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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

REMOTE | Chris Walroth: ‘Rest Is A Weapon...’

By Michael Zarathus-Cook on May 4, 2020

Chris Walroth (Image courtesy of the artist)
Chris Walroth (Image courtesy of the artist)

Although it came about through the most unfortunate circumstances, the performing arts have nevertheless entered a new digital age — not as a convenient and occasional corollary to in-person performances, but as a necessary slice in the spectrum of a company’s regular offerings.

Whenever it is we arrive at a post-pandemic world, the prudent artistic directors and show runners among us will know the importance of maintaining the attention of the online following they are currently amassing. This can only be made possible by the combination of increased funding for digital initiatives and an upgrade in the amount of resources arts organizations invest in engaging with their virtual audiences.

For this episode of Remote, we are joined by Chris Walroth, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s Production Manager. He’s the man behind the lighting, audio, and staging for the orchestra’s rehearsals and performances; he talks about life at home, updating the orchestra’s archives, survivor’s guilt, and the possibility of being left behind in the new digital model of production.

How are you holding up?

There are good days and bad days; I am grateful to be employed and working from home when so many of my colleagues are out of work. Sometimes it’s like I have survivor guilt when I think of all of my friends, good hard-working talented people, who are idle. We have a pretty good setup here at home. My home office is in the basement, my spouse is on the second floor so there is some separation. I can’t imagine how colleagues that live in a 400-sqft high rise condo with both partners working from home are coping. And, kids! Good grief how do parents work at home and take care of kids?

A few years ago I built a standing desk which at the time seemed a luxury but has been a lifesaver working from home. We bought our usual supply of toilet paper at Costco pre-lockdown and have a well stocked pantry and freezer. I’ve been cutting my own hair for years so that’s not a problem. This lockdown is hard for someone like me who is used to seeing physical results every day — an actual orchestra on stage rehearsing, or a concert hall filled with patrons. Typing on a computer, however necessary and productive, is just not the same. I’m so thankful to the people creating and sharing these pandemic performances, but it’s not my skill set, so it also feels like being left behind — like this new model has no place for me. At least not one I’ve found yet.

What are you doing with your free time?

LOL what is this free time of which you speak? Part of that gratitude for being employed is expressed in a desire to be hyper-productive, which is hard when the next orchestra rehearsal is 140 days away. So, in addition to my usual planning for the production, logistics and related expenses of 300 orchestra services each year, I’m working on a lot of “when I have the time” projects, mostly for now cleaning up our performance history database. We are lucky to have in our archives a copy of every concert program from the very first performance at Massey Hall in 1923. We have a complete database of performances with repertoire, conductor and soloist back to the mid-1940s plus the first five seasons. We are hoping before the hundredth season to complete that history using the program books as our source. Our archivists are working backward from about 1946 and I’m going forward from the mid-1920’s. It’s a fascinating look at our history. For example on May 4, 1968 we were at Massey Hall, and our Principal Harp at that time, Judy Loman was the soloist playing Debussy: Danse sacrée et profane, for harp and strings. Even with the incomplete history there are less than ten days of the year when the orchestra has never given a performance.

In my personal life I have fallen into the COVID stress baking trap that has claimed so many victims. I’m well on my way, with sourdough which is expanding my waistline, possibly beyond the capacity of my wardrobe. This means I also need to find some daily exercise, a new reality in my life. My partner and I are both working from home; there seems to be a lot more to clean and tidy each day. As the weather warms we both hope to get out to the garden and get our vegetable patch going.

What are you missing the most right now?

Being forced to interact with 90 musicians, plus conductors, soloists, staff, volunteers, and everyone at Roy Thomson Hall is like a wonderful kind of therapy for a mostly quiet introvert like me. When the orchestra goes on its 10-week hiatus in the summer I enjoy the first few quiet weeks but then I start to miss “the music”. I understand now more than ever it’s the people I miss. After 22 years here I feel like these people are my family and I’m really struggling to feel connected. I lost some great opportunities with the COVID-19 cancellations; I was looking forward on a very personal level to seeing both Jukka-Pekka Saraste and Peter Oundjian again, and of course Sir Andrew Davis playing/conducting the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony. We have toured with Angela Hewitt, James Ehnes and Jan Lisiecki so they are family, like those favorite cousins you only see once a year. So people, it’s really the people I miss.

Any specific books, films, or TV on the go?

I always have a book on the go, usually some form of escapist thriller or murder mystery type. I have been connecting to the Toronto library with their digital book services for years so it’s no change of habit there. We have a perhaps too comfortable TV-watching setup in the basement with cable, Netflix and Prime on a big screen. Weeknights are a couple of episodes of a streaming series; we just finished Ozark, and are on season two of After Life, we have several seasons of Homeland to catch up on. Weekends are movie nights, and there are lots to choose from. Recently we watched Robert Altman’s Nashville on Kanopy. When I’m working I try to keep tuned to CBC Music or Classical 96.3 so I can pretend there is an orchestra working just over there behind me like in my office backstage at Roy Thomson Hall.

Any words of wisdom to get through this?

Pre-quarantine I started a journey to quit my addiction to nicotine, and now at over 130 days clean of that drug I see parallels between fighting an addiction and staying both healthy and sane in a pandemic. First be kind to yourself, and forgive your imperfections, accept this is hard and you won’t always get it right. When the week ahead looks too tough focus on the day, when that is too much focus on the next hour, or next task or the next step. Be flexible, take deep breaths, stay hydrated, eat healthy but also you deserve the occasional indulgence, a reward just for making it through another day.

I will leave you with the best advice my father ever gave me:

“When the going gets tough, the tough take a nap.” Or, as Jason Bourne said, “Rest is a weapon”.

In closing, for those who want to know more about backstage life at the Toronto Symphony my colleagues and I run a series of backstage tours for donors at the Friends level. You get access to open rehearsals, and other benefits. On the backstage tour you can ask me anything you like. Details here.

For more chats with artists in social isolation, read on HERE.

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Michael Zarathus-Cook

Michael is a student at the University of Toronto, a music writer and general arts critic on briband.com He has been published in The Wholenote Magazine, Opera Canada, The Dance Current, Schmopera and more.
Michael Zarathus-Cook

Michael Zarathus-Cook

Michael is a student at the University of Toronto, a music writer and general arts critic on briband.com He has been published in The Wholenote Magazine, Opera Canada, The Dance Current, Schmopera and more.
Michael Zarathus-Cook
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