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Meet the L.A. Phil musicians who started a music series on their Pasadena porch

Jonathan Karoly, with cello, and Cathy Karoly, with flute, outside their home in Pasadena.
Cellist Jonathan Karoly and flutist Cathy Karoly outside their home in Pasadena, where their neighborhood concert series ran to 25 performances.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Jonathan and Cathy Karoly started a chamber music series on their Pasadena porch after the pandemic shuttered Disney Hall. They’re among 11 classical musicians from both coasts who share stories of struggle, survival and hope.

Jonathan and Cathy Karoly have played with the Los Angeles Philharmonic for almost 25 years. Their love of music was so wrapped up in the salaried gig that when the coronavirus pandemic shuttered Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Hollywood Bowl, a host of existential questions arose.

“Without that built-in framework for making and playing music, and having an audience, we began asking, ‘What can we generate that’s important to us? How do we find meaning? Do we even play music?’” says Cathy, who plays flute.

Like most career musicians, the Karolys found that giving up music while the L.A. Phil remained largely on hiatus was not an option. They were lucky, as far as creatives go, because although the L.A. Phil was rupturing its budget, it found a way to maintain health benefits for its full-time orchestra members. And in April, when the organization announced layoffs and pay cuts, orchestra members continued to receive 70% of their regular weekly minimum scale.

Violinist Melissa Tong landed her dream job playing a Broadway musical. Then the pandemic became the ultimate showstopper. She’s one of 11 classical musicians from both coasts who share their stories of struggle, survival and hope.

The situation still represented a significant financial hit, and the road ahead is long. Live music is not likely to return indoors until fall at the earliest. The Karolys, like many culture lovers, hope that Los Angeles County allows the Hollywood Bowl to reopen. With a stage that is almost twice as big as that of Disney Hall, and more than 17,000 open-air seats, there would be room for the orchestra and the audience to social distance.

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What can we generate that’s important to us? How do we find meaning? Do we even play music?

— Cathy Karoly, flute

Until that happens the Karolys plan to continue hosting and playing an outdoor chamber music series that they started on their Pasadena front porch last spring. They gave 25 weekly concerts from May through November of last year. The Times covered an early event, and at that point the Karolys had no idea how much the 45-minute concerts would catch on.

By the time they stopped — just before Thanksgiving, when weather and an infection surge made the concerts difficult — they had an email list of 150 people. They had expanded their offerings to include weekly guest performers — string and wind players as well as harp — many of whom were L.A. Phil colleagues, including principal violist Teng Li.

The World Health Organization announced the coronavirus outbreak had become a pandemic on March 11, 2020. Since then, the virus has seemingly touched all aspects of life in Southern California and beyond. The Times looks back on a full year of life in a pandemic.

Programs included appearances by violin player and MacArthur fellow Vijay Gupta and violist Che-Yen Chen, and performances of Debussy’s String Quartet in G Minor, Opus 10, and Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6. The Karolys took breaks to explain a little about the music and its history, a facet of the shows that particularly delighted guests.

Jonathan, who plays cello, says he felt awkward at first playing outside of his house. He got over that when he saw just how much people — neighbors, L.A. Phil subscribers and random passersby — appreciated the opportunity to hear live classical music again.

“You could hear a pin drop in the performances, people were so attentive,” Cathy says.

“Pin drops and car engines,” jokes Jonathan.

Producing and programming a high-level concert each week proved to be quite a bit of work but it was immensely rewarding creatively, Jonathan says.

As the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic arrives, we want to hear from Angelenos in the theater industry about what life has been like since.

When they weren’t working on chamber music or recording for their respective YouTube channels, they had their hands full with three teenage children, all of whom have been remotely attending different schools.

The couple also spent time creating a new business called Note Pairings, which stages events pairing classical music with a wine expert and a chef.

They have done a few events so far but hope that the business will find a footing with corporate bookings, as well as at group retreats and in other spaces where people might be interested in upping their entertainment game.

In the meantime, the Karolys are putting all their positive thinking behind the health and eventual revival of the L.A. Phil. They look forward to a day that they can once again play with some of their favorite musicians.

Cathy says that she believes most L.A. Phil musicians will return with increased appreciation and gratitude for what they have, and also with a broadened perspective about how to define themselves outside of the orchestra.

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