PITTSFIELD, Mass. — To thank essential frontline workers in the Berkshires for their work during the pandemic, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Emanuel Ax performed nine surprise pop-up concerts in Lee and Pittsfield last week.
In a creative answer to performing live during the public health response to COVID-19, Ma and Ax traveled the county alongside a flatbed truck equipped with a stage, sound system, and strapped down piano from which they performed at each of their stops.
With stops at Berkshire Medical Center, two Pittsfield elementary schools, a Pittsfield UPS delivery loading site, school bus transportation center, Pittsfield Fire Department and Health Department, Roots Rising food distribution volunteer site, Berkshire Theatre Group, and High Lawn Farm, Ma and Ax were eager to give a gift of music to those maintaining critical community functions since the outbreak of COVID-19.
"The fact that you have been on the front lines, never stopping your work, we just want to thank you," Ma said during one of the performances. "We're grateful and we want to show gratitude in the way Manny and I know, which is to play music. Thank you, Pittsfield, for being the community you are – in our despair, your actions give us hope."
The series of pop-ups was made possible through a collaboration of the musicians' production team and several community groups including Mill Town, City of Pittsfield Department of Cultural Development, Blue Q, Falcetti Pianos, Quality Moving & Storage, GHP Powered, and several local artists.
"We are beyond grateful that Yo-Yo Ma has a special place in his heart for Pittsfield and the Berkshires," stated Jen Glockner, director of Pittsfield's Department of Cultural Development. "The musical collaboration with Manny Ax for this pop-up project brought so many smiles to those who needed it most during this unprecedented time."
The series was conducted under closely-held communication both to ensure the experience remained a surprise for the recipient essential workers and also as a way to avoid any crowds from gathering.
On Sunday, Aug. 30, 2020, as a pilot of the pop-up series, Ma and Ax first stopped at a dairy farm, High Lawn Farm, located in Lee to thank the farmworkers and store distribution team for their on-going work contributing to the food security of the Berkshires region.
Upon arrival, the production team laid out a system of 40 hula hoops spaced six feet apart from one another and set-back 25 feet from the performance truck.
As Ma and Ax began to play, employees of the farm and a few members of the public filtered into the performance area, each masked and standing in their own socially distanced hula hoop for the approximately 12-minute performance.
A few approving "moos" from the nearby dairy cows contributed to the sounds of Ma's cello work and Ax's piano playing. A compiled video of the performances is available to view on the Facebook pages of Mill Town and Cultural Pittsfield.
Ma and Ax are regular performers in the Berkshires, most notably at Tanglewood, the summer home of The Boston Symphony Orchestra. Due to the on-going health concerns related to COVID-19, Tanglewood, and many of the other Berkshires-based live performance festivals were forced to put live, in-person performances on hold or shifted to a virtual model. While many of the major multi-thousand person venues were shuttered, some smaller venues and community-based models were executed throughout the summer to keep live music alive in the Berkshires.
Carrie Holland, managing director of Mill Town and co-collaborator in the Yo-Yo Ma / Emanuel Ax pop-up series, noted that she and her organization were able to arrange some creative ways to allow live musical performances to happen safely in the Berkshires this summer.
"We have become experts in laying down socially distanced chalk-outlined viewing circles, hula hoops, and taped performance areas for our musicians," she said
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