The date is Mar. 11, 2020, and the “coronavirus” has already made its way into New York City. Aside from those in the Philosophy Department, Brooklyn College classes are still being held in person. At around 2 p.m., Governor Andrew Cuomo announces that CUNY and SUNY schools are moving to distance-learning for the remainder of the semester, and the news begins to spread around campus to all but one place: the Tow Performing Arts Center.
As Cuomo made this announcement, some students were off the grid within the Buchwald Theater at the Tow Performing Arts Center as Dr. Deborah Nemko, a pianist and professor of music at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts, presented “The Music of Anne Frank,” a lecture-recital performance focused on the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands during World War II and the Holocaust in the 1940s.
Unbeknownst to the audience of unmasked students sitting next to each other in close proximity, campus life had vanished, the world was beginning to change, and they were witnessing what would be the last event that the Conservatory of Music would host in person for a very long time.
One year later, Dr. Nemko still remembers what was racing through her head that day. With everything going on, she was surprised that the concert had not been postponed.
“Before leaving for Brooklyn, I was following news on COVID-19 and had expected my concert to be cancelled since several universities and school districts had begun the shut-down,” Nemko told the Vanguard. “I was surprised that the concert was still on. I kept writing to Dr. Stephanie Jensen-Moulton…to confirm the performance.”
Jensen-Moulton, a professor of music at Brooklyn College, brought her class to Dr. Nemko’s recital, and the virus was a concern for the group of music majors.
“Students had begun to express concern about the virus around the end of February and into the beginning of March,” Jensen-Moulton told the Vanguard. “Only one of my students was palpably worried about getting sick…But then, no one really knew what the virus was, or how lethal it would turn out to be.”
Despite the looming fears of the virus, “The Music of Anne Frank” went on as scheduled, and Nemko performed various works related to the Holocaust and the challenges faced by Dutch Jewish composers of that time, including Frid, Bosmans, Belinfante, Chapiro, Brickman, Smit, and Kattenburg.
The lecture was of specific importance to Nemko and would prove to have an even more profound importance a year later. As a student at the University of Illinois, Nemko was inspired by her mentor, Dr. Alexander Ringer, who was a survivor of the Holocaust. From her studies with Ringer, Nemko came to learn of his story as a concentration camp survivor, and these stories of survival are a common theme among the composers Nemko has studied.
Today, Nemko recalls how enthusiastic the students in attendance were that day and how the theme of survival holds up one year into COVID-19.
“Students asked provocative questions and seemed to feel the weight of the moment as much as I did, both in their understanding of the importance of the topic of the Holocaust and the struggles of the Dutch Jewish composers whose music I performed as well as the uncertainty of the day and the future of their school,” said Nemko. “The composers I talked about were under attack in their lives and at the very moment I was performing, New York city was under siege, fighting a war against an unseen but deadly foe.”
After the recital ended, Nemko headed for the subway to return to Boston. On her way, she was accompanied by one of the sponsors of the concert, Dr. Maria Contel, a professor of chemistry at Brooklyn College. Nemko holds this moment now as her last memory of “normalcy.”
“I left on the train to Boston from New York after the concert with the sense that this may be the last time the city would seem normal for a while,” said Nemko. “I was on high alert, noticing everything. There was a bitter-sweet feeling to the trip, almost as if I was reliving this concert already as a treasured memory.”
Meanwhile, normalcy had already left the Brooklyn College campus as alerts from CUNY about the move to distance learning had already made their way around the school. Jensen-Moulton, who received an alert upon the recital’s end, immediately pulled her class aside to explain the situation.
“I explained that I would be going forward with the class in an online format, and that our Blackboard page would be the central spot for course materials…And that they shouldn’t worry,” Jensen-Moulton recalled. “What did I know? Many of us hugged as we dispersed. Maybe we shouldn’t have, in retrospect. But that contact is so distant.”
Soon after, the Conservatory of Music at Brooklyn College cancelled all events for the foreseeable future, and the city as a whole began to shutdown with Broadway going dark, the closing of bars, restaurants, and schools, and the beginning of New York’s “On Pause Program” that required non-essential workers to stay home. Quarantine had arrived, and the arts seemed to be a thing of the past.
One year later, Dr. Nemko has performed in live-streamed and pre-recorded concerts, but that day at Brooklyn College has remained with her since.
“It was the last live performance with an audience I gave before or since pandemic life,” said Nemko. “[It] marks the divide between what I took for granted: sharing music with people in the same space, visiting friends, walking around without masks, and life in a post-COVID-19 world.”
One year later, Dr. Jensen-Moulton has not been to campus since the recital that day, and she now considers it to be the beginning of the pandemic and life as we know it.
“In my mind, I always associate that concert, that moment, that music, with the beginning of the pandemic,” said Jensen-Moulton. “Sometimes I imagine my empty coffee mug on my slightly disorganized and now dusty desk, and it’s hard to think of going back, in the same way it was difficult to imagine walking away on Mar. 11th.”
Going forward, Dr. Nemko is optimistic about the future and hopes to return to Brooklyn College next year to perform a concert that celebrates “liberation” from COVID-19. The likelihood of this happening remains to be seen as classes and Conservatory events remain online and plans for the Fall 2021 semester and beyond are far from set in stone.
“I am truly grateful for the opportunity I had during my residence at Brooklyn College and can not wait to once again perform and teach in person,” said Nemko. “I know I am far from the only one with this dream, but hope when the day comes where this is once again possible, that I never take ‘normal life’ for granted again.”