First Violin Maxine Kwok: the end ~ the beginning

It’s ridiculous o’clock but I’m still buzzing in a way I haven’t for months. I’m on a post-concert high, the feeling of a drug pulsing in my blood that my body had long forgotten about.

Tonight was our 2020 BBC Proms concert. I don’t think many people thought this would be a reality when our lives were halted back in March, but low and behold, 50 of us have just made music on stage at the Royal Albert Hall, and my God it felt bloody great.

I particularly love the Proms, having played there most years since my first National Youth Orchestra Prom in 1991, so the thought of 2020 being empty of this, the greatest of music festivals, was unthinkable. Of course there was no audience in the hall, which at capacity holds a good 7000 people, but I’m still scrolling through hundreds of tweets from music lovers who tuned in to watch, and we played our hearts out for these people regardless of where they were. Sir Simon Rattle used social distancing to great effect in an eclectic programme that featured two great artists we at the LSO are very familiar with, Mitsuko Uchida and Thomas Adès.

Mitsuko Uchida warms up on stage at the Royal Albert Hall

All of this was only possible because of so many safety factors, but mostly the amazing teams at the LSO and the Royal Albert Hall who made sure we were protected every step of the way, from firing hand sanitiser at us at regular intervals to making the distant staging set up as bearable as possible.

Maxine in the Royal Albert Hall wearing a mask

A wonderful bonus to the lack of audience for the Proms was that every player had their own loggia box serving as a private dressing room. There were gasps of delight as we spread our belongings, unpacked in comfort and discovered the champagne bucket, sadly empty. Perhaps a few wished we had worked harder and become a Concertmaster in order to always have such luxuries! No more cramming around one mirror and being in danger of someone’s hair straighteners taking an eye out. I think we could all get used to this element for sure. We spent the weekend leaning out of the boxes chatting to one another, hardly able to believe we were actually there. We were advised to close the curtains whilst we changed since there was some filming going on pre-concert – no one needed any, ahem, realism before the “Moonlight” sonata.

LSO players lean out of the loggia box dressing rooms

Last week our new season was announced and although there have been some necessary changes to repertoire and venue, it’s a welcome morale boost for us all, and I for one feel so incredibly fortunate to be gainfully employed again. We will be performing in LSO St Luke’s which has had an incredible safety make-over thanks to our wonderful team and is complete with a large marquee out back, not as a wedding reception venue but as a violin “break out space”. The coming weeks will I’m sure see many of us sitting there with our tupperware and thermos flasks gossiping like old times, as if the last half year hadn’t happened.

The question I am asked most often in these days has been, “how does it feel to play at such a distance?” The answer is, it really takes some getting used to! I can only speak as a string player but I do at times miss having the engagement between a desk partner. The Royal Albert Hall stage, for example, isn’t the easiest place to perform at the best of times, being a huge space to fill, and there was now an extra an element of courage and trust because you could no longer hear as precisely as you’d wish. But I have absolute faith in my colleagues, and as I listen back to the concert now at 1am on BBC iPlayer I’m astounded at how lush and together it sounds.

Royal Albert Hall stage set out for orchestra

In a few hours we’ll be back at LSO St Luke’s to start rehearsing for Bartok’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (available to watch on YouTube from 25 October) with Sir Simon, bass-baritone Gerald Finley and my dear friend, mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill, who hosted the most amazing lockdown quizzes from her home in Glasgow. I hope you’ll stay with the LSO on this new journey and join us online as we live stream all our performances for you, our loyal audience.

I’m just so grateful to no longer have the feeling of having lost a limb these last few months. We’re back where we belong, making music together, albeit sitting a little further apart. Huge thanks to all of you who made us feel loved and relevant whilst we couldn’t perform live. I can’t wait to lock eyes with you all once we can have an audience again and I promise, I’ll give you all a huge smile.

> Watch the BBC Proms concert on iPlayer and BBC Sounds until the end of September 2020 
> Browse the LSO's Autumn 2020 season
Rewind to Maxine's first lockdown blog, written in March 2020

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