Eleven classical musicians from both coasts share their stories of struggle, survival and hope during a year that presented extraordinary challenges — and unexpected opportunities — for the art form.
She was hired to play at the Grammys with Lizzo. Then everything changed
“2020 was going to be my year,” Sims says. “I felt like I was really starting to arrive professionally. Everything was going up, up, up.”
Sims also had been hired to play in a Broadway musical. Then, for no reason that she could discern, she got fired from the show after the first rehearsal.
“I’m a Black woman playing a brass instrument, and as of right now, I don’t think there are any Black women playing brass instruments on Broadway,” she says, declining to name the show from which she was fired. “Was it implicit bias? I don’t know.”
That happened three weeks before New York shut down and the show closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
How Broadway’s delayed reopening affects classical musicians like her
Two years ago, Violinist Melissa Tong got a call that changed her life: She was hired for a Broadway orchestra gig on a new jukebox musical.
“It was the first time I was going to have financial security in my life,” Tong recalls. “In addition to being my very first predictable weekly paycheck on a W-2, it was an absolute dream job.”
Tong lived in that near-perfect narrative for a year before the pandemic added an unwelcome plot twist, with Broadway still officially shut down through May.
Alexander Blake is leading a movement for anti-racism in choral music. Here’s how
He stopped eating and lost 25 pounds in the stress of the pandemic, but Alexander Blake says he’s also seen important positive change.
Blake, a choral singer, founded a group called Tonality that is concerned with issues of racism and social justice, and he cofounded the collective Black Artists for Black Lives, which consists of more than 70 arrangers, singers, instrumentalists, audio engineers and videographers.
‘Why have I only ever played music by white guys?’ An L.A. pianist’s fight against systemic bias
During her conservatory training, pianist Sharon Su had been taught to stick rigidly to the classical canon, which prompted her to pose the question: “Why have I only ever played music by white guys?”
Recognizing systemic bias, Su began playing and recording work by female composers, including Clara Schumann, Louise Farrenc and Cécile Chaminade.
In the months leading up to the coronavirus shutdowns, she was working with a composer to transform a sonata by 19th century German composer Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, sister of Felix Mendelssohn, into a concerto. But the pandemic put a grand concert tour on hold.
“We’re back in talks to get that concerto tour up and running, but only one ensemble has committed, because everybody’s budgets are shot,” Su says.
There are tough choices facing cash-strapped musicians. An L.A. gig artist explains
Within a two-hour span in March one year ago, Corinne Olsen lost all her gigs for the month.
Soon enough, cancellations started on her April jobs, and by mid-April, the L.A.-based freelance viola player’s entire calendar for 2020 was gone.
Over the summer, a few one-off jobs began cropping up here and there. The problem was that they were often attended by people not wearing masks. “Is my health and safety worth the $200 to play a half-hour at a wedding?” she asks.
Listen closely to ‘Tenet.’ You’ll hear their garage music
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra musicians Tereza Stanislav and Robert Brophy turned their garage into a recording studio to stay afloat during the pandemic.
To dampen the sounds of the neighborhood — lawn mowers, weed whackers, helicopters, a nest of parrots in the yard — they hung bulky blankets over their garage windows.
Brophy recorded a piece of music for “Tenet” during a massive April rainstorm. The pitter-patter of drops could not be drowned out. He wrote to Göransson, apologizing for the water noise.
“No, no, it’ll be fine,” he says the composer assured him. “It’ll work great for this scene.”
Meet the L.A. Phil musicians who started a music series on their Pasadena porch
Jonathan and Cathy Karoly, who have played with the L.A. Philharmonic for almost 25 years, started a chamber music series on their Pasadena porch after the pandemic shuttered Disney Hall.
Their love of music was so wrapped up in the salaried gig that when the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered venues, a host of existential questions arose. “We began asking, ‘What can we generate that’s important to us? How do we find meaning? Do we even play music?’” says Cathy.
Mozart for Munchkins concerts revive a sense of purpose. Just ask this French horn player
For French horn player and New Yorker Peter DelGrosso, outdoor concerts for kids brought him back to the live music scene during the pandemic. Once underway, he regained his sense of purpose.
“We played the last note and I got emotional,” he says. “I was able to get a reaffirmation of life from one note.”
For this L.A. guitarist, pandemic isolation deepens the music
Giovanni Piacentini, born in Mexico City as the son of a Mexican mother and an Italian father, landed a spot at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and arrived in the U.S. at age 19.
“My story is the textbook immigrant story, where I came over from Mexico by way of Italy, and my artistic voice found a home in the U.S.,” says Piacentini, who is now completing his PhD at UCLA and just released the album “Adrift in the Garden of Beautiful Things” with violinist Tim Fain.
For some time now, Piacentini has been writing a concerto for noted classical guitarist Eliot Fisk. Now that Piacentini has had more time to work on the music, he feels it has become deeper and more powerful because of the specific nature of pandemic isolation and confinement.