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As an ambulance screamed by, Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra violist Elizabeth Pulju-Owen reflexively covered her ears, then continued with her sound check and music setup. As she and her cellist husband tuned to their daughter’s violin in front of the main entrance to George Washington University Hospital, workers in scrubs hurried by.
The family trio was part of the orchestra’s outreach to support frontline healthcare workers. In addition to the live music, orchestra members also donated money to provide lunches for medical staff. Seth Cook, the orchestra’s principal tubist, is also the owner of Takoma Beverage Company. He said orchestra members raised $750 from their own pockets to provide 70 meals of sandwiches, quiches, and salmon filets for hospital workers.
In addition to the Washington National Opera, the orchestra provides music for the Kennedy Center’s ballet and musical theater productions. The Kennedy Center has been closed since March 13 and won’t be reopening any time soon. That total freeze in revenue forced the Center to negotiate pay cuts and wage freezes for its National Symphony Orchestra—Cook said his orchestra’s members took “essentially the same concessions.”
“With Hamilton being canceled, things are not looking that great for the health of the Kennedy Center, so we’re looking at how the arts are going to restart and we’re looking for new, innovative ways to interact with our public,” Cook said. “As musicians, we’re always trying to communicate, always trying to connect with people, so this was a perfect thing for us. GWU is our hospital for the Kennedy Center. They’re going through something so crazy right now, this is an easy thing for us to do.”
While Cook oversaw the dispersal of meals, Pulju-Owen and her family regaled passing workers and a small crowd of pedestrians with Mozart, Haydn, and Handel string trios. Pulju-Owen’s husband, Drew Owen, often freelances with KCOHO; their daughter, Cecilia, is a student at Oberlin who’s been home with them since her school closed.
The string trio sounds great, there’s been a number of people in scrubs who have passed by, and one woman has parked her car to listen pic.twitter.com/aBAfQtUL7M
— Jane Recker (@janerecker) May 19, 2020
The three have been playing together at home and have been giving porch concerts in their Falls Church neighborhood. Pulju-Owens said, “We thought as long as we’re playing music, we should go play it for somebody. We want to do live when we can, because that’s such a special way of getting to interact with the audience… We’re performers. You get something from an audience, there’s a give and take that you feel that you can’t feel through a computer.”
However, there’s a reason orchestras generally perform inside. On a gusty morning, the trio had to deal with sheet music that flapped, tuning that slipped, and a finicky sound system. It’s easier for them than others, though; Pulju-Owens feels lucky she can play her instrument wearing a mask—brass and woodwind players aren’t so lucky.
Despite technical and elemental difficulties, the trio put on a successful 30 minute concert that had drivers applauding from their cars in the nearby intersection. The group filmed their performance and will distribute it to GWU Hospital workers. When they’re back next week, they’re working on having it livestreamed inside the hospital. Though there aren’t any longstanding performance plans past next week, the orchestra members hope it will become a more regular occurrence, with opportunities for brass, woodwind, and piano players to livestream from their homes.
“I think a lot of people in a budgetary context look at the arts as this ‘extra’ thing, but look at our days now,” Cook said. “We’re all quarantined on some level, and we’re all spending our time watching movies, and listening to music, and [engaging] in the arts, because that’s the only thing fulfilling our souls at this point. We don’t have the opportunity to be our normal selves, so we go to the arts to fulfill us.”