Lizzo’s musician. A ‘Tenet’ artist. 11 classical musicians’ stories of pandemic loss and hope

Kyra Sims and her French horn, Choral singer Alexander Blake and more in a GIF video
French horn player Kyra Sims, pianist Sharon Su, choral singer Alexander Blake and violinist Melissa Tong speak of their struggles and hopes, one year after COVID-19 shutdowns.
(Kyra Sims; Dania Maxwell;Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times; Melissa Tong)

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

Kyra Sims and her French horn, Otto.
(Kyra Sims)

In January, Kyra Sims was hired to perform at the Grammys with Lizzo. That same week, she played with Tituss Burgess at Carnegie Hall.


“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.

Read more of Sims’ story >>



How Broadway’s delayed reopening affects classical musicians like her

Violinist Melissa Tong recording music for American Opera Project from home.
(Melissa Tong)

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.

Read more of Tong’s story >>



Alexander Blake is leading a movement for anti-racism in choral music. Here’s how

Choral singer Alexander Blake, founder of a group called Tonality, poses for a portrait in Los Feliz
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

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.

Read more of Blake’s story >>


‘Why have I only ever played music by white guys?’ An L.A. pianist’s fight against systemic bias

Pianist Sharon Su with some of her favorite sheet music
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)


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.

Read more of Su’s story >>



There are tough choices facing cash-strapped musicians. An L.A. gig artist explains

Musician Corinne Olsen with her viola.
(Corinne Olsen)

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.

Read more of Olsen’s story >>



Listen closely to ‘Tenet.’ You’ll hear their garage music

Musicians Rob Brophy and Tereza Stanislav under their backyard pergola in South Pasadena.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

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.”


Read more of Brophy and Stanislav’s story >>


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

Jonathan and Cathy Karoly -- both L.A. Philharmonic players -- pose with their cello and flute.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

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.

Read more of the Karolys story >>



Mozart for Munchkins concerts revive a sense of purpose. Just ask this French horn player

French horn player Peter DelGrosso, right, performs with Mozart for Munchkins in New York City.
(Peter DelGrosso)

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.”

Read more of DelGrosso’s story >>


For this L.A. guitarist, pandemic isolation deepens the music

Classical guitarist Giovanni Piacentini is a music professor at UCLA
(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)


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.

Read more of Piacentini’s story >>