By Tim Munro
When I reach Roger Kaza, SLSO Principal Horn, he is sheltering in his Ozarks home. Surrounded by mountains and forests, he has taken this opportunity to spend more time in nature.
In a video taken during his retreat, Roger plays the horn part of Franz Schubert’s song Auf dem Strom (“On the River”) while kayaking down an Ozarks creek. In Schubert’s song, the protagonist takes a journey from a place of joy to a place of uncertainty, a place of fear.
Roger, like many of us, feels a sense of uncertainty in this time of quarantine. “It’s kind of a limbo. There’s something about this quarantine being unchosen or unwilled that makes it feel onerous,” he says. “Mentally, you’re not sure how to plan for the next few months.”
In ordinary times, the musicians of the SLSO find a weekly rhythm. “Working up the excitement and the physical and mental energy for a concert,” Roger says, “then putting that behind you.” It is the way he has operated for decades. “When it suddenly stops, it’s very strange.”
Roger feel a drag in motivation. “I’m involved in this global event,” he says. “And, riding that wave, it feels a little odd to practice.” All musicians need to stay limber, but the stakes for brass players are higher.
“Maintaining the muscular strength in your face and your lungs and your chops is so important,” he says. “If it starts getting too flabby or out of shape, it can be a long hill to climb back.” Roger manages to keep a regimen of one hour each day, which keeps him in shape while still allowing him to find balance during this strange time.
There is a small upside. “Tension can creep into your playing when you are performing concerts week after week.” Roger has noticed that during this quarantine his playing is freer, more relaxed. Even the placement of his mouthpiece on his face has shifted.
Speaking with Roger, even over a Zoom connection, I notice how his voice is even and calm, how his speech is full of thoughtful pauses. Talking to him, I feel my pulse slow, my breathing relax.
Roger retains a sense of calm by avoiding the news blizzard. “It’s just this endless well of information. There’s so much tragedy and sadness. Everybody has to find their safe space,” he says, pointing for example to a unifying Facebook group set up by SLSO musicians.
Roger misses the social aspect of his job. “This orchestra is a surprisingly social one,” he says, attributing its special atmosphere to small backstage quarters and to a lounge where players can congregate.
He also misses “the sound of that energy right around you—people putting their heart and soul into music.” And the SLSO’s weekly journey: “sounding pretty good at first, then getting better and better, then the ‘no stopping’ commitment of the performances.”
Having been swept into “the grey, angry sea,” the protagonist in Schubert’s “Auf dem Strom” looks up to the “gentle radiance” of the stars for hope, “there in the sacred distance.”
For now, Roger says, “instead of being an orchestra, we are just individuals.” But he can look towards the moment when all can gather, “when we will become an orchestra again.”
Tim Munro is the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s Creative Partner. A writer, broadcaster, and Grammy-winning flutist, he lives in Chicago with his wife, son, and badly-behaved orange cat.