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.