‘We Live For It’ — St. Louis Symphony Members Play Pop-Up Shows For Small Crowds
About 50 residents of the Crown Center for Senior Living in University City were spaced out in the parking lot one recent afternoon, sitting on portable chairs in the bright sun.
They were there to hear four members of St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, who stood on a portable stage lent to the orchestra by St. Louis County’s parks department. The program included about 30 minutes' worth of compositions by Mozart.
The musicians wore face coverings to protect against the spread of the coronavirus, as did audience members.
The concert was part of St. Louis Symphony’s “On the Go” series of half-hour sets performed outdoors. With Powell Hall closed since March because of the coronavirus, the organization’s reconfigured fall season now includes the outdoor series.
The music that afternoon was nice, but it led to something more.
“We could all go out and see each other. [Usually] we don’t see each other. It’s very deserted,” Miriam Roth, 80, said of she and her fellow Crown residents. The string quartet appearance gave them a chance to get outside and socialize in a safe way.
“I can live alone, I can eat alone. I don’t like it, but I do it. It’s the lack of freedom to go to other places,” Roth said. “You can’t go to the movies, can’t go to a concert. So when they come to us, it’s wonderful.”
Some “On the Go” performances are meant for specific groups of people, such as the folks at the Crown Center or employees and patients at Mercy Hospital St. Louis. Others are open to the general public, including people who happened to be strolling through Tower Grove Park last Sunday and came upon a brass quintet.
Those shows are deliberately kept a bit under the radar, announced only on social media several hours in advance. The SLSO can pull off quick, unamplified concerts for small groups, but anything more elaborate would require additional levels of permitting.
The orchestra’s other efforts to create and share music during a pandemic include a series of online performances recorded at historic sites and made available online, called “Songs of St. Louis.” The organization will begin posting videos of chamber concerts recorded at Pulitzer Arts Center later this month. Concerts will resume at Powell Hall on Oct. 15, with audiences capped at 100 attendees per show.
“It’s us truly saying ‘thank you,'” SLSO Associate Vice President Maureen Byrne said of the “On the Go” series, “and providing some kind of bright spot in this really weird time that we’re all finding ourselves in.”
The times do intervene, though, as does the calendar.
St. Louis Symphony has canceled some performances on short notice because of new coronavirus cases at the intended venue and several more because of chilly weather. Brass players can soldier through a slightly more crisp environment, but it’s particularly difficult to play stringed instruments in the cold.
A porch performance
Assistant Principal violist Jonathan Chu stepped up to play on an autumnal evening, after an orchestra section-mate determined it was too chilly to proceed and withdrew. Making things more complicated for Chu was his choice of piece to perform: Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Chaccone,” the final movement of the composer’s Partita No. 2 for solo violin. It’s about 15 minutes long and considered to be especially intricate and demanding to play.
Chu stood on the front porch of Adam Eaton and Karen Ruecker’s home in Webster Grove. Eaton and Ruecker sat several feet away with their college-age son, Alex Eaton. A couple of neighbors sat on camping chairs at the foot of the front stairs.
Chu played the piece, unfazed by the rumble of a nearby train at one point, and the small audience was delighted.
He said he was happy to be playing for anybody, even just this handful of people.
“There’s so much, so many bad things going on, healthwise, in our society, globally, that not playing for an audience seems like such a small thing. But for us it really means everything,” Chu said. “This is what we do as musicians. We play for people. We work for it, and we wake up for this kind of stuff. We live for it.”
Ruecker noted that the contactless delivery of a performance by a St. Louis Symphony took much less effort than did her earliest experiences going to Powell Hall with her husband.
“When we first met, the symphony was a big part of our dating relationship,” she said. “We would go, as poor students, to get the free tickets on Friday evenings. You had to stand in line starting around 5 p.m., and then the first 50 people would get free tickets.”
Adam Eaton is a pediatrician and an amateur violist. He’s undergoing treatments for cancer, so a casual social visit anywhere beyond the house right now is not a safe option. “Of all of us in the family, I'm the most social and I’m the one who likes to be out and about the most, so I've really missed having experiences out of the house,” he said.
But hearing Chu play the “Chaconne” at home on a pleasant evening?
“It’s a godsend,” Eaton said.