The purpose of this project is to provide a collection of transcriptions from the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. This project seeks to give a platform to all parts of the vocal performing arts to better understand the lived experiences and mentality of those professionals. In collecting stories from the COVID-19 pandemic Jason Tramm, conductor, discussed the abrupt halt to a very busy conducting schedule. Furthermore, I found his perspective—drawn from his experience in 9/11 and the financial collapse of 2008—to be highly valuable as we attempt to gauge the impact of this pandemic on the arts.
Jason Tramm, conductor
Interviewed March 21, 2020
TB: Let’s start with something positive because we all need that right now. What’s the best thing that happened in your life this last week?
JT: Well, I’m a father of four. So I’ve gotten to spend more time at home with my family than I ever have; also a lot of introspection and reflection. I’m used to doing six standing rehearsals a week and then extra rehearsals every week for something else, and a lot of travel. That’s all evaporated into smoke. So, I’ve been walking every day, thinking about life, and being philosophical.
This past week, I started teaching online for my university which is my full-time job. To get to start interacting with my students again has been helpful and to just reach out to people. It’s been great to start connecting with those people again, especially my kids. It has been interesting and unusual—and probably won’t happen again in my lifetime—just to take some time to breathe.
TB: Could you give me a little bit about your background and where you are at in your career as well?
JT: Sure, I’ve been conducting now for 25 years, I believe. I do a good amount of guest conducting and I’m a university professor. I conduct the chorus and orchestra at Seton Hall University, which has been my job for eight years. So I have a healthy balance of university work, plus professional work. Then I do a good amount of concert production and orchestra contracting as well. I have what we call a varied portfolio.
I’ve been in the business long enough to keep my income streams coming from different places to account for bumps in the road, which happen normally in this business. I started in 2009 when there was a huge financial crunch. I’ve had to weather that storm and come back in a different way. So I’ve built my career with that in mind. It’s been a beautiful ride. I love working with great artists and talents, and I’m blessed to do that with a lot of different people in a lot of different situations. I think I have six standing contracts at any given moment these days, including two choral societies and a couple of orchestras that I work with regularly. I do a lot of opera, but choral and symphonic work have always been a central part of my career. I thrive on diversity.
TB: I was going to say, it sound like you’re a kind of Swiss army knife of a conductor.
JT: I’ve had to become flexible in my career with having four children to provide for. And I love working with artists, both professional and amateur. I enjoy both equally, so it works for me.
TB: Diving into our topic for today, can you describe a little bit of your recent history in realizing that the pandemic was going to affect you and what it has affected so far?
JT: Well, I’ve seen all of my work get cancelled over stages. So right now, everything is cancelled in terms of my performances till June. And I had a lot of performances on the docket. First, the choral societies cancelled (I guess a group of 60-80 singers singing next to each other was viewed as dangerous). Which I agree, [especially because] a lot of them are older. It was the right move. They were my Monday and Tuesday night rehearsals.
Then the dominoes started to fall. My university was next and then I was doing a concert at Merkin Hall in New York City. I was producing and conducting that and it had to be cancelled as all of the venues in New York City cancelled. So we saw it as a domino effect over a couple of weeks. I saw it coming, because I figured that this would be the case. If people shouldn’t be near each other and that is how it is going to spread, then music is going to be the first to go.
TB: Especially when you’re dealing with halls like Merkin Hall or 60-80 singers. That is a lot of bodies.
JT: My last one [to cancel] was a semi-pro orchestra. We were supposed to do Beethoven’s Third. They were the last to cancel. These players wanted to play this so bad, but then they started to say, “This is dangerous for us.” I totally understand, and I said, “Listen, health is first. We’re going to come back and we can always do this concert next year.” There will be music after this is all over and we’re going to need it even more. We’ll appreciate what we do even more when it’s over. When we come back and we see each other again, we’re going to appreciate how much more special music is.
TB: Correct me if I’m wrong, but you work both in New Jersey and in New York City. So how are logistics impacted by this? Because I know that you are producing at least one of your concerts. Were you able to postpone the concert and receive the fee back from the hall or how did that work?
JT: I had to wait because if I cancelled it, I would have lost between $3,000 and $4,000. But if they cancelled it, they had to reschedule. So I waited until I knew that the Met[ropolitan Opera] had cancelled. I postponed a little bit to wait and see, because I would have been out a lot of money personally. And by waiting they had to give me the date because the theater cancelled. Of course, all of the theaters cancelled at once, the Met, then Broadway. So then I knew this wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t my decision. It was a national decision.
TB: So you were able to postpone this concert until a later date?
JT: Yeah, I moved that one to next season and I’m working out dates. Everyone has to do the same thing, either cancel or postpone. It is going to be everyone. I’ve got two very big premieres coming up in June and I’m very worried about them. I’m supposed to make my debut in Vienna and my debut in Prague with two state orchestras. I’m not sure if that’s even going to happen. If it does happen, that means the state of the world has greatly improved. If not, we will reschedule and we’ll do it again another time (hopefully).
It is devastating because I plan a year or two years in advance and to see all these projects collapse, it’s heartbreaking. And it is also heartbreaking to the people in the ensembles who really wanted to do it as well.
TB: Could you describe how this situation affects you financially? I know that you have a collegiate job, which is probably a bit more stable through this. But could you explain a little bit about how the gig economy affects you?
JT: I’m a little bit lucky in the fact that I do have a university job. I made that decision 10 years ago, and did my doctorate and went through that gauntlet. I’m teaching, but the university has gone online. I teach two choirs, orchestra, and I lecture undergraduates in a survey course in Western music. That course isn’t really that hard to teach now, it’s basically the same. We just moved it to an online platform, and it actually works pretty well for that.
The choir obviously doesn’t work at all and the orchestra doesn’t work at all. So we’ve had to fit a round peg into a square hole. The technology we’re using now works well for you and me [Zoom]. However, there’s a delay on the other side from both directions. But if we were trying to make music and listen to each other, it makes it impossible because it’s not happening in real time. So if we did that with an 80 voice choir, it’s useless. I’ve gone to more of a lecture setting where I’m talking about music. I’m going to have them record some of the examples and send them to me so I can listen and comment on them. But it is not the same.
That’s sad too because our concerts are cancelled. It just affects everything. But I’m lucky that I have the university job. I really love teaching. I get to interact with my students, who I think need a sense of normalcy in their world and in their day. At least they can plan on being part of something that they recognize, understand, and are familiar with—in this time when everything is so scary for all of us.
TB: So would you talk briefly about how the gigs that have been cancelled affect you financially?
JT: A lot of them were just cancelled and I don’t get paid. For most of us—singers, musicians, and conductors—if we don’t work, we don’t get paid. Now my university job does pay me. One of the choral societies said they would pay me because I have a contract. I think the other one will too, but I wouldn’t fault them if they said they couldn’t. I’m of the opinion that you get paid for the hours you work. Because I did all the planning work and that stuff for the choral society, I guess they’re more up in the air. But any opera work or symphonic work doesn’t happen unless I’m right there working. So it will be the same as anybody else.
I feel for the freelance musicians particularly. I hire a lot of freelance musicians in a year and I’m very close with a lot of them. I work with them regularly—20 times a year or more sometimes—and a lot of them are really destitute. This is going to crush them financially because there’s almost no income coming in. We don’t know how long it is going to last and it’s going to be very challenging times for all of us.
I was supposed to do four different choir clinics. These are choirs on tour from the Midwest to come to New York. I work with them for an hour and I coach them; those [cancellations] hurt. I think four jobs in the next three months have been cancelled and that’s going to hurt very much. So it hurts us all in our own way. But [it’s] more than the money to be honest; these are concerts I programmed. These are concerts I’ve been hired for and it just hurts not to be able to do them.
This is my studio where I do all my homework. If you look on my left here [motions to a shelf, where there is a stack of 15-20 musical scores], these are all the concerts I have coming up. And they are all cancelled.
TB: So what is the hardest lesson that you have learned in this situation?
JT: These are all great questions. For me, it’s how fragile life is. When we’re in the middle of it, like my normal schedule, I just go, go, go, rehearsal, rehearsal, rehearsal... I just go and never think about it. Luckily, in January and February, I was traveling a lot. I did 15 performances of operas around the southeast and up in the northeast. Then, I came back and just assumed everything was going to be normal, because this is how it’s been for years for me.
I used to assume I’d be working all the time and making great collaborations with artists. Then all of a sudden it was gone. Part of me (in the back of my head) said, “This is different this time. You should be ready.” It just crushes you in a way because you put your heart and your soul into your work and then it’s gone. Now we just have to sit back and say, this will come back again. I’m already making collaborative plans for next season. I’ve done meetings with several different great organizations. There will be art. We’ll need it even more when it comes back. So everyone will need to be ready to work again.
TB: A lot of what we’ve talked about is the business side, but how has this affected you as a creator of art?
JT: I spend half of my time studying and programming for these plans and concerts that I put together. In the summer time, I usually spend it at my summer house or at Ocean Grove [New Jersey] where I’m the music director. And at night, I sit on a beach and I program. I’ll just have a pad of paper and come up with lists and lists of pieces. It takes me a few weeks and then by the end, I’ve programmed for multiple organizations and guest conducting appearances. That’s my favorite time of the year because I’m alone. I just have to do all this work. Then to not see it come to fruition, it does break my heart. But there will be other concerts.
I’ve been sick over the last couple days. There’s no testing around where I am, so I don’t know if I’ve had coronavirus. I was sick for about six days. I’m on the mend and I am feeling pretty good today. But it puts everything into perspective because everything is so fragile. If one virus coming from an obscure place in China can stop the world, it really puts things into perspective of how fragile our lives are. We think that everything we’re doing is just going to happen. But you have to take your family more seriously. You have to take the relationships you have more seriously and live in the moment.
TB: Thank you for sharing that. Those are some really impactful things that play a role in our community. So let me take you back to February. What did your life look like?
JT: February was a blur. I barely remember it. I was doing concerts. [Gets date book] I started in February doing a concert on the first in Panama City, Florida. It was an arias program with an orchestra and soloists. Then I drove from Panama City to Fort Myers where I did my last Traviata. Then I flew back home where I taught at Seton Hall University that day and I finally slept in my bed for a couple days. Then I went back to my teaching job at Seton Hall.
After that I flew out to West Virginia and I did a Madama Butterfly on the 7th. Then flew to New Hampshire and did another Butterfly. That was the end of the opera tour. The next day I was at my university job and my choral society, I was observed teaching that day at the college. Then I started tech week for Die Fledermaus with the Light Opera of New Jersey. I balanced that with my university job and choral societies for four performances. On Saturday the 22nd, I did an arias program with singers from the Metropolitan Opera and Covent Garden in New York City at Merkin Concert Hall, called Opera Gems.
That was pretty typical of February. January was basically the same, February was insane, and then March... everything’s gone. I was so tired after that. Part of me—for the first few days—was in shock and not feeling it yet. It wasn’t until I had gotten sick and I had to be at home, really home, that it sunk in.
TB: So this represents a very, very drastic change from your normal life.
JT: For a couple days, it was a Netflix binge. And I’ve got four kids, who are wonderful. And to spend time with them is really special. I have a 20-year-old who is in college, who has decided to stay in his apartment in South Orange and goes to Seton Hall. He said, “Dad, if you’re sick...” He’s probably right and safer there. But my youngest is a freshman in high school, who is growing up way too fast. I also have 17 year old twin daughters. So it has really been nice to see them here and to spend time with them.
TB: So would you say that that’s one thing you’re grateful for in this experience?
JT: Yeah, just to stop and not to take ourselves so seriously for awhile. I take my art very seriously. I always want to be the best when I’m out there, like I study every night. I just did Traviata 7 or 8 times this past couple of months and I’ve done it 35 times, but every night I am sitting there looking through every transition because every night it is different. Every night you want to be your best.
My job is to move the audience and to take what the singers do and add some excitement to that. To work together to make the story come alive. Then all of a sudden, being home was one thing, then now being sick was a whole other thing. So it is a double whammy and I’m happy that I’m feeling better again. My age bracket is not really the hardest hit. It will be the older generation. But whereas my son had a cold, it hit me much harder.
TB: So besides hoarding toilet paper, what is one of the things you would have changed about the reactions to this situation in the performing arts?
JT: We are watching society change around us. It’s never going to be the same after this. This is a little bit like 9/11 was. I was teaching music of the Middle Ages to my undergraduates this week on Monday and Wednesday. I said, “Listen, there are a couple of times that these things do happen. They’ve happened back since the Middle Ages. Disease and war have been part of the human experience forever. They have been shapers of society. The plague, for example, during the Middle Ages would shut down life for two years and would kill off a percentage of the population.” I guess these things are cyclical. They come back to us.
I have a friend who is a 92-year-old Holocaust survivor. She has been a real big supporter of my work over the years. So I called her up, because she’s sharp as a tack and always brilliant. I said, “Luna, how is this compared to your life? In my life this is a once in a lifetime thing.” She noted that this was like World War II and she was in the concentration camps. Obviously, different, but across the world this is stopping society and this is a once in a lifetime event. We’re living through something that’s uncharted territory.
TB: You have mentioned 9/11 and the financial crisis of 2008 previously and now World War II, so you’re viewing this as a major life event. Could you talk a bit more about your experience previously during 9/11 or the financial crisis and how this situation relates to that?
JT: I was hit by both because of where I live. I was a public high school teacher in Summit, New Jersey during 9/11. I was teaching that morning; teaching AP music theory at nine something in the morning. It was the first class of the day if I remember correctly. Class ended. The bell rang. And I went down to the teacher’s lounge... and we watched the towers fall. We had students whose parents were lost in the attack. I’ll never forget that. I could see it from my house. I could see the smoke rising from my house. We lived on the top of a hill in Summit, New Jersey, and I could still see the smoke rising. My kids were babies at the time.
I had to work in Staten Island two or three days later and we had to drive past the smoking hulk of metal in the ground. It was surreal. I was a singer at the cathedral in Newark at the time. We sang the memorial mass for the Port Authority Police who were killed. The Mayor of New York, the Governor of New York, and the Governor of New Jersey were all there, along with a team of bomb sniffing dogs. These were things you never forget. That was a big part of my life and we had to get back to work and get back to life.
In some ways, this is worse. 9/11 didn’t stop the economy; that didn’t stop people from working. Me being who I am, I was working two days later. I was working on a High Holy Day’s service conducting a professional quintet. I had to go to Brooklyn and do rehearsals. We were back in a couple days after 9/11. Everyone was numb and in shock, but it didn’t stop the world.
As for the economic collapse of 2009, I remember back in 9-10, 10% of all the professional arts organizations in the country went out of business or bankrupt. All the fees were lowered and I don’t think that has still come back, in my opinion. I built my career based on that ‘new normal,’ or that sort of knowledge of where budgets were. And every production I’ve done since has been a fraction of what I had before.
But artists want to work and singers want to sing. There are great artists who always work and so we get back on the horse and make it happen. I lost my house after the New Jersey State Opera went bankrupt. We weather these storms, but art goes on. We all want to make music and we have to adapt to make our models fit with what is going to work today. I’ve become a businessman in my art, so we’ve had to make these adaptations, and change. But this one is going to be different because they are shutting down just about everything. Seeing everything like this close is unprecedented.
TB: How do you see this changing the musical landscape?
JT: Just watching the Metropolitan Opera close was an eye-opening experience. I think they closed a few days during 9/11 but more than that is unheard of, right? And this is the largest classical arts organization in our country. The amount that they’re going to lose is going to be huge even with a major endowment. Of the more moderate ones that I work for or the small community based regional companies, it is going to be very difficult. In this country we survive on donations. And in times of great instability donations dry up because people are afraid. We’re going to be looking at tough, tough times in the next couple of years as we recover.
TB: A lot of your work comes from mentoring younger musicians, whether that is through your collegiate job or even with your work as a conductor. So could you give a bit of advice to those younger artists?
JT: It has always been difficult to be an artist. If we go into this field, we know it is going to be a challenge. It has never been easy to be a professional artist. Maestro Silipigni who was a great verismo conductor and just a great spirit, told me, “Jason, if you can see yourself doing anything else, do that.” I thought he was kidding, but at the same time he wasn’t. Because his life was a real challenge too. He was a great conductor and worked with everybody. He knew everybody. All the greatest singers in the world loved him.
But it is going to be a challenge and artists have to be problem solvers. Artists have to be smart these days. There will be singers. There will be art being made. There is room for people in this business if they’re smart. They work their technique to death and become artists at the highest level. Again, you have to keep training, keep learning languages, keep working, because there will always be art. There will be places to perform for the people who are ready.
TB: So what would your advice be to the general musical community right now?
JT: To hold on, in particular, freelance performers. The concert I had to cancel, of course, no one got paid because we didn’t work. I’m going to reschedule it down the road and I told them I would invite them first. They will get first crack at the job when it opens up and when I know what the concert will be.
But that doesn’t make it any easier because they were planning on working in that time period. That time period is now free and they’re home. It’s very easy to take a myopic view, like this month I lost $3,000 in extra jobs. That’s real money. But at the same time, this will come back. This is only temporary. We’re all in this together. Just remember to say, this is once in a lifetime. We have to hold on and keep positive. Keep close to the people you love. There will be art when this is all over and society will need art even more on the other side.
TB: What question did I not ask you that I should have?
JT: That is always a good one. This is the first time I’ve gotten to speak about some of these topics and being home I’ve had a lot of time to think, which is unusual. Usually, I would be running and running. Now we have all the time in the world to be philosophical and to step back and think about history.
I think about what is the next chapter for the arts? How are big companies and small companies going to cope with this lack of income? These are the x-factors we all have and we’re going to have to deal with on the other side. But everyone’s got to be patient. We’re in this together; artists, producers, companies, and businesses. It’s going to be a different world when we come out, but hopefully we can make it as best a world as we can.
TB: So you mentioned earlier you had a Netflix binge. What are you watching these days?
JT: I’m watching Breaking Bad for the second time. Then I’m going to go through Better Call Saul. I like that universe, it’s this wild, crazy, horrible ride. Then I’m mixing that in with Parks and Recreation and The Office for a couple laughs.
TB: So you’ve got the mix of drama and comedy. I like it. Thank you so much for chatting with me today.
Dona Nobis Pacem by Ralph Vaughn Williams
Kevin Short, bass-baritone
Rochelle Bard, soprano
Jason Tramm, conductor
MidAtlantic Opera Orchestra
Seton Hall University Chorus
About Jason Tramm
Maestro Tramm serves as Artistic Director and Principal Conductor with the MidAtlantic Artistic Productions with whom he made his Carnegie Hall (Stern Auditorium) debut in 2015. The program, entitled "A Prayer for Peace," featured works of Bernstein, Vaughan Williams, and Saygun. The second concert of this critically acclaimed series took place on October 27, 2017 at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, and featured works of Vasks, Schoenberg and Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 with Metropolitan Opera baritone, Mark Delavan. He has also served as Music Director for an opera tour with performances in Florida, New Hampshire, West Virginia, New York and South Carolina. He served as Artistic Director of the New Jersey State Opera from 2008 to 2012, where he collaborated with some of the finest voices in opera, including Samuel Ramey, Vladimir Galouzine, Angela Brown, Gregg Baker, and Paul Plishka. His 2009 HDTV broadcast with PBS affiliate NJN of "Verdi Requiem: Live from Ocean Grove," garnered an Emmy Award nomination.
The busy maestro is entering his 14th season as Director of Music, in Residence, of the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association in the summer months, where he leads the choral, orchestral, and oratorio performances in the historic 6,500-seat Great Auditorium. In addition to the Ocean Grove Choir Festival, a beloved event in its 64th year and attended by thousands, he has appeared on two National Public Radio broadcasts with organ virtuoso Gordon Turk and symphonic orchestra. He also serves as Music Director of two acclaimed community choral societies, the Morris Choral Society (Morristown, NJ), with whom he begin his fifth season and he is in his second season with the Taghkanic Chorale (Yorktown Heights, NY). Maestro Tramm was also appointed as the Music Director/Conductor of the Axelrod Contemporary Ballet Ensemble, where he collaborates with noted director/choreographer, Gabriel Chajnik.
An accomplished educator, he serves as Director of Choral Activities at Seton Hall University where he leads the University Chorus, Chamber Choir, Orchestra, and teaches voice and conducting. In 2017, Seton Hall University Awarded him the University Faculty Teacher of the Year. Educating and mentoring the next generation of musicians has always been a central part of Jason Tramm's career. He is also actively sought as a clinician and regularly presents lectures on a wide variety of musical topics.
Mr. Tramm holds degrees in music from the Crane School, the Hartt School, and a DMA in Conducting from Rutgers University, where he was the recipient of their prestigious Presidential Fellowship. In 2003, he joined the ranks of Metropolitan Opera Stars Renee Fleming and Stephanie Blythe when he was honored with the Rising Star Award from the SUNY Potsdam Alumni Association.
A frequent guest conductor, he has led operatic and symphonic performances in Italy, Romania, Albania, and in Hungary, where he recorded an album of rarely heard French operatic arias with the Szeged Symphony. He was Guest Conductor on the Narnia Festival (Narni, Italy) during the 2017 season. The spring 2020 on guest conducting season was cancelled due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. In response to this Jason Tramm launched a podcast entitles, Music Matters 2020, where he has explored the effects on COVID-19 on the music industry, as seen through the eyes of distinguished colleagues.