Tag Archives: Minnesota Beethoven Festival

Review: Minnesota Orchestra and Erin Keefe in Beethoven, July 2012

I went to see the Minnesota Orchestra in Winona, Minnesota, yesterday. Things have changed since I saw them there last, in the summer of 2010. To put it bluntly, the musicians’ contracts expire in September, and from the outside, things are looking unnervingly unsettled. The musicians have written a few carefully vague blog entries that include such sentences as “management’s current proposals would seriously diminish the artistic quality of the orchestra in its ability to retain and attract the best musicians possible and, thus, jeopardize its current top-tier status.” The orchestra’s CEO has sent a couple of odd emails to patrons discussing some of the fundraising triumphs of the past season, with a mention at the end that oh, yeah, by the way: “We continue in contract talks with our musicians, hopeful that we will be able to find common ground to resolve our significant financial challenges.” It is tempting, if ultimately futile, to read between those lines. Staff members have been fired; the upcoming season is short and unabashedly unadventurous; Orchestra Hall is in the middle of a major renovation, and everyone is working in temporary spaces. Maybe I’m paranoid, but this feels awfully like the uneasy calm before a storm.

Some people have seized upon the conflict with a kind of ghoulish delight, braying opinions with all the class, subtlety, and intellectual prowess of CNN covering the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act. I understand why: it’s a chance for everyone, no matter how ill-informed (and at this point, just about everyone is ill-informed) to advance their pet theories about why orchestras are doomed. And oh, how people in the classical music biz love debating why orchestras are doomed! Add in a juicy topical debate about the role of unions and the ultra-wealthy in a community’s artistic life, and the topic becomes irresistible. Mix, bake, set out to cool. Serves a savory meal for hundreds of cultural critics – professional, amateur, and those in the gray netherworld in between.

In short, this may become a big story. There is, potentially, a lot at stake.

Only none of us on the outside knows exactly what.

Yet.

So, we wait.

Anyway, those were some of the uplifting thoughts cycling through my head yesterday. I’ve been looking forward to this show since it was announced (especially since the program included the concerto debut of the Orchestra’s new concertmaster Erin Keefe), but there was a part of me that was weirdly hesitant to go. I’m only too aware that, thanks to the abridged season, I’m more than likely not going to see the Orchestra until 2013. (Rather unbelievably, there are only four daytime classical concerts left in 2012, and two of those are holiday performances of Brandenburg concertos and The Messiah…) There’s so much uncertainty in my life right now – personally as well as musically – that at this point, 2013 seems like a distant mirage that might never actually get here. What will transpire in the next six months? As I drove the two hours to Winona, I tried my best to shake the feeling I might be saying a kind of good-bye.

The opening was the Coriolan Overture: dramatic, defiant, burning with a raw, almost sinister power. The sound was savage, striking again and again with brute staccato force. Quiet dolce passages offered no relief from the tension; they only tightened the screws, making the next terrifying forte blast all the more devastating. By the time the quiet, albeit emphatic, pizzes brought the piece to an end, it was clear the artistic gauntlet had been thrown. Top that, was the unspoken insinuation. Clearly, despite (because of?) what’s going on behind closed doors, this is an orchestra that knows exactly what to say and exactly how to say it…maybe now more than ever.

After the fierce overture, Erin Keefe strode onstage looking like a veritable goddess in a violet gown, long pleated skirt pooling at her feet. Not only was this her first time soloing with the Orchestra, it was her first time playing the Beethoven concerto; she learned it specifically for this set of concerts. Although she didn’t look it, I had to wonder if she was, at least on a certain level, terrified. What violinist wouldn’t be? But from the moment those opening octaves pierced the air, it was clear she – and we! – had absolutely nothing to fear.

I’ve never heard the first movement of the Beethoven concerto played with such a striking narrative arc. So often so many passages can feel superfluous, leading to the old “it’s nothing but scales!” complaint – but here every note, every phrase, felt indispensable. Her sound was silvery, her dynamics breathtaking, her Kreisler cadenzas shudderingly bold and fearless. Maybe there was a little fatigue in the second half – or certain places where the sound felt a tad scrunched – or a few barely out of tune notes here and there – but these teensy tiny things were more reassurances of her humanity than actual flaws. Tears ran down my face…tears of joy, sadness, satisfaction, yearning, triumph, defeat, and every irreconcilable emotion in between. When played well, the Beethoven concerto has the power to say everything. And thanks to Erin Keefe and her colleagues in the Orchestra, yesterday, it said everything.

After intermission came the Eroica. This is one of those Beethoven pieces that I like and respect and admire but don’t wholeheartedly love…I’m more of a seventh symphony girl, I guess. But nonetheless, what a transporting joy it was to hear live: the orchestra played with all the tightness, conviction, and fire they’d displayed in the Coriolan. Precision – purpose – boundless, limitless, endless energy - all underlain with a restless, arresting passion that – at least in my listening experience – has never been so potent.

For whatever reason (probably in light of…recent events), throughout the afternoon I was struck by the humanity of the people onstage, and by the individuality of each player. Principal cellist Tony Ross warmed up with the devastating opening of the Elgar concerto. A violinist played through a portion of Dvořák New World over and over (they’re performing it in Minneapolis on Friday). Concertmaster Stephanie Arado mouthed some words to a cellist; he nodded. The air conditioning made a racket in the first half of the program, so it was turned off for the second, resulting in the word going round of “lose the jackets and ties!” Men came back out sporting exposed suspenders and rolled-up cuffs; women took off their white sweaters to reveal short-sleeved shirts and bare arms. Sweaty faces glimmered determined in the lights. In between movements of the Eroica, a violinist’s shoulder rest fell off (I sympathized; it looked like the same model as mine, and golly that thing has a tendency to fall off during the most inconvenient times). Everyone watched the reattachment except for Maestro Vänskä, who stood by impassively, pretending to be lost in abstract contemplation of the music before him, only raising his hands again once the rest was re-secured. At the very end of the show, when Vänskä gave each section the opportunity to stand and receive plaudits from the audience, the musicians gave a resounding congratulatory whoop to the ever under-appreciated violas, in one of the group’s many awesomely orch-dorky traditions.

In short, I remembered how the Minnesota Orchestra is not a monolith, not a hive of mindless worker bees, not a colony of bow-tied ants, no matter how often it can look like it, what with the single-minded discipline and bows moving in breathtaking unison and all. It’s made up of a diverse collection of passionate, obscenely talented, well-rounded individuals. For most of them, merely playing an instrument at the very highest level was not enough. So they also became conductors and writers and competitors and composers and historians and educators and artistic directors…among other things. They are the best of the best the musical world has to offer, and their love of their art serves as an example to the rest of us. May we listeners never take them – or musicians like them – for granted.

The Minnesota Orchestra is clearly in flux. They have a new concertmaster who over the course of the last year has proven herself to be an orchestral musician, chamber player, and soloist of the very first rank. A number of important names from the orchestra roster will not be returning in 2012-13 season. Next year a renovated Orchestra Hall will be opened, and if the renderings are any indication, it will be stunning. There are indications that programming in the future will be…um, different. Eventually, a new contract will be signed. Those five changes are likely just the tip of the iceberg. I have my fingers crossed that throughout all the changes, the glory of the core product remains unaffected. My hoping won’t actually do any good, but whatever. It makes me feel better.

I’m not delusional enough to think that anyone with any power from either “side” in Minneapolis is actually reading the bloggy ramblings of a 23-year-old amateur string-player from Wisconsin, nor am I delusional enough to think that they should. But I do hope that as they make the difficult decisions that lie ahead, they never stop remembering the passion of the people onstage, not even for a moment. If the organization’s plans to “Build for the Future” neglect to harness the musicians’ passion, then those plans aren’t worth making. Simple as that. Passion is an asset no budget can buy, and yesterday afternoon, I realized that we underestimate the power of that passion at our peril.

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Minnesota Orchestra, July 2010

This was an important review for me. It originally appeared on violinist.com here. I fixed some grammatical errors when duplicating it here…I guess I was so excited to post it in July that I neglected to straighten out my sentence structure before clicking “submit.” I’m a bit of a grammar Nazi, so that means I was pretty excited.

This review was also featured in a really sweet entry on the Minnesota Orchestra’s Inside the Classics blog on July 19. Given that I’d admired Mr. Bergman’s writing for a couple years before this review appeared, combined with the fact it appeared on my 21st birthday… Yeah. It was pretty much a perfect (inadvertent) birthday present. It cracks me up that the same time I was pointing his name out to my mom in the program, he was wondering if I was in the audience. Moral of the story: don’t ever hesitate to say hi!

***

So yesterday I went to the last performance of the Minnesota Beethoven Festival featuring the Minnesota Orchestra. After hearing extraordinary concerts by the Miró Quartet and Midori, I confess I didn’t know if the standard of music-making could get much higher.

Well, it did.

Some of you may not be familiar with the Minnesota Orchestra’s work. They don’t get as much buzz as the Chicago Symphony or the California orchestras or the eastern symphonies (New York, Boston, Philadelphia, etc.), but that certainly doesn’t mean they can’t stand comparison with them. Some people consider the Midwest to be an intellectual fly-over zone, where nothing of cultural note or import could possibly happen. Happily the Minnesota Orchestra is proving this perception wrong, and with a vengeance. Over the last few years, especially since Finnish conductor Osmo Vanksä took the podium in 2003, they’ve been stealthily ascending the ranks. They were very good before (I first heard them in the summer of 2003), but something has happened since to make them great. It’s silly to call one orchestra “the greatest in the world” – any number of orchestras in the world could take the prize at any number of concerts, depending on the repertoire, audience, hall, conductor, etc. – but I am happy to say that given the right circumstances, the Minnesota Orchestra has a definite shot at the title. When they appeared at Carnegie Hall in March, there had been a series of concerts there featuring the orchestras of Chicago, Boston, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, New York, Leipzig, Amsterdam, and St. Petersburg – in short, a pretty good sampling of the international orchestral scene. Alex Ross of The New Yorker (author of the can’t-be-missed The Rest Is Noise) wrote of the Minnesota Orchestra’s show that it was “a performance of uncanny, wrenching power, the kind you hear once or twice a decade.” And then, at the end of the review: “For the duration of the evening of March 1st, the Minnesota Orchestra sounded, to my ears, like the greatest orchestra in the world.”

I will shamelessly steal from Mr. Ross and say, for the duration of the afternoon of July 18th, the Minnesota Orchestra sounded, to my ears, like the greatest orchestra in the world.

The program was Beethoven’s fourth and seventh symphonies. The moment they began, I actually remember thinking, well, there goes my review. I knew there would be no way I could write objectively about what I was hearing. If a certain phrase was accented in a way that I particularly liked, or the voices were gorgeously balanced in the last movement, or a brass player had a couple of muddy notes in one measure – who the hell cares about such trivial details in the face of such charismatic, youthful, invigorating music-making? I fought it – trust me, I did – but it only took about twenty seconds to feel the tears dripping down my face. I couldn’t help it. The energy of all those musicians who had worked so hard for all of their lives, all coming together – how many years of study do they share between them? Say there’s a hundred orchestra members, and each has played an average of thirty years. That’s three thousand years of practice at the highest possible level. That’s extraordinary. In what other genre of music do you get to hear three thousand years of practice come to fruition?

I’ll try to remember little bits and pieces to give a vague idea of what it was like, but honestly I was rendered rather speechless. There was power suffused with delicacy - extraordinary dynamic range – palpable commitment on the part of everyone onstage, from the strings to the brass to the woodwinds to Maestro Vanskä – elegance – earthiness – charm – passion. Passion above all else. These musicians were so excited to share their love of the music with us, and the electricity in the hall proved that the audience was just as excited to hear it as the orchestra was to play it. It was such a special feeling to communicate with these extraordinary virtuosos in that intensely personal way. I wish I could tell you more than that – give you more details about what exactly I loved – but I really can’t. I was too carried away by the joy and power of the sound. There is nothing to say except this is the pinnacle of our art. This is why I love music. This is one of the greatest experiences a human being can have.

When the Seventh ended, of course there was an immediate standing ovation, the most raucous of the entire season. The Orchestra actually had to leave the stage to make us shut up. I haven’t seen a full symphony orchestra ever have to do that – chamber orchestras, yes; full symphonies, no.

I went to freshen up in the restroom afterward (even though I hadn’t done anything except sit in my seat and listen, I felt totally disheveled). I felt like the portrait of Beethoven on the cover of the festival program. And while in the restroom I saw – gasp - musicians. With violin cases. And much to my astonishment, these virtuosos looked like – gasp again – normal people. I was too starstruck to say anything to them, which is silly. I actually found myself squealing when a violinist walked by on the way out to the car. I seriously sounded like a preteen girl watching Justin Bieber go by. I know that I can talk to them; they’re not going to bite. But I would have had no idea what to say. “You were really good”? Um, no. Not nearly enough. “This performance is one of the greatest concerts I’ve ever been to in my life and you have totally reinvigorated and affirmed my love of classical music?” No, too coherent; I’d never be able to think of that in time. “Ahhhhggghh”? No, I think we’d all agree that screaming in delight at orchestra musicians is verging on creepy. Well, I’ll have to resort to thanking them online. Hopefully some member of the orchestra will read it and understand the profound awe and gratitude I’m trying to convey. [ Editor's note: :) ]

You know how some people idealize baseball players? And root for their favorite team? And know all the members of the team by heart, and their stats? Yeah. I may live in Wisconsin, but the Minnesota Orchestra is my home team.

It was, needless to say, a perfect closer to the Minnesota Beethoven Festival. Next year for the season finale they’re playing Beethoven’s Ninth. I almost fear going. If I go out of orbit for the Fourth and the Seventh, what am I going to do for the Ninth? Well, I can’t help it. I love this music and I feel an intense bond with the players who bring it so magnificently to life for me. If I decompose and melt into a puddle on the floor they will just have to mop me up. Three cheers for the un-friggin’-believable Minnesota Orchestra. If they ever come to your neck of the woods, I have nothing to say to you except: GO.

I have learned more from these three concerts I attended this summer at the Beethoven Festival than I have in a very long time. My love of music is more passionate than ever. Here’s to world-class music making at a world-class festival in a world-class state. Words can’t describe how much I’m looking forward to the years of happy music-making ahead of us.

Postscript – At least one reviewer agrees me! Here’s the review of the concert from the LaCrosse Tribune, in which the writer claims this is one of the greatest orchestral concerts he has ever heard.

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Midori, July 2010

Here’s another review from last summer that was originally published on violinist.com in July of 2010: Midori at the Minnesota Beethoven Festival. Here’s the link to the first part and the second part. (I split it in half because it ended up being so long. Oy!)

***

Tuesday afternoon I made the ninety-minute drive to the Minnesota Beethoven Festival in Winona, Minnesota, to see Midori in recital.

I remember the first time I ever heard Midori, many years ago. I was watching the Arts Channel – a collection of classical music videos pumped through a local television station over lunch – and saw this.

Needless to say, I stopped chewing. This is still one of my favorite performances of all time. I eventually found the disc of the rest of the concert at a second-hand shop. It was my first introduction to the lovely ebullient Strauss sonata, Debussy’s dreamy Beau soir, and Ernst’s wildly difficult Last Rose of Summer. These performances alone made me a big fan. But over the years, as I heard more and more snippets of Midori’s biography, I became even more impressed. She is a UN Messenger of Peace, she is passionate about many other things outside of music (she has a master’s degree in psychology), and she is committed to playing for audiences in smaller towns that might not otherwise have had the chance to see an artist of her caliber. Ever since writing an essay on the history of female violinists and the life of the first great female violinist, Wilma Norman-Neruda (shameless self-promotion; click here to read it), I have been thinking about the role that women have played in our beloved art, especially over the last hundred years since Wilma’s death. To me, seeing a woman like Midori – who is both a tremendous artist and a well-rounded human being – is more than just seeing a great musician; it is seeing a fulfillment of what those women a hundred years ago aspired to. Midori is taken seriously not as a woman violinist, but as a violinist, period, and she can do it all while pursuing the things that fulfill her not just as a musician, but as a human being. We’ve come a long way.

The concert was held in the 900-seat Somsen Auditorium at Winona State University, a surprisingly intimate hall from 1924. After some remarks from the artistic director, the stage door opened and out came Midori. She is a very tiny, very delicate looking woman – I read after the concert that she is four-eleven, and that sounds about right – but despite her size, she was clearly in charge from the minute she walked out onto the stage. She flashed a warm, welcoming smile at the audience before raising her del Gesu to her chin and beginning the fourth sonata of Beethoven.

She plays in a way that I would never advise a beginning violin student to emulate – she scrunches her shoulders for emphasis, and her scroll is usually pointing to the floor. I have always wondered how she and others who play in such an unnatural position (like Bell, Vengerov, Chang, etc.) don’t hurt themselves; it seems as if practicing that way for hours a day for years on end would take a great physical toll. But it obviously works for her, so I’m not criticizing. Her sound – at least as I heard it from the front row of the balcony – was clear, classic, elegant, beautiful, but maybe a bit small, and focused at the center of the hall, as opposed to extending out to the sides. It may have been the repertoire, or the acoustic of this particular stage, or my seat in the balcony, or that I am used to an unnatural violin-piano balance on recordings, or any other number of things; I don’t know. But even if it wasn’t a particularly large sound, it was always an exceptionally beautiful one. She brought a great deal of detail and character to the Beethoven, alternating between elegance and passion and fury, especially in the last movement with all of its rapid shifts in character. She was warmly applauded, and the buzz of the crowd below the balcony stepped up a pitch after she was finished.

The next piece on the program was the Ravel sonata. I have loved it for many years and I consider it to be a very dear musical friend. (Isn’t it funny how we often feel as affectionate toward beloved pieces of music as we do people?) I’ve never heard it live before. As we were waiting for Midori to return to the stage, I had a fleeting thought of how unnatural it is to know a work solely from recordings. Don’t get me wrong, I love recordings – without them, I’d never know the Ravel sonata, period – but I wonder what Ravel would have thought of me loving this work so dearly for so many years, without ever having heard it live. About the time that Ravel composed this piece, he was becoming very interested in the possibilities presented by recordings, so perhaps he wouldn’t think it strange or odd at all, but I never feel as if I really know a piece until I can be in the same room in which it’s being brought alive. Living in a place where I can see relatively few live performances of classical violin music, it’s so vital for me to stay connected with the performance side of the art, both as a listener and as a violinist. Analysis of the score – comparing recordings – reading biographies of the great composers: those things will only get you so far. A vital portion of the appreciation of these great works has to be done in a concert hall, in hearing them as they were originally intended to be experienced.

Midori wrote the program notes for the Ravel. Apparently this sonata was written for Hélène Jourdan-Morhange, a highly-regarded French violinist born in 1892. She asked for a concerto but got this sonata instead. (A Ravel violin concerto! Can you imagine?) I had always heard that Ravel was never one for romantic attachments, but, Googling about a bit, it seems that he may possibly (emphasis on the possibly) have had unrequited feelings for Hélène. There are even rumors that he once asked her to marry him, and she turned him down. At the very least, they were extremely close friends – they shared many interests, including a deep mutual affection for cats – and although she was not able to premiere the sonata due to arthritis, it was written for and dedicated to her. (Ravel seems to have been inspired by female violinists; Hélène also premiered his violin/cello duo and his lovely little violin and piano piece Berceuse sur le nom de Gabriel Faure – and of course Jelly d’Aranyi was the inspiration for Tzigane.) So even seventy miles away home and from my project of researching the great female violinists, I was given a new lead to follow up. Who exactly was this Hélène Jourdan-Morhange? What was she like? Who did she study with? What violin did she play? What kind of relationship did she really have with Ravel? Why when I Google her does her name appear to have been lost to history, even though she is the dedicatee of a major piece that most every violinist knows and loves? How could we as a community of violin-lovers have possibly forgotten her?

Midori’s performance of the first movement kept reminding me of water – water in a brook, ripples in a pond, rain trickling from eaves, puddles, waves, lakes… I’m not one for seeing visual imagery when I listen to music, so it was a very strange, very magical experience. There wasn’t much vibrato, and the shifts were clean and lean. If you have heard Midori’s Carnegie Hall recording (I’m thinking of the shifts in The Last Rose of Summer, and Milstein’s Chopin transcription in particular), you’ll know right away what I’m talking about. Once and a while she would really dig into a slide, anticipating that second blues movement. And as it should, everything felt like it was leading up to that glorious endless bow at the end of the movement. As the piano quietly wrapped up the theme beneath her, you could feel the audience collectively leaning forward. Even after the sound had died away, she stood motionless and left her bow on the string, giving us permission to linger in that achingly gorgeous sound-world for just a few more precious seconds. Funnily enough, it turned out that one of my favorite parts of this concert were the silences – the parts of the performance where the sound slowly died away and my attention was drawn out of the music toward the awed, appreciative reaction of the other concertgoers.

Then came the blues in the Ravel’s sexy, sexy second movement. Is there a more blatantly erotic movement in the violin-piano literature? If there is I’ve yet to hear it. Now that I have read that Ravel may have had some kind of attraction to its dedicatee, this movement…takes on a new significance, shall we say? I had never thought of this sonata as a love-story before, but dayum when I listen to it now… What a dialogue between the violin and the piano. All of those lilting arco lines on the fiddle – the slow slides – those gutsy, suggestively strumming pizzicatos… And then that blazing third movement, a meshing of violin and piano, ending in a brilliant unified ecstasy… There is that famous quote by Ravel that basically says that in this sonata he wanted to explore the differences between a violin and a piano, rather than minimizing them as other composers had in their violin-piano sonatas. I highly doubt he was also thinking of emphasizing the fundamental differences between men and women, but oh, it would have been so interesting if he had. It quickly becomes tempting to imagine this as a composer’s naughty daydream, with Ravel on the piano and Hélène on the violin.

Midori really sunk her teeth into the blues. Lots of slides, lots of swing in the snappy pizzicato parts. It was just delicious to hear. And she simply took everybody’s breath away in the third movement’s perpetual motion. Every single one of the flurry of the notes came clear and strong and graceful, even toward the end when the low notes on the G-string start coming into the picture, where some performers have a tendency to start blurring the sound. During the last few measures it sounded as if her del Gesù was about to go up in flames. Apparently during the sonata’s lengthy gestation, Ravel wrote to Hélène that he didn’t think it would tire her hand too much. Hopefully that was before this last movement came into being, because looking at the score, I can’t imagine a much more demanding exercise for the left and right hands alike. The audience loved it, and a few people even gave a standing ovation.

At intermission, I eavesdropped in the women’s bathroom – the best place for any classical music critic to get an unbiased review – and heard someone say, “She’s so good, she tires me out!” While waiting for me, my companion at the concert overheard another woman saying, “I sure wasn’t expecting that blues movement – but I loved it!” Indeed.

After intermission came Mario Davidovsky’s Duo Capriccioso. Before the performers came onstage, the resident piano lackey came out and disassembled the part of the piano underneath the music stand. So it was clear from the beginning that this was not your typical violin-piano duet. The piece was filled with a variety of novel violin and piano techniques, including – you guessed it – pizzicato inside the piano. It was interesting, to be sure, but at times I felt as if it was just a series of tricks. Gripping and atmospheric tricks, to be sure; but tricks nonetheless. I need to find a recording of the piece and listen to it a few times before passing final judgment; works that I’m not thrilled about at first hearing often later reveal previously unheard depths once I become more familiar with the score. Once again, Midori was committed to her performance a hundred percent. This music was obviously close to her heart and she was thrilled to share it with us, and that alone made me want to work as hard as I could to understand and appreciate it.

The last piece on the program, the Brahms third sonata, was actually the reason I wanted tickets for this concert in the first place. I instantly connected with this piece the first time I heard it, and to this day it’s still my favorite Brahms sonata – although, once again, like with the Ravel, I have never heard it performed live. The first recording I ever heard of it was David Oistrakh’s, with Vladimir Yampolsky on the piano. For some pieces, I don’t have a favorite recording; I’m happy with a wide variety of interpretations. With others, I find a recording that I fall in love with, and all subsequent versions feel a bit…wrong in comparison. The Oistrakh Brahms third is one of those recordings that I have completely and totally fallen in love with, and no other performance of the Brahms third satisfies me in quite the same way. Oistrakh’s warmth and sincerity fits in so perfectly with this intensely personal piece, and the slightly muffled sound quality of the older recording is just the icing on the cake.

No performance was going to live up to that one of Oistrakh’s for me, but Midori’s rendition was still very, very special nonetheless. In the first movement she brought a searing tone and a real rhythmic pulse, especially on those string-crossing passages that Oistrakh tended to linger over. Unfortunately there were moments, especially in the lower register, when her sound seemed to disappear into the piano texture. But this is nit-picking. It was extraordinarily beautiful and masterful playing.

The second movement was a real highlight of the entire concert. Finally hearing it live convinced me it must be one of the most beautiful things ever written for the violin. Midori left more space in between the notes than Oistrakh, to beautiful effect. Those yearning upward stretches in the violin – the whispered double-stopped thirds at the very end… As the music came to a gentle close, one could feel the silence just throbbing in the hall. And amazingly enough, that feeling didn’t release even after she finally took the bow off the strings; it lasted as she went into the third movement presto. That was pretty special. I’m quickly learning how an audience’s response is just as much of a part of the performance as what an artist does onstage. In a great performance, it really is a conversation without words.

Midori exploded through the double-stops in the last movement. Her sound, although always pretty and striking, remained a little bit small for my tastes, but once again, this is a nitpick. She obviously felt this music very deeply, and by the time that glorious F-sharp toward the end of the final movement – one of my favorite single notes in classical music – any reservations I might have had over a small tone were forgotten. I felt giddy with the beauty of Brahms, and that’s the definition of a great performance, right there.

There was a lengthy standing ovation. Finally she came, set the music-stand aside, and re-tuned. The del Gesù was being a tad picky and the crowd began to giggle. Finally she was satisfied and turned back to the audience. “We will play Souvenir of Moscow by Wieniawski,” she said. I wasn’t familiar with the Souvenir but the glorious thing about Wieniawski and Sarasate and Vieuxtemps is that you don’t really need to be familiar with them to fall in love with them. All those pyrotechnics – all that character – all the slides and various bow strokes… Talk about pieces that were written to be performed, as opposed to recorded! When she set the music stand aside and launched into those opening chords from memory, her sound totally changed. For the first time that night, I could firmly identify that instrument as a del Gesù, without a doubt. The sound just screamed stereotypical del Gesù – rich, throaty, a tad gritty, especially in the lower half. None of those characteristics were traits that I associated with Midori’s playing before, either in her recordings or during the rest of the recital. Was it the flashier repertoire, or the fact she was now playing from memory, or another reason altogether? I don’t know, but I heard a definite difference. As her fingers flashed up and down the fingerboard, I couldn’t suppress a wry smile as I remembered that Wieniawski had played a concert with Wilma Norman-Neruda in Moscow, and, after picking a fight with a general when he tried to convince the audience he was the better player, was ordered out of the city. I haven’t been able to find when the Souvenir was written, but it has an early opus number (6), and I wonder if it was after this little altercation?

In my twelve years of playing, I had never heard a great violinist take on one of the great showpieces live. Let me tell you, the difference between a live performance of Wieniawski and a recorded performance is the difference between fried chicken and tofu. There is an element of spice, personality – even danger – that is totally absent from a recording. One knows that in a recording, the strings will never break, and the performer will never have a memory lapse, and they will always hit each and every note each and every time – that kind of thing. But there are no such assurances for live performances. The audience teams up psychologically with the player in the hopes that he or she will make it through the piece unscathed. That bond is an incredibly powerful one, and for the first time I really began to understand emotionally what made these traveling Victorian virtuosi so beloved by their audiences. Nowadays these “parlor pieces” are considered light fare, musically suspect, not serious enough, but they are such an important part of our art, and they are received so enthusiastically by audiences, that I personally don’t think a recital program is complete without one. I would have been delighted to see one in the main body of the program.

As you can imagine, the subsequent applause and whoops and hollers just about brought the house down. She came out to bow again and again, ever gracious. She was greeting people in the lobby afterward, and I got her autograph and a picture. Her writing was just as bold and confident as her onstage manner.

Now whenever I listen to that beautiful recording of the Chopin Nocturne from Carnegie Hall, I will remember the sweetness and delicacy and beauty of everything I heard Tuesday night. There is simply nothing else in life like seeing a great violinist play a live concert. Absolutely nothing at all.

Except…maybe seeing one of the greatest orchestras of our time playing two Beethoven symphonies. Which is what I get to see tomorrow, when the Minnesota Orchestra takes on the fourth and the seventh in the closing concert of the 2010 Minnesota Beethoven Festival.

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Miró Quartet, July 2010

Just because I like to have everything in one place, I’m going to post a series of reviews I wrote last year.

This is a review I wrote in July 2010 for violinist.com after I attended a concert of the Miró Quartet at the Minnesota Beethoven Festival in Winona, Minnesota. The original review can be read here.

***

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?

***
The Miró Quartet kindly mentioned this review on their own blog on 13 July. Read that here.

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