Since the day the music died

How Madison-area jazz, opera and classical musicians are coping
Hoyt Stephenson Dietrich
Left to right: Marika Fischer Hoyt, Trevor Stephenson and Paul Dietrich (Photos courtesy of the the artists)

It’s surreal to think that just over a month ago on March 12, I attended a nearly sold-out performance of “Wicked” at the Overture Center for the Arts. A number of musicians from the Madison Symphony Orchestra were playing in the pit for that touring production. But the next day, Overture officials announced the postponement or cancellation of all performances until further notice.

The music — live and in person, at least — had died.

Virtually all of our city’s wonderful musicians have been hit hard by the shutdown of venues and public performances, part of the widespread effort to stem the spread of the coronavirus. I reached out to several local classical and jazz musicians, music teachers and ensemble directors to inquire about how they’re dealing with the scale of it.

“It was heartbreaking to see my colleagues’ productions cancelled right and left,” says David Ronis, the innovative and award-winning director of University Opera. Ronis says he is grateful that University Opera’s last major production of the season, Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte,” was able to finish its run on March 3.

Personally, however, he’s lost several other opportunities. “Outside of Madison I have had cancelations or postponements of a number of other projects — a residence at Salisbury University in Maryland, a master class at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, the Druid City Opera Workshop [at the University of Alabama], where I’ve taught for a few years. I’m supposed to be directing an opera in Italy in June and July. I’m kind of expecting it to be cancelled, but who knows?”

Ronis is keenly aware of what many freelance classical musicians are also facing. “Just 12 years ago, I was a freelance performer myself,” he says. “I feel for all of my friends, mostly in New York, who are freelancers — consummate professionals functioning at very high levels — who, all of a sudden, have completely lost their livelihood.”

Marika Fischer Hoyt is a founding member of the Ancora String Quartet and a member of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. “Across the music field, this is an extremely daunting time with very limited opportunities to make music or money,” she says.

“Though one’s home might include another musician or two, you may just as easily be on your own,” Hoyt says. “In theory, that offers a good opportunity to work on your technique and solo repertoire. But honestly, it can be tough to summon up the discipline to practice without rehearsals and concerts looming in the near future.”

For the last several years, Hoyt has served as producer of Bach Around the Clock, a 12-hour annual event that celebrates the composer’s birthday. With Bach Around the Clock scheduled for March 28, the timing of the shutdown necessitated by the pandemic was particularly unfortunate.

“We pondered rescheduling it for this fall,” Hoyt says. “But we later decided we didn’t have the resources to organize a festival in the fall and then another one in the spring of 2021.”

Instead, Bach Around the Clock became one of the first events put on virtual concerts. Scores of groups in Madison and beyond have performed live online or posted videos of performances.

“We invited those who signed up to play at the festival to submit videos,” Hoyt says. “There were four to five intense days while the tech team got up to speed with iMovie, KeyNote, YouTube and other applications. But on March 28 at 10 a.m., we launched the BATC 2020 Virtual Festival.” You can still view 10 days worth of postings here.

Individual players and music teachers have been hit doubly hard. One of them is acclaimed jazz trumpet player, composer and educator Paul Dietrich. He plays in several local groups, coordinates the jazz program at Prairie Music & Arts and has previously directed the Madison East High School Jazz Orchestra.

“I’ve lost hundreds of dollars in gigs and nearly that amount in teaching,” Dietrich says. “Some teaching is shifting over to online mechanisms, which is helpful but not ideal [as] there are many things that we cannot do in a virtual lesson that we can in person. “

There’s no telling how soon in-person teaching and performing can resume. “For all we know it will be months, maybe more than a year, before it comes back,” he says.

Trevor Stephenson says the Madison Bach Musicians, a group he founded, had to cancel its season finale program of Monteverdi ‘s “Vespers” which was scheduled for April 25-26. “The performances would have brought together 25 early-music specialists from all over the U.S. and one from the U.K. to perform one of the great masterworks of western music,” he says.

Stephenson is all too aware of the widespread effect of the pandemic on artists. “Several colleagues have told me that their performance work for the next six months has suddenly vanished, and for freelancers this is particularly devastating,” he says.

Stephenson has found a glimmer of hope, however.

“In the silver-linings category, these many weeks or months of insularity do encourage reflection and re-evaluation,” he says. “Friends tell me they are practicing pieces they had always wanted to get to and, as one person put it, play those passages they always skipped.”

Stephenson adds, “Sheltering perhaps lets us hear a little better the relationship of sound to the absence of sound. The canvas of music is silence, and I hope to carry this refreshed perception forward into better and busier times ahead.”

Greg Hettmansberger covers jazz, opera and classical music for madisonmagazine.com.