SALT LAKE CITY — Like all the Utah Symphony musicians, Travis Peterson’s normally fast-paced life passes by a lot more slowly now. 

Gyms aren’t open, so Peterson doesn’t rush to get in a 6:30 a.m. workout. Instead, he wakes up at 7:30, sometimes 8. He drinks coffee and listens to NPR. 

He doesn’t go to the symphony’s home, Abravanel Hall, anymore. Instead, he goes for a run at Liberty Park in downtown Salt Lake City.  

He doesn’t have double rehearsals on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. No dress rehearsal Thursday mornings. No concerts Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. 

And on Sundays and Mondays, his normal days off, he doesn’t excitedly anticipate the week to come — the joy of getting to live that busy schedule all over again with different music.

Travis Peterson has been the principal trumpet player for the Utah Symphony since January 2013.
Travis Peterson has been the principal trumpet player for the Utah Symphony since January 2013. | Travis Peterson

“It’s hard to not have that right now,” said Peterson, who has been the Utah Symphony’s principal trumpet player since 2013. “This is the first time in a long time where I’ve not had that thing on the horizon that I’m looking forward to. That’s sort of depressing for me.” 

These days, at 11 a.m. or noon, Peterson pulls out his trumpet. Alone in his apartment, he runs through some warmups and practices his technique. And then he picks a piece of music.

Recently, he chose Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 3. He put on the San Francisco Symphony’s recording of that piece — his favorite rendition — and began to play along. 

“My neighbors don’t get upset because I don’t sound bad, generally,” Peterson said with a laugh. “But right now, that’s as close as I can get to feeling like I’m in an orchestra.” 

A season cut short

Peterson hasn’t performed with the Utah Symphony since early March, when everything came to a crashing halt because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I can’t think of a different word than sad right now,” Peterson said. “It’s just sad.” 

Initially, the symphony’s season was canceled through the end of March. But as the virus continued to spread, precautions ramped up. Two weeks later, the symphony canceled the rest of its regular season — all performances through the end of May. 

A few days after that, all 85 symphony musicians were furloughed — an action Patricia A. Richards, Utah Symphony and Utah Opera’s interim CEO, said she was “personally devastated” to take.

Thierry Fischer, music director of the Utah Symphony, conducts during a practice session at Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

“I do feel it is the best way to deal with this crisis in the short run while preserving our best options to maintain the viability of the organization so that orchestra jobs will still be available after the crisis,” Richards said in a statement. 

The musicians were notified of the decision Saturday, March 28. According to the statement, the board has voted to give the musicians a “supplemental weekly retention payment” and provide their medical, dental and instrument insurance during this gap period.

Meanwhile, Richards said the organization is applying for a Small Business Administration loan as part of the stimulus package recently passed by Congress, and plans “to bring everyone back under the provisions of the forgivable SBA loan.”

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The board doesn’t know when that money will be available, though. So, in the meantime, the musicians have filed for unemployment. 

“First time for everything, right?” Peterson said. 

But for Peterson, not getting to make music with his friends and colleagues hurts just as much as losing his income. The trumpet player looked forward to performing the soundtrack to “How to Train Your Dragon”— one of his favorite movie soundtracks — on April 14. And he was excited for the season closer, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, on May 22 and 23. 

Conner Covington, Utah Symphony associate conductor, conducts a concert for fifth grade students at Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The symphony has been celebrating Beethoven’s 250th birthday — which is this December — all season long. Conner Covington, the symphony’s associate conductor, was preparing for the rare opportunity to conduct violin virtuoso Joshua Bell in a special gala event on May 16 (the first time Bell has appeared on the Abravanel Hall stage since 2003). Bell would’ve performed the Beethoven Violin Concerto — the same piece master violinist Itzhak Perlman performed at Brigham Young University earlier this year.

“I know that they’re speaking with him already about rescheduling, but I don’t know exactly when it will be,” Covington said. “But I think it will be probably a while from now because his schedule is pretty packed.” 

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Like the Utah Symphony, orchestras across the nation are facing financial strain and uncertainty because of the novel coronavirus. The Los Angeles Philharmonic canceled the rest of its season. The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra musicians have been furloughed. For a time, the Kennedy Center musicians in Washington, D.C., were going to be furloughed — even after President Donald Trump signed a stimulus package that granted the Kennedy Center $25 million. 

Now, those musicians have reached an agreement to receive a partial pay cut as long as the Kennedy Center remains closed.

“If it was happening to just us, I think it would be tougher to stomach,” Peterson said. “But I don’t think that there’s anybody anywhere in the classical music world that’s not feeling this. We perform for a living, and if you can’t have gatherings of more than 10 people, it’s impossible to do that. I take comfort in recognizing that we’re not in this alone.” 

Playing together, separately

Even as drastic life changes have come rapidly his way over the last several weeks, Peterson has found reason to hope. 

It started with the Rotterdam Philharmonic in the Netherlands. In late March, Peterson watched 19 self-isolated musicians come together to perform Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” — from their individual homes.

And then the Toronto Symphony Orchestra released a similar project with Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.” 

“I really wanted to do that, too, for our audience here in Utah,” Peterson said. “Just to share that we are still musicians during this tough time.” 

So Peterson looked at the repertoire for the canceled season and picked Beethoven’s Fifth — a work the Utah Symphony was supposed to perform on May 1 and 2. He rallied 35 symphony musicians to record their parts from their homes. They played along to a click track on a Utah Symphony recording from 2017 to help keep time. 

Covington conducted from his living room. Peterson also played from his living room — what he viewed to be the most aesthetically pleasing place” in his apartment. 

When they finished playing, the musicians dropped their recordings onto a Google drive. Peterson’s friend, a local audio engineer named Stoker White, did the sound editing. Peterson’s wife, Andrea, an actress who is currently living in New York, spent several hours editing and compiling the 35 different recordings into a video performance that, as of Monday, has more than 30,000 views. 

Many of the recordings were done on iPhones and computers. The musicians weren’t in a concert hall. They weren’t wearing their normal gowns and tuxedos. And they weren’t physically together. 

But the music was just as powerful. 

“The 35 people that volunteered to do this, I think it really touched us all in a way that you can see evident in the actual video. You could tell that we’re all putting our emotion and our heart into it,” Peterson said. “We (usually) sit so closely to each other, creating this emotional thing within music every day. ... I think we all really miss that.”

As of now, the symphony is planning on returning for community concerts at the end of June and for the Deer Valley Music Festival that opens July 3. It’s a lineup that includes everything from The Beach Boys to “Harry Potter” to Kool & the Gang. 

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Patrons and season ticket holders who were planning on attending now-canceled performances have received gift cards that can go toward any Utah Symphony or Utah Opera performance, including the upcoming ones at Deer Valley, according to the organization’s website

The certificates are valid through Aug. 31, 2021, and can also be used to renew subscriptions or be donated back to the organization — subscribers and ticket holders have already given back more than $50,000 in returned ticket donations. 

Conner Covington, Utah Symphony associate conductor, smiles at the audience after conducting a concert for fifth grade students at Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Covington said ticket sales were stronger than expected when the 2020-21 season was announced at the start of February — a season that continues celebrating Beethoven’s birthday, features classic films like “Back to the Future” and highlights new composers. 

“We expect that the orchestra will come back with a vengeance, and we hope our audiences will do the same,” he said. 

Back on stage

The other day, Utah Symphony violinist David Porter played the Heifetz cadenza to the Brahms Violin Concerto — while wearing his pajamas.

Recently, principal clarinetist Tad Calcara performed the George Gershwin swing tune “Somebody Loves Me.” With no musicians around, Calcara acted as a one-man band, playing the clarinet, piano, drums and cornet. That video has more than 1 million views.

For Easter weekend, Peterson played “The Lord’s Prayer.”

And from his living room, he has continued playing along to recordings. He’s recently played Mahler symphonies No. 5, 6 and 7. He’s also played “Don Juan,” by Richard Strauss. 

It’s a newer routine he’s added to his daily practice, so he’s still working through his favorite pieces.

If the pandemic continues for much longer, though, he might have to start digging deeper. 

“We don’t know what the timeline of this virus is. We’re kind of just held hostage by whatever timeline it wants,” Peterson said. “We can’t do anything other than just be hopeful. And I’m definitely hopeful, but it is hard these days to look forward to anything because everything is so up in the air.” 

But there is one thing Peterson eagerly awaits, whenever the moment may come: The first note he and all of the other Utah Symphony musicians will play together in Abravanel Hall once this is all over. 

“I think it’s going to be super emotional. We’re going to be so happy to be playing with each other again, and I can’t wait for that to happen,” he said. “Who knows when that will happen at this point, but it gives me goosebumps just thinking about it.”