by Robert Fraser, OCSM President
It is difficult to believe the OCSM executive last met face to face in Toronto on February 22–23, 2020, just over a year ago.
We were sorting through reports from the OCSM delegates, all of which pointed to positive outlooks for our 21 member orchestras in the middle of the 2019–2020 season. We had two new members on our five-member executive board; in fact, we met at the beautiful Toronto home of our new 2nd Vice-President, Xiao Grabke. Our Editor, Barb Hankins, had stepped down in the spring of 2019 after many excellent years of service, and we were still trying to fill that gap (another reason you haven’t seen this publication in so long). We made preliminary plans for our annual conference, which was supposed to take place in Regina in August 2020. It would have been our first conference in the “Queen City” since 2003. All the while, we were nervously watching reports of the spread of a “novel coronavirus,” first observed in Wuhan, China, and fast becoming a cause for concern in most parts of the world.
Less than three weeks later, on March 12, I received an email from my orchestra’s personnel manager at 4:26 p.m., the subject heading in all caps: “URGENT VS CONCERT CANCELLED TONGHT MARCH. 12,2020” [sic]. The spelling error stood out to me — must have been sent in a hurry. I was just putting the finishing touches at the last minute (as is my fashion) on a pre-concert talk about Beethoven symphonies 2, 4, and 7, all of which were to be performed by my colleagues that evening as part of our Beethoven 250 festival. This concert was supposed to be part of a series where we performed all nine Beethoven symphonies; we managed to perform only two of them. The very next day my orchestra’s music director, Christian Kluxen, was on the first flight out in the morning to his home country of Denmark, just before international travel became nearly impossible. He posted a photo on his Facebook profile that was the first of what seems like a million such images I have viewed on my Timeline since: a picture of himself wearing a face mask.
This story probably resonates with all orchestral musicians, and you all know what followed. One concert cancelled, then the next few weeks, then the remainder of the season, then the summer season, and then, one by one, announcements about changes to the 2020–21 season. My orchestra was the first to jettison the repertoire planned for an entire season; soon every season would be cancelled and “reimagined.”
Although that email on March 12 came as a shock, it was not completely unexpected. Only three days prior, I was on a conference call with the AFM Symphonic Services Division (SSD) staff and the chairs of the other two symphonic player conferences, discussing cancellations that were already taking place in San Francisco, and essentially, we were all “bracing for impact.” It was to be the first of many weekly conference calls that have happened since; I count more than 30 such calls listed in my calendar. They all quickly migrated to a computer program I had never used before last March: Zoom — a word now so ubiquitous it is in danger of becoming a “genericization” (the phenomenon where a brand name becomes associated with a whole class of products).
Zoom became our interface with not only distant parties but also those in our own communities: our orchestra committees, managements, union locals, even our own students. The player conferences and our national service organization, Orchestras Canada, all moved their operations to Zoom very quickly. Our first Zoom meeting with OCSM delegates took place on May 15; it was an informal session to give everyone a chance to try out the platform and get used to this new means of communication: raising one’s virtual hand, using the chat function, and working the inevitable bugs out of video and audio settings across multiple devices. At the end of May we held a two-hour session each day for three consecutive days. On the first two days we heard reports from all the delegates, and on the third day we heard from legal counsel Michael Wright, who gave us the rundown on force majeure clauses and offered us an opportunity for questions related to the bargaining that was soon to face every one of us. AFM SSD Director and Special Counsel Rochelle Skolnick, SSD Media Supervisor Debbie Newmark, and Canadian SSD Associate Director Richard Sandals brought us up to speed on what to expect for electronic media in the weeks to come.
The period from March 12 until the summertime was not completely silent, but one that saw our orchestras adapt more quickly than I have ever witnessed. Unable to perform concerts as planned, almost every OCSM orchestra committed to paying its musicians as per its obligations. Only one orchestra in the OCSM family (the Niagara Symphony) was unable to continue its season as planned. And since most managements were left with the difficulty of both predicting the future and planning for it, for the present time, many orchestras’ musicians sprang into action to fill the immediate need for contact with our audiences. Musicians made videos, some of them very personal, from their own homes. We used Zoom to record interviews and group discussions. Musicians with special skills in video and audio editing put together mosaic-style videos where musicians performed individual parts in isolation (using a reference track) with the final result produced by editing the individual performances together. In some cases, outreach to the community was involved; in other cases, family participation (along with photobombing household pets) was the hook. Some orchestras found truly special and innovative means to hold online fundraising events — in one case even catering the event by delivering pre-packaged food baskets to ticket buyers in their own homes.
Our colleagues at Orchestras Canada also quickly adapted to the Zoom model and presented a number of webinars via Zoom. You can learn about those at their website (www.oc.ca). We also invited their Executive Director, Katherine Carleton, and their Board Chair, Tanya Derksen, to meet with OCSM delegates in June. We were beginning to see the upside of the pandemic; we could very easily convene effective meetings not only between delegates and the OCSM executive; it was very easy to add AFM local officers, orchestra committee chairs, and observers from other orchestras who work under AFM agreements but have not yet joined the OCSM family. We even had a couple of our colleagues from European musicians’ unions join us in our May session. We have decided to continue meeting this way at least every six to eight weeks since.
Our formal Annual General Meeting was held in August, and you can read all about it in the October 2020 edition of International Musician in an excellent article written by our newest executive board member, Secretary Elizabeth Loewen Andrews of the Hamilton Philharmonic.
As spring turned to summer, and orchestras were thinking ahead to the 2020–2021 season, the question of how we could return to work was at the forefront of OCSM activity. Some orchestras bravely forayed into the new reality early on: both our Montreal orchestras performed to empty halls in livestream settings as early as June. Many orchestras performed outdoor chamber music series during the summer months. Just as we all embraced the reality of becoming our own recording engineers, and playing to cameras and microphones instead of people, we also had to quickly learn the science of epidemiology. Fomites, droplets, and aerosols — oh my! We all learned what each was, and as the scientists started launching into studies, we learned what the most vicious of those three may or may not be in terms of spreading the disease, now simply referred to as “COVID” (most of us have dropped the “-19” part in our daily speech). Soon the HVAC system in our concert halls, if they have one, was more important than the temperature or acoustics on stage. Suddenly, every aspect of our workplace would be viewed in light of a disease that was potentially deadly, even though we might show no symptoms and never be sure whether we had it or not. The emptying of spit valves, the placement of instrument cases and personal belongings, even the direction we walked in the corridors were now a thing. Those of us that first assembled to perform music under “COVID protocols” were like astronauts on a mission. The sight of colleagues wearing uniform face masks with the orchestra logo imprinted thereon is something I still can’t get used to; although, it makes me smile! Perhaps the strangest reality of a pandemic, however, is not being able to get within two metres of someone outside your “bubble” (another word whose meaning is forever changed). After not having performed together in months, now we face the reality of not being quite as “together” as we once were. I can only wonder how amazing our ensemble skills will be once we’re allowed to sit shoulder to shoulder again — perhaps it will be like having to wear sunglasses after eye surgery because of the increased sensitivity to light.
The pandemic has created what we certainly hope are temporary adjustments to our collective agreements. Thankfully, because of available wage subsidies like the CERB and CEWS (more acronyms to learn), the advancing of grant monies, the generosity of donors, and the scaling down of production to levels that can be managed under COVID protocols, almost all of our orchestras will see 75 to 100 percent of their contracted wages for this season. The AFM’s response to accommodating livestreaming of performances with no audience present was to create a side letter to promise that the media content, which would normally be paid for on top of wages, could be offered for no additional remuneration to musicians provided that levels of guaranteed salary were maintained. Sick leave provisions and health and safety guidelines were quickly revised and continue to be a concern. Unfortunately, the biggest casualty of the pandemic in our orchestras was the group of musicians who work as extras with no guarantees under our collective agreements. While some players of specialty instruments (especially harpsichord — lots of “Four Seasons”) could count on some work, the ranks of extra string players normally hired to fill out sections for large works have been sidelined in a number of our groups.
Thankfully, none of the OCSM delegates have reported a single case of COVID among our colleagues that can be traced to any of our workplaces (that we know of). By January 2021, this was a real concern, as there was a huge spike in the number of reported cases of COVID in every region of Canada, at levels that exceeded twice the number of cases reported in the first peak of the pandemic in April 2020. Between the time I am writing this and the time you will read it, there will undoubtedly be new developments and setbacks; vaccine approval and rollout issues; variants to the virus; and confusion over easing restrictions in some regions and reimposing them in others. Obviously, the final chapters of this period in OCSM’s history have yet to be written.
As your President, I could not be prouder of the work of OCSM’s executive board and delegates through this unprecedented time. The level of communication in our organization has both broadened and deepened, despite our not being able to meet face to face for the first time in our 46-year history. Our increased online presence, born out of necessity, means I can now hear almost every OCSM orchestra online — in the space of a single day, even. The positivity that colleagues have shown in the face of adversity is heartwarming.
I wish you all a happy 2021 and continued strength and solidarity as we face the rest of this journey.