On March 10, London-based piano sensation Annie Yim returned to her Vancouver hometown for two important reasons. One was to perform a transcendent Music on Main recital at the Fox Cabaret on March 10 called The Poet Speaks: From Debussy to Pärt. The other was to spend time with her mother, who was in the final stages of a battle with cancer.
The world locked down soon after her show, and the pianist has been stuck here ever since.
She’s been on an unscheduled life-changing journey that has taken her not only through the stages of loss, but far away from the world of performance—and then back again, in the most unexpected of settings.
Yim is launching the open-air Concerts on the Farm Festival, at Inner City Farms in pastoral Southlands, next Friday and Saturday (August 28 and 29).
But to understand what brought her there, you need to hear her whole story—one that, she admits with good humour, does have its absurd side.
“I haven’t seen my husband for six months now; it’s getting ridiculous,” she says with a laugh. “It feels very strange, even though we Facetime every day.”
Yim was able to be at her mother’s bedside till May, when her mom passed away. Over the next few weeks, while she was grieving, she went out for long walks—including some in Southlands, where she came upon Inner City Farms’ big, thriving vegetable garden at 3488 Celtic Avenue. The group partners with homeowners and local businesses to convert spaces into organic plots, where vegetables are hand-picked and then made available to the community.
With no piano here and not much to do, Yim decided to volunteer for the project.
“I’ve never gardened at all, but I just wanted to do something useful,” she relates. “I was thinking about my mom, and she loved organic vegetables and I thought she would have wanted me to do that. And it’s been such a healing experience. I learned so much about organic gardening and sustainable practice. It was a whole new world to me. It really creates a sense of community on the farm.”
Meanwhile, Yim saw flight after rebooked flight cancelled back to London. When yet another, early in August, was cancelled for the fifth time, she spoke to ICF head farmer Camil Dumont and some other volunteers about how depressed she was feeling. “I was talking about how COVID is affecting all our careers and lives, and Camil said, ‘Why don’t you bring the piano here?’”
If the subsequent festival that has grown almost out of thin air proves anything, it’s that Hong Kong-born Yim knows how to get things done. In 2015, she founded MusicArt in London, a forum for musical collaborations across art forms, from visual arts to poetry to contemporary dance, with works commissioned at major art galleries and concert halls in the U.K. capital as well as Berlin.
First, Yim secured a grand piano from Tom Lee Music, storing it in the barn to be moved outside to the stage and tent for each performance to a limited audience of 40 socially distanced people.
She has also gathered close musician friends from the community to join her in the outdoor setting. Robert Silverman, who she studied under at UBC School of Music, takes the keys for Johann Sebastian Bach preludes and fugues; pianist Mark Anderson, cellist Jonathan Lo (of the Rolston String Quartet), violinist Timothy Steeves (of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra), and the Emily Carr String Quartet are also on hand. Each artist has made personal choices for the repertoire, reflecting their own responses to these uncertain times.
Among the highlights, Yim herself will play Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”, marking his 250th birthday, and the final third show will feature the last string quartet by the composer.
Before each socially distanced concert, audiences will have the chance to take an optional tour of the farm, which is enjoying harvest time, Yim says. And what’s it been like to finally play the piano again? “I couldn’t wait!” she exclaims. “It was like an animal let out of the cage.”
After the concerts are over, she’s hoping to finally find a flight and see her husband again. But in the meantime, the artist is providing a gift to her hometown, where concert halls are shuttered and residents have been going through a cultural withdrawal.
“I feel like nature is a work of art,” reflects the newfound green thumb. “I told Camil, ‘Your farm is a work of art.’ I feel nature and art is what we really need right now. With my experience with my mom in the last few months, she was so courageous....We are living in an uncertain time, but we still need to move forward and not be controlled by fear."
The Concerts on the Farm Festival runs Friday (August 28) at 6 p.m. with Sonata on the Farm, then Saturday (August 29) at 11 a.m. with Organic—Bach & Beyond and 6 p.m. with Sustainable Quartet. Info and tickets are at www.concertsonthefarm.eventbrite.ca.