Once Governor Eric Holcomb’s shelter-in-place order was lifted in late spring, performing artists began seeking ways to present live events that were safe and secure for audiences wary of COVID-19. One of the first groups to do so was classical musicians, including the Musicians of the ISO, The Vickery Trio, Ronen Chamber Ensemble, Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra, members of the Carmel Symphony Orchestra and others.
Fortunately, for classical music fans, chamber music has come to the rescue. It’s a form composed of a small group of musicians, with one performer to each part, without a conductor, and could fit in a palace chamber or large room. Ironically, during this summer of the coronavirus, this genre, which was once reserved for aristocrats, is being performed in yards and cul-de-sacs in neighborhoods throughout Indianapolis.
One Indianapolis musician who has participated in such performances is Jennifer Christen, Principal Oboist of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, which furloughed her and her colleagues in the spring. With the ISO since 2012, Christen is a guest oboist with major orchestras all over the country, Christen studied at the Julliard School of Music. A faculty member at the University of Indianapolis, Christen teaches oboe majors, as well the oboe portion of music technology to music education majors in all instruments.
On August 25, I had the pleasure of hearing Christen perform with other members of the Ronen Chamber Ensemble in the front yard of a private home in Irvington. Also performing was her husband Alistair Howlett, who is a flutist with the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra. The program included the Haydn London Trio # 1(arranged for oboe, flute and cello), the Malcolm Arnold Divertimento for Flute, Oboe and Clarinet, and the Saint-Saens Caprice op. 79 for flute, oboe, clarinet and piano. With safety precautions in place, the concert attended by nearly 50 people was sublime.
Recently, I interviewed Christen on Zoom from the home she shares with her husband and their son Elliot. Below is an edited transcript of our chat.
How did you and Alistair meet?
We met in 2010 at a music festival in Switzerland. We started dating at this festival. At the time, he was playing flute with Sydney Opera. Then, he was taking some time off to study in Munich. We did this stint for a few years. I probably went to Sydney about four or five times and he came to wherever I lived. When we first started dating, I was in New York and then Miami. We were trying to decide whether we wanted to move to Sydney or Indy. After I won the job with the ISO, we moved here.
The cost of living in Sydney is ridiculous. It was a rough decision, though, because he had a great gig there as well. The other factor is there are a lot more orchestras here. Alistair, who is from Sydney, felt he would have a better chance of getting things here than I would have had in Australia.
How old is your son Elliot?
He is two.
Has he displayed any musical talent?
He loves playing our little keyboard. He loves the violin. So far, he is not singing pitches yet, so we are hoping that will happen soon. He loves clarinet actually. Right now, he is trying to sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” He loves The Garden Symphony book by the ISO. I am a member of The Garden Symphony, which plays in libraries. You can play the music if you can’t make the library concerts. He really does love listening to that book.
Has he grown up listening to you and your husband practice?
He has. He loves watching us when we’re playing. A lot of times, the other person is playing when we take care of him or when he is sleeping. When he sees us practicing, he just stares. We brought him to some outdoor concerts and he is so good. He’ll just stare at us playing and he loves it.
Do you hope he’ll follow in your footsteps?
We would definitely be supportive if he went in that direction, but we would definitely be happy if he chose something else.
How have you coped with the pandemic?
It has been as tough on us as it has been for many people. A big factor is our son is home from daycare now, so that it makes it really tough for us to get anything done, but we are trying to because we want to play and we want to help out in any way with the musicians, so we have been doing some duets. We have played at a tea house in Zionsville, some concerts at friends’ houses and we have also done some chamber things with a couple of other friends at friends’ and donors’ houses, things like that.
For me as an oboist, even if I’m not performing, I do have to make reeds every day for about two hours. If I don’t, when I try to go back to making reeds again, it is going to be really bad and I won’t have reeds that I am comfortable playing with, so that is something I have to do every day. Normally, when the symphony is going on, it is at least two hours a day working on reeds and that hasn’t really changed. If I stop making reeds for a while, the quality will drop quite a bit. It is kind of like brass players, where if they don’t play every day, then they lose a lot of what they have. So, with a reed, it is a lot. It takes a lot of muscle to play them, but it also takes a lot of kind of memory to remember exactly what you’re doing when you are making them, so I try to do them every day.
How did you choose the oboe?
There was a high school that came to my elementary school to play instruments for us when we were in the process of choosing one and before I heard all the instruments, I thought I would choose the clarinet. But then, I don’t know if it was the player or the instrument itself, but I heard it and thought “Oh shoot, I don’t want to play that.” So, I had to quickly come up with another instrument. The teacher wanted us to choose by the end of the day. My best friend picked the oboe, so when I heard the oboe, I said “Oh, I love that.” Now my friend is a pharmacist, so I have her to thank for helping me choose the oboe.
What do you like about the oboe?
I love how the sound is very personal. Everyone has a completely different sound and it is just completely what you hear internally. You can really just transfer that to how you make the reed. Even more so than the reeds, you can really transform the sound to how you want it. I think a lot of the solos in the orchestral repertoire are very heartfelt and emotional. I feel very lucky about having chosen it
because I think it has a lot of special moments in the orchestral repertoire.
Are you also a solo artist?
Yes. I have done some things. I was hoping to play a Mozart concerto this summer with a group in Buffalo, the Clarence Summer Orchestra, but it got canceled. I also planned to play a few solos with the Buffalo Philharmonic, but they were canceled as well. This summer, I was supposed to also play with the Finger Lakes Opera, with whom I play every year.
You also missed out on Symphony on The Prairie.
That was a shame. It’s tough because no matter what instrument you play, it’s tough playing outside in the heat and humidity. But the energy of the crowds is amazing and I enjoy playing the different repertoire.
What do you miss most about live performance?
I miss going into the hall and seeing patrons, audience members, coming in. There is definitely an adrenaline I feel even before I walk in the door, seeing everyone come in. That adrenaline, I really do miss that. In rehearsal, you have a certain adrenaline still. But you are playing for different conductors each week and there is always a high level of stress, but when there is an audience, it just adds an extra piece to the adrenaline, which is really positive and that makes the music even more personal. I think it is very important for me to portray what I feel toward the music to the audience, even if they feel something completely different. That’s great too. And not having that audience to play to and not having that privilege to play is really tough.
Do you also miss your fellow musicians?
I’ve seen them at a couple of concerts we’ve put on outside and it is so emotional to see them again, even if to just say hi.
Have you felt loss throughout the pandemic?
Yes, especially during the beginning. It really felt like a roller coaster. There would be times, because of my son, I wouldn’t think of it for a few hours and I would be completely distracted. Then something would happen. I would go up to play oboe or get an email from the orchestra committee and it would just bring everything crashing down and it was such a roller coaster, especially for the first couple of months.
Have you done concerts with the musicians of the ISO?
We have been doing concerts presented by the Ronen Chamber Ensemble, which is mainly ISO musicians. We are doing one on October 9th in Nashville, Indiana and another October 10th in Zionsville. I’m also playing the Bach Oboe Concerto in D minor with other ISO musicians next week, with the date to be announced. Unfortunately, concerts will probably have to end in a couple of weeks due to weather. Brass players might be able to play a little bit after that, maybe through October, since their instruments are a little more tolerant of the cold. We will miss doing these concerts so very much. It’s a great excuse to play with our colleagues in different settings, to just see each other, and to share the personal connection of the music with each other and the audience. I hope we can find some way of safely playing in the cold months.
What are your thoughts about the pandemic in general?
It is really hard to know when things will get back to normal and that’s why it’s good that we are all trying to be really creative. It’s really been inspiring to see my colleagues and realize how much people really want to play, how much music has been going on in the community, how much has been just posted virtually. It’s really been inspiring. We love what we do and that has been shown. I think what else has been shown is that there is an audience for it.
What sort of feedback do you receive after performances?
People are always just so happy to hear live music. As for me, it is so nice to play music. There is Ia certain sound you will get through a computer, which is different than what you get live. And a certain energy that is missing with virtual performance. It seems like it has been an overwhelming experience for people that hear it live.
There is also a normalcy that people long for as well, right?
I know. I never could have imagined that we’d be in a situation like this, but it’s true. And definitely a positive that a lot of chamber music is coming out of this because chamber music is really fun to play and really fun to listen to and see the connection between everybody
What do you hope the new normal will be post pandemic?
I am really excited to get back on stage. I think that is going to be very emotional for everybody. That first rehearsal is probably going to be waterworks for everyone. But I do hope we will keep this community base we’ve built and continue the chamber music concerts because it is really fun for us and it’s a totally different experience for the audience. I think that will really help because it is so diverse what you can do with chamber music and continue playing in different areas. I think that is something that will come out of this that will definitely stay
Are there different ways you have been compensated?
Yes, the things that we’ve done we have been compensated. In a couple of instances, there was more than we expected because they really appreciated us coming out. It goes to show that people really appreciate it.
Do you agree that artists are essential workers?
Oh, completely. And I think especially in times like this where people need that form of communication.
Is that a silver lining?
For sure. The amount of support we’ve seen on social media and through our concerts has definitely been a silver lining that we have so much support.
What would you say to your fellow musicians?
I tell myself just to hang in there and take it one day at a time and play your instrument every day. I think that really helps you realize your love for it and that you’ll get through this.
What about your audiences?
We miss you guys and can’t wait to perform again for you at Hilbert Circle Theatre. In the meantime, watch for us out in the community.
For more information about the Ronen Chamber Ensemble, Musicians of the ISO and Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra, visit their respective Facebook pages.