First Violin Maxine Kwok: let the music play!

As I sit down and prepare to write this blog post I reflect on the past week I’ve had and what it’s taken to get to the point where we can work again.

Between 10-12 July we gathered at LSO St Luke's to rehearse and record a special performance for the Aix-en-Provence Festival. Thanks to Tim, Mario, Alan and all the crew who have spent weeks making LSO St Luke's a safe environment to work in. We had endless drawings, 3D videos of what it would feel like to walk around the building, discussions on toilet breaks (how long do people really need...) and even the librarians had to sort page turns for string players so that we would not all stop at once, as we are now sitting one to a stand and can't rely on a desk partner to turn a page. It was a huge collaborative effort all round by the LSO admin.

The big day rehearsal day, Friday 10 July, finally arrived, almost four months since we packed away at the Barbican without really saying a proper goodbye and went home to lead very different lives for a third of the year. I confess I woke at stupid o’clock as I was so excited about the prospect of, firstly, seeing my friends again, and secondly, wondering how would we all sound after almost 16 weeks apart. We had missed out on the rest of our London season, many recordings, tours to Spain, Vienna, Paris and New York, and right now we were due to be playing operas at the Festival in Aix-en-Provence for almost five weeks.

Many people cycled in and the familiar sight of the LSO truck was a comfort, although it was doing double duty as a mobile bike trailer for the weekend! Anyone walking by probably thought a wedding was about to take place as a wonderful marquee was in position ready as a covered space for a few players to eat a socially distanced lunch. What, no champagne fountain?!

Marquee and players outside LSO St Luke's

Different admin were posted all round the building, there were signs everywhere, arrows on the floor, more sanitizer that even the biggest germaphobe would need in a lifetime, and some hugely overqualified toilet attendants. Even Sue, our Planning Director, waved me into the Ladies one day. That’s how the LSO is, people just muck in and get on with it.

Staff member posted outside the toilet

With all the rudimentary essentials taken care of, it was time to find our seats. We had all been given numbers so finding our socially-distant seats was easy. There was much chatter as we waved and talked at the tops of our voices since we were muffled by masks; and no hugs as we had to stay within the proximity of our seats. We admired each other's masks – general hilarity at mine usually started the day; no surprise there then – but the feeling was that it was of the utmost importance for us to feel safe in each other’s proximity.

Maxine Kwok in a sequinned mask

The conductor Duncan Ward had gamely taken on the task of guiding us through this new world of single seat desks, three metre-spread woodwinds and brass in the balcony. It couldn’t have been easy looking at us with our masks. Inevitably, “what?” was the reply when messages were passed back from Principals. I have to admit I realise how much we tend to chat during rehearsals as it was suddenly not so easy – no longer could you lip read and whisper about what to eat in the lunch break. It was all in the eyes, and unfortunately eye reading is not a forte of mine yet! There needs to be some eyebrow code developed for “eek the conductor’s looking over”.

Carmine Lauri in a mask

We started the rehearsal with Gershwin’s Strike up the Band and I was glad of the mask as I got quite choked up (yes I am a bit of a sap) as the orchestra navigated these unknown waters. Even as I write now I feel goosebumps remembering how it felt to suddenly have this awesome sound I had been dying for so much back in my ears. It suddenly felt oh-so-familiar again, and I lost myself in the moment and it was like four months fell away. I hadn’t been without music, far from it: I listened to music, I watched concerts online, I even practised every (week)day, but feeling the vibrations of all the instruments pulse through me was like I had suddenly woken up! Stunning woodwind solos I had missed, the silky strings, punchy brass – I felt like all my Christmases had come at once. At times the orchestra felt so loud, but one friend commented that it wasn’t any louder than it had ever been – in fact we were nowhere near full capacity – but we had not sat within this huge wave of sound in so long that we had forgotten how it felt.

It was not without problems of course. Every inch of the Jerwood Hall had been utilised, and distance made many things much less intuitive than they had been in the past. I did miss the immediate collaboration of sharing a desk but the upside is that there are no stand hoggers...!

It was a wonderful weekend and I woke every day knowing that there was a purpose to my life again. The concert was to be recorded and broadcast for the Aix Festival, where we would have been right at the end of the five week opera run, so we needed to get into concert dress. Of course after four months of lockdown I struggled to find concert clothes that would fit (I blame elasticated waists, oh, and the copious amount of food I consumed...) even from my vast collection, and it actually felt alien to be getting dressed up again.

Duncan presented the concert and we made sure to whoop for our colleagues who played gorgeous solos for some atmosphere. I spoke at one point about the Mediterranean Youth Orchestra, which runs as part of the Festival every year, and how rewarding it is for us to be able to coach them. It has all been online this year and I know my colleagues who were involved found it a challenge, but it was so important to make sure the young students still had access to teaching and creativity.

Orchestra spaced out in LSO St Luke's, performance

At the end of the weekend we said our goodbyes, and I felt really sad to be given this taste of my life back, only to have it taken away again. Fear not though, it won’t be another four months! We shall return in late August for the BBC Proms and the start of our new season, which we hope will be streamed and possibly even with a socially distanced audience if allowed. I doubt we’ll be sitting any closer than before (carry on with the garlic) and my masks may reach new extreme heights of bling, but we’ll be there, happy to be an orchestra again and desperate to make music together.

All photos © Maxine Kwok, except the final image which is © David Jackson

> Watch the performance on the Aix Festival website

> Read Maxine's previous blog

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