On March 3, 2020, New York’s Merkin Hall was buzzing with excitement after rising Danish cello phenom Jonathan Swensen had his NYC recital debut hosted by the Young Concert Artists Series, performing an impressive concert program of Beethoven, Kodály, and Franck. Swensen delivered a sincere performance, gracing even the most technically challenging pieces with his very own empathic voice through the cello. After that night, Merkin Hall shared the excitement of Danish reviewers, with Danish Radio describing Swensen as “one of the greatest instrumental talents of our times,” while the newspaper Berlingske simply stated: “He makes the cello sing!”
It’s no understatement to say that a lot of drastic change has taken place since that night in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I returned to Denmark about a week before the lockdown happened, and was starting on a bunch of new cello concertos, which I was supposed to play in Denmark and Germany,” Jonathan Swensen recently told Denmark in New York. “After I found out everything was canceled due to COVID-19, I listened and played along with the Beatles, Radiohead, and other bands. It was fun and interesting to open my ears and improvise a bit.”
Soon enough, however, Swensen took advantage of the extra time on his hands created by the locdown to go beyond practice and return to the performance space — albeit, a virtual one. “I decided to make a tiny festival, with eight intimate concerts and eight people in the audience per concert,” he continued. “I made a live stream so everyone could hear them. I think we need to listen to live music, and I wanted to try to provide it.”
Swensen’s small concert series was very well received, with the world’s leading string and classical music source, The Violin Channel, streaming one of Jonathan’s performances. However, the list of initiatives didn’t stop there for the young cellist. “Surprisingly, this summer is going to be busier than ever,” added Swensen. “There’s still a couple of festivals happening and two of my friends and I are expanding the idea of online performances into a chamber music festival, which will happen in July.”
Denmark in New York caught up with Jonathan Swensen to find out how the young super talent has coped during the crisis and to discuss the role of and place for live music in the shadow of COVID-19.
This interview forms part of a new series of COVID-19 Culture Conversations, through which Denmark in New York engages key local partners on how to rise to the occasion in a time of crisis. The series spotlights innovative initiatives and crisis response in New York and Denmark amid the global pandemic.
Denmark in New York: What is your take on the limitations and possibilities of sharing live performances with an online audience on social media?
Jonatan Swensen: I guess that if you are lucky — and it’s not that I’m a huge online media persona — it can reach more people than if you are only playing live concerts.
But in a way, I do agree with [Sergiu] Celibidache in some ways. He argued that sound in a concert hall hits the audience in the body in a way that is not possible with recordings. When I listen to recordings of Richter and Shostakovich, I get so inspired and I’m eternally thankful that they exist, but still, I just wish that I could have been there to hear it live. If it’s that good on a recording, imagine how it would be to listen to it in a concert hall when the music is happening in real-time!
Danes have come together in the realm of music during the COVID-19 lockdown, with 2.7 million viewers joining in the live communal singing programs from the National Danish Broadcast Corporation. Quite an impressive feat considering that’s nearly half the country’s population.
What are your thoughts on what makes the live musical experience so compelling during a time of crisis?
Jonatan Swensen: I think live music should always be compelling — even when it’s not a time of crisis. I believe that classical music concerts — and concerts in general — should not be something where people leave and don’t feel different. I think musicians and audiences really start missing the concert experience a lot. In that way, the energy between the audience and the player gets stronger.
Despite all the cancellations, this crisis has helped us re-evaluate when it comes to music and, of course, many other aspects of our lives. I think and hope that musicians will come out of this stronger and better. Not in a sense of technique, but in the sense of music — that they are happy to give something to themselves and the audience.
Music is a gift, and I believe more and more people have started to realize that it’s a gift to both themselves and other people.
WATCH Jonathan Swensen perform Bach cellosuite nr. 5 (BWV 1011, C-minor) in his intimate concert-series during the COVID-19 here.
Sofus Goldschmidt Pedersen is the Politics, Culture and Public Diplomacy intern at Denmark in New York.