Regarded as one of the finest interpreters of Classical and Romantic repertoire, Imogen Cooper is internationally renowned for her virtuosity and lyricism. Recent and future concerto performances include the Berliner Philharmoniker and Sir Simon Rattle, Sydney Symphony with Simone Young and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra with Thomas Dausgaard. On 15 June Imogen will be performing live at 1pm (GMT) as part of the Wigmore Hall BBC Radio 3 Special Broadcast series, you may watch it here.Yulia Chaplina, pianist, Head of Prokofiev Festival and our regular contributor spoke with Imogen Cooper as part of her series ‘Musicians in Isolation’.  

Imogen Cooper @Askonas Holt

Yulia Chaplina: All performing artists have found themselves out of work at the moment in this very difficult time. What are your thoughts on the future of classical music in general? What are your thoughts on the future of live concerts in particular? 

Imogen Cooper: Impossible to say at this stage. I have great faith that live music will be back – we have to find a way to live with this virus, but it will be difficult before a vaccine and/or an antibodies test  and good medication give us at least some protection. There is still such a lot to understand. Meanwhile I am mindful that solo performers, or duos, are luckier than any other musicians, and have more of a chance to play/sing onstage, albeit without audience and with only live streaming/broadcasting. But although things will not be quite the same for quite a while, classical music will not die.

Yulia Chaplina: Many concert halls have started performances without an audience. If you have done one already, would you mind sharing your experience/thoughts? 

Imogen Cooper: I have not done one yet, but I am taking part in the first Wigmore series in June, when I shall play to an empty hall, live streamed and broadcast. Not easy after three months away from the stage, but I feel privileged to take part in the series, and happy to bring live music back to that wonderful hall. I am wondering too whether in the provinces it wouldn’t also be possible to do a version of this. The artist could travel by car to the venue, finding, say, a tuned and ready piano; with full social distancing it might be possible to give the planned concert to an empty hall with a local knowledgeable albeit amateur cameraman – find a platform on which to show it, and the audience would tune in, supportive in the knowledge that this concert was happening just down the road in the hall that they knew, in the series for which they had bought tickets, and in the knowledge that the artist had made a real effort not to let them down. Of course the finances would have to be discussed and both artist and audience should be prepared to concede something – but might it not be worth it?

Imogen Cooper, @Sussie Ahlburg

Yulia Chaplina: Do you think people will be cautious to attend live concerts for a long time? Has this pandemic changed the performing art world forever or will there be a return to “normal”?

Imogen Cooper: Yes, people will be cautious, it is understandable. Particularly the elderly, who as it happens make up a large part of live classical music concerts, or at least recitals, lieder and chamber music. Some of them might well have already decided not to come back. This will contribute greatly (or detract from) what concerts can be viably planned – it is normally anyhow a struggle to make numbers line up;  a 40% audience, chosen to fit with social distancing necessities, is going to throw the sums completely. Ipso facto, much reduced fees, presumably, and worrying for the overheads of a hall.

Yulia Chaplina: Do you listen to any of the live concerts online? If yes, has there been anything you have particularly enjoy doing? What is your feeling towards the informal home streaming many musicians turn to?

Imogen Cooper: I personally don’t listen to concerts online. It’s wonderful that they exist, but I am relishing movies and books, for which I do not normally have enough time. Oblique answer to your question, I have on screen greatly enjoyed, NORMAL PEOPLE, and UNORTHODOX, both with quite remarkable acting. I am not so keen on informal home streaming of music as the conditions are often not good – out of tune and tinny instruments, and a slight feeling of we-should-be-doing-this. Nevertheless it takes energy and time, hats off to those who are doing it.

Yulia Chaplina: I know it is very uneasy to make any assumptions, but do you think younger people will appreciate live concerts more or less after the pandemic? Will the high level of online streaming result in more younger audiences in the concert halls?

Imogen Cooper:  No. Live concerts are expensive, it takes time and effort to get to concert halls, plus the expense of transport or parking. Why would younger people bother when they can see a terrific picture and have reasonable sound at home? I say this with sadness, since the live experience IS completely different, with its danger, adrenaline and raw emotion. But life,THAT life of before Covid-19, is fraught, and most people are working from their computers way beyond what used to be office hours, either through habit, pressure or financial necessity. However who knows, maybe that life, for many, will never return in the same way. It is too early to say how our profound psychology will be changed.

Imogen Cooper, @Sussie Ahlburg

Yulia Chaplina: There is a lot of free streaming music available online, do you think this might affect the classical music industry in the future?

Imogen Cooper: I presume this question is nothing to do with the pandemic. It is astonishing that CDs are still being made at all – between Spotify (or sim) and downloading a track for under a pound sterling, picking and choosing for little to no money seems irresistible. However – I think that the renaissance of LPs has opened up the young generation’s ears to what good sound can really be, and they, who have only known very inferior online sound, are frequently astonished. I so hope that they won’t settle for lesser sound now, and those who don’t settle for less have my respect and gratitude.

Yulia Chaplina: What do you think about online teaching? Have you done any online tuition? Do you see it as a viable option for the time being or a waste of time?

Imogen Cooper:  For me, online teaching is not really viable, although of course it is some sort of support in these very restricted times, and that is great. The bottom line is that lockdown has brought about some pretty awful instruments on which to work, and inasmuch as I mind about sound, in its huge variety, almost more than anything, it’s a non-starter. I do however like online talks, if they can boost morale (both ways).

Yulia Chaplina: Would you mind sharing the books you are reading at the moment (and maybe any online productions if any)? Would you mind sharing 3-5 of your favourite books, recordings?

Imogen Cooper: I am indeed able to read more than usual, that is great. I am finishing my third French book, firstly Romain Gary Les Cerfs-Volants, writing of joyous genius for me, then Alain-Fournier Le Grand Meaulnes which I never finished in my younger years. Hugely atmospheric, but maybe written more for adolescent young men then for me! Male coming of age…Now, Dora Bruder by Patrick Modiano – slightly grim reading, and arid, if important in content. I doubt I’ll get through lockdown without going back to Camus’ La Peste.

I am also hugely grateful to my father Martin Cooper, to whose book on Beethoven’s Last Decade I return with more curiosity than when he first wrote it some 50 years ago. jh. Greatly informative, and i have a much more personal picture of Beethoven now, in this year when I am living so intensely with his Diabelli Variations.

Yulia Chaplina: Do you find yourself drawn to certain pieces at the moment or you unable to practise certain repertoire? Do you have any particular pieces that ease anxiety for you?

Imogen Cooper: I am less anxious than I am curious – maybe this is a function of age. Things are as they are, we have been arrogant, ignorant and inattentive over the last 10-20 years; a pandemic has been talked about for some time and no-one has taken a blind bit of notice, concerned as they were with money, Brexit or elections, and ignoring the terrible damage being done to the environment. We must hope that time and post-mortem reports will tell us how it was we went so terribly wrong, but for the moment we must pay attention, use our own common sense, listen to scientific evidence (you could of course say – which scientific evidence?) and not get drawn into mass psychology fear or pessimism,

My only anxiety, but I am almost resigned already, is that we shall learn nothing from this, and that the sirens of frantic activity supposedly generating money-making, luxury and leisure, will be back in full force. We must do everything to resist them, and keep deep in our beings clear skies, silence, birdsong, the time to dream and to think proactively rather than reactively, and the sense of care for the other, all of which make life worth living.

Repertoire? No, just work . As is the Benedictine motto, laborare est orare – to work is to pray. No better discipline, no better healing process.

Yulia Chaplina: Do you have any special routine at the moment? 

Imogen Cooper: After many years of somewhat slapdash routine, which nevertheless works for me, my dream of a true routine – regular sleep, regular hours of work, exercise, a minimal and healthy diet, minimum alcohol – is not proving so easy. Lockdown needs to last a few months longer for me to achieve it……………….old habits die hard!

On 15 June Imogen will be performing live at 1pm (GMT) as part of the Wigmore Hall BBC Radio 3 Special Broadcast series. Free streaming of the concert will be available here.