‘Backyard Violinist’ brings live music to Richmonders

Ellen Cockerham Riccio, a Richmond Symphony violinist, performs socially distanced concerts in the backyards of Richmonders upon request. Photo courtesy of Jeff Kelley

Kofi Mframa, Contributing Writer

Live performances are hard to come by amid COVID-19, subjecting many to seek out virtual and pre-recorded performances as reminders of how things used to be. A local violinist, however, is giving people a glimpse of the past right in their own backyards.

Ellen Cockerham Riccio, also known as the “backyard violinist,” puts on solo, socially distanced performances outside of the homes of Richmond residents. She started doing the intimate performances in April as a way to bring live music to people during a time of “digital overload.”

“Live music is so important, now more than ever,” Riccio said. “Playing backyard concerts has afforded me the opportunity to see what music means to people, a gift I will carry with me back to the symphony stage.”

Riccio said she has given over 150 live performances that vary from wedding proposals to private concerts and educational performances.

The idea started as an in-person, interactive educational opportunity for children whose learning opportunities are limited to Zoom calls and other virtual media.

“I noticed that so many kids were spending too much time on screen — educational or not,” Riccio said. “So I started this entire thing as educational work for kids.”

Riccio, who has played the violin since she was five years old, has taken her project to birthdays, anniversaries, date nights and family reunions. When booking performances for events, music can be requested to best fit the occasion.

“Music has the power to say what words can’t, and live music in particular gives us the opportunity to connect with each other on a deep level.” — Ellen Cockerham Riccio

At one performance, Riccio was asked to play an excerpt from “The Barber of Seville,” an opera written by Italian composer Gioachino Rossini with an Italian libretto by Cesare Sterbini.   

Sam Revenson, Richmond resident and VCU alumnus, said he has booked Riccio twice to play for his family.

“One for Father’s Day and a second because we wanted her violin ‘magic’ for a second time during these COVID times,” Revenson said in an email. “She explains and shares her passion. She is an elixir during these unprecedented times.”

Cassie Poindexter, another Richmond resident, booked Riccio last year to play during her proposal. She said she appreciated the additional element of romance brought to the occasion by the performance. 

Riccio has been principal second violinist for the Richmond Symphony since 2009. Due to COVID-19, musicians in the group and audience members must follow safety guidelines during performances.

Riccio poses for a portrait while holding her violin. Photo courtesy of Didier Brival Jr.

“All of the musicians have to be 10 feet apart on stage. This means that we’re doing things like turning our own sheet music,” Riccio said. “Audience members are also socially distanced, and all the performances are live-streamed so that people can watch from home.”

Riccio founded the Richmond chapter of the global initiative Classical Revolution in 2012, a group comprised of 150 Richmond-based vocal and instrumental musicians. According to its mission statement, Classical Revolution RVA aims to make music more accessible by incorporating classical music to local bars, restaurants and art galleries. 

“I think we are all experiencing some very strong feelings this year, both in reaction to the events in the world around us and as a result of spending more time at home,” she said. “Music has the power to say what words can’t, and live music in particular gives us the opportunity to connect with each other on a deep level.”

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