The music floats down a narrow, weedy gangway to a backyard on the North Side, where four French horn players sit, socially distanced, their instruments gleaming in the late-morning sunlight.
A cardinal somewhere up in the high branches of a huge silver maple adds its own accompaniment to the piece they’re playing, “Fripperies for Four Horns,” by Lowell Shaw. A middle-aged couple step out onto their deck overlooking the garden to listen.
“There are a lot of bees out here. What’s going on?” said Mary Jo Neher, swatting at the little insects buzzing around her ankles during a pause in the music.
It’s a small inconvenience for Neher, 42, and her fellow Chicago-area horn players, who are thrilled to be playing with other human beings after months of isolation at home.
“One of the things I’ve missed was the feeling of throwing my case on my back and going into the garage to go to work,” said Neher, a freelance musician. “There is so much in that moment: I have a purpose. I’m not just Mom, keeping everyone alive and teaching at home. I just yearn for that basic feeling.”
About a month ago, Neher figured other out-of-work horn players she knew would have that same yearning. So she posted a call for musicians on her Facebook page. And so for the past few weeks, she, Jeremiah Frederick, Joanna Schulz and John Schreckengost — all professional horn players — have been making music as the ’Rona Quartet, a reference the disease that has kept musicians everywhere apart.
A couple of weeks ago, they played in Welles Park. Last week, they were in Portage Park. This week, they’re heading to Senn High School, where they’ll play the Frippery piece, which brings to mind Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers on a dancing stroll through New York’s Central Park in the spring. Henry Mancini’s “Moon River” and George Gershwin’s “Summertime” are also part of the program, as well as a medley of Lady Gaga songs arranged by Neher’s husband. A little something for everyone — given that children are just as likely to be part of the park audience.
“We thought it would be a fun way to remind people that there is music out there, and that there are people wanting to do their jobs,” Neher said.
Joanna Schulz, another member of the quartet, said she’s noticed a peculiar side effect of playing in a group, after not having done so for so long.
“There are just so many more colors in my dreams,” she said.
It’s a byproduct of the way music stimulates different parts of the brain, Schulz said.
The concerts are free, and there’s no hat for donations.
“Money would be great — don’t get me wrong — but, emotionally, this has gone a long way to keeping our spirits up,” Neher said. “Honestly, we’re so excited to play for people. When I came home [after a concert last week], I was almost in tears. I just felt like me again.”
- Joanna Schulz and three other French horn players formed the ’Rona Quartet when gigs dried up because of the coronavirus pandemic. Pat Nabong/Sun-Times
- Musician Mary Jo Neher practices with the ’Rona Quartet on Saturday, July 25. Pat Nabong/Sun-Times
- Joanna Schulz and three other French horn players have formed the ’Rona Quartet. Pat Nabong/Sun-Times
- Professional musician John Schreckengost, who was laid off due to the pandemic, practices with the ’Rona Quartet. Pat Nabong/Sun-Times
- French horn player Jeremiah Frederick practices with the ’Rona Quartet. Pat Nabong/Sun-Times
- Neighbor Janet Mroczek glances at the ’Rona Quartet on her way out as they play their French horns in Joanna Schulz’s backyard. Pat Nabong/Sun-Times
- Joanna Schulz’s neighbor livestreams the ’Rona Quartet’s practice Saturday. Pat Nabong/Sun-Times
- Suzanne Muscari and Roland Heyne applaud the ’Rona Quartet, which practiced Saturday in Joanna Schulz’s backyard. Pat Nabong/Sun-Times
- French horn player John Schreckengost arranges his music during a practice of the ’Rona Quartet. Pat Nabong/Sun-Times
- Professional musicians Mary Jo Neher, Jeremiah Frederick, Joanna Schulz and John Schreckengost, who weren’t working due to the pandemic, formed the ’Rona Quartet. Pat Nabong/Sun-Times