IN: Reviews

A Musical Journey Through the Pandemic


The Eureka Ensemble’s last orchestral performance at the Church of the Covenant took place before the world came crashing down due to the pandemic, so its return there on Saturday, May 6th, just days after the World Health Organization announced the end of the “global health emergency,” befit its theme, “Healing and Transcendence.”

Co-founders Kristo Kondakçi and Alan Toda-Ambaras created Eureka to make classical music accessible to all communities. I got to know Eureka as their mission and the pandemic intersected through their sponsorship of Boston Hope Music, a program that provided virtual bedside concerts to patients recovering at the Boston Hope field hospital in the early days of the pandemic, musical performances at vaccination centers across the city, and free music lessons to frontline healthcare workers. As a hospitalist physician treating patients with COVID-19, I have been blessed to study piano and ukulele through the Boston Hope Music Teaching Project. It has provided much-needed healing to me and my colleagues during the crisis of the past several years and has helped us become a part of a larger musical community.

So, as we transition out of this crisis to a “new normal,” I was excited to attend Eureka’s performances of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto and Brahms’s Symphony No. 4 in E Minor. As the American-born son of ancestrally Indian immigrants from East Africa, I did not grow up listening to Western classical music. I did not have a ready lexicon of Italian nouns and adjectives to critically appraise what I was about to hear, but I was ready for an experience. These pieces were chosen, according to the program, because they are “masterworks defined as much by their energy and expansiveness of spirit as by the darker, heartrending emotions imbued by their composers’ life experiences…a remarkably fitting musical response to the times in which we live.” Over the night I revisited many of the emotions I’d felt throughout the pandemic, as angst gave way to a tonic hope, only to be revisited by angst, followed by both optimism and caution.

I had seen Toda-Ambaras, the featured solo cellist for the Dvořák, perform once before. At the hospital where I work, he had volunteered as a featured soloist in a wedding concert for a dying patient. The compassion, grief, and joy he had shown through his music during that occasion were palpable this time also.

As Kondakçi led the orchestra through the tranquility of the opening of the Allegro to the boldness of the Finale, he and Toda-Ambaras seemed at times to move as one, with the orchestra as an extension of Kondakçi’s body and Toda-Ambaras’s cello as an extension of his. Before the concert, someone had expressed a worry of how the church’s long reverberation would muddle the sounds, but as the orchestra powered through outbursts of the first Allegro, including its famous horn solo, the resonance throughout the church did not overwhelm articulation. The manic highs of the Allegro sharply contrasted with the reflective and contemplative melancholy of the second Adagio ma non troppo, whose theme recalls the composer’s first love; she died as he was composing the concerto. The orchestra’s balanced accompaniment supported the tenderness and thoughtfulness with which Toda-Ambaras played this movement. As the orchestra reached what Dvořák himself described as the “stormy mood” of the Finale, and Toda-Ambaras triumphantly fired through the octaves and double stops, I briefly turned toward my seatmates, watching as we held and released our breath together with him, until the final release at the concerto’s conclusion and the thunderous applause that followed.

Here I began to imagine the evening’s performance as an extended metaphor of the pandemic. The Dvořák concerto begins with optimistic affect, signifying the seemingly happier pre-Covid pandemic times. The rising and falling of the concerto’s movements, especially the immense loss felt in the second movement suggested the monumental ups and downs through the first phase of the pandemic. The triumphant, energetic finale brought to mind the promise felt with the triumphant and rapid arrival of the vaccine.

The Brahms symphony also began with hope and optimism, akin to how we entered 2021with hopes that we were now close to victory over the pandemic. But then, just as the Omicron surge shattered our expectations, the symphony agonized through its first two movements—the first bombastic Allegro non troppo and then the Andante moderato more inward. This second movement was introduced firmly but distantly by the horns, carried forward gently by the strings, and then ultimately concluded intensely but not overwhelmingly. The third Allegro giocoso was noticeably upbeat, but again played with delicateness. It brought to mind for me the longing felt for the pandemic to end, the aching for the light at the end of the tunnel. Kondakçi leaned toward concertmaster Sophia Szokolay, making that yearning so compellingly visual.

Though epic and energetic, the final Allegro energico e passionato felt cautionary. In our daily lives the past three years, we have gone through a whole experience—the melodic and resonant lows and the triumphant highs—and we have now reached the resolution, but it is not one of pure cheer. The pandemic experience has left much in its wake, and so Brahms’s finale conveyed hope and resolution, but also a warning to remain vigilant.

Even as a relative novice to classical music, I can say that the ensemble’s stirring elucidation of the moods of each individual movement inspired the superimposition of my narrative arc of Covid metaphors. I’m grateful for the journey that I experienced, and I thank BMInt for sharing my thoughts.

Hemal Sampat, M.D. is a hospitalist physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, double-specialized in internal medicine and pediatrics. He is a student of piano and ukulele through the Boston Hope Music Teaching Project, and previously studied tabla, harmonium, and the alto saxophone.

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