The Covid Chronicles: When Will Classical Musicians Be Allowed to Return to the Stage?

By Greg Cahill | From the September-October 2020 issue of Strings magazine

“The coronavirus pandemic and quarantine have ultimately revealed how fragile the classical music ‘business’ is,” says James Wilson, cellist and artistic coordinator of the conductorless Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, based in New York City, and artistic director of the Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia. “Because of this, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about my professional calling. I am very proud to have created a freelance career that feels impactful, fulfilling, and important—one at a very high artistic level. But seeing almost all of it vanish overnight was devastating. At age 55, I wish I could see into the future toward what my musical life will be. I wonder if I have the luxury of time to rebuild, even if the professional infrastructure in which I thrived will be built back.”

Those questions are being asked by thousands of classical musicians, as well as numerous administrators of symphonies and chamber-music organizations, large and small, after the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States in mid-March, leading to numerous state-mandated lockdowns and widespread fear about public health, especially among large groups gathering indoors. 

Concert halls fell silent.

No arts organization has evaded the devastation. The New York Philharmonic canceled the rest of its 2020 season and a ten-concert European tour due to the new restrictions, estimating it will have $10 million in operating losses to its $87 million annual budget because of the pandemic. Due to declines in the financial markets, the Philharmonic’s endowment dropped from $210 million to less than $180 million within a few short weeks, according to Crain’s New York Business. Salaries of 106 unionized orchestra players were cut to minimum scale for April and, a month later, to 75 percent of minimum scale at least through the summer. The Los Angeles Philharmonic was forced to cancel more than 50 concerts that remained in its 2019/2020 season, and has cancelled the start of its 2020/21 season through December 31. The organization anticipates a loss of $90 million due to pandemic cancellations, and is asking patrons to donate the value of their tickets to support the musicians, teachers, students, and staff of the orchestra, or to apply those refunds to the 2020/2021 season. The San Francisco Symphony had to mute its ambitious farewell to longtime conductor Michael Tilson Thomas—though in June the SFS presented a 25-day virtual series celebrating the maestro’s 25 years with the symphony—as well as the inaugural season of new music director Esa-Pekka Salonen, canceling concerts through December 31. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association announced that concerts featuring the China National Centre for the Performing Arts Orchestra and the Berliner Philharmoniker, both scheduled to perform this fall, have been canceled due to travel and visa restrictions related to the pandemic.

The San Francisco Symphony had to mute its ambitious farewell to longtime conductor Michael Tilson Thomas due to COVID concerns, photo: Stefan Cohen
The San Francisco Symphony had to mute its ambitious farewell to longtime conductor Michael Tilson Thomas due to COVID concerns. Photo: Stefan Cohen

And in North Carolina, the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra felt the sting as plans to christen the GSO’s new home at the $85-million state-of-the-art Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts were put in limbo. “This hall was awaited for many years and it’s built and ready to be played,” says music director and violinist Dmitry Sitkovetsky, now quarantined in London. “It’s a very unfortunate situation for us—we were supposed to open the center in the last week of March.” That grand opening is on hold indefinitely, as is the opening of the Shell, the San Diego Symphony’s stylish new $45-million outdoor amphitheater.


Since March, the world has had to adjust to stay-at-home orders, high unemployment, financial insecurity, school closings, isolation, face masks, social distancing, frequent hand washing, and shortages of such common household items as toilet paper and disinfectant. In recent weeks, a shimmer of pre-lockdown life has returned—outdoor (and, in some places, even indoor) dining, gyms, beach swimming, hair salons, and retail shops all have reappeared in scattered locations—even as the number of coronavirus cases has climbed in many states. At press time, large gatherings at music festivals, concert halls, and sporting stadiums remain on hold, as large crowds in close quarters pose a risk that this highly infectious virus could spread unchecked. A vaccine and effective anti-viral drugs are still months away, maybe longer.

And the pandemic is continuing to wreak havoc—financially, artistically, and emotionally—on the classical-music world. Cash-strapped symphonies have scrambled to raise funds and to keep musicians and staff on the payroll, dipping into endowments, starting crowd-funding campaigns, and taking out bank loans. Most enacted pay cuts, furloughs, and layoffs to cut back spending. Some found relief in late-spring through low-interest loans from the federal government. Under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, thousands of companies and non-profits shared in the $659 billion Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which awarded potentially forgivable loans intended to cover some operating expenses and keep employees off of unemployment rolls. The lists of recipients, made public in July, reveals that dozens of orchestras received PPP loans of between $1 million and $5 million, with the New York Philharmonic, Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, Brooklyn Academy of Music, and San Francisco Symphony getting the largest loans—between $5 million and $10 million each. 

So, what does the future hold? Orchestras as diverse as the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra (performing Verdi) and the Ensemble Symphony Orchestra (performing Ennio Morricone’s scores) have synched up from isolation and taken to the internet. But that feels like a stopgap measure at best. More than a dozen musicians and administrators interviewed for this article expressed disappointment at the cancellation of live performances and the potentially long-term impact the pandemic might have on arts organizations, classical players, and fans. They showed trepidation but also were hopeful, using their time in isolation to practice, learn new repertoire, and perform on YouTube, Zoom, Facebook Live, and various other social media outlets. “I’ve stayed connected with all of my professional work through a veritable keychain of virtual programs, including meeting platforms, live broadcasts on social media, pre-recorded video, and cloud-based platforms,” says Orpheus cellist Wilson. “Through Orpheus’ Reflections program, I’ve played on Zoom and video for people with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. I’ve hosted online conversations for Orpheus and the Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia. And I play over social media in real time here and there when I’m asked or when it feels right.”

Still, the quarantine has taken its toll. “Just before the pandemic was declared, I was a soloist with the Baltimore Symphony and was preparing for a major world premiere [of Music Kitchen ‘Bridging the Distance,’ which is built around a collaboration with shelterless clients] at and in partnership with Carnegie Hall, as well as many recitals, concertos, and a recording,” says concert violinist and Broadway performer Kelly Hall-Tompkins, who is quarantined at her home in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. “The quarantine has caused all of those things to be postponed, so I will continue learning new repertoire, developing creative and entrepreneurial ideas for now and for our return to concert life, and playing to uplift the most vulnerable among us.  

“Artists are always called to listen closely to the rhythm of their time, adapt, and speak to the moment while being true to their own calling,” she adds. “Sometimes the path can be windier than we had planned, but it can also offer unexpected blessings. For me, one of those blessings is that I realize just how much each performance is a celebration of life and I will be more committed to my path than ever.”


Clearly, the pandemic has given professional musicians accustomed to spending a good part of the year on the road a chance to reflect and reassess personal values and career goals. “I think we are witnessing a transformation of the music industry—things are not going to just revert back to the way they were before,” says classical cellist and educator Hee-Young Lim, who is quarantined in Seoul, South Korea. “I can’t predict what will happen after the pandemic, how musicians who tour heavily on every continent will be able to continue with their performance careers, but I am sure there will be challenges that we will all have to meet. I do think it will be difficult to give concerts over the next year or two, but I am hopeful that once a vaccine is widely available, the arts will have found a way to adjust to the new reality, and musicians and their audiences will find a way to come together. . . . This is a difficult time, but I think the world is discovering the need for art and music even more than ever. People need beauty in their lives and to be uplifted!”

The League of American Orchestras has provided assistance to scores of beleaguered organizations through advocacy on Capitol Hill, legal assistance, webinars on obtaining federal relief, and other programs. The League also has created, a new website that spotlights the creative ways that orchestras are raising funds and providing music online during the era of social distancing. Symphony Spot features web streams, performance and education directories, archival recordings, and other resources from more than 100 orchestras, venues, and soloists who are members and friends of the League. League members wishing to be added to the directory can do so on the site, which links to members’ donation pages and social-media channels. You can find listings for ensembles nationwide, from the Abilene (Texas) Symphony Orchestra to the York (Pennsylvania) Symphony Orchestra. The YSO, which in a sign of the times was forced to cancel a May 2 performance of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy (part of the classical-music world’s celebration of the composer’s 250th anniversary), has asked patrons to donate refunds for tickets to the YSO Musicians Relief Fund, which provides financial support to the organization’s freelance orchestra personnel. Meanwhile, though the YSO does offer full refunds for tickets, the organization, like many other symphonies, also has asked patrons to exchange their seats for a 2021 season program or apply the value to a 2021 subscription. 

YSO maestro Lawrence Golan and his daughter, Giovanna, in a special video for patrons as part of their “Offstage” series, courtesy of YSO
YSO maestro Lawrence Golan and his daughter, Giovanna, in a special video for patrons as part of their “Offstage” series. Photo courtesy of YSO

A review of the listings shows that, in addition to large organizations like the New York Philharmonic, scores of regional and local orchestras are active on social media, staying connected through virtual concerts and discovering innovative ways of not just fundraising, but building audiences. In Canada, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra has launched WSO at Home, a twice-monthly series of mini-concerts broadcast every other Friday on YouTube and Facebook, a model that is being embraced throughout the industry as orchestras build audiences online. In addition, every second Saturday, a WSO musician curates a playlist on Winnipeg’s Classic 107 FM—L.A. Phil music director Gustavo Dudamel has recorded a series of similar programs for radio stations in Los Angeles and San Francisco. The Winston-Salem Symphony, based in North Carolina, has noted online that it never imagined its “20/21 Reimagined” theme would take on such a profound and unexpected meaning in light of the changes required to navigate the impact of the pandemic. If the pandemic can be said to have a silver lining in the arts, it is that orchestras that have long fretted over declining audiences are being pushed out of the concert hall and finding new fans online. 


Concert violinist and chamber player Daniel Hope, quarantined at home in Berlin, where he maintains a small studio, has been heartened by the expanded online experience, especially the magnitude of the virtual audience and the immediacy of its response. His nightly live-streamed concerts on the ARTE Channel have featured Christian Thielemann, chief conductor of the Staatskapelle Dresden and director of the Salzburg Easter Festival; conductor Simon Rattle; and the Czech mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená. “It has been absolutely overwhelming,” Hope says of his newly found global audience. “We have had more than 500,000 views and I am receiving hundreds of comments every day on social media and in private messages. . . . There are so many people out there at the moment who respond emotionally to classical, live music. People also enjoy the interaction, sending in requests to which we have tried to respond. And our audience is completely global, young and old. It is inspiring and heart-warming. It’s an adventure, and, of course, a challenge. At the moment, I just feel privileged to be able to make music every night from home, and to broadcast it with excellent-quality sound around the world.”

Vienna Philharmonic, photo: Steven Pisano
Vienna Philharmonic. Photo: Steven Pisano

A Viennese Experiment

The Vienna Philharmonic announced in mid-July that its members had participated in a study that measured the amount of moisture emitted by the breath of unmasked players seated three feet apart and performing in a concert. The study determined that the virus poses no increased risk for orchestras, according to an article in the Medical Express. The experiment—which did not take into account the dynamics of aerosol emissions (the fine mist that can linger in the air)—established that “we should not expect air exhaled by an artist to reach more than 80 centimeters distance [roughly 2.6 feet],” according to a statement from the orchestra. “This maximum distance of breath droplets was emitted by flute players while for the string section there was no observable change in how far the breath travelled between playing or being at rest,” the Medical Express continued. “The study concluded that there was no increased risk for musicians playing together in an orchestra as long as they observed at least a meter’s distance [three feet] from each other.”

Beginning August 1, events of up to 500 people will be allowed in Vienna, with the possibility of larger gatherings of up to 1,000 people, as long as event organizers get government approval. “The Vienna Philharmonic hopes the results of its study will convince the government not to introduce rules for orchestras that may hinder communication between the artists,” noted the Express.

Read more interviews with soloists, chamber players, and composers discussing the impact of the pandemic on Strings’ Keep Connected web series.