A force for good

31/03/20 Josephine Vains, has been playing mini social distancing "concerts" for her street in Brunswick. Neighbours come out of their houses and stand the required distances away to enjoy the music and the community spirit. Photograph by Chris Hopkins
31/03/20 Josephine Vains, has been playing mini social distancing "concerts" for her street in Brunswick. Neighbours come out of their houses and stand the required distances away to enjoy the music and the community spirit. Photograph by Chris Hopkins

Brawls and hoarding. Profiteering, finger pointing and fear. The coronavirus pandemic has brought out the worst in some. But look a little deeper and a far more potent story is unfolding: one of kindness, connection and trust.

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It’s the end of the last Sunday in March, and after dipping low in the vanilla autumn sky, the sun throws all its light on MacFarland Street. A yellow glow kisses this little road in Brunswick, in Melbourne’s inner north. It dances on the puddles left by an afternoon storm. Catches the buzzing mozzies. Hits old chimneys, and iron lace balustrades, and aluminium roofs. And one musical instrument.

The latter is an antique cello, made in 1830 of flamed maple and spruce, by a master craftsman from London. And it is embraced by its owner, Josephine Vains, who sits on a chair between two paperbark trees – near her parsley patch and her passionfruit creeper and her yellow recycling bin – on the footpath in front of her cream brick home.

Vains, 45, is a chamber musician who has played with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and taught at the Victorian College of the Arts. She has performed in European cathedrals of gothic splendour. Modern recital centres in the US. The ancient Longyou Caves in China. The bottom of a mine shaft in Macedon in Victoria’s Goldfields region.

“Thank you for coming,” she says to her neighbours, around three dozen of whom have, on cue, left self-isolation to come together – while remaining many, many metres apart – for a little concert born on a local WhatsApp group. “I hope you enjoy the show.”

They do. They might not recognise the last names of the long-dead composers on the set list, but they recognise beauty in suburbia. As Vains plays Gabrielli, a happy couple sitting on folding chairs – with teardrop wine glasses and a bottle of Margaret River cabernet sauvignon – rise to applaud.

As she plays Saint-Saëns, a nuclear family crammed inside their blue Landrover Discovery are rapturous. As she plays the famous prelude from Cello Suite No. 1 by Johann Sebastian Bach, and The Sound of Silence by Simon & Garfunkel, others clap and grin from their verandahs and driveways, leaning against a front gate, or listening through an open bedroom window.

“Beautiful!” yells one man, from a distance. “Thank you!” waves another. “Thanks Josie!” says her next-door neighbour. “That was the first time I’ve heard you,” adds a bloke from around the corner – an interloper from Osborne Street, two blocks down. “And I cried. It was really beautiful.”

Vains smiles. All the paid performances on her calendar are cancelled due to COVID-19, but this makes that more bearable. She’s been playing a show at sunset every few days since the last week of March: a handful of songs, for this street and for herself.

“This is my way of feeling … like I’m just continuing to do what I always do,” she says afterward. “I feel quite high now. It’s a natural high. And I think they feel that way, too. We all need something to look forward to. Something to do and hear. Together.”

Do we ever…

Click here to read the full story from Good Weekend magazine on Saturday, April 11, 2020

Or click here to listen to the piece in an episode of the Good Weekend Talks podcast

Pictures by photojournalist Chris Hopkins

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