Music

His international violin career was taking off, then the COVID-19 pandemic happened

'For me, personally, it's been revolutionary,' says multiple prize winner Timothy Chooi.

'For me, personally, it's been revolutionary,' says multiple prize winner Timothy Chooi

'It's also a time for me to realize that there is so much more to myself than just being a violinist or musician or artist.' — Timothy Chooi (Den Sweeney)

This week, Canada's Timothy Chooi was scheduled to give three performances of Alban Berg's Violin Concerto with Sinfonie Orchester Münster in Germany. Instead, due to the COVID-19 lockdown, he's alone in his apartment in Philadelphia, not doing much of anything.

"A month has gone by, and to be honest it feels like just one really long day that's been all mushed up together at this point," he told CBC Music. "I feel like I'm drinking the same cup of coffee over and over because this is like the same routine every day."

Chooi's concerts in Münster would have been just one of many appearances resulting from his first prize at the 2018 Joseph Joachim International Violin Competition in Hannover, Germany, and his second prize at the 2019 Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels, Belgium.

"Right after winning that prize at the Queen Elisabeth Competition, it really just shot up my presence on the international scene," he noted, when asked to reflect on the first anniversary of this accomplishment.

"That really changed the playing field because I started to plant myself in Europe. And, in some ways, planting myself there also had a reciprocal effect in North America," he continued. "There were a lot of important debuts that were suddenly being talked about, like in Chicago with the Chicago Symphony and in Berlin with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin at the Philharmonie and also in Vienna with Wiener Konzert-Verein at the Musikverein. So all of these pillar orchestras, they started to take notice of the news and I signed on with an agency there for general management in Paris as well."

Some of the concert engagements planned for his competition "victory laps" have taken place already — primarily the ones resulting from his Joachim Competition win — while others have been disrupted due to COVID-19.

"I'm lucky that a lot of these things happened before the pandemic did, that I was still able to do a lot of the concerts," he reflected. "In terms of what has happened with the Queen Elisabeth Competition, those actually were supposed to happen more in 2020-21. But the pandemic has halted everything."

'I've been trying to keep a regular schedule, which is something that I haven't had for so long.' (Timothy Chooi)

Fortunately, for now at least, "halted" means postponed, not cancelled. "I mean, as long as these organizations stay afloat," Chooi notes.

For instance, plans to record an album are on hold. "The recording sessions were supposed to happen earlier in March and that had to be postponed," he said. "It was supposed to be in Europe and things were just looking really bad already in January. So we don't exactly know what's happening right now."

In a weird twist, the COVID-19 pandemic, while interrupting the fulfilment of Chooi's competition prizes, is also providing a reprieve.

"The Queen Elisabeth Competition is not happening this year," he explained. "So, in some senses, that is giving the [2019 prize winners] more longevity going forward, and the wonderful people at my agency have been very good at staying in contact with me and talking about what Plan B is.

"The best that we can do right now is just hope for the best and hope for a vaccine to come out soon. I think Europe is a little bit ahead of North America in terms of where the curve is. So if anything, I think Europe would get back to its feet a bit faster than here."

Maybe I can take a break a little bit and just really enjoy being 26 years old.- Timothy Chooi

In the meantime, Chooi is finding new ways to fill his time during this imposed break.

"For me, personally, it's been revolutionary. I've been playing the violin since I was three years old. It has been a very integrated identity that I'm a violinist. I'm a performer. That's everything that I've been working on to achieve this goal. And to have that stripped away is, in some ways — yeah, it loses my purpose."

With that lifelong goal temporarily obscured, Chooi has decided there's nothing to do but live in the moment.

"So, maybe I can take a break a little bit and just really enjoy being 26 years old. That's what people tell me. Maybe develop some things that I never got to develop in my personal life as well.

"But it's also a time for me to realize that there is so much more to myself than just being a violinist or musician or artist. So, I'm reconnecting with a lot of friends, reconnecting with my hobbies, and just learning how to do basic stuff. Like, when there's a power outage, when I turn on too many appliances at once, I don't even know how to restart the electricity! Or, ordering my water cooler replacements — just normal things that a lot of artists and classical musicians take for granted because we're always in hotel rooms, constantly on the move. We're always thinking that there's something of a greater purpose that we're doing, but it's nice to just sit down and look at what we have on our desk sometimes."

Despite taking on those mundane tasks, Chooi has not entirely stopped playing. He's just approaching it differently.

"I've been practising very consistently, trying to keep a regular schedule, which is something that I haven't had for so long. I was always constantly on the run to get to the next concert or picking up old repertoire because that was what was expected of me to perform next. So, having the luxury to actually start big projects from the bare bones without feeling the pressure of having it ready to present in a month's time — that's what I've been doing."

Plus, remaining optimistic.

"I think I'm still young enough that I can take a year or two of a hit, and I think I can rebuild. If anything, this is a kind of a forced sabbatical, I think. From my personal experience, when I have had those times of just emptiness or just space, I was able to focus even better [afterward] and have a different perspective on my violin playing and just my whole view of the world as well."

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