The Power of Music: Chamber society fills a pandemic void

By Sue Breding

When internationally renowned violin and viola instrumentalist and composer Nokuthula Ngwenyama arrived to rehearse for the Phoenix Chamber Music Society’s concert on March 5, she noticed something unusual.

Several audience members were already there — seated, smiling and full of anticipation.

The global COVID-19 pandemic had stripped people of the ability to attend live shows, so in 2020, the society streamed concerts and interviews with artists.

Then, just as vaccines became available, they found an innovative way to bring live music back. They held outdoor concerts with mandatory safety precautions. It was early Spring 2021, and the society became one of the few chamber music organizations in the country offering anything like that.

“Those concert-goers who were there early for my performance were so grateful that they were going to be seeing a live performance and feel a sense of community again,” Ngwenyama says.

From a performer’s perspective, Ngwenyama knew exactly what they were experiencing. As someone who could read and write notes before she could speak words, music is an integral part of who she is.

“That makes it my primary written, expressive language,” Ngwenyama explains.

While she could focus on composing and writing and could perform for her family during the pandemic, there was a void.

“I missed the energy and being able to play for people,” the artist says. “To have it be in the midst of a pandemic and have people be there to watch that beautiful evening, it was an amazing, perfect night.”

The pandemic brought a variety of challenges for many people. Ngwenyama has always believed music is an ideal antidote in difficult times.

Research backs her up. They include a study done in England by a researcher with Goldsmiths University showing that music can boost moods even more than yoga or being with a dog.

Another study published in the Journal of Public Health found that experiencing live music can melt away stress by reducing stress hormones.

Chamber music means songs that are composed for small groups of instruments and ensembles, and it is most often associated with classical music. Board certified music therapist Julie Hoffer with Valley Music Therapy LLC says classical music in particular has several wellness benefits.

According to Hoffer, it includes better emotional awareness and improved quality of sleep. She says listening to music, especially live music, can release endorphins in the brain, like exercise.

Also, music often holds many memories, so a single tune can take a person to a special time and place

The Phoenix Chamber Music Society has been serving the Phoenix area for 62 years.

“In all that time, our goal has always been the same — bringing the most acclaimed small ensembles of classical musicians from across the globe here, for a season of concerts,” says Executive Director Janet Green.

The season’s performances, which span from October to April, are held at Central United Methodist Church. When the pandemic hit, the society streamed videos including six Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center concerts. Then, something lucky happened.

“We were fortunate that our concert venue, Central United Methodist Church, partnered with Phoenix Theatre Company to construct an outdoor performance venue in the church’s courtyard,” Green explains.

“Phoenix Theatre Company then graciously allowed us to use that stage and the lighting and sound system, for concerts so we had three outdoor concerts for individuals who had been vaccinated, wore masks and were distanced.

“Having this innovative collaboration and the ability to have live concerts during this time was a true gift for us.”

All but one of their regular concerts were rescheduled, either as later than originally planned or piggy-backed onto this current season.

For all the artists, including Ngwenyama, those initial outdoor concerts were their first live performances since March 2020.

“It was a profound moment to feel a sense of community again,” Ngwenyama says.

“There is a human expression that comes through when I hear live music and I’m in the moment. I feel it viscerally, it is so meaningful that it goes right to my soul.”

She is preparing for her upcoming performance by Umama Womama, an all-women’s composers’ trio she founded with flutist Valerie Coleman-Page and harpist Hannah Lash. They will premiere a jointly written three-movement work at the society’s Spring 2022 music festival.

Green says some of the chamber’s musicians have described themselves as “giddy” with excitement about the chance to be on stage in front of a live audience again.

Their 2022 concert series includes one by recent Grammy winner Pacifica Quartet. Also on the schedule is wind quintet Imani Winds, the New York-based Manhattan Chamber Players, the Musicians from Marlboro and the East Coast Chamber Orchestra.

Green says safety precautions for audience and performers will continue. She is simply grateful that the finest music the world can offer, is now back live.

“Music can transport you,” Green explains. “It gives people a place to escape and just immerse themselves into an art form where they don’t have to think about daily life.”  

Phoenix Chamber Music Society