First Violin Maxine Kwok: From social-distanced garden recitals to giving blood!

'I never expected my first blog post to be the start of a series, wrongly assuming like so many of us that we’d all be back at work within weeks and life would be returning to normal within the blink of an eye.' 


It’s now been over two months since the Barbican Centre locked its doors, my #shoesasorchestralworks has reached an embarrassing 63 days with no end in sight, and I’m still missing the incredible highs of performing great orchestral music with my colleagues. The #AlwaysPlaying concert initiative enables those who miss our music-making to tune in to broadcasts on YouTube twice a week, and to have a good banter on the live-chat with me and other LSO players. I do confess that these broadcasts can bring me great joy but also deep sadness at being relegated to a spectator.

This new reality sees the days fly past at a rate of knots. There are still weekly meetings to be had, and little snippets of what I mark as ‘work’ in my diary, mostly so that I feel I’m contributing something to society. I had my first foray into Instagram Live with the wonderful artist and potter Sampada Gurung about how to stay motivated and creative at this time, and next week I’ll be chatting to my friend and incredible mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill about her life in lockdown. The spectacular National Children’s Orchestra are posting wonderful Q&A sessions on YouTube every week, and I was honoured to be asked – alongside Marketing’s Jo Johnson – to chat about jobs in orchestras and the huge array of work that goes on behind the scenes in the administration team. (Plus, of course, submitting embarrassing photos from our past that I hope no one will screenshot.)

Maxine, Jo Johnson and Catherine Arlidge on a video call

There was another fascinating delve into conductors’ minds to watch this week, this time with Sir Antonio Pappano, Marin Alsop, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Alan Gilbert, who was our gracious host again. I think we all enjoyed the huge pause when Tony (Sir Antonio Pappano) asked what the other maestros beat at the beginning of Don Quixote. And who could fail to be impressed by Esa-Pekka’s huge 1950s-radio-announcer-style microphone?

Our nightly clap for key workers here at the Barbican has become a topic of debate amongst residents. I take the opportunity to chat to my neighbours across the balcony and to wave my LED hula-hoop over to friends in the apartments opposite, and I wondered this week whether there was something more meaningful I could do for key workers. I decided to look into whether I could still safely donate blood at this time, and was thrilled (too strong a word?!) to see that it was possible. So off I went to The Barber-Surgeons' Hall in the City. It is a supremely grand place, and I was delighted to see that, although great lengths were taken to maintain social distancing, the quality of the biscuits and crisps were just as before. Where else can you stuff your face full of Mint Clubs without feeling remotely guilty?

'You MUST eat another before you leave!'

'Oh, alright then if you insist ...'

Maxine giving bloodInside the Barber-Surgeons Hall

One positive aspect of my lockdown-world shrinking to a minute size is that I’ve been able to get to know local friends so much better, sometimes bumping (not literally) into them on walks around the area. The City boasts a few actors who, like me, are fairly bewildered at the decimation, if that’s not too strong a word, of our craft right now. We’ve spoken of social distancing in theatres and concert halls, and the sheer scale of film sets and the numbers of people needed on them. Our worlds will certainly change for a considerable amount of time.

Another lovely friend, Bernadette, who sings in the LSO Community Choir, had been working on renovating the forgotten garden at the Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield. A private garden, it now boasts some wonderful fresh herbs for local restaurant Comptoir Gascon (recently opened for collection and delivery) and adds the most wonderful splash of colour to all who pass by the church (which, incredibly, dates from 1123). Bernadette asked if I would consider performing for the handful of gardeners when the project was completed, so they could have a special, socially-distanced toast to celebrate the opening. I said it would be an honour, as long as they were happy with a few violin pieces played minus accompaniment. (Maybe not Bartók and Ysaÿe in this instance ...) As it turns out, I WAS accompanied at times, by a fabulous dog, and there was an audience of about 30 socially-distanced people who looked down onto the locked garden from the apartments above. I was mightily glad I hadn’t realised Timothy Spall was going to snap photos and that Francis Barber would be passing and tweet about my performance, or I might not have got my bow on the string. So many people said how much they had missed live music and I was deeply moved to hear about the local resident who particularly enjoyed Massenet’s Meditation, having been unable to have live music at her mother’s recent funeral.

Maxine playing in the gardens at St Barts

I confess, I hadn’t been the biggest advocate during lockdown of 'living room' concerts and music from balconies because I just didn’t see the point. I miss playing in the LSO so much it hurts at times – the thrill of music-making with 80 other musicians and the buzz of acknowledging the applause at the end. But if simply standing in a garden and playing a lone violin has brought a smile or a sense of peace, or just taken someone out of their day for half an hour, then to me it was worth as much (if not more) than a standing ovation from 3,000 people.

Long may music continue in whatever form that may be right now, and thank you to those who are still listening.


Join us online for a programme of full-length concerts twice a week plus much more, including ‘Coffee Sessions’ with LSO musicians, playlists, recommendations and quizzes. Visit lso.co.uk/alwaysplaying for updates.

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