Acadiana Symphony Orchestra goes virtual in a season of chaos and uncertainty — for its musicians

Photo by Leslie Westbrook, courtesy Acadiana Symphony Orchestra

Anton Zholondz began to play the violin before he was 5, but he’d fallen in love with American rock and roll music long before then. 

“My dad was always listening to Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, Deep Purple,” he says. Zholondz’s childhood in Voronezh, Russia, was animated by an eclectic mix of classical and pop music, and his sensibilities as a professional violinist grew, over the years, to reflect this variety.

In his mid-20s, Zholondz immigrated to the U.S. to study violin performance first at Alcorn State University in Mississippi, then LSU. His proficiency in many genres netted him a diversity of regular gigs after graduation. In addition to playing in five different orchestras (including the Acadiana Symphony Orchestra), Zholondz also played rock and jazz music at live venues throughout the state. Like many professional musicians, an important part of his living was weddings and other one-off performances. After more than 12 years in the Mississippi Delta, Zholondz had turned his talents into a fulfilling freelance career. Louisiana, he says, had become his “second home.”

However, when the pandemic shuttered venues in mid-March, Zholondz’s professional life went into a tailspin. “I pretty much lost all of my income,” he says. As symphonies stayed dark and gigs continued to fall through well into the summer, Zholondz’s situation grew more precarious: His work visa was scheduled to expire Aug. 31, and extending it an additional year would cost him about $3,000 in legal and application fees. Applying for a green card would have cost even more. According to the stipulations of his particular visa, Zholondz was ineligible for unemployment benefits. And while he did win some small individual grants, he had no guarantee of future work and feared a second wave of COVID would extend the statewide lockdown.

So Zholondz packed up his life and returned to Russia at the end of August. He tells me from a café in Voronezh that his circumstance is similar to many of his colleagues who have moved back in with parents in Austin or Baton Rouge. “But my family’s in Russia,” he says, and laughs a little. “That’s the biggest difference.”

Across the nation, the pandemic has devastated musicians regardless of their citizenship status. For those born outside the U.S., however, these struggles have been exacerbated by extended wait times for in-person interviews, delayed paperwork processing and filing fees. According to the NEA, data from 2012-2016 shows foreign-born professionals constituted more than 10% of all working artists in the country. Moreover, musicians are significantly more likely than other creatives to moonlight as artists; more than a third of all professional musicians make music as a second job while holding down a primary occupation outside of the limelight.

When the pandemic canceled his income, ASO violinist Anton Zholondz, second from left, returned to his native Russia. Photo by Paul Kieu, courtesy Acadiana Symphony Orchestra

In order to support all of its performers, and especially to avoid losing more gifted musicians like Zholondz, the Acadiana Symphony Orchestra has decided to proceed virtually with its thirty-sixth season via live-stream performances, the first of which will air on YouTube this Friday, Sept. 11 (single tickets are $10, available here). Organized around the theme REVIVAL, the season aims to offer a musical response to some of the existential questions this past year has asked of our community. As Lafayette faces down a politically polarized election season, a long overdue reckoning with its history of racial violence, and an economic downturn sure to deepen already profound divisions in class, the ASO is offering a season full of music selected to be both a balm and a catalyst. The program is designed as much to entertain as to inspire the community to marshal its spiritual resources in order to make it through these challenging times together.

“We’re not just talking about the revival of an organization,” says Dana Baker, executive director of the orchestra. “But of a people. And each concert takes you on that journey.”

According to Music Director Mariusz Smolij, the only way to begin this journey is to UNITE, the theme of this Friday’s performance. Musically, Smolij designed the program by selecting works that span many different styles, eras and regions, but all share the same instrumentation — string chamber orchestra.

The concert, which will showcase both the versatility of the ASO’s string ensemble and the virtuosity of visiting violin soloist Kinga Augustyn, combines favorites like Sarasate’s “Carmen Fantasy” and Britten’s “Simple Symphony” with lesser-known pieces by contemporary composers like Romuald Twardowsky and former ASO violinist Chris Lowry. Composing music from Poland and Louisiana, respectively, these last two have about 50 years and 5,000 miles between them, yet both have bylines on this Friday’s program.

Principal cellist Dragos Filip says he’s especially excited to play Twardowsky’s concerto. Friday’s performance will mark the first time this composition has ever been played in the U.S., and aside from his eagerness to be a part of its premiere, he’s also looking forward to doing what he was trained to do during his youth in Romania.

“My whole life was geared towards performing, getting better, trying to be the best,” Filip says of his early years. Despite this focus on performance, a large portion of Filip’s daily life currently revolves around teaching. In addition to instructing at both LJ Alleman Middle School and Comeaux High School, Filip also directs the Acadiana Symphony’s Youth and Prep Orchestras. Although he finds this work gratifying, it can also be draining. Performing with the ASO “is a break from that, and brings me back to the roots of what I was brought up to do.”

His work as an educator, however demanding, did provide some security during the pandemic. His application for permanent U.S. residency is in its final stages, a process he’s been working toward since he first began teaching in Lafayette in 2014. Filip is hopeful he’ll have his green card by the end of the year.

Filip’s colleague, Anna Herrera, the second principal cellist at ASO, is also confident she’ll get her green card relatively soon, despite enduring some stressful delays over the summer. Originally from Venezuela, Herrera says her work visa did not arrive when it was meant to after her graduation from LSU’s School of Music this May.

“I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to play with the orchestra because I didn’t have my new job permit,” she says. The visa finally arrived a few weeks ago, months delayed, to her great relief.

More than looking forward to performing a particular piece this Friday, Herrera says she is just happy to be playing together again with her colleagues. “Playing in an orchestra, especially the pieces that require a bigger orchestra, it’s empowering. Sometimes it can be overwhelming, how excited you get.”

Zholondz feels similarly about orchestral performance. “The power that an ensemble of 60 or 70 people can produce, if everyone is involved emotionally?” he remarks. “It’s an avalanche of energy.”

This Friday’s performance will feature a more modest number of instrumentalists — just 20 — distanced at least two meters apart, with each string player wearing a mask for the duration. Zholondz will be absent, but his friends and colleagues with the ASO will play on through the program, including all three movements of Twardowsky’s concerto, which wends its way from the grave through the andante to the allegro, each movement gaining a little velocity and decisiveness until the whole orchestra arrives at the finale: an extended, dramatic credenza for the solo violinist, punctuated at last by a series of satisfying flourishes from the orchestra.

“What is the same for all kinds of music that I love is the chemistry between members of the ensemble,” says Zholondz. “To feel that connection, to listen to each other, to produce energy together and then send it to people — if I don’t feel that, it’s not the place I want to be. It’s not the music I want to play.”

Zholondz says he felt this with his fellow musicians at the ASO, and while he will miss playing with them, he stands by his decision to relocate to pursue his passion. In a few weeks, he’ll audition for a seat at the Orchestra of Voronezh Performance Hall, one of three professional symphony orchestras in his hometown, Voronezh. He hopes to return to Louisiana in the future, whether permanently or as a visiting performer, to regain his connection to the second home he loves. With any luck, he’ll come back to a community that has survived this moment of discord by leaning in toward what connects us, by listening to each other, and by producing enough energy together to transform this place into the somewhere all of us need it to be.