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Harvard Music Festival and Fivesparks explore new ways of ‘musicking’

With so many cultural events canceled because of the pandemic, one might expect that the Chamber Music Festival, a June event in Harvard for the past two years, would meet a similar fate. But no—Fivesparks and the event’s artistic directors/coaches will sponsor the third annual festival June 22 to 27, though the music and conversations will be live online instead of in person. Rather than be deterred by the boundaries the virus has set, event founder, coach, and former Harvard resident Judith Eissenberg says on the website, “The new set of boundaries that we’re facing has moved us to think of ways to continue ‘musicking’ with our participants and beloved listeners—and to work around, even with, the restrictions of social distancing.”

Musicians rehearse at a private home during last year’s music festival. (Photo by Lisa Aciukewicz)

Fivesparks board president Mark Mikitarian said in a phone conversation that it seemed especially important to hold the event this year—for both the participating musicians and the Harvard community—because of how music and the other arts nourish us in times of distress. The festival will provide some interactions and sense of community for the musicians, most of whom have been practicing alone and are “starved for the usual collaboration” that leads to a performance, said Mikitarian. This is especially important for chamber music players, who do not have a director and rely on each other to shape a piece. Musicians who have already registered for the weeklong workshops, presentations, and coaching sessions have expressed great excitement that the festival is going ahead, delighted that “since we can’t come to Harvard this year, Harvard is coming to us.”

The attending musicians who are bound for careers in music, many of them students, will participate for the full week, and semiprofessional and experienced amateurs will participate on days of their choosing. Of course, at the heart of the festival are the artistic directors/coaches, who will meet new challenges in working through a variety of virtual platforms. In addition to Eissenberg, a professional violinist, they are Rhonda Rider, cellist, and Judith Gordon, pianist, both of whom have been with the Harvard festival since its inception. All three, in addition to pursuing independent performance projects, have remained committed to teaching and coaching throughout their professional lives.

While the Harvard community will miss the opportunity to interact with visiting musicians around town, many of whom were housed with residents, and to attend rehearsals and the culminating concert, many new events will be happening virtually, all of which are free and accessible for viewing through links on the Fivesparks website. Community musicians may find particular interest in viewing the three daily Musician Nutrition workshops, each led by a practicing musician, much as a yoga or aerobics instructor leads online workouts. 

Music makers and music lovers alike will enjoy the afternoon and evening interactive performances, presentations, and discussions with musicians from diverse backgrounds. One such event, “Easeful Playing” on the evening of June 22, features Gillian Ansell, a violinist in New Zealand. Martha Mooke, on electric viola, has played with Barbara Streisand, Elton John, Tony Bennett, and other greats, and will perform the afternoon of June 23. In honor of the 250th anniversary of his birth, there will be discussions of Beethoven’s work as well as that of Shostakovich. The evening of June 26 will bring a collaboration between pianist Gordon, playing Chopin, and Katherine Desjardins, a visual artist who will be creating art in response to the music.

Virtual practice space

Curious community members might visit the Room 7F (7 Fairbank) 24/7 Zoom Room practice portal, a virtual practice space for any participating musician. Serious musicians may find value in the three ad hoc sessions during the week, each a sort of “musical triage” where participants can ask questions and get help with a piece they are working on. Music groups who have been quarantined together can attend a master class or arrange a coaching session, visiting the coaches, each in her own space, for 20 minutes each. Viewers are welcome.

For the third year in a row, Fivesparks received a grant from Further Forward to provide full scholarships for the young professionals. A scholarship from Associated Chamber Music Players supports experienced amateurs. Fivesparks is not asking for local sponsors this year in light of the changed nature of the event. But there are expenses, not just for the music festival but also for ongoing needs. Fivesparks has become a vibrant cultural center for the town, and those wishing to support it may do so through the “Donate” button on the website, fivesparks.org.

On the Fivesparks website, Eissenberg says of the Harvard festival, “This week has become one of our favorite musical encounters, so even without being in the same place at the same time, we are eager to ‘gather’ and continue sharing and exploring music.” A complete schedule for the week is on the Fivesparks website, and each listed event has links to more information, as well as access to the platform for the event itself.

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