Washington musicians get creative in the wake of Covid-19 fallout

Thu Jun 11, 2020 at 12:40 pm

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected everyone around the world. Perhaps—apart from medical workers and first responders— no one has been hit as hard as musicians because of the collaborative and public nature of their work. The fallout at major institutions like the Kennedy Center has received prominent coverage. Yet musicians without permanent jobs are often in even worse situations, especially freelancers who receive no income if they do not perform.

Thomas P. Smith, organist and choirmaster at Christ Church in Georgetown, was an early victim of the virus. On March 7 the rector of that prominent Episcopal parish, the Rev. Timothy Cole, became the first confirmed Covid-19 case in the District of Columbia. Smith subsequently tested positive for the novel coronavirus, leading to the citywide shutdown.

Smith recalled the day, before he was diagnosed, when he knew that something was really wrong. He said he was eating a slice of pizza with a colleague and remembered commenting, “I can’t taste this pizza. It’s very strange. I don’t know what’s happening.” The medical community had not yet figured out that anosmia, the loss of smell and taste, was a telltale symptom of Covid-19.

In the end Smith had about four or five days of severe flu-like symptoms, with lingering minor problems for about two weeks. Smith never had to be hospitalized, unlike the pastor of the parish, who suffered severe lung damage and was in the hospital for about a month.

Smith leads a 12-voice professional choir at Christ Church. Since Easter, Smith has had four singers at a time come in to record hymns for online video services, observing extreme social distancing. “They are as far apart as possible, because singing does seem to be one of the riskiest behaviors,” he said, adding that “it’s hard to know when we would go back to having singers in live, in-person worship.”

Most musicians in this city regularly cross paths with one another at various gigs. It could have been prime territory for the virus to spread, as it did rather quickly from Smith to his choir members, some of whom also became sick after their last service together. Happily, the area shutdown for the past two and a half months seems to have limited the number of coronavirus cases among musicians.

Another musician who was not spared was Ed Goldstein, the principal tuba player of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra for 44 years, who recently retired. He suddenly got sick at the end of March, just after the shelter-in-place order went into effect.

“I was sleeping 20 out of 24 hours a day,” he recalled. “It was the sickest I’ve ever felt. It went on for about a week, but it took me about a month and a half to get my strength back.” Goldstein also lost his sense of smell and taste, rounding out all the classic symptoms of Covid-19. Oddly, he did not ever test positive for the virus.

“My lung capacity was definitely affected,” Goldstein said. “They did an X-ray, and the guy said I had two collapsed lungs.” After consulting the triage nurse at a hospital, who also examined his lung scans, Goldstein decided not to go to the hospital and was able to recover at home.

Goldstein is also music director of the Peabody Ragtime Ensemble and enjoyed a flourishing freelance career in both jazz and classical music. “I have gone from four-to-ten gigs a week to zero,” he said. “Since March 21, I have picked up my tuba to play three times, twice to play ‘Happy Birthday’ on a Zoom call to a friend, once to see if it still all works.”

Although he booked some gigs for the fall, he doesn’t see them actually happening. “I’ve gone from a comfortable income to nothing,” he concluded. After trying to weather the situation, he has now applied for unemployment. “You can space audiences six feet apart, but then what do you do with the musicians?”

Evan Ross Solomon, clarinetist and executive director of the chamber orchestra Inscape, said that no one in that ensemble got sick. The impact on the livelihood of the musicians has been much greater. “Everything in the spring was wiped out,” he explained. And Inscape had a lot on the schedule, including the last of its concerts with Mason Bates at the Kennedy Center.

Solomon said that Inscape is in a strong financial position compared to larger ensembles. “We pay ourselves by the contract,” he explained. “We reached out to many of our principal musicians to see if the pay they missed was going to be make or break for them. No one asked for help. One of the things about Inscape is that no one is working full-time.”

Most musical organizations are structured around a fiscal year ending on August 30, he noted. “Now what happens when FY21 starts and there’s no way to perform, no way to create revenue? That’s really when we are going to see some serious carnage, but Inscape will be back as soon as it’s possible, and we’ll probably be back at a higher level.” The virus has revealed that this sort of flexible organization may be stronger in the long run.

Soprano Crossley Hawn, a member of the vocal trio Eya and an active freelance singer, also said that the pandemic has obliterated her schedule. “This spring was set to be too much singing, realistically,” she claimed. “I was really excited for this season, and everything was cancelled.” Her most regular gig, singing at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, has kept her afloat. To make ends meet, she has taken on some administrative work there, too.

Hawn said that Eya will likely transition to a completely online format for the fall. “The three of us will get together, with social distance, later in the summer, when things will hopefully feel safer. We’re going to do some streamed concerts and interviews with guest artists, trying to build a virtual audience and shift into this new territory.”

According to Hawn, a lot of singers are reevaluating priorities during the pandemic. “Realizing that our entire purpose and meaning as a person doesn’t have to come from constant gigging,” she explained. “And that part of it has been refreshing. For me it’s been fun to make music I want to make. I’ve been playing my ukulele and trying to have fun with it.”

Mezzo-soprano Janna Critz, a freelance singer in DC and around the country, said her next scheduled contract is in November. “Some companies,” she said, “are holding out to cancel as long as they can. A lot of these smaller companies have contracts with venues, and they don’t want to cancel because they lose deposits. They are playing chicken with their venue.” Critz said her application for unemployment was rejected. She has thought about applying to work at a grocery store until singing becomes possible again.

As a specialist primarily in baroque music, Critz thinks the leaner outfits she gigs with may come back faster than larger ones. “Smaller organizations are already used to functioning on very little money,” she explained. “Those will actually come back first. So in some ways it’s a good time to be a chamber musician. You can do a Monteverdi opera with a theorbo, two violins, and a harpsichord. There’s a lot of new operas with small casts, too.”

Soprano Susan Lewis Kavinski considers herself one of the lucky ones. In addition to freelance work, she receives a regular salary from the U.S. Navy Band Sea Chanters. She was exposed to the virus in early March at a party also attended by affected singers at Christ Church. “The Navy sent me to an infectious diseases doctor at Walter Reed,” she recalls. She tested negative, but she added, “At that time I was preparing to sing for the Chief of Naval Operations, who was hosting the equivalent person from Singapore.”

That engagement, not surprisingly, was cancelled, as was everything else. Lewis Kavinski and her husband, tenor and conductor Jerry Kavinski, started a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to support freelance singers in the Washington area. Among other events, they teamed up with the choir Chantry to present a benefit concert that was live-streamed. “We called it Vox Corona,” she explains. “We feel super fortunate to have the stability of our regular jobs as musicians. So many of our friends are just losing contracts right and left.”

The pandemic has led to other silver linings. Angel Gil-Ordóñez, music director of PostClassical Ensemble, said that none of the group’s musicians has become sick, but everything in the spring was cancelled. “We are not currently presenting any live performances in the fall,” he said with regret, “unless things change and we can find a way of streaming performances with musicians at safe distances.”

During the shutdown, PostClassical Ensemble has been sharing archived videos of their performances, followed up with Zoom chats bringing listeners and artists together. Although Gil-Ordóñez was initially skeptical about Zoom chats, he sees now that it is a powerful way to enhance the relationship with the ensemble’s audience.

“We are putting faces on those who have followed us for years,” he enthused. “We can see them, and we are giving them a platform to participate more in the discussions. So this is a very positive part of having no live music: we are getting to know our audiences better. We are planning on continuing this as a complement to everything we have done before. To me this is the most important lesson of this time.”

Online performances have made each individual musician more relevant, even those who might have felt anonymous before the pandemic. “Suddenly the fifth music stand in the violin section of the Baltimore Symphony is presenting music. We can emphasize the individuality of the people in large groups, and that is positive.”

At the same time he insisted that musicians, presenters, and listeners have to stay focused on bringing back live performance. “Our mission as artists is to preserve the extraordinary experience of listening to music live,” he emphasized. “This situation shouldn’t change that at all.”

4 Responses to “Washington musicians get creative in the wake of Covid-19 fallout”

  1. Posted Jun 11, 2020 at 2:10 pm by Chris Hoh

    Thanks, Charles, for another great article. It’s a really hard time for music-makers, especially those without other means of income. Working as a grocery clerk or delivery person is dangerous and low paying for people who have trained and invested so much to reach a high professional level. And applying for unemployment or other aid is an uncertain rigamarole. So let’s keep doing what we can to help.

  2. Posted Jun 12, 2020 at 10:40 am by johncrocken

    I’, with Chris Hoh—worked as a free lance musician between both Balto and DC–for 50 yrs—Ed Goldstein was on my board of
    Directors of Musicians Local 40-543–for many years and a valuable member–and a great friend—great article!!!

  3. Posted Jun 13, 2020 at 2:44 am by Margaret Shannon

    Thanks so much for highlighting the dire straits of so many Washington-area musicians, especially choral singers. It’s heartbreaking to see an entire season shut down; even during World War II concerts continued at Constitution Hall and elsewhere. Huge Watergate barge concerts. I hope you’ll revisit this predicament again in a month. Be well, stay safe.

  4. Posted Jul 24, 2023 at 5:54 pm by Derrick

    Thank you Charles for posting this I am really happy that Susie has a great singing voice and does great work with the shrine choir have a great day

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