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Lorna Tsai

Musicians Reflect on the Pandemic

Lorna with CPO

Tell us about your normal, pre-pandemic life: 

As Principal Second Violin of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, I typically average around 3 concerts a week with a 40 week season. We do a variety of programming – our season is incredibly varied – we do Pops shows (think hits of Pink Floyd), we do a few operas with the Calgary Opera and work with the Alberta Ballet as well. When COVID hit, I was finishing up my ninth year with the orchestra and we were about to perform the soundtrack to one of the Harry Potter movies (not easy by the way). The nine years in the orchestra had taken its toll on my body and I had to take some time off from work the year before to address ongoing soft tissue injuries from years of violin playing (the violin is not exactly kind on one’s body). Since I was feeling burned out of trying to constantly be ready to play, I embraced the time off with gusto. I think it’s always been a fear of mine to take time away from the violin. The knowledge that one week off means one week just to get back to where I was before I took the time off on top of the time to learn new ever changing repertoire! Typically, when I wasn’t playing the violin, I was spending the time trying to heal my body from playing the violin. Or I was frantically learning new repertoire quickly. So faced with the freedom of not working, I knew I wanted to embrace the opportunity since I saw it as a (hopefully) rare event. 

Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra

As artistic director of MSCM, I would often be thinking of possible program ideas throughout the year. But since we are a small organization, our roles extend beyond just being artistic directors. We are also the treasurers, managers and assistants to the musicians, chauffeurs, cooks, cleaning crew. But being required to wear all these hats makes the job more interesting and without the festival, I definitely felt a big MSCM sized hole in my life. To fill that void, I embraced a COVID cliche – I got a puppy!

Tell us about how your 2020-2021 concert season has been. As you adjusted to pandemic living, did gigs come back at all? Did you dive into more virtual work? Find something else to keep you busy entirely?

Trying new things – Behind the scenes, as we try out red capes for our accompaniment of Little Red Riding Hood

The 2020-2021 CPO Season was very different. In exchange for getting our full salary in the Fall, the orchestra asked for a number of concessions. One of them being more flexibility in changing the schedule. Under our existing Agreement, the orchestra is required to give the musicians about a month’s notice in any repertoire change, etc. Obviously, when the restrictions were changing every few weeks, this was not going to be feasible. Like many in the service industry, we learned how hard it was to change gears to accommodate for each amendment in restrictions. Each change required weeks of planning, only to be thrown out the window by some new announcement. While the orchestra had been initially optimistic that we would be back in the Fall, it became clear that we would have to change strategies and plan on doing video recordings of chamber works. (Chamber works to meet the social distancing requirements, of course.) In addition to the musicians, there are also always many people working behind the scenes to make things happen. The video crew, the sound crew, etc. So things were always shifting to make sure we were in compliance with the regulations. I think it was a learning experience for us to eventually plan for the “worst case” scenario. Organizing a program that fit the “worst case” scenario of restrictions was a better idea than trying to forecast an optimistic case. The season definitely kept us on our toes.

Vintage MSCM – Lorna at 2013 rehearsal

Did you find solace in music? What kind of music have you been listening to or playing?

During the crisis, I largely took a break from classical music. I mostly listened to Beyonce and Destiny’s Child on repeat, much to my boyfriend’s dismay. I have slowly waded back into the classical music pool on my own though recently and have found it incredibly refreshing.

Do you have apprehensions about whether people will return to concert halls? What do you think the post-pandemic concert experience might be like?

I do have apprehensions whether people will return to concert halls. I found myself at a crowded mall recently and all the restrictions had been lifted. About half the people were walking around without masks. It was liberating…but also left me feeling uneasy. That said, I think there is something irreplaceable about watching a live music concert, especially up-close live chamber music that is central to Manchester Summer Chamber Music’s mission.

Read about Lorna in Keith Powers’ article: Classical musicians finding ways to practice their craft during the pandemic