Among many negatives, one positive theme is emerging within the pandemic-stricken performing arts sector. Arts leaders have said they are connecting regularly with colleagues and audiences, often in far-flung locations, through Zoom videoconferencing and similar platforms.
One such arts leader who has created opportunity and connections out of pandemic limitations is Sebastian Lang-Lessing, the soon-to-be music director emeritus of the currently shuttered San Antonio Symphony.
Suddenly finding himself with plenty of time to devote to new projects, Lang-Lessing created Virtumasterclass.com, a new platform that connects virtuoso soloists with students from around the world.
While other arts organizations such as Camerata San Antonio and Opera San Antonio have converted to online master classes to facilitate their education programs, Lang-Lessing used the time gained and energy stored during the pandemic shutdown to invent an entirely new platform.
Idled by travel restrictions and unable to perform for live audiences, notable soloists such as cellist Johannes Moser and pianist Anne-Marie McDermott have not only suffered creatively but, as contract workers, have also lost their major sources of income.
“When everything shut down, the people we really didn’t think so much about were the soloists, the self-employed musicians that basically … are the top soloists that play with the orchestra and sell the tickets. None of them got paid … which is a scandal in itself,” Lang-Lessing said of American orchestras failing to compensate the soloists they had booked to headline now-canceled concerts.
At the same time, Lang-Lessing recognized another problem, that music students at elite levels of talent have also lost the master classes these soloists normally teach on their tours. Those classes often come at crucial junctures in student development, he said, with recognized instrumentalists able to inspire them toward the next level technically and artistically.
Isolated at his San Antonio home in March, Lang-Lessing made the connection between musicians in need of work and students in need of learning, and the new website was born.
“I think the pandemic opens new doors and possibilities and makes us rethink certain things,” he said. Lacking support from orchestras, agencies, and promoters who normally help book tours and performances, Lang-Lessing said, “we have to act for ourselves.”
He contacted a nephew based in Bangkok working in information technology to create a web platform that could handle booking, scheduling, payment, and information for each soloist. Further, Zoom connections are required for the master classes, and given the worldwide reach of the teachers, students, and web technicians, Lang-Lessing has found himself dealing with simple issues like Zoom malfunctions in the wee hours of the morning.
Such minor snags do not detract from the larger goal, he said. “These are people that I care about a lot and that really have a lot to give.”
A hidden benefit Lang-Lessing recognized in facilitating international connections is counteracting the xenophobia he sees sweeping across the planet, with borders closing, walls rising, and demonization of otherness.
“We’ve talked about a lot of our racial issues,” he said of the Black Lives Matter movement. “We don’t talk about xenophobia, which is actually a totally accepted mindset in this country. ‘America First’ is a xenophobic statement. … And closing borders, whether it’s for COVID or for trade, is also a problem. With the internet as our resource, we can actually connect across borders.”
He gave the example of one master class teacher who is Chinese, living in Berlin, with students from Japan and Hong Kong.
Lang-Lessing said the roster of master class teachers will grow as the platform develops, and new students are attracted to the site. Future developments might include classes for intermediate and beginning students, he said, and he hopes to attract philanthropy to fund scholarships for students unable to afford the classes, which run between $250 and $300 per class. Bundles of multiple classes earn discounts of 10 percent to 20 percent, worked out between teacher and student.
Plans are that Virtumasterclass.com will live on beyond the end of the pandemic shutdown, whenever that should occur, Lang-Lessing said, giving the musical director emeritus plenty to work on as he moves past his regular conducting position.
For this article, Lang-Lessing spoke to the Rivard Report from a rental van, driving to Chicago as a temporary home away from home and a new field of possibilities with its internationally connected airport.
The initial loss of work in March hit hard for Lang-Lessing, a self-described energetic person always in search of things to do. “I’m just not a person who gives in and sits there and drinks beer and watches TV,” he said. “As much as I enjoy that, too, it’s just not enough for me,” he said, laughing.
So far he has played piano and learned to read and write the Korean language, but said, “that still wasn’t enough.” Now, his excess energy has given new life to an age-old process of master musicians teaching their art to students around the world.