“Julia McLean took decades of music lessons, spent thousands of hours practicing, and coped with constant grueling competition, and in January it all paid off. She became a full-time viola player for the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.
“In March, ‘Poof,’ she says. ‘I achieved all of my career goals and then lost my entire career in five weeks.’”
So begins a major roundup of “What Happens to the Musicians When the Orchestra Music Stops” in The Wall Street Journal by Betsy Morris
McLean’s story has been repeated a thousandfold across the country. Opera companies, symphony orchestras, music presenters, and their audiences are all despairing of what COVID-19 is doing to them, but the worst of the pandemic is hitting the artists themselves — singers, orchestra members, support personnel — especially those whose careers were just beginning.
It is estimated that, at the beginning of 2020, there were 630,000 jobs for musicians in the country in all genres from classical to rap. Now half of those have been wiped out, and it’s unclear how much of the loss is permanent.
One striking story is that of a young opera director, whose peripatetic prepandemic career ranged from Nanjing to New York, via Houston, Chicago, Berlin, and San Francisco.
It was here, in the city’s Merola Opera Program Grand Finale that five years ago I first encountered Mo Zhou and was greatly impressed by her work. I reported at the time: “In the direction of apprentice stage director Mo Zhou, the evening unfolded with simplicity, speed and continuity perhaps none of the 30 previous grand finales I’ve ever seen could match: a thoroughly professional job.”
She went on to a grand career after Merola, two years working at Juilliard as a James Marcus Directing Fellow, apprenticing with Stephen Wadsworth. Then she became assistant director at Houston Grand Opera, Dallas Opera, and eventually Lyric Opera of Chicago.
She scored internationally in 2019, which she calls “a breakthrough year for me,” when she conceived and directed Tang Jianping’s The Diary of John Rabe, about the Rape of Nanjing. “I am from Nanjing, my paternal grandmother is a survivor of the massacre, so this show is connected to the core of my soul.” The production ran in China and on an acclaimed European tour at Staatsoper Berlin, Elbphilharmonie Hamburg, and Ronacher in Vienna.
And then came 2020:
This pandemic has hit me hard. I lost most of my “milestone” contracts due to the COVID-19 cancellation. People kept telling me that without those staff assistant positions in A-list houses, my name would not carry any legitimacy in the business. I dutifully followed the advice, paid my dues.
Now it seems the efforts of the past decade were built on running sand. After the initial paralysis, I got better in August, started taking training in different areas: diversity and inclusion, human management.
I’m prepared for the worst winter ahead — if we can’t have any live performance for the next two years, I’m determined to carve out a second career for me so I could come back whenever we are back to performing.
Also looking to the future, Zhou speaks of “an exciting project on my horizon I’m working on is adapting the life story of Iris Chang, the author of the book Rape of Nanjing, into an opera. This project anchors my soul.”
Among the many stories in the Wall Street Journal article is that of Hugo Valverde, a 26-year-old French horn player in the Metropolitan Opera orchestra, who describes the shutdown as devastating:
“‘It feels like something was ripped away from you.’ He’d landed his seat at the Met after a blind audition at the age of 22 and last year received tenure. His finances forced him to return to his family in Costa Rica. There he struggled to practice and lay staring at the ceiling thinking, ‘What am I going to do?’”
Struggling on in New York is another French horn player, Jon Carroll, 30. He finally landed a gig with The Lion King when theaters shut down. Since getting his master’s from the Juilliard School four years ago, he’d built a freelance career that had packed his calendar with Broadway musicals, regional symphonies, and his C Street Brass quintet.
After everything was canceled, “he woke up in the middle of the night, panicked about paying his rent. At 2 a.m., he got online and applied for 25 jobs — at grocery stores, the Home Depot, and as a meat cutter at Stew Leonard’s food store in Yonkers. ‘I got none of those jobs,’ he says. Recently, he has been working at a bike shop, making much less than the $80 an hour he’d earn on Broadway.”
In San Francisco, a typical story is that of Baker Peeples, son of two well-known musicians, the Lamplighters’ conductor Baker Peeples and singer Ellen Kerrigan. Besides being a member of the Freeway Philharmonic, violinist Peeples has worked with Symphony Silicon Valley, Sacramento Philharmonic and Opera for more than a decade, and other organizations.
He has been also teaching at Reeder Music Academy in Danville, and coached and adjudicated seating auditions for the Oakland Youth Orchestra, the San Jose Youth Symphony, the California Youth Symphony. And then came the pandemic:
On March 12, I was set to head out to Monterey to play with the Monterey Symphony. Rehearsals were to start that evening with concerts on Saturday and Sunday, followed by a children’s concert on Monday morning, but we all got an email from Drew Ford, the orchestra’s personnel manager and librarian, that the program was canceled.
Almost overnight, nearly every regional orchestra canceled any program slated to take place in March. The same went for April and then for May, the time at which most regional orchestras have their last program of their respective seasons.
Many young musicians feared for, and sadly accurately predicted, the worst, jumping onto EDD.gov to apply for unemployment insurance.
Fortunately, pandemic assistance payments of $600, and now $300, per week, as well as PPP payments for lost work, have helped assuage the sudden drop in income.
Having a teaching position at Reeder Music Academy has been a lifesaver, as it’s not just some kind of weekly income, it also reminds me of a musician’s importance in guiding the children who will be adults sooner than we know it. Lessons are workable through Zoom, orchestra rehearsals are not.
Peeples has found some good in all the bad of the pandemic: “Some of my students have actually been practicing more regularly because they are virtually confined to their homes. One of my students at the Academy has very much surpassed herself, and she was recently accepted into the Oakland Youth Orchestra.
“I have also been able to dedicate more mental energy to my students, which has been a silver lining of the time in which we live: If I were freelancing regularly, having virtually no off-nights per week, I would never have been able to give this promising young student the attention she needs. How wonderful is it that, with all sorts of free time, she can take video of her practicing, I can watch it, evaluate it, provide feedback, and see more rapid progress than ever before.”
As for the future, Peeples is not optimistic: “The performance side of this pandemic has been less fruitful and more gloomy. There seems to be very little light at the end of the tunnel as far as when orchestras will return. Many audiences are willing to wait to return for live performances, which is encouraging, but without an audience, we cannot make a living from performing, as, sadly, many patrons of orchestras are hesitant to pay for streamed performances.
“It’s always been disheartening to see audiences dwindle, whether that is due to audiences that are growing older, or a lack of interest in the genre, or a frustration with “low-risk” programming. My sincere hope is that once performances return, those who attend concerts will do so with vigor, never take for granted the availability of live music, and, most importantly, realize that no live music equals someone out of work, and sometimes with painful consequences.”