Meet the veg patch orchestra bringing chamber music back to its natural roots
30 June 2021, 15:39 | Updated: 2 July 2021, 16:15
When clarinettist Jessie Grimes established her ‘Homemade Garden Jam’ series, it became just the wholesome chamber music treat to get music lovers through pandemic times and beyond.
In a small corner of South East London exists a small and rather splendid veg patch.
Apart from the fact it’s a rare opportunity to get green-fingered hands covered in soil in the capital, it’s also the home of a special series of chamber music concerts.
This bountiful patch of land is where clarinettist Jessie Grimes established ‘Jessie’s Homemade Garden Jam’ – a series of live and streamed performances, born of the coronavirus pandemic’s dual consequences of cancellations for musicians and an increased demand for experiencing authentic, community-focused music online as lockdowns ensued.
As ‘Jessie’s Homemade Garden Jam’ is given a nod by the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Enterprise Fund, we catch up with the earthy series’ eponymous founder on the highs, lows and finger-freezing woes of the first season of garden classics.
So, how did this carrot-splitting series (watch highlights above) come about? “In June 2020 I was asked to play in a trio for one of City of London Sinfonia’s ‘Comfortable Classical’ live-streamed concerts,” Jessie Grimes tells Classic FM. “For COVID safety, I suggested we play in my garden.” The seed of an idea was sown.
‘Balancing music on courgette leaves’
“Of course, on the actual day it was pouring with rain,” Grimes continues. “The concert started with the bassoon playing from the shed and went on to feature the oboe balancing her music on courgette leaves and me wearing my pineapple raincoat and pointing out all my latest vegetable triumphs. It turns out, the audience loved it!”
Inspired by the change of schedule many of us were facing at the arrival of coronavirus in 2020, Grimes had wanted to set something up during lockdown.
“I’d been talking about wanting to create something of my own, bringing together my playing and presenting skills and it was my wife, Emma, who pointed out that this was it.”
It was a bit of a leap of faith to kick things off, and after “I can’t do this” conversations with friends, Grimes, who is a professional clarinettist, presenter and workshop leader, hosted the first instalment of Jessie’s Homemade Garden Jam.
That first season grew into eight episodes and a Christmas special, featuring Jessie’s local out-of-work musician friends. Garden Jam has already featured performances from the Piatti Quartet and many others, with soprano Ailish Tynan, iyatra Quartet, and lots more coming up.
“For musicians, COVID-19 was devastating,” Grimes says. “All of our work disappeared over night, and then we were told by the government that our careers weren’t ‘viable’ and we should simply retrain.”
Musicians in droves took up part-time work to make ends meet, and the choice became jobs in new sectors or staying in music, for only very few opportunities.
“For us though, there was an upside to the musicians we were booking having very little work,” Grimes says. “We were able to organise players at short notice and it was easy to find rehearsal times that suited everyone. All the players were so keen to be involved, to have the chance to play and have people listen – and applaud.”
And the upside for the musicians was getting perks in the form of fresh produce.
“The Piatti Quartet already enjoyed some of our yellow raspberries,” Grimes imparts. “We have some sugar snap peas ready for the iyatra Quartet, and soon we’ll have so many tomatoes we’ll all be juggling with them!”
‘A silver lining in a brutal period of time’
The clarinettist continues: “Jessie’s Homemade Garden Jam was one of the few silver linings in an otherwise brutal period of time for me as a musician. The fact that I was suddenly faced with a cavernous expanse of time, usually spent travelling to perform and give workshops, meant I had space to really dream for the first time.”
Grimes tells us about spending the first couple of months meditating, thinking and gardening. “I was facing questions I’d never had to ask myself before: Who was I without the work that had come to define me? Did I have the confidence to create my own projects?”
The concert series collected these thoughts, and was the result of Grimes’ determination to create opportunities for herself and others to continue making and sharing the music they love.
‘The flautist’s fingers got too cold to play’
“As with anything outdoors in this country, we’re always battling the elements,” Grimes laughs. “It doesn’t take much wind to blow music of a music stand.
“And it can also be surprisingly cold in months that you’d think of as warm. One concert in September last year the flautist Fiona Kelly’s fingers got so cold she couldn’t play and I had to run in and make her a hot water bottle.”
Like stages and animals, instruments and English rain don’t mix well. “We had to get creative with multiple layers of gazebos and parasols on more than a few occasions!”
‘Why is music so important in tough times?’
“Can you imagine a funeral, or a wedding without music?,” Grimes points out when we get to this. “What about a devastating break-up? Or a spontaneous dance party?
“Music is the thing that connects us as humans, giving us a language to express ideas and feelings that there are no words for. It unites us, across borders, languages and continents in a universal human experience.”
‘A merry and loyal band of followers’
Garden Jam regulars are neighbours with adjoining back gardens, who can watch at a safe distance in the open air. And online, Grimes and her colleagues reach “a merry and loyal band of followers.”
“Everything we do and plan has their active commenting and participation in mind,” Grimes confides. “From quizzes, to shout-outs, to improvisation prompts, we plan our concerts so that our online audience feel just as welcomed into our garden.”
As well as keeping the music going, Grimes has raised money for the charity Help Musicians UK with Garden Jam. The concerts are free, but operate on a ticket donation model.
“We’ve had a few lovely, unexpectedly large donations from neighbours as a way of saying thank you for all the music and joy over lockdown, and it’s so rewarding to know that we can pass on that good energy to a charity as important as Help Musicians,” Grimes attests.
She adds: “Whilst donations are really important to allow us to keep the series going, the joy that we spread is the real measure of success for us. And with music, vegetables and silliness aplenty, we feel we’re on to a winner.”
Grimes’ experience as a workshop leader, presenter and music communicator has given her a mission to show that classical music, like all music, is simply a tool for expression and communication.
“Everyone is welcome to get involved,” she stresses. “For me, the Garden Jam is an opportunity to move away from the stuffy formality of traditional concerts, and show that great music is there for everyone to enjoy, and nobody needs to worry about clapping in the ‘wrong’ place.
“And, from what our audiences have said, the Garden Jam provided a glimmer of joy in a bleak year, and I hope that as the world continues to grapple with covid, and things evolve and change, that we can continue to give that little injection of musical joy into people’s weekends.”