In a week, our world changed.
The pace and scope of changes that have overtaken our workplaces and our communities are almost without precedent in our lifetime. What began in January as news reports of a novel virus that had been discovered in distant China, morphed over a few days in the second week of March into a massive disruption of the work and lives of almost every ICSOM musician.
The first hints of the potential disruption were there at the end of January, when the Boston Symphony Orchestra cancelled its February tour to Seoul, Taipei, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. But when the National Symphony Orchestra followed suit a week later, it cancelled only the China portion of its tour to Asia, intending to complete the Japan portion.
With our political leadership insisting that there was nothing to worry about here, many perhaps thought that COVID-19 would follow the same trajectory as SARS (caused by a related coronavirus) in 2003 and remain largely contained in Asia. But the unease continued to grow along with the number of cases outside of China.
In late February, the National Symphony cancelled the remainder of its Asia tour, at about the same time that the stock market was in the first of several volatile downward weeks.
As we watched from afar, caseloads increased in China, then in South Korea, Iran, and Italy. The governments in many of the affected countries took drastic action to contain the virus, but nothing much changed in this country except a sharp upswing in personal hygiene recommendations.
Then on March 9, the Cleveland Orchestra cancelled its tour to Europe and the Middle East and the Rochester Philharmonic suspended operations, beginning a week that was witness to an exponential explosion of postponements and cancellations, with each successive announcement seeming to prompt further announcements in a chain reaction. The NBA suspended its season, then the NHL, and then Major League Baseball postponed Opening Day; the San Francisco orchestras had their halls closed, then Broadway shut down, and then the Kennedy Center cancelled the rest of the month’s programming. Each closure was, just by itself, unprecedented; taken together, the closures were bewildering and disorienting.
Given the pace of change, and the time lag resulting from editing, printing, and mailing, by the time you read this many of these details could be very different. But at the moment (March 17), the only ICSOM orchestras that have not postponed or cancelled services are those, such as the San Francisco Opera and the Grant Park Orchestra, that don’t have any scheduled services for many weeks. The initial cancellations ran the gamut from a single week (the Cleveland Orchestra) to almost two months (Chicago Lyric’s entire Ring cycle). Some resulted from local government orders (such as for the two San Francisco ICSOM orchestras that were scheduled to perform in March) and some were decisions by the management of either the orchestra or its home performing arts center.
While a few orchestra managements have chosen to invoke force majeure clauses in their CBAs, the vast majority appear willing to continue to pay at least the regular orchestra members for now. We can only hope that that will continue even if, as seems inevitable to many, the cancellations continue for an extended period.
A few orchestras played concerts to empty halls, making use of existing media agreements or the new side letter to the IMA that was rapidly negotiated with the EMA through the hard work of Rochelle Skolnick, SSD Director, and Deborah Newmark, the AFM Director of Symphonic Electronic Media.
Disruptions for individual musicians were not limited to being at home unexpectedly. Supplemental outside gigs have also been cancelled; many universities (including conservatories) have sent students home, expecting their faculties to switch to remote instruction; and in many places everyone is dealing with concerted efforts to increase social distancing—closures of school systems as well as restaurants—and the side effects of a growing sense of dread, such as the overpurchasing of certain foods and toilet paper.
We have a rough road ahead of us. Though there is no way of knowing for certain, at this point we can expect the suspension of our seasons for several months, possibly through the summer. A big question is how long our managements will continue to pay our salaries—even the best-funded institution can’t survive without revenue forever, and many endowments have also suffered from plummeting prices in equity markets. Every CBA is different; every orchestra is in a different financial position. We will survive this by pulling together, sharing information, and staying in touch. As we distance ourselves physically, we must stand together metaphorically. ICSOM, our Locals, and the AFM will be here to assist in any way we can. What can you do to help the other members of your orchestra, including your subs and extras (who will likely be even harder hit than your tenured colleagues)?
We are in uncharted waters, and there is much to be concerned about—not least of which is the health of all our members and their family and friends. By working together, we can overcome this challenge.