship program called Front Row National to show these same programs from their websites for a limited period of time. “Front Row National helped chamber music presenters around the country stay strong during the pandemic and connect with their audiences when they had no content of their own to offer,” Finckel reflected.

Now that live concerts are returning, CMS has evolved its digital programming to offer all Alice Tully Hall concerts to viewers who are not able to attend an in-person event. Shortly after each mainstage performance, for a small fee, listeners around the world can purchase a pass to view the concert in a Digital Encore, and those who had a ticket to the live performance can view the Digital Encore at no extra charge.

Cellist Dmitri Atapine and pianist Hyeyeon Park perform in the Art of Interpretation series. Sarissa Michaud

The Education and Community Engagement department was able to make great use of the existing videos and create new ones. “I wanted to build a kind of a hub where teachers could be directed to find everything that we’re offering digitally in education, including the Watch and Listen archive,” recalled Matthew Tommasini, director of this department. Within two days following the shutdown, the artistic team had organized archive videos into thematic playlists, and the education wing created multilingual activities and curricula to supplement those playlists. These resources became part of the Online Education Resources webpage that is still freely available.

The annual Young Musicians Program normally gives high-level high school chamber ensembles the chance to perform on CMS stages. The program could not be held last season, and so the Education and Community Engagement team at CMS started a Young Musicians Innovation Competition. In the inaugural round, teams from schools from New York state and Miami pitched chamber music engagement projects that ranged from “Chamber: Connect,” an app that gives audience members information about particular pieces, to a virtual concert series that presented music of historically overlooked composers to a national high school chamber music association. After workshopping the projects with CMS board members, staff, and artists, the winning groups received grants to carry out their proposals.

“The students were in a sense doing what we were doing, which was coming up with new innovative ways of creating access to chamber music,” Tommasini reflected. Though the in-person Young Musicians Program will take place this season, the digital innovation competition will continue. “We’re essentially training young musicians to do what CMS artists do, which is perform on stage but also to speak about the works, to do the research, to delve further into what the works mean to them, and what impact they have. There is enormous potential for in-person concerts and online education projects to be synchronized and aligned.”

Schwartz expressed the same hope that creative mixing of live concerts and online learning content would endure. “Prior to the pandemic, we were so engaged in in-person performance that many of us did not use these resources. Now that we have seen and experienced their benefits, we plan to continue to use them now and in the future.”

Cellist, writer, and music researcher Nicky Swett is a program annotator and editorial contributor for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

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