A string quartet is crushed by the coronavirus

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A string quartet is crushed by the coronavirus
Michelle Lie and Ross Snyder, violinists in the Tesla Quartet, in New York, April 16, 2020. Since its formation in 2008, the Tesla Quartet has been showered with critical accolades, released two recordings, hired a manager and lined up a full schedule at major concert halls around the world, but the coronavirus may jeopardize its financial security. Benjamin Norman/The New York Times.

by James B. Stewart

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Since its formation in 2008, the Tesla Quartet has been showered with critical accolades, released two recordings, hired a manager and lined up a full schedule at major concert halls around the world.

Even so, life as a professional string quartet has been a hand-to-mouth existence. The four players, 34 to 38, have long relied on relatives, friends and concert presenters for temporary housing while stashing their few possessions in a storage locker. Only during the past year did their advance bookings give them the confidence and means to rent their own apartments in New York.

And then, in early March, their delicate world fell apart.

Tesla was scheduled to perform at Rockefeller University in Manhattan on March 6, and was wrapping up several weeks of rehearsals of Tchaikovsky’s First Quartet, when one of the violinists, Michelle Lie, opened her email. The university was canceling its next three recitals — starting with Tesla’s, the following day.

Then came the following week’s scheduled performance at the Century Association, which suspended operations along with many of New York’s other private clubs.

Tesla’s members — Lie and Ross Snyder, violins; Edwin Kaplan, viola; and Serafim Smigelskiy, cello — had been aware of the rapidly spreading coronavirus, but only now did it start to affect them personally. They decided to take a week off and regroup.

Then came a cascade of cancellations and postponements. Foreign travel was suspended. By late March, their performance calendar through June, which had been full, was bare.

Classical musicians are typically paid only after a performance is over, so the players suddenly confronted the prospect of no income for the foreseeable future. They doubted that the few remaining summer festivals on their schedule would come through.

Soon they realized that simply being together could be a risk. A quartet is, by its nature, an intimate gathering. Players can’t sit more than 6 feet apart and still hear one another, breathe together or respond to what are often subtle visual cues. Even transportation posed hazards: Kaplan and Smigelskiy used to take the subway to the apartment that Snyder and Lie share in Brooklyn for rehearsals. In addition to their livelihoods, their musical identity was at stake.

The plight of four young musicians, however talented, may seem insignificant when 22 million Americans have filed for unemployment insurance in the past four weeks. Still, there are more than 41,000 professional musicians and singers in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and those numbers don’t include self-employed musicians like Tesla’s members. All of those musicians also help support an extensive but fragile ecosystem of managers, agents, concert presenters and halls, all of whom depend on performances for their livelihoods.

Beyond the numbers, musicians play an outsize role in the cultural life of the nation — from symphony orchestras and operas to chamber music festivals; from Broadway pits to Nashville, Tennessee, recording studios and national concert tours. Everything has now been canceled for the foreseeable future; it seems unlikely that performances will return this summer, and possibly beyond.

Even before the coronavirus, the string quartet was an endangered species. A few quartets, like the Juilliard, Guarneri and Emerson, are household names, at least for classical music lovers. But for most players, life in a small ensemble is a financial struggle even in the best of times.

I’d met the members of Tesla — named for the inventor, before the electric car became a well-known brand — in 2017 at a chamber music program at Stanford, where Tesla won the top prize. Tesla was unusual in that its members didn’t have to support themselves by doing other jobs or teaching — although they, like those in other groups, relied on freelance gigs to supplement their quartet income. (Those gigs, of course, have also been canceled.)

Oni Buchanan, the founder and director of Ariel Artists, Tesla’s manager, said the quartet faces an “existential crisis. They were lucky they didn’t need five other sources of income. Their career was taking off. But now they have nothing.”

For that matter, Buchanan has nothing either. The classical pianist went into arts management after graduating from the New England Conservatory rather than embarking on the grueling competition circuit. Ariel typically earns 20% of its clients’ fees, but only if they perform.

“Right now I have no income,” Buchanan said. She added that she has one full-time employee, “but I can’t afford to keep him much longer.”

When Tesla’s players realized they couldn’t rehearse — which they usually did for four hours a day, five days a week — they started to experiment with virtual practice sessions. Digital applications like Zoom don’t work well because of lags in the transmission of images and sound; in music, timing is everything.

They ended up settling on a system in which one player would lay down a track; the others could then listen and play over it. Smigelskiy mixed the tracks using Adobe software and posted the finished product to YouTube. Every few days since March 21, Tesla has added another short variation on a Russian theme, which the members are calling “Quarantunes.”

“We’re trying to use technology to give a pretty good approximation of a live performance,” Kaplan, the violist, said. “It’s the only way music can exist right now.”

Smigelskiy said the group chose lighthearted music to divert people from the virus.

“We’re not playing the Barber Adagio,” he said, referring to Samuel Barber’s solemn Adagio for Strings.

But YouTube can’t replicate the experience of live, simultaneous musicmaking.

“They’re being very innovative, but virtual practice isn’t sustainable over the long haul,” Buchanan said. “It’s very depressing for them. They feed off each other’s energy.”

Nor does YouTube generate any income.

Three of Tesla’s members have applied for assistance under the recent economic rescue packages, which made self-employed and freelance workers eligible for up to 39 weeks of unemployment insurance. They also qualify for the $600 weekly payment offered by the federal government through July. But none have yet been approved or received any funding; Smigelskiy hasn’t yet been able to get through to New York’s unemployment insurance system.

Lie’s eligibility was complicated by her Korean nationality and the need to renew her U.S. visa. Before the pandemic, the Trump administration had been denying visas to anyone receiving unemployment benefits, on grounds they were at risk of becoming public charges. So Lie has been reluctant to apply for the benefits.

A number of private funds have sprung up to assist struggling artists, and Tesla applied to several. But most of the funds were overwhelmed within hours of accepting applications. So far they’ve gotten only one positive response: $250 each from Artist Relief Tree, which now has a waiting list of more than 5,500 applicants.

Buchanan has pleaded with concert presenters to break with tradition and pay half the quartet’s fee up front for new bookings. A few have agreed. And the Tippet Rise Arts Center in Montana, backed by wealthy philanthropists and artists Peter and Cathy Halstead, said it would pay Tesla’s full fee for this summer and rebook them for next year in the increasingly likely event that the center’s August festival is canceled.

But few classical music venues have the Halsteads’ deep pockets or large endowments; many run a deficit and depend on charitable contributions. While nonprofit organizations are eligible for low-interest loans under the federal stimulus legislation, some of which may later be forgiven, many may not survive the loss of months of programming and ticket revenue, to say nothing of donations threatened by the economic downturn.

The entire musical ecosystem is endangered.

“So far we’ve managed to pay the rent,” Snyder, the Tesla violinist, said. “But if this continues for several more months, I don’t know. We were homeless for three years. I hope that’s not where we’re headed again.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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