Performers in the Time of COVID: Vasily Popov

I talked to cellist Vasily Popov on Zoom just before Christmas 2020. He spoke to me from a room in his Maryland home that serves not only as a practise studio for himself and his two musical sons, but a teaching and recording studio. Of course his teaching is all online now and has been since the first lockdown...but more of that later...

Initially I was intrigued by the large print of Van Gogh's 'Café Terrace at Night' behind him and one of his many ('too many' as he put it) cellos on a cello stand. 'That one I use mainly for teaching,' he told me. 'For performing I have a French instrument and I recently acquired an Italian cello when a musician who was retiring and had decided to donate her music collection turned out to have a 63 year old Umberto Lanaro cello that she was willing to sell.'

My screen also afforded me a view of a music stand adjusted for a violinist rather than a cellist. Vasily explained that it was his violinist son Yuri's stand but that he also used it. 'I try to play the violin at least twice a week. I find it stretches my mind,' he said. 'And I require some proficiency in order to help my chamber music students. Some of them are at quite a basic level and need me to be able to demonstrate.'

With that comment I realised that Vasily is someone who goes the extra mile. Born and raised in St Petersburg in a musical family he made a career playing and touring with the St Petersburg Philharmonic, Russia's oldest symphony orchestra. He had won prizes from competitions in Russia, Italy and the U.S.A, but having studied with 3 wonderful cellists who taught in the Russian tradition (Anatoly Nikitin, Konstantin Koucherov and Valentin Elin), the opportunity to hear soloists from all over the world inspired him to resume his studies. 'I could hear,' he said, 'that there was a Russian way of playing, a European way and an American way and I wanted somehow to amalgamate the three styles. What energetic rivers are flowing in different parts of the world?' is the question he had asked himself. And so he left Russia to study at the Hochschule in Munich. His teacher there, Walter Nothas, a student of the revered cellist, André Navarra, was, he said, very logical and almost prosaic, but very helpful. After working with him for some years he, as he put it to me, 'ended up meeting myself in a new way.'

Finally in 2002 Vasily and his pianist wife Ralitza emigrated to the United States and there they established busy careers both performing and teaching. Fast forward to March, 2020. I asked Vasily what had been his initial reaction to the emergence of the pandemic and the first lockdown which for him began on the 13th of March 2020. He said that like many of us he at first thought that it would be a sort of interruption to normal life and would blow over in a month or two. But as the months dragged on and he began to read more about the situation worldwide he saw that we were all facing something that might go on for a very long time. 'My reaction,' he said, was 'to look forward, not back because if I thought about how good life used to be I wouldn't be able to keep going.'

As it happened Vasily had spent a good bit of time as a student working as an assistant in the recording studio of Rimsky Korsakov College in St Petersburg where he had studied. 'I was always interested in technology, in recording equipment, old tape machines, editing with scissors...' He could see from the beginning of lockdown that everything, both his teaching and performing would have to move online. 'This life makes us all to be TV gurus,' he told me and we both laughed. 'But that is the way things are moving,' he said. 'I heard an interview recently with Keith Alexander, an audio post-production engineer who said that established broadcasting formats such as television and radio are increasingly finding it difficult to compete with the growth of individual vlogging, podcasting, and live streaming. Everyone can now be professional. Everyone is able to deliver a professional product and broadcast to the entire world: the resources and tools necessary are now accessible for all.'

Vasily, with his bent toward technology has had no difficulty adapting. 'In terms of my students,' he said (he has 60 chamber music students and 25 cello students), 'lockdown caught us at an interesting moment. The chamber music students were already three weeks into term, had practised their repertoire and were preparing for end of term concerts.' So Vasily found a way to create flexible click tracks (i.e. a recorded beat that adapts to the natural rubato or pull and push of tempo in the music) by entering a beat using a midi keyboard to a recording of the chosen repertoire on Youtube. He sent the click tracks to his students who then each used their phone to video themselves playing their parts. When he received the videos, he extracted the audio and amalgamated the tracks to create quartet and trio performances which he then attached to the combined videos. Going, as always, the extra mile, he asked the students to create artwork which he incorporated into the videos. He not only took all this on for his chamber music students but created practise videos for his cello students and even gave them extra mentored practise sessions.

And all the time he kept performing. For a concert series that had been running for some years at the Martin Luther King Library in DC, he and his wife Ralitza live-streamed some 'Kids and Adults Concerts' from their house using music from the teaching repertoire that children might themselves be able to play.

I asked Vasily what he had found most difficult about the last months. 'Maybe you'll find me overly positive,' he said, 'but I would have to say that it has been both terrible and good. Terrible, of course, because we have lost so many lives. But positive because it has allowed people to focus on themselves, to explore their interests, to learn new skills and techniques and to see themselves more clearly... we have all spent a lot of time viewing ourselves on computer monitors,' he laughed.

'What I am more concerned about,' Vasily continued, 'is how we will come out of this period. The pandemic is only half the problem. As things open up there will be more problems both in our personal and public lives. We must be very careful, study the situation and take things slowly. We mustn't jump into everything the way we used to. There are many questions to be answered; things will be very different and we have to be ready to adjust our art, to be flexible and at the same time continue to create and share our art with people.'

'For me,' Vasily said, 'this has been a time to polish certain skills in my teaching and recording techniques.' Frequent recording, he said, has given him a sense of perspective about his playing. But more than that, the situation we've all found ourselves in has taught him something similar about life. 'What we learn during this pandemic is how small we are in the big picture.' I asked him if the word that would describe what he had learnt was 'humility' and Vasily agreed that yes, that was a good way of summing up his feelings. 'This time of staying at home continually reminds me how much we fall short of our ideals, how much more there still is to accomplish'. His comments left me very grateful for an hour's chat with such an enthusiastic, engaged, and always enquiring musician. 'You realise that you are you and that's all you can be,' he said. 'And that allows you to be more at peace with what you do.'


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