On October 17 and 18, alumni Benjamin Beilman (Violin ’12) and Gabriel Cabezas (Cello ’13) performed in a joint presentation by Curtis and Music From Our Garden, an initiative created by Ella Remmings, a friend of the school, to help revive live music during pandemic times and raise funds for important causes.
Prior to the concerts, Ms. Remmings interviewed Benjamin and Gabriel along with their former teachers at Curtis, respectively Ida Kavafian and Carter Brey. The interviews included compelling reflections on the pandemic, how it is affecting education, and how professionals are coping with it.
Interview conducted by Ella Remmings for Music From Our Garden
What did you discover about yourselves in the last eight months [of the pandemic] that you didn’t know?
Benjamin Beilman: The biggest takeaway I’ve had thus far is … that there has never been a time when music is more accessible to an audience. Of course, it’s a very different way to consume [music] because it’s on a screen and it’s a very different situation. I knew this before, but [now] I’m much more aware and I’m trying to dig further into how to bring an audience into a performance experience a lot more. Ultimately in a performance, you need that other ingredient. You need the people listening with attention, that you can feel, that are breathing with you and experiencing the same thing … It’s this combination of zooming in on listening to yourself, and then also trying to make sure that also the outside components beyond just the stage are more visible and taken care of.
Ida Kavafian: I have always been blessed with a lot of energy. I can teach for 12 hours in a row. I’m so energized by Curtis students that I barely need to eat or take a break. But now it’s a different animal. Teaching remotely is very challenging and really requires a lot of concentration and a lot of creativity … The biggest thing I’ve been trying to do is to keep my students motivated. They had these great plans for the summer, they all got into festivals and music camps and then suddenly, nothing. I taught them on my own dime this summer – I don’t like to teach in the summer – but I just felt that I needed to stay involved [with them]. We created a project together called “On My Own,” which is their answer the pandemic. That kept everybody nicely motivated, digging deeper, and finding ways to find inspiration within ourselves.
BB: It’s very emotional to hear people clapping again. The few times I’ve had performances in distance capacities, hearing people clap for you again is like nothing I’ve ever felt before.
IK: The appreciation goes so deep. My students are fortunate to have such a challenging experience in their young lives, because I think they will appreciate life in such a different way by going through this.
What do you miss the most about performing live?
Gabriel Cabezas: The joy of performing has an element of sharing things with people, for me that’s getting live feedback from the audience and the energy that you share with them…I spent the last several months playing for myself and it’s just really not the same. There is nothing feeding you, pushing you or igniting something in you to find something new in the music. The highlight of playing music is playing with others, and so that is something I miss and I’m really looking forward to.
What helps you move from day to day then? Where do you draw energy?
GC: For a while, I won’t lie, it was nice to be home. I’m still at the point in my career where I try to spend a lot of time traveling, and with that off the table, embracing a more domestic life was at first kind of soothing. [Then] I took my first steps into some creative pursuits. I made a concert recording in my house. I wrote a piece of music for the first time in 15 years … [Music From Our Garden has] given me a new goal of something to work towards in my own playing. You have to find small creative goals combined with trying to embrace small moments of joy. It’s a beautiful fall week now in New York City. I’ve been going outside, the trees are turning. It’s still beautiful!
CB: Like Gabe, I really enjoyed the sudden freedom from my usual draconian schedule. I was barely keeping my head above water with my teaching and symphony schedule. Suddenly, that went away overnight, literally, and I thought, “Great I can go sailing more.” … I had my first chamber music performance just a couple [days?] ago at patron event in Connecticut. It was wonderful to feel myself slipping into my old habits as a performer, which I hadn’t done in months … I had forgotten about that aspect of my personality and my work since March … My string quartet, the New York Philharmonic String Quartet, will be getting together tomorrow to rehearse a very challenging program, for which we have live engagements later in the year.
What can audiences do right now to help musicians get through this difficult time?
CB: I think just show up! The orchestra has been sponsoring a series of pop-up concerts around New York called “NY Phil Bandwagon.” You see pedestrians stopping and listening and closing their eyes and swaying with the music, and you can see that it’s very important to them. That’s all musicians need to see, right Gabe? You need to see that you’re making a difference to somebody, that what you’re doing is important to them.
GC: That kind of feedback means a lot. It means that you’re not just screaming into the ether with music and you know that your efforts are actually appreciated … I would encourage people…to find opportunities to pay for things that directly support musicians. Whether that is album sales, which is something that a lot of people unexpectedly might have to rely on, particularly through the website Bandcamp. Much of [those sales] go to the artists. A lot of smaller venues are in real danger of never opening again, and so there are there are lots of GoFundMe pages out there for the wages of people who work there. The pandemic has just shown the true shaky ecosystem that we live in, with a lot different careers and groups of people tied to bring people live performance … Showing up with your pocketbook as well as your ears is important.
How do you know when you’ve made a difference to the audience, that your music really inspired the audience? What are some of the signs you’re looking for?
CB: Not falling asleep! It’s a major victory … I’m actually only partly joking … You can tell, you can feel it, when there is a kind of close attention paid to what you’re doing. You can feel that, just as feel the opposite, when people are getting restive and they’d rather be somewhere else. Any performer in any kind of discipline will tell you that. Stand-up comedians live and die by that. They can feel the current between them and their audience … If you’re well prepared, you’re playing at a good high level, and you’re projecting a sense of joy and confidence in what you’re doing, that can bring an audience along.
GC: I feel the same way. The comparison with stand-up comedy is really apt. There is an element of a one-sided conversation, but you are getting energy back. You can definitely tell what’s going on in the audience, and there are a lot of different versions of that energy that are inspiring. That closeness you get with people that are really engaged … It’s an energy where the people are really there with you on whatever journey you’re on.