As the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic set in and people everywhere were forced to shelter in their homes, Israel Philharmonic Principal Cello Emanuele Silvestri took to his rooftop. At a moment when our world desperately sought the connectivity, solace, and community offered by live classical performances, Emanuele forged a unique and innovative solution from the top floor of his apartment. His aptly titled Rooftop Concerts (which you may find in our video gallery) gathered his neighbors—and soon his online audience—for a much-needed shared musical experience. This month, we spoke with the eloquent cellist about these performances and how classical music fits into a COVID-19 world.
What motivated you to begin your rooftop concerts?
I started thinking about offering live performances during lockdown when I found that the internet and social media were flooded with videos of “socially distanced music collages.” I noticed that, besides some videos sending messages of hope, the majority were merely self-promotional, showing the performance of an entire overture with only one instrument (or something like that). Without diminishing the value of those projects, and the fun that people can find creating them (I also took part of some of them), I really started to be worry about it, thinking that a musician cannot reduce himself only to self-promotion, or to producing half-artificial multi-track arrangements (unless there is an artistic vision behind). This cannot be the future of the music, and it is not even the only way of doing it in the present.
So, I thought I had to find a way to persevere that would fall in line with health and safety restrictions. For me, live performances are the real meaning of playing music.
Seeing as I was lucky enough to have a large rooftop, I invited my neighbors to attend the first of these solo performances. Through a local Facebook page, I invited neighbors in the buildings opposite mine to watch and listen safely from their windows/balconies.
I immediately felt that even a simple musical offer—especially in such a worrying situation like during the first lockdown—could give so much comfort and solace to people. I encouraged all my musician friends and colleagues to do the same from their homes, when possible of course, to help spread a much-needed musical message.
I couldn’t wait to organize other performances, and this time I wanted to involve some friends directly, presenting to “my audience” different combinations of instruments and repertoire.
The next step to broadcast live on Facebook, to extend the performance to a virtual bigger audience, was a natural evolution of the original idea.
What challenges have you been forced to overcome with these performances? Technology? Organization? Connection?
It was in fact quite easy. One of the defining aspects of my rooftops concerts was the fact that we never did proper rehearsals and performed spontaneously—almost sight-reading the repertoire—because we couldn’t meet at home due to the distancing restrictions.
This was our challenge as musicians: To deliver a high-quality performance, spontaneously, with pride and passion.
And the other factor: The weather conditions were not very favorable to say the least. But we never complained, we—me and my friends who came to play—always felt that what we were doing was very important.
Technically, I always found it very satisfying to set up the cables, microphones, cameras on my own (although I wish I could have had one more minute of concentration and relaxation before the performances).
You have given so many people so much joy with your recordings… do you find that these more intimate settings allow you to stay better connected with your friends, fans, and family?
There is something more direct when you do small performances—the audience interacts easily, people are less intimidated by the size of the event, and the communication is more profound. I have to say that those rooftop concerts obviously weren’t my first solo, or small chamber music performances of my life, but perhaps because of the context, or the unprecedented planetary situation, it became very clear for me why I do music. The emotional exchange between musician and audience seems to me more intense when the setting is more intimate.
I am very happy that IPO has recently “adopted” this format by allowing Balcony Concerts from the Heichal Hatarbut. I am sure that whoever is so lucky to attend one of those concerts will keep the invaluable memory of a “personally dedicated” performance.
I also think that this format should be preserved even when normality will come back again.
How else have you been forced to innovate and stay creative musically during quarantine?
I found motivation to consider new repertoire that includes instruments I never play in chamber concerts. I also had to advance my knowledge of digital recording, audio and video editing, which gave me ideas for other projects I am currently working on involving other art forms.
Mostly I have the desire to explore new ways of performing to reach new audiences, like people who are not accustomed to classical music (I also noticed that cello is a fascinating instrument fascinating instrument that stimulates a lot of curiosity for these audiences). And I actually agree: I love cello more each day.
Have you grown closer to your fellow musicians during this difficult time?
Although this difficult time changed our perception, behaviors, and filters, everything was somehow unveiled and made clear. It was, from my point of view at least, easy for me to understand people and to get closer to who I consider friends, musicians of the orchestra or not.
I personally discovered the need and the pleasure to have people around me that share the same ideals, and I aim to defend and apply those same values in life.
We all need a little positivity right now… What are you most optimistic for in the next coming months?
I believe in the importance of the music—all kinds of music—humans cannot live without, being moved by music it is somehow part of our genome, it is like food for our mind and our soul. Perhaps, unfortunately, a city may forget for a period that an orchestra is not playing, but after a certain time we realize that something is missing if we do not listen to music. I think the future is pink (as we say in Italy), if we (orchestras or classical musicians) work hard not to be forgotten. We need to understand how we can fit into this new pandemic paradigm.
For sure we need to do some adjustment in the way we present our music, even more than changing the music we want to present (although we also need to refresh the contents).
I believe in the power of classical music also for new generations that have not experienced it. This is exactly the point, simple as it is, that new generations are not used to classical music, because of how we have offered it so far, because of the image that labels our performances, and sometimes because of the attitude superiority/elitism/snobbishness of us musicians.
I met people who couldn’t distinguish a cello from a viola who were genuinely fascinated by a performance of Britten (not the most commonly played music) coupled with a super classical Vivaldi cello sonata for two cellos. This was the power of a more interactive presentation of the pieces, explanation and sensorial experience, with no filters, rituals, or anachronistic constructions—just a pure moment of music making together.
Now, as an orchestra at the Israel Philharmonic, we have to wait (and it might become a periodical operation) for green lights from authorities in order to do concerts. But, in the meantime, we could (and should) use this time to stimulate the appetite for music in people that could be potentially become a new audience in the near future. We may achieve this by doing something unusual, but while also being confident that classical music can be appreciated also out of the Auditorium. (Which remains for me a holy place, do not misunderstand!)
Has quarantine changed the pieces you like to play? Do you find yourself featuring more upbeat/optimistic pieces?
I am very open to all genres of music, and as I said before, I would like to incorporate more genres into my cello repertoire.
I listen to rock, pop, hard rock, punk, electronic (like less jazz…), but I have my taste and my style, perhaps I tend to be less interested in ‘happy music’, but I am deeply fascinated by whomever brings energy and style on stage and has something to say.