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Spoleto Festival USA Shares Sounds and Lessons from the Pandemic

Flutist Viola Chan
Spoleto Festival USA
Flutist Viola Chan talks about life during the pandemic from her home in New York in a videotaped interview with Spoleto Festival USA

Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra members can’t play because of the pandemic so they share sounds and experiences from the past year with an online audience.

Viola Chan is a fresh-faced, freelance flutist. She’s one of 80 orchestra members who wanted to play in Charleston this week for Spoleto Festival USA. But the pandemic is still silencing some live performances. So, festival organizers videotaped interviews to post online featuring musicians like Chan, reflecting on their lives this past year.

“I’m currently in New York and I actually haven’t left New York since the pandemic hit,” shares Chan in her interview.

The Videos
Chan and others open-up to Renate Rohlfing, a pianist who has performed with Spoleto. She’s also practices music psychotherapy. She uses music to help people connect with themselves and each other. "While each interview is so unique, all of the themes that emerged were the same,” says Rohlfing.

She found musicians coping with isolation, questioning their lives pre-pandemic and wondering how to move forward better. Chan, for example, hasn’t seen her family in nearly two years. She graduated from The Julliard School virtually. At times, the quiet of quarantine was deafening.

The Sounds
“I’ve definitely gotten into my head way more,” admits Chan. “I know that I need to stop thinking and just go outside and take a walk. Maybe, get more tea?”

For percussionist Sidney Hopson, the quiet that settled over Los Angeles quickly shattered with the death of George Floyd. “So, for the next month really, there were always helicopters overhead, protests every day and fights in the street,” says Hopson. “It went from just complete dead silence to a lot of sound.”

That sudden, rush of sound filled Hopson musically. “At that point, there was this sort of gathering of ideas and hopes and aspirations and fears too that I wanted to capture and express in every way possible.”

In the small tow of Oviedo, Spain, violist Alfonso Noriega Fernandez heard his native language for the first time in 15 years. He’d been gone that long. Fernandez says he also finally listened to the advice of elders encouraging him to slow down.

“I feel like I take he more easy,” he says. “I take it way, way more easy.”

He says he heard birds in places he’d never noticed them before. “The one thing that I will recollect is the feeling, the feeling that the birds are free again.”

Rohlfing too distinctly remembers the sounds of birds in avocado trees at her parent’s home in Hawaii.

“I could even hear them eating the avocados because it was so quiet,” she says.

So, what does it sound like when birds eat avocados? “It sounds very happy first of all,” Rohlfing says as she laughs. “It’s kind of like they hit the avocados so it’s smack, smack, smack and then teet, teet, teet as they eat it.”

Rohlfing hopes artists and online audiences can still connect, if not through music, through shared experiences. Each is still trying to learn. “How to shift and move forward and use what they learned during the pandemic to create a more meaningful life for themselves.”

They’re trying to figure out how to find comfort in stillness and live in the moment as the pandemically hopefully loses its grip. A new interview is posted each day of Spoleto Festival USA on the festival’s website. The collection will conclude with an interview with Renate Rohlfing.

Victoria Hansen is our Lowcountry connection covering the Charleston community, a city she knows well. She grew up in newspaper newsrooms and has worked as a broadcast journalist for more than 20 years. Her first reporting job brought her to Charleston where she covered local and national stories like the Susan Smith murder trial and the arrival of the Citadel’s first female cadet.