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Classical Musicians Say Coronavirus Cancellations Are 'Financially Catastrophic'

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Oakland Symphony Orchestra (Courtesy of Oakland Symphony)

Concert cancellations related to the novel coronavirus are leaving thousands of classical musicians in the Bay Area and Northern California with less or no work in the coming weeks, and potentially beyond, in a devastating financial blow to artists who say they already live hand-to-mouth.

Bans on mass gatherings in city-owned venues and a spate of cancellations at major and regional classical music presenters—including the San Francisco Symphony, Oakland Symphony, Cal Performances, Stanford Live and a growing list of theater and dance groups that employ musicians—have effectively ground the Bay Area performing arts season to a halt.

“When musicians don’t play, they don’t get paid,” said Kale Cumings, president of the San Francisco-based Musicians Union Local 6, which represents some 2,000 musicians with 50 symphony and chamber orchestras and other arts organizations. “It’s frankly terrifying—we’re at the front end of this, and the effect on our members already looks to be financially catastrophic.”

Cumings acknowledged the importance of social distancing in stopping the spread of coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, which has more than 100 confirmed cases in the Bay Area. “We wouldn’t ask musicians to play in unsafe conditions,” Cumings said. “Right now, though, musicians are more concerned about how they’ll afford groceries than contracting the virus.”

Event cancellations are affecting musicians in many fields, along with the stagehands and other workers whose unseen labor supports concerts, but classical players are uniquely vulnerable. While institutions such as the San Francisco Symphony offer artists full-time employment, most classical musicians in the region cobble livings from a mix of seasonal contracts and freelance pickup gigs with outfits throughout the Bay Area, a circuit known as the “freeway philharmonic.”


Yet cancellations are so widespread that even seasoned classical musicians who derive income from as many as a dozen orchestras are now exploring unemployment benefits. Bruce Chrisp, principal trombonist with eight orchestras, and a UC Davis faculty member, said the concert cancellations he learned of just this past week alone will cost him an anticipated $7,400.

“My projected income right now is zero,” he said. Chrisp said his spouse Gabrielle Wunsch, a freelance violinist with the Oakland and Marin symphonies, is exhibiting flu-like symptoms (the Vallejo Medical Center refused them coronavirus tests), and they’ve now self-quarantined at home in Vallejo—increasing their anxieties about paying $1,100 a month for health insurance.

“There’s no safety net,” said Chrisp, a professional musician since 1985. “You think you have security when you have as many jobs as I do, because what could go wrong all at once?”

The Oakland Symphony Orchestra (Courtesy of Oakland Symphony)

Alicia Mastromonaco, a french horn player with the Marin and Monterey symphonies, also learned this week of cancellations costing her thousands. Mastromonaco, an active American Federation of Musicians member, said the freeway philharmonic community is sharing advice on unemployment and alternative work to prepare for cancellations extending beyond March.

Like wildfires and power shut-offs in recent years, Mastromonaco said, coronavirus-related cancellations are being considered force majeure, or unforeseeable events that prevent orchestras from fulfilling the terms of their contracts with musicians. “It’s a liability for management—no one wants to be the organization that an outbreak traces back to,” she said.

In an exception, though, the Monterey Symphony is paying artists for canceled March events in recognition of musicians’ “vulnerable position,” it said in a statement. Opera San Jose, meanwhile, has launched an artists and musicians relief fund to support workers in the months ahead. Most orchestras are urging patrons to donate tickets in lieu of refunds, a move musicians endorse. “We don’t want these organizations to go bankrupt,” Mastromonaco said.

Show-goers who want to support artists in other ways should encourage leadership of performing arts organizations to reschedule spring programming for the summer, Mastromonaco said. “First of all, for me, was the disappointment of not being able to play the music we’ve been preparing,” she said. “Some of us have been suggesting orchestras live-stream the concerts.”

Performers, like workers in other sectors of the economy, are also beginning to turn to elected officials for relief. Actors Equity Association, the national labor union representing actors and stage managers in live theater, on Wednesday called on Congress members for relief measures beyond payroll tax cuts to ensure arts workers have access to healthcare and unemployment.

The nightlife sector in San Francisco alone employs tens of thousands of people and generates billions of dollars, according to the Controller’s Office, making it a major economic driver. Cumings, the Musicians Union Local 6 president, seconded the call for government relief for performing artists. “The impact will depend on how long the closures last,” he said. “If it goes on much longer the only entity that could offset the effects is going to be the federal government.”

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