Microreview: Minnesota Orchestra, Alpine Symphony

The end of Straussfest ’14 is upon us, and accordingly, here is the last SOTL microreview of October.

The Pioneer Press covered the performance with a 366-word rave; ironically, the Minneapolis Star Tribune was apparently over in St. Paul for this week’s SPCO show. An embarrassment of riches, I guess.

As always, if you went to the performance, or listened online, please leave your thoughts in the comment section!

***

Like last week, the concert began with a piece of chamber music – in this case, Strauss’s Sextet from the opera Capriccio. I love chamber music, and it drives me crazy that orchestra tickets are so much easier to sell. Maybe this format of chamber music in the first half, with a big piece after intermission, gives a taste of the magic, simultaneously introducing the orchestra’s individual players to the audience. I worry a bit about the big shoebox auditorium swallowing the performers, but maybe if you have personalities big enough, you can fill it. Every string player sounded divine, and they all have musical personalities that could fill the entire Minneapolis metro, so no worries there. What warmth, charm, delicious informality.

The slender Serenade for Winds was just as delightful. During last week’s wind piece, I wondered if the hall acoustic and lack of conductor was an impediment. But tonight Edo de Waart was on the podium and there was a tremendous sense of direction and crispness.

The big attraction, though, was of course the Alpine Symphony. To introduce it, horn player Ellen Dinwiddie Smith gave a short verbal preface, unveiled an alphorn, and played a short duet with Bruce Hudson. The informality of this feels like we’re visiting in the musicians’ living room. Can any other major orchestra pull this off?

And what a performance of the Alpine Symphony. The ascent had swagger and jovialty in equal measure. Different sections – so many sections! – darted in and out of the intricate texture, suggesting birds and babbling brooks. The sense of luxuriant relief and awe at the summit was palpable…and it’s hard not to tie those emotions to where the orchestra is today. The storm was fricking terrifying in its swirl of volume and intensity, and I know hearing it on the radio shaved off about ninety-five percent of its impact.

Clearly this is one of those pieces you have to hear live to really experience, and I feel terrible I couldn’t make it.

But maybe you can…

***

338 words. There’s one more performance tonight. Tickets available, as always, at minnesotaorchestra.org.

***

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Microreview: Minnesota Orchestra, Richard Strauss, Death and Transfiguration

This week’s appreciative Minnesota Orchestra concert reviews came courtesy of the Strib and the Pioneer Press, clocking in at 422 and 378 words, respectively. The program at Orchestra Hall was all Richard Strauss: the Suite for Winds, Metamorphosen, Burleske, and Death and Transfiguration. Read on to hear what they sounded like over the radio. And if you were at the concert or listened at home, be sure to leave your thoughts, too!

***

Strauss’s early Suite for Winds sounded light and lovely. Over the radio, certain attacks came across as less than crisp. Whether that was because of the relatively reverberant acoustic, the lack of conductor, or another reason entirely was impossible to tell. It was such a joy to hear our maestro stretching his clarinet muscle with his first-rate wind colleagues: more of this, please!

The Metamorphosen had a more overt sense of direction than the Suite did, perhaps because Osmo was back on the podium. What a haunting late Romantic lament, tipping from bittersweet exultation to luxuriant despair, often in the space of a single winding phrase. Everyone onstage was spilling their heart’s blood; various passages sounded like string screams. I appreciated violist Ken Freed’s heartfelt introduction to the piece. Between the instrumentation and the informal remarks, the first half almost felt like a chamber music pre-concert to the second half. I loved that eclectic vibe. More of this, please!

The mood lightened and broadened after intermission once the full orchestra came onstage. Pianist and Minnesota native Andrew Staupe exploded onto the keyboard in the Burleske, and he navigated the piece’s manifold challenges – from cascading keyboard-smashing passages to delicate dance-like themes – with energy, spunk, and good old-fashioned Minnesotan humility. Despite the piece’s hushed ending, the audience response was wild, with appreciative whoops and hollers galore, all so very well-deserved. More Andrew Staupe, please!

But without a doubt, Death and Transfiguration was the highlight of the program. First came the heaviness of the opening’s labored breathing, each carefully notated dynamic meticulously observed, ironically making the music feel that much more improvisatory and new. Then came a manic frenzied rebellion, musicians and maestro railing wildly together against death. (For some reason, this orchestra is hugely effective railing against death…) The ultimate transfiguration seemed to float, buoyant with the ecstasy of artistic accomplishment. And as the piece whispered its conclusion, even over the radio, you could hear the sound ring – then evaporate into the hall, testament to a breathless performance and rapt audience.

More of…well, everything, please!

***

344 words.

Normally this is the space in the microreview where I tell you, go buy tickets for tonight’s performance!, but unfortunately there are no more performances; if you missed it, you missed it.

However, there’s still one more opportunity to join in the Straussfest fun, so buy your tickets here. There are still a handful left, and wouldn’t it be nice to close the festival out with a sold-out hall? I highly doubt you’re going to be disappointed.

***

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Microreview: Minnesota Orchestra, Richard Strauss, Don Quixote

I need a coat nowadays when I go outside, and we all know what that means:

The Minnesota Orchestra subscription series has begun.

Therefore: it’s Microreview Time!

For those of you who are new (and quite a lot of you are, so hey!), a Microreview is a type of entry I write on Saturday morning after listening to the MPR broadcast of the previous night’s Minnesota Orchestra’s subscription concert, with a word count equal to or lesser than that week’s newspaper review. Microreviews are meant to hone my short writing skills, provide an alternative perspective to the official critics, promote the official critics, and frankly to provide filler when I’m too busy to write my traditionally novel-length articles on other topics. *thumbs up* Readers are welcome to contribute their own thoughts or Microreviews.

This week’s program was the opening to the Strauss Oktoberfest. Tony Ross the Boss starred in Don Quixote, with the Dance of the Seven Veils and the Suite from Der Rosenkavalier after intermission; the only review in the metro this week came from Rob Hubbard over at the Pioneer Press, and clocked in at 355 words.

***

The beating heart of the Minnesota Orchestra’s program this week was Don Quixote, the story of the original tilt-er-at-windmills. This orchestra excels at conveying narrative, and that strength was put to fabulous use here. DQ felt less like a tone poem and more like a one-act instrumental opera. At the Adventure of the Windmills, you could practically see Don Quixote lunging about with his lance. “The victorious struggle against the army of the great emperor Alifanfaron) [actually a flock of sheep]” variation cracked me up with its juxtaposition of heroic theme with rambling brass bleating. Tom Turner portrayed to perfection the earnest squire Sancho Panza, especially in his recurring and-that’s-that up-and-down arpeggio. The Ride in the Air was fricking airborne. The death scene was genuinely haunting, even after all the comedy that preceded it. And through it all, Tony navigated the multitude of mood changes with honesty and aplomb. Given that this is less a cello concerto than an orchestral showpiece, I wonder if the best performances might come not from traveling soloists, but rather from principals who know their band. This performance bore out the hypothesis; it was certainly one of the best I’ve ever heard.

Tom and Tony

Tom and Tony

After the heart of Don Quixote, the delicious corny schmaltz of Dance of the Seven Veils and Der Rosenkavalier felt…odd. I might have tweaked the program order. Salome’s dance was masterfully done. There was one marvelously performed skittering pianissimo string passage in particular that just made my violin-loving heart marvel. The Suite from Der Rosenkavalier started off with a few dance-heralding blasts in a tempo brisker than I’ve heard before; I loved it. Since the Mahler performance, I’ve been thinking about sarcasm in performance. I heard a bit of it here. Not in the slow tender heartbreaking moments, but in the more…decadent portions. The snarky vibe might have come partly from the fabulously flexible tempos; Andrew Litton and his players milked those for all they were worth, and to glorious effect.

In conclusion, I hadn’t realized how badly my life needed Erin Keefe playing vaguely snarky waltz solos.

***

347 words!

There’s still one more performance left tonight at eight, and I recommend you take advantage of it. As always, tickets at minnesotaorchestra.org.

Edit at 3:30pm: And if you’re interested, here’s the Strib review, which was published after mine.

***

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Doug Hertz Takes On The Crazy People

It is becoming increasingly clear that the power players in the Atlanta Symphony lockout are the members of the Woodruff Arts Center (WAC) board. This impression was solidified once former ASO CEO Stanley Romanstein resigned and it was revealed that the interim CEO would have no role in negotiations. Nowadays it’s all Woodruff, all the time.

During the upheaval of the past few weeks, I’ve been chatting online with disgruntled Atlanta patrons. Lately we’ve been wondering who the Richard Davis / Jon Campbell equivalent is over at the WAC.

Well, good news: We Found Him!

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Naked Nymphs and the Atlanta Symphony

A provocatively titled blog post made the rounds the other day: “Maybe Atlanta Symphony Should Lock Out Its Marketing Department Instead.” It included a link to the Atlanta Symphony brochure for the ill-fated 2014-2015 season. I clicked it, thinking to myself, well, it can’t be any weirder than the Dallas Symphony’s Beefcake Beethoven -

And then mid-thought this loaded.

aso brochure 1

 

Holy -

Holy wow.

I might as well warn you: I’m gonna talk about naked people now. So if you’ve got a problem with reading about naked people, I’ll catch you later, once I start writing about 990s again.

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Review: Minnesota Orchestra, Alisa Weilerstein in Barber, Mahler

As the house lights dimmed in Orchestra Hall on Sunday afternoon, I relaxed into the thought: when I write my next entry, I can focus on the musicI won’t need to write about barn-burning musician speeches, a defiant audience Euro-clapping and waving Finnish flags, or recurring flashbacks about being on the wrong side of the shrubbery. Instead, I’ll be able to write about how our Minnesota Orchestra performed Mahler and Barber.

That is as it should be. That feels good.

And so it is that Minneapolis is gradually acclimating to life post-lockout. We’re like a man who has been in a terrible car crash, gingerly testing out each arm and leg, finding that each limb is still (somehow) in working order. We’re a little bruised and battered. But still whole. And blessed with a whole new appreciation for life, and a whole new sense of purpose, direction, and focus.

The Minnesota Orchestra’s 2014-2015 season opening concert was marketed as a celebration of resurrection, but it was also a paean to ambition. A mere Mahler 2 wasn’t enough for Osmo and his musicians, so they also programmed the Barber cello concerto, one of the most difficult pieces ever written for that instrument. After our long musical drought, this two-and-a-half-hour concert felt like Thanksgiving dinner after a long fast. Trust me, our ears gorged on this music.

Superstar Alisa Weilerstein was the soloist. After he was commissioned to write a concerto for cellist Raya Garbousova, Samuel Barber told her to play her repertoire for him. He was obviously impressed with what he heard. Garbousova and Barber were in close contact during the concerto’s composition, exchanging ideas and inspiration. In a canon that skews so heavily male (Fun Factoid!: the works of Beethoven are performed more often than the works of all women composers combined), I cherish these stories of strong women who shaped our repertoire.

Alisa Weilerstein is the archetype of a strong woman. She is a force of nature – a pagan high priestess – a warrior cello Athena. She tore into the ferocious solo part with equal parts fire and grace, the white hot intensity of her concentration blinding. One moment she was crouching over her cello, listening intently with her ear tilted down. The next she was rolling her head back to watch Erin’s bow, Osmo’s hand – then abruptly lurching forward again to attack another triple stop, another sky-high broken arpeggio. There were a few brief scattered moments where I felt orchestra and soloist weren’t completely synched – Weilerstein’s approach to rhythm might be a bit…impulsive? – but she can carry it off, and if anything, her freedom just added drama to the performance. The third movement in particular was wildly virtuosic, completely impossible, breathtakingly death-defying, a fast unicycle ride on a high wire. It the classiest, brainiest, most exhilarating curtain-raiser imaginable. Next time she comes to town, you simply must go.

Then after intermission came Mahler 2. (Like I said, we were gorging.)

There is a famous old story of Mahler and Sibelius discussing the role of the symphony. Sibelius appreciated the genre’s “profound logic and inner connection.” Mahler disagreed: he said that “A symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.”

As we all know, Osmo’s calling card is Sibelius. (Rightly so.) And yet – somehow – his interpretive gifts serve both Sibelius and Mahler brilliantly. Osmo excels at immediately grasping the geography of a piece, no matter how complicated. He’s a perfectionist, but he somehow never gets caught in the weeds. He coaxes the most extraordinary superhuman dynamics from his players. He is honest; he is plainspoken; he abhors artifice. All of those strengths are what make his Sibelius so special.

And here’s the interesting thing: they’re also the strengths that make his Mahler so special, too. And by special, I mean “really really special.” And by really really special, I mean “holy crap, I think we have a Mahler conductor and orchestra on our hands.”

From the very first tremolo, it was clear that Osmo and his band were going to twist the Intensity Knob up to “Batshit Crazy.” And so accordingly, on the very first page, while attacking the growling cello part, principal Tony Ross had a Tony Ross String Incident (TM). Wasting no time whatsoever, he whipped his cello around like it was his dance partner, suddenly had a new C-string in his hand, silently re-tuned, then jumped back in with both feet, no fear, no timidity whatsoever. I mention it because the incident encapsulated the attitude of the whole performance: Let’s just go for it.

Tony’s passion set the bar for intensity. And it was a bar every exhausted musician met again, and again, and again. (Remember, this was their third performance in as many days.) The first movement chromatic death motif was haunting – it turned my stomach – and whenever it found its way into the bass registers, it shook our very seats. The fierce col legno clattering of bow wood on strings brought to mind dancing skeletons. Now and then ethereal moments of hope or even heroism peaked through the texture – rising chords in the brass, the pluck of harp strings, wistful lines in the winds – but they were invariably submerged or absorbed by shifting keys or orchestration. Osmo looked like a traffic cop up there, directing the various piano, mezzoforte, forte lines crossing and intersecting, rising, falling, all the while sculpting, molding, the results, revealing details previously buried away in the labyrinthine tangle of a score.

After the movement seemed to have exhausted itself, a wary peace seemed to descend…

And then, with a jab of Osmo’s hand, an anguished trumpet wail smeared a half-tone down. The following mechanical staccato triplets in the strings made it feel as if the very ground had fallen out from beneath us – and the nearly silent pizzicatos after that thudded like handfuls of dirt thrown onto a coffin.

Devastating.

The simple second movement is a Ländler, an elegant country dance. I’d always thought of it as a rather slow and gentle piece of music, ostensibly meant to contrast with all the death and destruction that has preceded it. Wikipedia says it’s an evocation of happy times in the life of the deceased. But this ländler felt like something different. Yes, it was slow and gentle, but it also had a sinister edge to it, intensified by dynamics one had to strain to hear, as well as rocking phrasing that hit on the rhythms just a tad too hard for a traditional ländler. Melody lines that sound merely lovely in other interpretations came across here as (subtly) sassy double entendres, as bitter muttered inside jokes. And this slightly surly attitude just served to intensify the more outright sarcasm of the third movement. Rolling themes whirled from section to section, showcasing each, constantly changing form, reinventing themselves, unfurling from corner to corner of the stage. It really is an experience to hear a Mahler symphony done live by a major orchestra; Sunday afternoon I realized yet again how recordings are the equivalent of pencil sketches of oil paintings. Anyone who thinks they can truly absorb music solely through recordings is delusional.

Then. After an hour of stunning instrumental color, came the contrast of a single female voice, singing a simple melody. The soloists were sitting behind the orchestra, and at least from my seat, the ascent of this anonymous human voice came a surprise. I didn’t see her stand or open her mouth; there was just, suddenly…sound. Effortless sound. Hugely moving sound. Human sound. Once that voice arrived, all the performance’s snark and sarcasm collapsed, and the energy came instead from a clear-eyed earnestness.

And so as the afternoon went on, the plot of the symphony slowly began to shed its outer layers of despair, cynicism, and world-weariness. We saw and heard fresh glimpses – suggestions, promises of a mighty world to come – obscured now by aural clouds, by sinister orchestration – then re-announced by bold choruses of horns and strings. The sounds came in waves, pounding then receding, almost like the ocean in La Mer.

The moments in which Osmo cued the offstage horns were particularly breathless: his eloquent hand suspended, just barely trembling. That simple gesture from the podium triggered muted faraway calls in another room, another world.

It took me a long while to figure out how to interpret that wide-ranging sprawl of a last movement. The closest I got to a narrative was imagining it as some kind of secular religious service in which the orchestra, chorus, and audience communally worships Art, or maybe the Art in God. I’m Episcopalian, and our Book of Common Prayer contains services for baptism, marriage, last rites, funerals…ceremonies for birth, love, sickness, and death. Paging through our slim little book, you go from the height of human joy, to the depths of human grief, then back again, all in the course of a few minutes. The symphony’s closing half hour reminded me of that idea – in fact, only made sense to me within the context of that idea: symphony as a form of worship. And so listening, there was more than one moment when I wanted to kneel and bow my head, cross myself, murmur ancient prayers, giving thanks at this sacred altar for blessings received. That impulse of spiritual reverence only strengthened when the hushed tones of the Minnesota Chorale entered. Whenever their voices fell silent, I suddenly realized I hadn’t been breathing, that I had no idea how long they’d been singing. Had it been two minutes? Ten? Sixty? They were transporting.

At the epic ending, voices rose, brass soared, bells clanged. They sounded like a church’s pealing after a war. As the final chords sounded, more than one face sparkled wet with tears of awe and gratitude at the magnificence arrayed before us. Here in a blaze of sonic glory was a fiery world created anew.

Rise again, yes, you will rise again,
My heart, in the twinkling of an eye!
What you have conquered
Will bear you to God!

“It’s so obvious,” a musician told me afterward. “But it doesn’t matter.”

***

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Stanley Romanstein’s Massive Bonuses: 2012 Lockout Edition!

Another week, another string of Atlanta Symphony Orchestra management fails.

As some of you undoubtedly already know, the Atlanta Symphony management has a whole slick webpage devoted to presenting its point of view at http://www.atlantasymphony.org/en/2014musiciantalks.aspx. It was the website they directed their Facebook users to, until the moderator on their Facebook page had a public meltdown and shut down all interaction with and between patrons. And that unusual tactic…………worked, if by “worked” you mean “made September 2014 this blog’s biggest month ever, surpassing the busiest months of the Minnesota Orchestra lockout.”

A lady is discreet about her page views

A lady is discreet about her exact number of page views, but you get the gist

In any case, on said slick webpage, management prominently advertises this email address: ASOQuestions@woodruffcenter.org. Implication: if you have ASO Questions…you should write this address.

And as you can imagine, I have Questions!

So on September 8, I sent off an email to ASOQuestions@woodruffcenter.org to ask if a more recent 990 form was available, and if not, when it would be released…

 

Hi ASO Questions:

As a lover of orchestral music who survived the hell that was the Minnesota Orchestra lockout, I have an acute interest when I see work stoppages at American orchestras. I would like to know when the next Woodruff Arts Center 990 will be coming out, and where I can get copies. I was extremely discouraged to see Dr. Romanstein’s bonus and incentive compensation in past 990s, and I would like to know what kinds of bonuses and incentive compensation Romanstein has received since the first lockout.
A friendly word of warning to whoever is manning this address: 2014 is not 2012.
With best wishes for the long-term artistic and financial health of your organization,
Emily E Hogstad

As you can imagine, the ASO immediately sent a long email openly and warmly addressing all of my concerns, and we all lived happily ever after.

Haha, just kidding. Actually, they never replied, as evidenced by this screenshot.

haha-no-answer

 

So, having run up against that brick wall, I encouraged some friends to write, too. They sent very innocent, mildly phrased questions about ticket policy in case of concert cancellation, giving no indication they were connected with me. And surprise surprise, none of them ever heard back, either. If you’ve been lucky enough to get a reply from the ASO Questions address, please do say something in the comments. But in the absence of additional evidence, I’m guessing that emails sent here are not being answered – or, at the very least, that a large percentage are not being answered. Which begs the question why the address is there in the first place. ASOQuestions@woodruffcenter.org appears to be the nonprofit equivalent of a false storefront.

It actually took an Atlanta Symphony chorus member friend posting on Facebook to clue me in that the document I was looking for – the 990 for the fiscal year spanning June 2012 to May 2013 – has just been posted on guidestar.org. Yep, that’s right: I found the information I was seeking about the Woodruff Arts Center through musician supporters, not the Woodruff Arts Center. I think that might say something.

There’s probably a lot of fun stuff in there; you can check it out for yourself. But I immediately scrolled down to page 34, because after writing an earlier popular entry on ASO administrative bonuses, I was curious to see if the Atlanta Symphony CEO had taken a bonus during the actual fiscal year of the 2012 lockout. (Remember, the previous incentive pay / bonuses that I wrote about were awarded during the run-up to the lockout.)

Lo and behold…

more bonuses

Stanley Romanstein, base compensation of $317,347, other compensation of $1945, deferred compensation of $13,358, nontaxable benefits of $16,704, and…

Bonus / incentive pay of $45,000.

tumblr_inline_mz3odvqgJj1rqo3at

And remember, this bonus was awarded in the same fiscal year that the ASO locked its players out.

I’m gonna be a broken record here, but: bonus or incentive pay for what? Is the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, in conjunction with the Woodruff Arts Center, incentivizing lockouts, incentivizing failure? One’s inner conspiracy theorist has to wonder, is failure the ultimate goal here? Tear down the existing structure, then build a new one, suited to one’s own peculiar ideological purposes, or to cover up past broader failures, or both…the desires of other stakeholders and the broader community be damned?

In Dr. Stanley Romanstein PhD’s case, perhaps this means creating something akin to the Atlanta Chamber Music Players, since he is cheerfully advertising the fact that he wants to have sole control over whether or not departing or retiring players should be replaced. I am not joking. In case you fear I’m a hysterical armchair analyst, here’s an excerpt from an article that appeared on accessatlanta.org called “Orchestra’s size resonates as big issue in Atlanta Symphony dispute“:

At issue is a management proposal in which ASO president and CEO Stanley Romanstein would negotiate with music director Robert Spano and Players Association representatives on whether and how positions would be filled as they come open. In cases where a consensus could not be reached, Romanstein would have the final say.

My bold.

And the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra is advertising this article on its aforementioned slick website! So it’s not like they’re ashamed of their plans or anything.

highlighted

 

If this kind of crazy raises your hackles, you’re not alone. Save Our Symphony Minnesota [edit: and Save Our Symphony Detroit; a pretty major oversight on my part for not acknowledging them in the original post!! forgive me! - E] have recently welcomed an unofficial sister organization into the world: Save Our Symphony Atlanta. Like them on Facebook here to keep track of their rabble-rousing and explosive growth. In less than a week, they’ve garnered nearly over 7000 supporters on Facebook alone.

If it wasn’t obvious before now, it’s now clear: the Atlanta Symphony and the Woodruff Arts Center are now fighting a two-front war: one on their musicians, and another on their patrons.

In logical times, you wouldn’t attack your own patrons. But these are not logical times.

***

 

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The Atlanta Symphony Facebook Page Loses It

A gut-wrenching thing is happening to the Atlanta Symphony.

And I’m not talking about the second musician lockout in two years, that looks set to deprive the Southeastern United States of great orchestral music for months, if not years, to come.

No, I’m talking about the fact that Atlanta Symphony CEO Dr. Stanley Romanstein PHD is being forced to endure people saying negative things about him on the Atlanta Symphony’s Facebook page…simply because he took home obscene bonuses in the years before the first lockout started.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s back up a couple of days.

On midnight of the night of September 6-7, the musicians’ contract expired.

On September 8 came an Atlanta Symphony Orchestra status update:

We really enjoyed having Joshua Bell in Symphony Hall in May.

… O…kay?

tumblr_minh27MLaM1renhw4o3_500

As my friend and fellow symphonic rabble rouser Amy Adams observed: “That is indeed a wonderful thing to share from months ago. ANY OTHER MAJOR NEWS TO SHARE?”

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Review: Minnesota Orchestra and Renee Fleming, September 2014

Last year I and a couple hundred others showed up outside a glitzy event at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis: the famous Symphony-less Symphony Ball. The Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra had been locked out for nearly a year, but the leadership wanted to throw a gala fundraiser anyway. The musicians weren’t invited. Nor was the music director. So a group of us got together to point out that this was, y’know, kind of insane.

I chose to wear evening dress (albeit with leg warmers, two layers of socks, and long underwear). After I got dressed, a friend brought me to the hall, and my mom and I walked around the block, taking in the scene. A large crowd had already gathered around Peavey Plaza, which looked like a combination circus, prison, and ShopKo garden center. There were tents, guards, and shrubberies… – 24 September 2013

Slide forward fifty-odd weeks. Mom and I were dropped off by the same friend in front of the same hall. It was the same time of year. I wore the same glamorous dress, albeit without the bulky layers underneath. But this time, we were invited, the guards had disappeared, and the shrubbery now existed only in our memories. September 2013: musicians locked out, music director uninvited, guards posted outside the lobby glowering at patrons, a band of women shaking their fringed costumes the only musical attraction within. September 2014: the Starry Starry Night gala fundraiser, musicians back onstage, Osmo directing and schmoozing in the lobby, no less than superstar Renee Fleming commanding the stage in a haze of golden tulle.

It was surreal. Two vastly differently realities in the same place, less than a year apart. All night I felt like I was slipping back and forth between the two realities, the present and the past.

*

First on the program to this gala concert was the Overture from Maskerade by Nielsen. Osmo strode onstage, turned his back on the hollering audience and raised his arms, simply unable to contain his eagerness to embrace the music. And just like that, we were off. Their tempo was just a hair too fast, a hair too dangerous, and it was glorious. Pianissimo string crossings in the violins were backed by little upward blips from the woodwinds, sounding like a group of happy, and slightly tipsy, revelers. When the whole orchestra came whirling back in, triumph in giddy full voice, it was impossible not to grin in wonder.

The Strand Settings for soprano and orchestra by Anders Hillborg were being played Friday night for the first time outside of New York. They were cloudy, misty, ethereal – strange and dreamy – celestial. Fleming’s voice floated through the hall above the cushion of sounds, weightless, piercing silver through all the instrumental shimmer. Some portions brought to mind the feelings of awe one might feel alone in the dark of the night in the countryside, endless black sky-scrape spread above, distant stars twinkling. Other portions were much earthier, recalling a memory of jazz, or maybe a Bernstein musical: bass thumping as the commanding female voice soared above it all. My thoughts lately have gravitated toward death and rebirth, toward angels. Friday night Renee Fleming was one.

*

After Osmo’s resignation, when it seemed likely if not certain that the Minnesota Orchestra as we knew it was dead, in desperate hope I wrote an entry where I copy/pasted the story of the Firebird:

The Firebird is known to many as the Phoenix. It is a mythical bird that lives in five hundred year cycles, which is able to regenerate from injury and is therefore, immortal. With plumage of red and gold that illuminates its flight, the Phoenix is as much a symbol of divinity as it is of fire and many legendary tales have evolved around its existence. Its most spoken about quality, that has inspired stories of encouragement or been compared to adversities that have been overcome, is that the Phoenix, nearing the end of its life cycle, builds a nest where he sets himself and the nest on fire. From the ashes left behind, a young Phoenix rises, to take the place of the older…

The glow from the Firebird’s feather was powerful enough to light up an entire room. It is also believed to bring hope and relief to the suffering and in need, and one story in particular tells of pearls falling from the Firebird’s beak to the peasants below, for them to trade for food…

Over the ages, the Phoenix, or Firebird, has inspired many artists, such as Igor Stravinsky, who in 1910 immortalized the legend of the Firebird, in his ballet score of the same name. From being a symbol of doom to hope, the Firebird’s rise from its ashes has given many the inspirations to rebuild their lives and to believe that there is light in even their darkest moments. The Firebird holds a sacred place in the folklore of Russia, as a creature that is in itself as much of a mystery as the legendary tales. – 6 October 2013

*

The Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana always risks sinking into shlock. But Osmo doesn’t do shlock. Instead, he crafts long lines to make warhorses feel suddenly, miraculously, new. Their performance was so tender and intimate I almost felt uncomfortable: it was a private love note between maestro and musicians, and an acknowledgement of all they have endured together.

But before the mood of tenderness had entirely evaporated, came the determined roil of the Overture to La forza del destino, and suddenly the tenderness was a mere memory. Now came muscular brass and flashy Italian spunk, and violins chattering repeated phrases high in their register, like gossipy Italian divas.

This orchestra can cover the full gamut of human emotion with a panache no other ensemble can muster.

*

Renee Fleming came out for her second act sporting a massive blue gown. In front of the podium sprawled a white bouquet. Surely this was planned: a not-so-subtle shout-out to the Minnesota Orchestra’s new colors, blue and white, shades of Osmo’s Finnish flag, the colors of the Minnesota audience rebellion. The beauty of “O mio babbino caro” garnered murmuring appreciative applause; the flirty sauce of “Ier della fabbrica a Triana,” from Conchita laughs and happy clapping.

After lovingly sung accounts of Somewhere and I Feel Pretty came a surprise encore. We all knew there would be an encore – we’re talking about Renee Fleming, after all! – but those of us expecting a classic opera aria were surprised.

“I want to honor you for taking care of this brilliant orchestra, treasuring this orchestra,” Renee said, to wild applause. She then went on to explain that her encore would come from Bernstein’s (legendary flop) 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and that in its original setting, the song was about taking care of the White House. But in this context, in this night, she meant for it to be about taking care of “this incredible institution and treasuring it in the future and always.”

Oooooooookay, I think most of us thought, but we applauded enthusiastically nonetheless.

Then she sang, and her and Osmo’s intent became crystal clear:

Take care of this house / Keep it from harm / If bandits break in, sound the alarm – be always on call / for this house is the home of us all.

My jaw dropped at the ballsiness of it. From now on, every piece played in Minnesota will have double meanings for those who seek to find them.

*

The evening’s great showpiece was The Pines of Rome by Respighi. In another context its triumphant bombast might sound insincere: not here, not tonight, oh no. You would never guess this was an orchestra that stared death in the face and walked away. Every player worked together to create a whole even greater than the sum of its fabulous parts; sixteen months apart in 2012-14 had done nothing to mute their chemistry. Greg Williams knocked it out of the park with his earthy – yet otherworldly – clarinet solos. Kathy Kienzle sparkled on the harp. Erin Keefe and Tony Ross enthusiastically shared gorgeous lines together; they strike me as being musical siblings, both embracing grit and passion in equal measure in their music-making. Respighi meant the famous final movement to be a portrait of the ancient Roman army advancing, but I couldn’t help but think of the city of Minneapolis taking up their symbolic arms to fight against the destruction of their beloved orchestra. First the musicians had spoken: a clear, firm, but quiet voice. Then their listeners spread the message to their friends and family. Then a slow but steady crescendo of people from all around the world raised their voices in all manner of ways, drawing a firm line in the sand: here is Minnesota. Managements can approach the line without going over it, a la the Met. Or they can even approach the line and go over it, a la Atlanta. But the line is there. And in future, managements will cross it at their peril.

*

After the concert, suddenly a dear beautiful face from the past appeared. Screams from each of us, then a hug and tears of joy and triumph, spinning round and round. I had not seen her for two years; she has been in California. But she came back home for this concert, The lockout made us sisters.

Before the show, I met up with a brand new friend I’d met online. (Making connections with dozens of wonderful people has been one of the few silver linings in a very cloudy sky.) Within the blink of an eye, we were chatting as if we’d known each other all our lives. Such connections don’t happen very often in a lifetime… Together we earnestly discussed the wonderful ensemble and the terrible situation that had brought us together. “This isn’t just an attack on this orchestra,” she said. “This is an attack on beauty! And I will not stand for it!” – 22 October 2012

Together we all celebrated very late into the night, well aware we’re living as close to a happy ending as real life can provide. Let us put this lockout nonsense behind us, embracing the lessons it taught us, embracing the connections it fostered between us, and work toward an even brighter day.

***

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Stanley Romanstein’s Massive Bonuses

I haven’t spent much time digging into the Atlanta Symphony cluster**** yet because this weekend I was in the Twin Cities celebrating. Thanks to two solid years of hard work by many hundreds of people, combined with copious amounts of luck and an extensive housecleaning at the top of the organization, the Minnesota Orchestra is finally turning a corner. It’s an unqualified miracle. On Saturday I was in the midst of a midnight conversation over ice cream with some dear lockout friends, sitting outdoors under the sparkling moon and laughing, feeling profoundly profoundly grateful for everything, when one of my fellow activist audience members pulled out her phone, checked Facebook, and read the Atlanta Musicians’ press release. We’d all known it was coming, but it didn’t make it any easier. Our smiles faded, and expletives were uttered, loudly. It was the only asterisk of unpleasantness in an otherwise magical weekend of celebration.

So I read what I could between parties, and have been trying to get up to speed today. Because I’m invested in this thing – and if you love orchestras, you should be, too. The Atlanta musicians’ fight is our fight, just transplanted to a different city, like some kind of dangerous airborne mold spore, or maybe an STD. As it was in Minnesota, Facebook is turning out to be an invaluable clearinghouse of information that is often more detailed and more valuable than the “he said, she said” summary of events in traditional print media. My friend and Save Our Symphony Minnesota volunteer Elizabeth Erickson advised in a comment to a post on the Atlanta musicians’ Facebook page, “Yes, start digging for financial dirt… Get pro bono lawyers and accountants on board to review 990 tax info; be vocal about what you find…” Yup. And under the Atlanta musicians’ Facebook page, under a link to Kevin Case’s recent excellent article, Kathy Shaw Amos wrote a comment about bonuses.

My eyebrows immediately raised. Bonuses to a CEO of a financially troubled orchestra right before a brutal musician lockout? This movie played for a while in Minnesota. And if I’m remembering correctly, it didn’t end well…for the CEO.

So I took the, y’know, two minutes it takes to fire up Guidestar.org, download some Woodruff Arts Center documents, and check to see if Kathy Shaw Amos was right. Two minutes I’m assuming the non-blogging media should have, which they apparently don’t. Did nobody learn from Minnesota that the first step is always the 990s? The first step is always the 990s. Check the first one out here, and scroll down to page 40.

At the top of the form, you can see that the Woodruff Arts Center fiscal years start on June 1st and end on May 31st. The most recent form available dates from the year extending from 1 June 2011 to 31 May 2012. The Atlanta musicians’ lockout occurred in the autumn of 2012, when ours did. So this is all pre-lockout.

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Click to enlarge.

What this says is that Dr. Stanley Romanstein, the Atlanta Symphony President, took home $335,344 in base compensation, with a $45,000 “bonus and incentive” compensation, plus $26,403 in untaxable benefits, bringing his compensation that year to $406,747. That begs the question: bonus and incentive compensation for what? It would be one thing to hand out bonuses to executives who are leading orchestras in good shape, but not ones so fiscally and morally dysfunctional they’re about to lock out the creators of their product.

For those of you who are just joining us, I asked similar questions back in October 2013, when I found that former Minnesota Orchestra CEO Michael Henson took home $619,313 in compensation, including two separate $100k bonuses meant for fiscal years 2011 and 2012. This scandal turned into what we in the Minnesota scene ended up calling “Bonusgate.” The Minnesota Orchestral Association tried, but ultimately failed, to suppress community outcry. It was one of the major developments that eroded donors’ trust in Henson so severely that a mere six months later he…..”resigned.” By the end of his tenure, he was unable to attend a Minnesota Orchestra concert without hearing pissed-off patrons yelling before performances, “Fire Henson!” It got to the point where I heard rebellious Minnesota audiences joking about whether or not it was legal to “yell fire Henson in a crowded auditorium.” (Heh.) Is this the kind of impotence that Stanley Romanstein aspires to? Or is he just hoping that Georgian audiences are dumber than Minnesotans?

So back to Atlanta. Other management members took home bonuses that year, too. Clayton Schell, currently the Vice President of ASO Presents according to the Atlanta Symphony website, took home a $20,000 bonus that year. Michael Shapiro, the Director of the High Museum of Art, took home a $30,000 bonus, pushing his total compensation to the low $700,000s. (The High Museum of Art and the Atlanta Symphony are connected via the Woodruff Arts Center.)

Will these bonuses mean the difference between a deficit and a surplus, between fiscal strength and weakness? Well, no. Do I begrudge these folks their bonuses? Well, not…automatically. But as we saw in Minnesota, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Bonuses being tossed out so liberally by a non-profit as its orchestra is running massive deficits and contemplating locking out its employees certainly suggests that Hey, Y’Know, There Might Be More To This Story! And troublingly, that “more” might not show up in the 990s. Bonuses in times of financial trouble also bring up legitimate questions about the wisdom of the Woodruff’s and the ASO’s expenditures. Are bonuses for an orchestra CEO really the most responsible use for that particular $45,000? Is giving the CEO bonuses and incentive pay really the best way to advance the mission of the organization? My trust in this leadership team is eroding rapidly. And as we in Minnesota know, when the public can no longer trust a non-profit to wisely carry out its mission, said non-profit is doomed, until its course changes. New business model, old business model, “contemporary operating model”: Minnesota proved that no model can be successful without trust and transparency between all stakeholders.

I’d like to stop there, but unfortunately, the craziness continues. Jump back another year to find even more bonus insanity. This comes from the fiscal year lasting from 1 June 2010 and ending 31 May 2011. (Check out page 31.) There are bonuses sprinkled throughout, but notice Dr. Romanstein’s special accomplishment:

bonus2

Yes, he was apparently sooo amazing at running an orchestra in crisis that he earned $75,000 in bonus or incentive pay!

Go, Stanley!

And then, as the info-mercials say: but wait, there’s more!

Yes, back in the pre-Romanstein days, in the fiscal year lasting from 1 June 2009 to 31 May 2010, former Atlanta CEO Allison Vulgamore took home $169,101…in incentive and bonus compensation alone. Her total compensation that year totaled nearly $600,000. Check out page 28. Perhaps this had something to do with the fact her tenure was ending, but…I don’t really care. It’s still a bonus. Paid to a CEO. Leading an orchestra. That was in such dire straits. That a few years later. It purportedly had no other choice. But to lock out its players.

Gah.

(I guess we should be grateful the direction of the bonuses are gradually trending downward…?)

Hey, Woodruff, ASO management. As Jon Stewart would say, meet me at camera three.

Here’s my question:

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What the HELL, guys? Are you running a non-profit or a shell corporation with an in-house orchestra? What are these bonuses for? Why were they given? How could Stanley Romanstein accept them in good conscience, knowing it was possible – if not likely – that he would be locking out his players in a few months’ time? Does your entire board know about them? Do your audiences know about them? Do your donors know about them? How did these bonuses advance the mission of your organization? What kinds of bonuses are you paying Stanley Romanstein nowadays? As you were preparing for your second lockout in as many years, did you happen to glance to the north and see that these kinds of tactics got the organization nowhere? Are you consciously modeling your strategy after the one that failed so miserably in Minnesota (if so, WHY?), or are you just so dangerously oblivious you haven’t noticed the similarities?

If Stanley Romanstein and the leaders of the ASO and the Woodruff can’t answer these questions, they are not worthy of leading one of this country’s great orchestras. But judging by what they’re saying to the press now, it will likely take the determined long-term hammering of a lot of music lovers before they get the message.

Check out the Atlanta Symphony Musicians website, like them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter. Share the news with your friends and family. Just as our fight was theirs, theirs is ours.

And as always, follow the money.

***

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