Musicians bring violin to essential workers during the pandemic
Since early summer, violinists Etienne Gara and YuEun Kim have been driving their 1971 Volkswagen van up and down the West Coast, bringing music to farm laborers. (Photos: Courtesy of Etienne Gara.)

Musicians bring violin to essential workers during the pandemic

With concerts canceled due to COVID-19, Etienne Gara, artist-in-residence at the USC Dornsife Brain and Creativity Institute, along with USC Thornton alumna YuEun Kim, take the show on the road with outdoor performances for field workers across California. [5½ min read]
ByMargaret Crable

It’s a warm afternoon at Clos des Amis, a Paso Robles winery. A slight breeze sends leaves shivering as vineyard workers, faces shielded from the sun with broad hats, clip grape clusters into plastic buckets. Accompanying the snip of shears is lively classical music. Two violinists, Etienne Gara and YuEun Kim, are making their way through the duet “Tico Tico.” There’s no formal seating and no paying audience, just the workers and a couple of farm dogs nosing their way down the rows.

The performance is part of the MusiKaravan tour organized by Delirium Musicicum, a self-conducted chamber orchestra created by Etienne Gara, artist-in-residence at the Brain and Creativity Institute at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. Joining Gara is YuEun Kim, a graduate of the USC Thornton School of Music. The tour brings classical music to farm laborers, small winemakers and the occasional ostrich in vineyards across California.

Gara and Kim have been meandering up the West Coast from the Mexican to the Canadian borders in a red 1971 Volkswagen van, camping in yards and driveways offered up by generous strangers, sharing classical music with an audience that has often never heard it performed live before. It’s been an impactful experience for the two musicians, who regard it as a rare opportunity for offline connection during the pandemic.

“Everyone has been very online, while also experiencing political division. It’s an anxious trigger,” says Gara. “It’s very meaningful to just listen. We have the power through music to actually take a step back, not preach anything, and just be listeners of the emotions triggered by our performances.”

Meeting of minds

Gara was born in Paris to a French mother and Hungarian father who is an artistic director at a Parisian theatre. Gara was in the audience starting at a young age. A performance by Latvian violinist Gideon Kramer inspired him to pick up the violin at the age of five.

He earned his Performer Diploma at Indiana University Jacobs School of Music and completed a Master of Music at New England Conservatory. Then he headed to the USC Thornton School of Music to study under the renowned violinist Midori, where he met Kim, who is also Midori’s pupil.

While at USC, Gara was offered a rare opportunity: the chance to record an album on a 1714 Stradivarius violin dubbed the “Lenora Jackson” in honor of its former owner, the first woman to achieve success as a concert violinist. The only challenge was finding a venue for the recording.

Searching for a space, Gara stumbled upon the Brain and Creativity Institute headed by University Professor Antonio Damasio, professor of psychology, philosophy and neurology, and David Dornsife Chair in Neuroscience. Damasio offered up the institute’s Camilleri Hall for the recording session. A friendship formed and Gara joined the institute as its artist in residence.

Brain + creativity + violin

Damasio has commissioned several musical projects from Gara, including one on jazz great Miles Davis, whose art hangs in the institute. “I refused a few times because I’m not a jazz musician,” says Gara. “Then I sat down and listened to Miles one day, got inspired, and in four hours the project was born.”

Gara recently formed Musicum Delirium, a self-conducted chamber orchestra that includes Kim and 13 other youthful Los Angeles musicians. The Brain and Creativity Institute hosted the orchestra for a number of performances in the fall of 2019.

“Gara represents a new generation of musicians whose relation to repertoire and performance is freer than that of his famous teachers but whose reverence for music is just as strong,” says Damasio.

At the start of 2020, Musicum Delirium was ready to take on the world. They were days from signing to a major label to record their first album and were scheduled to perform at the Wallis Annenberg Performing Arts Center and the Walt Disney Music Hall. A national tour was on the books. Then, the coronavirus pandemic hit and everything ground to a halt.

Delirium Musicum intermissus

With their schedules involuntarily cleared, Gara and Kim decided to take their music on the road.

Violinists Etienne Gara and YeEun Kim perform for a field worker who kneels in front of them among a crop.
Gara and Kim met while studying under renowned violinist Midori at the USC Thornton School of Music.

“We thought about the farm workers that are still out there working during this crazy time, those people who always show up no matter what disaster,” he says. They wanted to host informal outdoor concerts that honored this essential labor. The two focused their attention on organic farms and wineries, to showcase how they were surviving a pandemic.

Gara and Kim purchased and refurbished a van, painting it cherry red. They packed two violins from luthier Alex Loskutov. Since they are newly made, the instruments needed playing and were also sturdier than older violins the duo use — perfect for a road trip.

“When we started planning this project back in early April, we had a long list of wineries and farms that we got or tried to get in touch with, says Gara. “Then we realized that there’s no use in planning. With a 50-year-old bus, and with the new encounters we make on the journey, we cannot predict when we’ll get where. So, for several months now, we just let life guide us, and it is amazing to see how perfectly things click together.”

This philosophy has led to a number of unusual encounters, including an afternoon playing to a flock of ostriches at Ostrich Land USA in Solvang, California. They keep a vibrant log of their adventures on the Musikaravan Instagram.

On the road

Life on the road has helped Gara and Kim discover the shared values of Americans, despite intense political and cultural division.

“We don’t plan out where we are going at night. We always meet people who host us, people at gas stations, and it’s a social experience,” says Gara. “People give us a parking spot and we get their story. By meeting all these different kinds of people, we get different reactions, but everything comes back to the same core values of humanity no matter if they have a million-dollar orchard or nothing at all.

Life lived out of a bus can be a little cramped. “You plug in your phone and then you can’t open a drawer,” says Gara. Despite the inconveniences, it’s been an overwhelmingly positive experience. The two plan to extend the road trip to other states and possibly overseas to Korea, exploring farmland and food traditions there.

Van life might be an exhilarating adventure, but they are both eager for the concert hall again.

“As soon as we can be back on stage, we are ready,” Gara says.