Paul Torrisi has a general rule of thumb when he travels for an audition: No matter where you go, don’t try to picture yourself living there.
You don’t want to get your hopes up or get too attached, he figures.
But with Utah, he couldn’t help it.
When Torrisi auditioned for the Utah Symphony in November 2018 — his first time in Utah — he got lost in the scenery and found it easy to imagine himself living with the snow-covered mountains as his backdrop.
Following a trial run with the symphony, that thought became a reality.
After two seasons with the Grand Rapids Symphony in Michigan, Torrisi moved across the country to Salt Lake City in August 2019. The trumpet player — along with two violists who joined during the pandemic — is one of the newest musicians to join the Utah Symphony.
As the symphony wraps up its season this weekend, the three musicians caught up with the Deseret News about their moves to Utah, performing during the pandemic and their lives outside of music.
Paul Torrisi (trumpet)
In Torrisi’s Salt Lake City home, there’s a shelf that holds around 40 Rubik’s Cubes — everything from the standard 3-by-3 all the way up to the even more complex 7-by-7. He hasn’t solved them all, but during the pandemic, he’s made a lot of progress.
Torrisi was six months in with the Utah Symphony when COVID-19 shut down Abravanel Hall. He was just two months shy of wrapping up his first season — a year that had included everything from “Star Wars” to Beethoven to George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”
With rehearsals and concerts abruptly stripped from his schedule, Torrisi got more acquainted with the mountains that first sold him on Utah. To date, he and his girlfriend have hiked everything from Grandeur Peak to Mount Olympus to Timpanogos — and they still have an ambitious list of peaks to tackle.
But Torrisi didn’t exactly abandon his trumpet during this time, either. “There wasn’t a ton to do ... and I feel like it’s my duty to practice,” he said.
At home, he continued to play his trumpet, the instrument he chose to play as a fifth grader tasked with joining his school’s band, orchestra or choir. Torrisi doesn’t come from a musical family — both of his parents have engineering backgrounds — but his interest in the trumpet grew, and he started taking private lessons in seventh grade. By his sophomore year of high school, when he made it into a regional orchestra and performed Gustav Holst’s “Jupiter,” he was hooked.
After high school, Torrisi left his home in The Woodlands, Texas, — a suburb north of Houston — to study trumpet performance at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. From there, he went to the Cleveland Institute of Music for his master’s degree.
Initially, Torrisi figured if a music career didn’t pan out, he could always go back to school and pursue an engineering degree. But that thought grows fainter with every performance.
“At this point, I’m way too deep in music,” he said.
A month into the COVID-19 shutdown, Torrisi and his fellow Utah Symphony trumpet players made a virtual appearance on “CBS Sunday Morning” to perform the program’s theme song — and that’s just one example of how the symphony musicians have found ways to perform during a time that has curtailed live music.
But in the fall of 2020, after months of uncertainty and remote performing, Torrisi was grateful to finally return to the Abravanel Hall stage with those musicians — people who have already become more than stand partners to him.
“It’s nice to get along with the people that you sit next to, but they’re also my friends,” he said. “It doesn’t always work out that way when you play in a professional orchestra.
“When COVID hit, they looked out for me. They gave me early tenure so I would have job security when we didn’t know what was going to happen in the fall. They’re my friends and they looked out for me when things got rough.”
JT Posadas (viola)
JT Posadas arrived in Salt Lake City in the middle of a pandemic with two suitcases, tennis rackets and a viola.
For the last 13 years, the Kentucky-raised musician had taught viola at the University of South Florida. But over time, the 21⁄2-hour commute — one-way — from his wife and 5-year-old twins in Naples had taken its toll. After deliberating with his wife, who is a violinist in the Naples Philharmonic, Posadas knew his family needed a change.
So when an opening in the Utah Symphony came up, Posadas went for it. If it all went well, he figured his wife could also find nearby performing opportunities and they could maybe “have a more normal family life.”
He won the Utah Symphony position in early 2020. Shortly after, Posadas told his university he’d be leaving. His family was preparing to move across the country when the pandemic struck.
Posadas had a lot of concerns — everything from health to financial stability to the future of orchestras. Based on the news regarding COVID-19, he figured uprooting his life was now on hold until at least 2021. In the meantime, he was able to continue teaching his students virtually.
But then, to his surprise, the Utah Symphony became one in a small camp of orchestras to move forward with a revised season and safety measures in place that would make the return to a concert hall — and the return of a live audience — possible.
So just a week before the symphony’s return in September 2020, Posadas flew out to Utah for a debut that looked a lot different than anything he ever could’ve envisioned before the pandemic. The musicians were spaced out on the stage and wearing masks. The audience at Abravanel Hall was also significantly limited.
“I wasn’t totally prepared for what any of it was going to feel like,” Posadas said. “Everyone was on edge. Everything was new for everybody.
“But I could feel a sense of gratitude from all of the musicians … just for this season happening,” he continued. “It felt so good to play, even for a few people.”
Outside of performing, Posadas has managed to join a tennis team (remember the tennis rackets he brought on a plane?). He also just finished teaching his final classes for the University of South Florida, closing the door on his career in academia.
Once the Utah Symphony finishes its season this weekend, Posadas flies to Florida to help his family move out of their house and prepare for the cross-country move.
Among the many things he looks forward to doing with them in Utah, playing tennis and visiting the farmers market are at the top.
Yuan Qi (viola)
In Qinghaungdao — “a small city” of 3 million that’s about a three-hour drive from Beijing — a teenaged Yuan Qi was deep in her academic studies and well on a path to pursue mathematics or science.
And then she had what she called a “miracle moment.”
As she listened to music and did her homework, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 began to play.
Suddenly, she lost all interest in her homework.
Although Qi had played the violin as a child, she was inspired by her viola-playing cousin to pick up that instrument. Fifteen was a relatively late age to start learning an instrument she hoped to turn into a career, but she began to practice — a lot.
She wound up at the prestigious Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing.
In 2012, she decided to move to the United States, where she got a master’s degree from the Yale School of Music. It was a few years later, during a fellowship with Miami’s New World Symphony, that Qi discovered an opening with the Utah Symphony.
The big life transition didn’t come at an easy time.
The good news that she had won the Utah Symphony position coincided perfectly with the pandemic. In May 2020, Qi rented an RV, packed up her eight years of life in the United States, and started driving to Utah.
In another unexpected life twist, she had her parents along for the ride. Earlier that year, they had come out from China to visit her for the Chinese New Year. But as international travel shut down and COVID-19 ramped up, that three- or four-week trip turned into a monthslong stay.
“This pandemic first started in China, and I was scared because I worried about the rest of my family,” Qi said. “And then it starts in (the U.S.) and we were kind of worried about it because we don’t know how bad it will be. That was really a scare … something unknown and it affects all of the human beings.”
During the first few weeks of quarantine, Qi enjoyed a laid-back schedule without rehearsals and performances. But it didn’t take long for her to start missing that lifestyle — which made her all the more grateful that the Utah Symphony worked hard to bring live performances back to the stage fairly early on in the pandemic.
“I felt super lucky. We were trying to get back to normal life,” she said. “It wasn’t just a concert. It was hope.”
When she’s not practicing or performing, Qi likes to explore downtown Salt Lake City and cook — at Yale, she made a hobby out of cooking for friends and even won an amateur cooking competition.
And where can one find good Chinese food in Utah?
Qi admits she hasn’t gone to many restaurants during the pandemic, but she’s also starting to put a lot of stock in her own abilities.
“Probably the best will be my kitchen.”