Just because I like to have everything in one place, I’m going to post a series of reviews I wrote last year.
Some violinists dream of debuting at Carnegie Hall. My wildly improbable violin-dream consists of organizing The Greatest Summer Music Festival of All Time ©. Whenever I’m stressed out and in need of distraction, I throw wild impractical idea upon wild impractical idea until I have my own personal Tanglewood or Ravinia or Aspen going on in the back of my brain.
I had the basics of my fantasy worked out by the age of thirteen. I would place my festival south of the Twin Cities in one of the charming rivertowns along the Mississippi River. All of these towns – Hastings, Red Wing, Maiden Rock, Stockholm, Lake City, Wabasha, Alma, Winona – are gorgeous little undiscovered gems along the necklace of the river, crammed bluff to bluff with stately old houses and shady streets. They would be the perfect spot for a summer festival, right between Minneapolis and Chicago. (The Minnesota Orchestra once contemplated building a summer home south of the metro before Sommerfest came into existence, so it’s not a new idea.) I would set it in July, smack-dab in the middle of the summer, and it would last for at least two weeks, with three concerts a week. I’d have at least one concert free and outdoors and open to the public. The rates otherwise would be awesomely reasonable. I’d scout out the greatest venues, acoustically and aesthetically. The festival would feature primarily chamber music, but I’d bring in the Minnesota Orchestra for the festival opener or closer; I haven’t decided yet which. (Um, Osmo Vanskä and I are still talking it over…in my mind.) And this is the best part – I will somehow gain access to the greatest classical artists of our time, and for some reason, they will come. They will love my festival. They will clamber to be a part of it. So, to sum up this strange dream, I want to be the sober person dressed in black who comes up to the microphone before every performance, politely reminds people to turn off their cell phones, and points out errors in the program notes before ceding the stage. It’s a pretty strange dream to have. Especially for a thirteen-year-old.
So you can imagine my total shock when I heard about the Minnesota Beethoven Festival in Winona, Minnesota. It goes from the tail end of June to the middle of July. Each concert is held in a lovely venue, ranging in size from a tiny 1912 high school concert hall to modern middle school or college auditoriums. It lasts for a little over two weeks, with three concerts a week. The tickets are $25 a concert for an adult, $17 for a student. There is one orchestral pops outdoors, free of charge. All concerts are in beautiful Winona, two and a half hours south of the Twin Cities. The Minnesota Orchestra closes every season. And the greatest classical artists of our time clamber to come to it. This year alone they are featuring Midori, the Miró Quartet, and Yo-Yo Ma, among others. And they only began in 2007. The only problem is, I’m not the sober person dressed in black who politely reminds people to turn off their cell phones. Well, maybe I can still start my own festival someday. In the meantime I’m more than happy to take the ninety minute drive to Winona to see some world-class music.
I went to my first concert of the season on July eighth – the Miró Quartet, playing three Beethoven quartets, the last of which was the 13th quartet, which features the massive Grosse Fugue. (Several months ago, the day single tickets came on sale, I tried to get tickets to see Yo-Yo Ma, but their website crashed thirty seconds into the ordering process. I barely got tickets for the Miró and the Minnesota Orchestra. Such is the price of having such a great festival: audience demand is huge.) The concert was held in the lovely St. Cecilia Theater, which is a high school auditorium from 1912 that seats maybe 150 people. I was high in the balcony in the back and I only had a partial view, so my tickets ended up being half-price ($8.50 for a student). Thankfully some of the people who had bought tickets never showed up, so right before the concert started the audience shifted toward the center of the balcony so we could see better. By the time the concert started, I had a wonderful view of the cellist and violist, and if I craned my neck I could see the violinists.
From the very first downbeat, I was reminded all over again of the most important facet of performing with others: communication, communication, communication. Watching the Mirówas just a master class in communication. They were all extremely comfortable with the repertoire, and so they were free to watch each other just as much as they were watching the notes on their stand. A quick breath – a lift of the eyebrows – a gentle sway or bow – an almost imperceptible turn toward the audience – all of the subtle little actions that help an ensemble stay in tune and in time.
Their Beethoven was warm and intense, smooth and golden, with just a bit of welcome grit in the lower strings. The sound came in waves, especially in the second quartet on the program, the Serioso, with each dynamic marking beautifully and exactly followed, so that nothing was flat or featureless. I am a firm believer that one of the first things that separates a professional sound from an amateur one – aside from good intonation – is dedicated observation of dynamics. And the Miró is sure dedicated to their dynamics. Their fortes came clear up to the top of the balcony, and their pianissimos made everyone lean forward and hold their breath. By the time each movement ended, the whole hall went up in a sound of rustles and coughs; everyone had been dead silent through the performance, and we all felt pinned to our seats, unable to move, until their bows came off their strings. That is always the sign of a great performance – when nobody dares cough or shift position or even breathe, for fear of disturbing that sacred connection between performers and their audiences.
Ten or fifteen years ago, when I knew nothing about the violin, I bought a random CD with a string quartet on the front, because I thought string quartets were pretty and would be nice background music (!). Just to serve me right, the cosmos decided to grant me a disc of Beethoven’s opus 130 (!!). Although it has its pretty moments, the opus 130 quartet decidedly not background music by any stretch of the imagination. After I bought the disc I listened to it a few times but when the track came to the Grosse Fugue, I pressed the back button. I just could not handle it. Thankfully I’ve learned more about music since then, and I’m to the point now where I love violent cacophony, especially in chamber music. So I was eager to really experience and appreciate this piece in-person, after snubbing it so many years ago. I was not disappointed. The opening to the Fugue – those wrenching chords and rhythms that sound just as shocking and contemporary as anything Shostakovich or Prokofiev ever wrote – were delivered by the Miró with all the intense honest drama they deserve, with no hint of showiness or melodrama. As I was sitting there listening to this enormous masterpiece being so splendidly and beautifully interpreted, I got the clichéd “Beethoven chills” that every music-lover gets at some point in their listening career. It was just so incredibly moving to think of him writing out this tangled beast of a score, even though he would never hear it. Did he have any inkling that two hundred – and probably three hundred, and four hundred, and five hundred – years down the line, people would come together at concerts like this one and hear it? And more than hear it, love it? Because surely he knew that it would take many years for this to be fully appreciated, if it would ever be appreciated at all. I am well aware this is not a new or remotely original thought, but it still retains its power, and I know it always will.
It was one of those performances where a few minutes before the end, you could see women across the audience slowly set their purses down on the floor and tuck their programs into the side of the chair. Everyone was just waiting for that final note to erupt so they could jump to their feet, and they didn’t want their purses or programs to be in the way. And jump to our feet we did. I doubt that hundred-year-old auditorium has heard a more enthusiastic ovation. The quartet returned to the stage again and again, all smiles, and as an encore we heard the slow movement from the last piece that Beethoven ever wrote – the string quartet op 135. Which of course got me to having chills all over again. It was just the perfect counterpoint to the fugue, and a wonderful way to end a concert.
I came out into the warm night air totally invigorated and inspired, overwhelmed with gratitude to the Miró and Beethoven and the Minnesota Beethoven Festival. As I got into the car, I thought about how excited I was to rush home and experiment with dynamics. I think that may be the definition of a great performance: one that makes you want to rush home and experiment with dynamics.
I don’t have much time, though, because Tuesday night I’m heading out to see Midori! I’m counting down the days.
So if you live in the upper Midwest – Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison, Minneapolis, St. Paul – next year, you might want to consider coming to Winona. This is a festival that is on its way up in the world, and I can definitely see it taking its rightful place with the great American chamber music festivals. I feel so privileged to watch it take shape. It’s chamber music at the highest possible level – and isn’t that what summer is really all about?