The Colorado Symphony’s Concertmaster, Yumi Hwang-Williams, discusses her return to the concert stage at Red Rocks, quarantine activities, filming Colorado Symphony education content alongside her daughter, and much more.
The onset of COVID-19 has had a dramatic effect on Colorado Symphony operations. What were those early days of the pandemic like for you? What were your thoughts and emotions as we were forced to cancel the remaining months of the 2019/20 Season and unable to perform publicly?
Yumi Hwang-Williams: My last official concert ended up being a chamber music concert to celebrate Beethoven 2020 at the Arts Center in Steamboat Springs on March 12th. The country had already begun to shut down and I was very nervous about our concert being cancelled after we would travel there. The concert went on with very enthusiastic responses and we were aware that it could potentially be our last for a while. During our drive back next morning, Friday the 13th (for those superstitious types), we found out that Boettcher would close and our concerts cancelled. It felt like the gavel had been struck. The next few weeks were a roller coaster of emotions grappling with the unending news of doom and gloom, worrying about financial repercussions for not only myself, but my colleagues, our orchestra, and broader musical, cultural institutions, dealing with remote learning – all amidst this bizarre, surreal sense of disbelief that this was actually happening. At first having a little time off from playing felt like a relief from our frenetic schedule leading up to the stoppage, but it didn’t take long before I began to truly miss my time on stage.
What did you do during the “Stay at Home” period to stay occupied? Did you pick up any new hobbies?
YHW: I put the violin to bed for the first two weeks and tried making the best of the “Stay at Home” order by spending quality time with my family. Then came the cleaning phase where I tackled all the little postponed home projects. I’m not really a hobby person, but I did indulge with the national past time of binge-watching, reading, cooking, listening to a lot of music, and sporadic fits of practicing the violin for fun without the pressure of an immediate deadline.
Over the last few months, smaller ensembles have been able to perform for socially distanced crowds outdoors including a recently completed run of performances at Red Rocks that culminated with a weekend of concerts featuring Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. What was it like to perform in front of audiences again and what were those performances like for you? What were some of your memories or impressions of these events?
YHW:The first live event I participated for the Symphony was to record at Red Rocks with the wonderful soprano, Michelle DeYoung for the Virtual Independence Eve project. It was quite an emotional experience being at an empty Red Rocks with all its grandeur, finally making music and sounds filling the air after over three months of silence. At this point, the reality of our situation had set in deeply and I was feeling desperate to play. The Vivaldi concerts would be some six weeks later with larger string forces and with Christopher Dragon on the podium, it felt slightly closer to a normal performance where you feed off of the energies of the players and react to the music making together. I felt very privileged and grateful to be performing. Having to follow my wonderful colleagues on Vivaldi’s Winter after each had tackled a season beautifully added an extra excitement. We battled inclement weather, masks, page turning with no stand partners, delayed acoustical issues with social distance, but the genuine enthusiasm and appreciation from of our 175 audience members with our shared experience of enduring and adapting to our current situation made these concerts truly unique and memorable.
You also filmed the first of our Instrument Interview Series videos as part of our #PlayOn campaign. What was that project like for you and what did it mean to film alongside your daughter?
YHW: The #PlayOn campaign has been a wonderful way to stay connected with our patrons and I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to hear my colleagues share their talents. For me, every time I was asked to video record a speech, or some excerpt for the Symphony, I found myself with a huge learning curve where a two-minute speech would take hours to record. The interview with my daughter was funny because just when a deadline was approaching, for some odd reason she took a nap for hours on end. I finally had to wake her up so as not lose the natural light in the room. We had to do multiple takes as I found out that she has a penchant for going off script and taking me too far off course! My nephew helped with the video recording and I know by the end, his patience was definitely waning. It really was a fun project and am happy to have that as a memento of this time.
While our 2020/21 concert season has seen performances cancelled through December 31, 2020, the Colorado Symphony continues to search for innovative ways to continue performing, in whatever capacity we’re able. Why do you think music is so important right now and what can you say about the efforts of your colleagues to preserve during this period?
YHW: I am really proud of how the Colorado Symphony has been very creative and hard working to spread our musical content during this extraordinary time, especially because we all need music more now than ever. When there’s a point where circumstances get too much to bear, emotions be they high or low, music can step in to fill the gaps and allow our brains and hearts to process, release, transport, and transform. We intend to keep forging ahead to continue providing as much live music as possible safely and responsibly until this pandemic subsides.
What message would you give to Colorado Symphony supporters who are looking for ways to help support the organization and musicians until we can perform as a full ensemble with patrons in Boettcher Concert Hall again?
YHW: I believe in the Colorado Symphony as an instrument of good and of noble endeavor. It is an institution for our community that continually strives to be better, flexible, accessible, while we navigate through these challenges. We want to be YOUR Symphony and for you to root for your team. Of course, we need your monetary support as the musicians have been furloughed since June and face only partial salary for the future, but we also need your moral support of sharing our online content, talking about your experiences with us, and generally being our advocate. We cannot wait to get back on stage in full force, but we will do our best to stay connected with you until we can safely do so again.