How Classical Composers Deal with Pandemics

COVID-19 is not the first pandemic the world has ever seen. Throughout history, people have dealt with pandemics, but still, composers carried on.

In 1720, Marseille, France endured the last major outbreak of the bubonic plaque in Western Europe. The year after the plague ended, Bach wrote Cantata No. 25—”There is Nothing Healthy in My Body”—in response to that terrible event. Although outwardly a spiritual and uplifting work, the text of the Cantata is rife with imagery of fevers, illness and “the world as a hospital.” The poignant bass aria, “Ah, where in my wretchedness may I find counsel,” pleads to the Lord for healing. Listen to this stirring piece below:

Stravinsky was in Switzerland when World War I began. There was no way for him to return home to Russia. He knew he needed to make money while he was stranded so he composed “L’histoire du soldat”—”The Soldier’s Tale.” (Check out this chamber version, linked below.) The composition, which included a theatrical production, showed much promise during its premiere in Lausanne on September 28, 1918, but quickly ground to a halt when the Spanish Influenza reached Switzerland. First, it affected the production crew, then it got Stravinsky, who already had health problems. After a long bout with influenza, he recovered. Nevertheless, he was running out of funds in Switzerland, and performing for large audiences was almost entirely out of the question. So, over the next year, he altered old music and wrote other pieces for a smaller orchestra and audience. During this time he composed “Ragtime,” a divergent take on ragtime jazz, and the “Firebird Suite,” a rework of the “Firebird” ballet in suite form.

Another famous Russian composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff fled the Bolshevik revolution and arrived in New Jersey on November 10, 1918. Just a few days later, the composer fell ill with the Spanish influenza. Rachmaninoff quickly recovered, and, even though he’d been advised to rest for a little longer, he embarked on an American tour. He wrote his own arrangement of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as a show of gratitude toward his new country. And it became a showpiece for his inaugural American tour.

Hear Rachmaninoff performing his version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” below:

Other more recent compositions include John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 often referred to as the “AIDS Symphony” (also linked below). In interviews, Corigliano talks about the responsibility he felt to tell the stories of his many friends who died from the disease, and also the anger and frustration he felt in being powerless to help. The moving symphony premiered in 1990 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and won the Grawemeyer Award the next year.

This isn’t the first pandemic and it won’t be the last. What is known, however, is that we will always have music to help up make sense of it all. That is why it has been so universal throughout human history. Art and music find their power in speaking to the circumstances that occur in our lives, especially the ones that don’t make sense. Because everyone in the world has in some way been impacted by COVID-19, it is safe to be optimistic that composers will continue to find a way to express in music, those emotions that words cannot convey.

Introducing the Virtual “Symphony Mixer!”


Symphony Mixer is a new virtual social series that brings Pacific Symphony musicians straight into the comfort of your home via Zoom! Hosted by Symphony Principal Flutist Ben Smolen, each virtual happy hour will feature live performances, interviews with artists, musical anecdotes and stories from behind-the-scenes.

Pacific Symphony donors and subscribers are invited to attend each mixer live each Friday at 5 p.m., and they are allowed to ask questions that will be answered by the artists on the spot. All others can experience the mixer on-demand later on our YouTube channel.

In the first virtual Symphony Mixer, Principal Flutist Ben Smolen hosted Café Ludwig host and curator Orli Shaham in conversation and performance. They discussed performing in the Samueli Theater together for Café Ludwig, Orli’s living in New York during the height of the pandemic, how the arts (and artists themselves) are dealing with the stress of quarantine and more!

Guests for upcoming Symphony Mixers are Concertmaster Dennis Kim (May 29) and Principal Cellist Warren Hagerty (June 5).

Go to the Watch+Listen page on the Symphony website and click on the “Virtual Live Events” category to find links to on-demand video of the mixers. Or click here to view the first mixer with Ben Smolen hosting Orli Shaham.

Pacific Symphony Produces Its First Virtual Concert, “John Williams: Maestro of the Movies”

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Roger Kalia Completes His Tenure as Associate Conductor and Passes the Baton to Incoming Assistant Conductor Jacob Sustaita

Pacific Symphony recently announced that it is producing its first-ever virtual concert, “John Williams: Maestro of the Movies,” available on May 30 starting at 11 a.m. and continues to be available on demand for 45 days. This 45-minute online concert replaces the live Family Musical Morning series performance originally scheduled on May 30. Audience of all ages will enjoy performances of selections from John Williams’ film scores. The Symphony gratefully acknowledges Farmers & Merchants Bank for its strong support as the presenting sponsor of the Family Musical Morning series.

The program, hosted by Associate Conductor Roger Kalia, features music from some of John Williams’ most popular films, including “Star Wars,” “Jurassic Park,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Harry Potter” and “E.T., The Extra-Terrestrial,” performed by Pacific Symphony and conducted by Richard Kaufman.

The concert opens with Farmers & Merchants Bank President W. Henry Walker welcoming the online audience and recognizing Roger Kalia for his long tenure at Pacific Symphony and congratulating him on his new music director positions with Symphony New Hampshire and Evansville Philharmonic Orchestra in Indiana. Woven throughout the program are such features as “Ask the Composer with John Williams,” eyewitness accounts from Pacific Symphony musicians involved in the recording sessions for John Williams’ film scores and an instrument spotlight focusing on the brass family. Roger Kalia interviews Pacific Symphony’s Principal Pops Conductor Richard Kaufman, who discusses conducting John Williams’ music in concert and also relates some entertaining anecdotes about the composer. The concert concludes with a virtual “Passing of the Baton” from Associate Conductor Roger Kalia to the Symphony’s new Assistant Conductor, Jacob Sustaita.

Beginning on May 30 at 11 a.m., the concert can be viewed by signing in with an email address at The program can be viewed on demand for 45 days after that. There will be a Live Chat opportunity available during the initial viewing on May 30. For subsequent on demand viewing the chat function will not be live.

To enhance this concert experience for families, PDFs for download of musical activities that complement the concert will be posted on the Virtual Concert webpage. Activities include:

  • A spotlight on the brass family (French horn, trumpet, trombone)
  • A Meet the Young Musician video featuring a member of Pacific Symphony Youth Ensembles
  • A spotlight on composer John Williams
  • A STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math) activity on movie sound effects
  • Links to 17 different movie-themed crafts and coloring pages, each highlights a different movie for which John Williams composed the score

Be Center Stage at Your Next Virtual Meeting


Here’s just 3 of the Symphony’s classically fun Zoom backgrounds on offer

Like most of us, you’ve probably found yourself living an alternate life on Zoom lately. Pacific Symphony has developed some fun virtual backgrounds so you can add some pizzazz to your Zoom calls. You can choose to appear onstage at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, outside on Argyros Plaza at Leatherby’s Café Rouge, or inside the Samueli Theater.

Choose your favorite background here.

Click here to learn how to change your Zoom background!

2019-09-26_Pac Symp_DAG-9763.5Pacific Symphony’s longtime photographer Doug Gifford, whose work you’ve seen on our website and all over the Segerstrom campus, has provided video conferencing tips on his blog. He specializes in identifying environments that capture the perfect images or videos. Doug commented, “After being a part of many video calls of late, I found myself wanting to reach out to the people on the call and offer a few easy-to-make adjustments from what I could see in my ‘viewfinder’ to help them enhance what their viewers were seeing. Since that wasn’t possible, I’ve written up some pro-tips you can try yourself to more accurately reflect your personal brand during your next video call.”

Check out Doug’s blog for his list of tips!


Pacific Symphony @ Home Adds Online Music and Arts Learning Center!

Initiative Features Free Educational Resources at


Pacific Symphony announces the launch of an online music and arts learning center to provide compelling digital content for teachers, parents and music students as well as resources for lifelong learners. This free and engaging content provides learning and inspiration for music lovers or all ages. Whether you are a teacher in needing to supplement an arts curriculum, a parent who is home-schooling children, a grandparent encouraging a budding violinist in the family, or if you are simply curious to learn more about music yourself, there is something for everyone in the community.

“We’re pleased to share our new online music and arts learning center with the Orange County community,” commented President and CEO John Forsyte. “Well before the pandemic began, our strategic plan prioritized our virtual education initiative. Our highest education priority has been to expand our footprint and impact through media. Hundreds of schools don’t have access to what we offer, and what we learn may unleash a very beneficial outcome to forward our distance learning objectives. This is a really useful moment to experiment and get feedback from the educational community and from parents who are at home with children.”

“Music brings so much beauty into our lives, and engaging and learning with music and the arts allows us to grow as human beings, as well to nourish our souls,” said Vice President of Education & Community Engagement Susan Miller Kotses. “At no time is this more critical than now. In addition to the resources currently found on the Pacific Symphony @ Home Music and Arts Learning Center, Pacific Symphony’s Education and Community Engagement Team will be producing additional content on a regular basis, so please do check back regularly. In addition to what is available to the public, we are also working to create re-imagined digital content for a number of our existing programs including our school partnership program, Class Act. We’ll also be making an announcement soon regarding a digital re-imagining of our beloved summer arts camp, arts-X-press.”

Pacific Symphony’s new collection of free education-focused digital content is evolving and expanding on a daily basis. Audiences are encouraged to check back frequently for new additions of content. Some of the current highlights include:

  • Pacific Symphony Home Learning
    Features activities for curious music students, covering composer John Williams, short educational musical activities, STEAM education and further educational resources
  • Instrumental Instruction
    Free, online violin instruction videos for our Pacific Symphony Santa Ana Strings program accessible to the public
  • Lifelong Learning
    Content for lifelong learners of all ages: including Pre-Concert Talks on SoundCloud, and further educational resources from KUSC and leading institutions such as Harvard, Berklee and MacPhail Center for Music, as well as resources focusing on visual arts, dance and theater
  • Pacific Symphony Youth Ensembles Online

Members and alumni of Pacific Symphony Youth Ensembles (PSYE) record themselves and present their own series of Quarantine Clips. Also featured as zoom sessions with guest artists, composers and conductors interacting with PSYE program students.

You can find all of Pacific Symphony’s education content on our website at

“No Hall? No Problem!”

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Check out this excellent overview of Pacific Symphony’s digital initiatives, with extensive quotes from Music Director Carl St.Clair, Symphony President John Forsyte and Senior Vice President of Artistic Planning and Production Eileen Jeanette about how we are continuing to connect with constituencies via online efforts.

You can read the article here!

Carl St.Clair said, “With the symphony musicians, they’re putting together all these wonderful creative short little musical messages, but basically they’re staying in touch with our family members: audiences, colleagues, staff, board members, anyone who’s part of our family. We sometimes speak in unison, like with the Beethoven 7th collage [symphony members played the final movement online, from their homes, in Zoom-like mosaic form], or through the small, short, less-than-five-minute vignettes, but we’re basically saying ‘We care, we’re OK, we love you all, we need each other, and we can’t wait to get back.’ And when that moment happens, it will be jubilation and celebration in a way we haven’t seen since the Leonard Bernstein concert on Christmas Day after the fall of the Berlin Wall. That kind of reuniting. It will have that same historical flavor and flair to it.”

A huge shout-out to Voice of OC for their thoughtful coverage of the massive changes that are happening to the arts world right now, as we all continue to weather this crisis together.

From the Desk of John Forsyte @ Home


The former Santa Ana United Presbyterian Church, and first “Pacific Symphony Center”

Sad news: this morning, a fire claimed a historic property in Santa Ana, which was formerly the home to Pacific Symphony’s offices, library and rehearsals. I fondly recall hearing my very first awesome sounds of Pacific Symphony in 1998 in that space with slanted floors, and I know many of our musicians also have both warm and humorous memories of what was a property adjacent to a fast-food restaurant. Many will not recall that Santa Ana was a savior for Pacific Symphony, underwriting the rent of this facility while also providing Community Development Block Grants to support our education programs. The city was undoubtedly one of the largest institutional supporters of Pacific Symphony and, by far, the largest public funder.


Photo Credit: Robert Schumitzky, Pacific Symphony violinist

Fortunately, the church was abandoned and no one was hurt, but it is a loss for our collective memories and historic preservation. John Evans, who was on the Board in the days when it served as our home, recalls: “I have substantial memories there … board meetings in the basement with founding board members who were my friends, now gone, rehearsals, and the vote enabling us to bring in Carl as music director. All in that building, all remaining vividly in my mind. I hope they will rebuild.”


Photo Credit: Robert Schumitzky

Carl shared, “This makes me really sad! Honestly! Seeing our former home in flames this morning in the newspaper hit me hard. Like John Evans intimated, so much of our, of my, history with Pacific Symphony was born in that Church. My first meeting and rehearsal with the Orchestra: Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, Mozart! I can still hear the words of Lou (Spisto, first Executive Director) introducing me to the Orchestra. I see the faces of the musicians so clearly. Mahler’s Eighth was rehearsed in that Church!

“So many memories!” Carl continued, “So many moments of great music making all mixed in with the aroma of over and re-used grease from French fries wafting into the Church from the fast food restaurant on the corner. Playing on a slanted floor. And then there was the Saturday morning Mariachi Bands on the Santa Ana streets blending in with the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth, creating a musical cornucopia, a sound collage Charles Ives would have loved! Maybe, Gustav would have too? Oh, and then there were the rats scurrying overhead in the rafters adding delicate percussion notes to Debussy’s ‘La Mer.’ Sharing our home with the OC Crazies improv theater troupe somehow made it all seem really normal.”

Jim Medvetz, former vice president of strategic planning and special projects for Pacific Symphony, also shared some memories of his time at the old Santa Ana location. “What a tragedy! This building was the first place Pacific Symphony could call ‘home.’ Not the best acoustics by far, even with some effort by an acoustician to improve the situation, but the orchestra had a consistent space to rehearse which helped provide some stability to artistic preparation. So many great performances were rehearsed there.”

“It was quite an amazing building,” Jim continued, “All wood construction and was one of only several large buildings in Santa Ana the survived the famous 1933. earthquake. The Symphony had it as its home for 20 years – until the opening of the Concert Hall. So much of the major evolution of the Orchestra occurred there. Too many tales to tell. While it is physically reduced to rubble and ashes we fortunately have many pictures of the old building with the ‘Pacific Symphony Center’ marquee emblazoned on it. So much history, so much music, so much time spent there – lives on in our memories. A time well spent.”

Here is some official video of this sudden and immense fire, via Twitter.



#GivingTuesdayNow is a new global day of giving and unity that will take place on May 5, 2020 – in addition to the regularly scheduled Dec 1, 2020 #GivingTuesday – as an emergency response to the unprecedented need caused by COVID-19.

Pacific Symphony needs your support. In this unprecedented time, the power of music unites and uplifts us. Your generosity during #GivingTuesdayNow and, in fact, during the entire month of our Community Support Month of May, will help to ensure a sound future for Pacific Symphony.

Please consider the role music plays in your life and support your Pacific Symphony with a donation of any amount. The Larry and Helen Hoag Foundation are matching all donations, dollar-for-dollar, up to $150,000.

Please support Pacific Symphony today!


May is Community Support Month for Pacific Symphony

7-Carl St.Clair, Pacific Symphony, and Pacific Chorale

It’s a time for us to remember that we are a community-supported orchestra. Even though the orchestra is not able to perform live concerts right now, the Pacific Symphony community spirit continues online with Pacific Symphony @ Home.

You may have already enjoyed some of the “living room recitals” offered by Symphony musicians on the Watch+Listen page. To additionally support the Orange County community, we’ve added a new section “Music and Arts Learning Online.” This content provides learning and inspiration for music lovers or all ages. Whether you’re home-schooling children, encouraging a budding violinist in your family, or your curious to learn more about music yourself, there is something for everyone in the community.

Support from the Orange County community during these challenging times is more critical than ever. Please consider the role music plays in your life and support your Pacific Symphony with a donation of any amount. The Larry and Helen Hoag Foundation are matching all donations, dollar-for-dollar, up to $150,000.

Please support Pacific Symphony today!