Together again: String trio talks ‘Goldberg Variations’

Posted on: September 14, 2020 in: Programmes>2020-21 Season

Ahead of their performances of Bach’s Goldberg Variations at Southwark Cathedral on 18 September, we asked Alexandra Wood, Joely Koos and Ruth Gibson some questions about performing together to an audience again, after all these months.

Goldberg Variations will be CLS’s first live, indoor concerts since 16 March. Have you missed performing to a live audience?

Alex: An audience has been the thing I have missed most during lockdown. Whilst we can practise, or play music by ourselves, most musicians do what we do so that we can share our joy of music-making, so that we can connect to people. I did my first live performance [since lockdown] last week and it was incredibly emotional to hear applause again; to watch people’s faces and reactions as they were transported somewhere else by the power of music. To feel that energy and atmosphere again was thrilling.

Joely: I have truly missed the connection one makes with a live audience and the fantastic atmosphere they bring. Performing a piece online with no response afterwards has made me feel subdued. However, I really enjoyed the rising hearts [on Facebook] with Comfortable Classical at Home and ongoing text comments when I gave live presentations on YouTube. Also, every Thursday during lockdown, our family performed on the street to give thanks for the NHS. All our neighbours came out to listen – it created a beautiful community spirit; we chatted across the road swapped stories and drank wine afterwards.

Ruth: Definitely! Although I have managed to play to neighbours and also to friends over Zoom (which is not the same, but great to find a way to connect still – especially if you can get hold of a good mic!). I’m glad that events – including pilot events like the 18th September – are going ahead, as I think it will be a trial process for us all for some time to come. And if we can find ways to play to live audiences and also still bring the music to those at home who can’t make concerts, well then we can look at this period as the time we discovered new ways to make music even more available and accessible. So, not all bad!

You also haven’t been able to perform with your CLS colleagues for a while. Tell us about how these months have been for you, and how you’ve been keeping in touch with other musicians.

Alex: I have also thoroughly missed playing with other people. It is within that unspoken bond between performers on stage or in rehearsal where the real magic and excitement comes from. Whilst I chatted to colleagues online and via social media, it wasn’t until my Comfortable Classical for CLS with Waffy (Principal Clarinet) that I actually played with someone else. That experience felt quite overwhelming, but also incredibly welcome!

Joely: Firstly, I thoroughly enjoyed tuning in to CLS Comfortable Classical and mindfulness presentations given by my excellent, resourceful colleagues. Each musician brought something individual and special to the proceedings. It was so positive and heartwarming; I felt such a connection to each treasured friend. Secondly, I co-founded a self-help exercise group at the start of lockdown, which has been my mainstay – an invaluable support for me emotionally, as well as physically. We are all musicians (about 12 of us) and we clocked in at 8.15 every morning for Pilates and HIIT exercises. We also held weekly quiz meetings, qigong sessions and some political chats about the state of our profession. We are still going strong, exercising daily. One of our team has written an outstanding article for the media ensuing from our chats, and another member of our group is considering taking up personal training – she didn’t know what a lunge was this time last year!

Ruth: We were really lucky to have these Comfortable Classical and Mindful Music informal streams of most of the orchestra members. It has been a great way to connect, support and see each other – seeing two colleagues and friends at home each week throughout it all. The WhatsApp group has also ensured plenty of communication!

We’re really happy to be able to present concerts at Southwark Cathedral again. What is it about these concerts that feel special to you?

Alex: Southwark Cathedral is a special place. The architecture is just wonderful, and the fact that audiences are free to roam during performances to appreciate it, and find a ‘perfect’ spot for themselves, helps to create a unique atmosphere – of informality but also occasion. Quite how that is possible, I am not sure, but it is the case!

Joely: I simply adore the ambience, the acoustics and the architectural space and beauty that Southwark Cathedral offers. It chimes perfectly with CLS’s ethos of how we can connect with our audience through music.

Ruth: I think the venue itself is so beautiful, historical and spiritual. For me, when you play in a church or cathedral (especially Bach), it feels safe and sacred. And as Southwark Cathedral has been a home for CLS, it feels special to be able to have our first concert there – especially playing Goldberg Variations. Also, with the space in Southwark Cathedral, the audience can move comfortably with enough distance. It’s such a natural reaction to want move when listening to music, so it’s great we can make this available.

A couple of years ago, you played Sitkovetsky’s string orchestra version of Goldberg Variations on tour. Tell us a bit about how this string trio arrangement differs and how Bach’s music makes you feel.

Alex: The Goldberg Variations seems to encompass everything about what it is to be a human; everything about the cycle of life, and in that respect, it feels like the right piece for this time. We performed the string arrangement after my own quasi-mini lockdown (the birth of my son), so personally it will also feel incredibly restorative to return to it now. Both Sitkovetsky’s arrangements – the trio version and the full string version – are genuine masterpieces and transcribe Glenn Gould’s interpretation brilliantly. The string version is perhaps grander in scale, more monumental, whereas the trio allows for more intimacy and experimentation.

Joely: Bach is my rock. And the Goldberg Variations has always been a favourite. But this trio differs substantially from the keyboard version. I like that! We are playing the same notes and the music is still wonderful, but the colours are different, the voices are clearer, and I feel we can dare to go in adventurous directions, creatively.

Ruth: It’s harder! There is no doubting that. You have no friends with you [on the same part], supporting the crazy writing at times. But there is such a special energy with the trio version: three of us singing and battling our hearts out together. It’s incredible music as one moment you are being a jester, scurrying and fitting in as many notes as possible, and the next you have these incredible moments of stillness and reflection, almost as it we each have our own soliloquy, but at the same time.

Being able to perform together again is a big deal and we can’t wait to watch you. How will you celebrate after our 18 September concerts?

Alex: It will be a wonderful moment to be back with my CLS friends and family, and a great sense of relief to finally be back doing what I love! We will have whatever version of a group hug is allowed in these COVID times, I’m sure! I often have a celebratory packet of crisps waiting in my bag for the journey home after a performance…maybe in this case, it will be two.

Joely: I’ll be going out for a large glass of wine with friends.

Ruth: That’s a good question! We still have that to sort out. I think I will be emotionally and physically worn out after the first one, so god knows how it will be after the evening performance! I imagine we’ll find a way to get some good food and wine to celebrate after…


‘Goldberg Variations’ with City of London Sinfonia

Concert details

  • Date/times: Friday 18 September, 2pm and 7.15pm
  • Running time: c.60minutes
  • Venue: Southwark Cathedral, SE1 9DA
  • Repertoire: J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations
  • Ticket prices: £5 (£1 for under 16s) – no booking fee
  • Online booking in advance only: cls.co.uk
  • Safety measures and FAQs: cls.co.uk


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