First Violin Maxine Kwok: on playing to an audience again

One of the surreal aspects of having been in lockdown was practising the violin with zero thought of any audience for the foreseeable future. I’ve never spent this amount of time with my violin without anyone actually getting to hear the fruits of my labour, be it for a lesson, chamber music or orchestral concerts.

I dreaded ever feeling like my hands had become clumsy and unfamiliar with the violin so it was certainly a good habit for me to play most days, and being on good terms with my neighbours I was fortunately able to feel connected in some way to my life as a musician, albeit one performing to a mannequin and various soft toys (they make great critics!).

Playing violin to a mannequin

The LSO's admin departments had been working hard these last months at developing LSO initiatives and so a Summer series was born – the “Summer Shorts”, half hour concerts repeated during the day, one to be streamed live and the others theoretically performed in front of a small distanced audience at LSO St Luke’s (shorts not obligatory). Just before lockdown Julian Gil Rodriguez and I had been invited to perform a violin duo concert high up in The Shard for an LSO Premier event, so it seemed like something we could recreate without too much rehearsal, since we had both kept up a relationship with our violins – although I’m sure Julian’s new kitten had been a distraction at times! Knowing I had this concert coming up in a few weeks gave me the motivational boost needed to be able to work on a programme with some focus. I was also presenting the concert which begs the question: what’s worse, performing or public speaking? Jury is still out on that one...

We kept to the core piece from our recital, Charles de Beriot’s first Duo Concertante, but we felt it would be meaningful to give a platform to composers who had been working through lockdown. I was fortunate enough to be in contact with the wonderful composer Daniel Kidane, who as luck would have it was just finishing a violin duo entitled Dappled Light. This world premiere was the perfect opening for our concert as the dramatic notes represent light coming through after the darkness, a great analogy. I had an Instagram Live chat with Danny the day before the concert where he talked about his inspiration for the piece and generously gave so much advice to young composers. He also said that the numerous fifths didn’t have to be perfectly in tune, so I definitely took that on board, thanks Danny!

Julian and I were able to meet up and rehearse at LSO St Luke’s with only two problematic issues: firstly we found that masks with a substantial chin section eventually get pushed up by the violin to cover the eyes, so we ended up stopping frequently to readjust! Secondly we would never usually stand so far apart to perform, so moments that were intuitive before usually meant a real head turn and eyeball to your partner.

Maxine and Julian rehearsing in masks

We were very fortunate that the DCMS had decided to work in conjunction with the LSO and the Summer Shorts were chosen as part of a pilot scheme to see how concerts could be managed with a small audience. We were thrilled to know that we would be performing for people and not just playing in the empty hall for the cameras. Living very locally it was fantastic to be able to welcome friends and even a star of the silver screen to the first live music for months and apart from a last minute outfit change (blasted lockdown kilos...) we were really excited to be back onstage and able to engage with an audience for an Q&A session afterwards.

Maxine with guests including Timothy Spall

Timothy Spall joins the Summer Shorts fun...

The pilot scheme allowed us to perform two concerts, 11am and 1pm, the latter to be live streamed to the delight of Kwoks all around the world! Walking on for the first concert was a surreal feeling, masked (friendly we hoped) faces dotted around the hall at a distance. As we walked out of the hall afterwards the inevitable dissection of the performance started, and we decided that even though we had enjoyed it, so many things had felt alien. Julian rightly said that we generally performed under pressure numerous times a week for years, and suddenly this all felt new. I imagine it’s like a tennis player who has been out with an injury for months and walks out onto Centre Court. Surely there are butterflies and dips in concentration from even the most hardened performers! By the time 1pm came round, fuelled by some pastries, we happily felt on familiar ground again.

Maxine and Julian performing at LSO St Luke's to a very spaced out audience

It’s hard to describe the feeling of performing for a real live audience. The whole atmosphere feels charged. Even in silence there’s an electricity in the air which makes you hyper-aware of everything – including, of course mistakes – but on the positive side elevates the performance and gives it this energy that you cannot recreate alone. I am used to finding it hard to wind down post-concert, the reason so many of us tend to go out and eat copious amounts of food on tour regardless of how late it is. I was amazed that I still found it hard to sleep that night after the lunchtime recital. I had missed the buzz that makes you hum with an indescribable energy and it lasted all day and well into the night.

I plan to attend as many of the Summer Shorts as I can, secure with the knowledge that all my LSO colleagues taking part will be as grateful as Julian and I were to have the chance to once again welcome people back to share in our music making. There surely cannot be many things in life that move us with such emotion as the sheer force of live music and I know right now it’s small steps, but... they are steps forward and that gives us hope for the future.

The next Summer Shorts take place on Friday 31 July, with a small socially distanced audience. You can apply to be in the audience by joining our mailing list, or the 1pm performance can be watched live and for free on our YouTube channel.

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