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The Coronavirus Pandemic Canceled His Concerts. This Is The Song That Helps Him Cope

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Peter Russell worked in opera for decades until he became legally blind, so he turned to vocal performance. He now directs Vocal Arts DC, which programs classical voice concerts. A while back, he was talking with a neighbor about his work.

PETER RUSSELL: And she said, you know, you talk about this as if it's way more than just a job to you, almost like it's your religion. And I thought, well, yeah, you know, you can call the recital hall kind of the equivalent of our church. And the kind of gathering together of an audience to appreciate this - our version of the mass. Those of us that really care about it will tell you that we turn to it in good times and in bad, and it's never let us down.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But these have been trying times for Russell. With gatherings banned, they had to scrap their planned concerts and scramble to make a digital program of events.

RUSSELL: It's going to be a season that will be sui generis, unlike anything we've ever seen and, hopefully, unlike anything we'll continue to see. It's having to make peace with the idea and embrace the idea that uncertainty is the new normal.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Russell was one of the many people who wrote in to tell us about the song that's helping them get through this time. It's Franz Schubert's "An Die Musik," performed in 1957 by George London.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE LONDON PERFORMANCE OF SCHUBERT'S "AN DIE MUSIK")

RUSSELL: It's a thank-you note to the art form of music.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE LONDON PERFORMANCE OF SCHUBERT'S "AN DIE MUSIK")

GEORGE LONDON: (Singing in German).

RUSSELL: I hear the first few bars of that, and immediately I just start to feel more anchored, more grounded somehow. And you realize how luxuriant the nap of the fabric of this voice is. It feels like you're being enveloped by the most buttery, kind of cashmere quilt.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE LONDON PERFORMANCE OF SCHUBERT'S "AN DIE MUSIK")

LONDON: (Singing in German).

RUSSELL: It's a very simple poem, very simple, very humble poem. You noble art, how many times in the darkest hours where life has tightened its noose around me have you kindled the emotion of love in my heart and transported me to a better place?

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE LONDON PERFORMANCE OF SCHUBERT'S "AN DIE MUSIK")

RUSSELL: I have kind of overwhelming anxiety that I battle on a daily - yea, even an hourly basis is that we'll come out from the other side of this with so many of the performing arts having gone away altogether and with our core audience having simply fallen out of the practice of gathering together.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE LONDON PERFORMANCE OF SCHUBERT'S "AN DIE MUSIK")

LONDON: (Singing in German).

RUSSELL: This song gives me optimism when I sort of listen to it and realize that it's been around for literally 200 years, that our nature as human beings is that we are a social group, and there is value placed on music and the arts generally and that hopefully, we will get back to that place. And that we'll want more than ever to get back together and appreciate the music and never take it for granted.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE LONDON PERFORMANCE OF SCHUBERT'S "AN DIE MUSIK")

LONDON: (Singing in German).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Peter Russell of Washington, D.C., talking about the song that's getting him through these days, George London's 1957 recording of Franz Schubert's "An Die Musik."

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE LONDON PERFORMANCE OF SCHUBERT'S "AN DIE MUSIK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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