Tag Archives: Minnesota Orchestra

Review: Minnesota Orchestra in Gabrieli, Dietter, Tchaikovsky

Yesterday I made the two hour trek across the tundra for a 2pm performance of Eiji Oue conducting the Minnesota Orchestra at Orchestra Hall.

Snow came early to the northern plains this year. It feels like December – indeed, a lot of people have just said “screw it” and lit their lights a couple weeks early – but obviously we’re not even to Thanksgiving yet, so we’re also in a kind of holiday limbo land. It’s a weighty question: do we follow the calendar or the snow?

I mention this because the program opened with various selections by Giovanni Gabrieli for two brass choirs. And especially at this time of year, said instrumentation bellows carol, cathedrals, Christmas. It felt like implicit permission to kick off the warmth and coziness of the holiday season without guilt.

The two choirs were situated on opposite sides of the Orchestra Hall stage, one anchored by tuba, the other by bass trombone (shout-out to new kid Andrew Chappell!). Obviously they’re normally tucked behind an impenetrable Wall of Strings, so it was a fascinating joy to watch the players and their faces. I really think the orchestra is onto something by programming smaller pieces in the first half, followed by a big blockbuster in the second. My Sunday audience seemed to enjoy the set-up too; as the sharply sculpted phrases were traded back and forth, listeners’ heads oscillated from side-to-side in appreciation. And what a sound a brass choir makes. You have to be in the same room with that core-rumbling buzz to really experience it.

After the Gabrieli came another rarity: a double bassoon concerto by Christian Ludwig Dietter. A different colleague joined principal John Miller, Jr., for each movement. Miller arrived at the Minnesota Orchestra in 1971 (before Orchestra Hall was even built, much less remodeled), and is the longest serving principal player in Orchestra history. That kind of devotion not just to an art, but to an ensemble and a community, is hugely humbling. My hat goes off to anyone who sticks with an organization through so many years…especially through the intermittent hopelessness of the last three.

The music in the Dietter may have been slight, but it was perfect for showcasing the easy chemistry of the soloists. What a joy to see colleagues working so effortlessly together. (In between movements, the departing colleague would high-five the arriving one, to warm applause and scattered laughter at the informal unconventionality of the gesture.) I think it’s easy to forget how outright beautiful the gentle bassoon can be, placed as it is in the orchestra’s texture, so it was lovely to have this reminder. As for the orchestra, I’ve definitely heard them give crisper accompaniments, but clarity isn’t always Maestro Eiji Oue’s first priority… For an encore, Miller played a Swedish Walking Song with ethereal orchestral accompaniment, and that was delicately breathtaking.

The big marquee event, though, came after intermission:  Tchaikovsky 5.

Tchaikovsky 5 is one of those pieces I really, really know. I really, really love it. I am really, really uncool. And yet, bizarrely, I have no favorite recordings, no interpretation I’m married to…or even dating. Which was good, because if you’d gone into the hall expecting a particular interpretation, you were going to be disappointed, simply because this one was soooo far out there.

The craziest thing about it was the tempi. There were so many yanks and tugs at tempo that the bartenders could have sold Dramamine instead of drinks at intermission. Tchaikovsky can feel pretty episodic to begin with, and instead of smoothing over the seams, Eiji Oue highlighted them by stopping, starting, and occasionally sprinting through them. So that’s one way of approaching a potential problem, I guess: highlighting it, and making no apologies for it. It definitely resulted in a unique interpretation. Sometimes that interpretation veered so far from conventional practice (not to mention the score), it almost came across as a pastiche.

And I was smiling the whole time. Both at the beauty of it, and the ballsiness of it. The interaction between conductor and orchestra was hilarious to see. Mom caught Dave Williamson cracking up. Erin Keefe’s body language was all like: follow me through the storm! And there was one priceless moment when Eiji leaned over to principal viola Tom Turner virtuosically scrubbing away, enticing Tom to give just a little more, and I could practically see Tom’s thought bubble: I’M GIVING ALL I GOT.

And that final movement! Only a virtuoso band could pull off what they did. It continually danced on the edge of completely imploding and exploding in a fiery cataclysm of confusion and honking horns. But of course at the very last minute, the tempos would lurch back, and everyone somehow burst through the exultant finish line together. You’ve got to hand it to the strings in particular for dashing forward with such confidence and cohesion.

I’ve seen him in-concert twice now, and I think my relationship with Eiji Oue is like my relationship with candy corn. Outside the period of approximately one week in the late autumn, candy corn is not particularly appealing. But once a year, candy corn is WONDERFUL. It’s fun. It’s corn-y. It mimics the shape of a kernel of a nourishing vegetable, and that’s cool. In fact, I went out of my way earlier this year to buy a bag of candy corn, and I didn’t regret the purchase. Would I want candy corn every weekend? No. Does that mean I dislike candy corn? I just got done telling you I consider candy corn to be great fun.

So. I could argue very persuasively about why this performance should not work, could not work, and did not work. But one of the valuable lessons I took away from the lockout is, sometimes it doesn’t really matter how something is played, providing the experience surrounding it is unique enough. And you have got to admit, between the sparkly pants, generous swooping, and grins of manic wild-eyed sincerely-felt joy, Eiji Oue creates experiences. I think people who focus solely on the quality of performance, ignoring or even criticizing the air of electricity, are maybe missing the point. This was definitely a show worth catching, an experience worth having.

It was a joy to see such joy. 2014 has been a year of historic, absurdly high stakes shows at Orchestra Hall. Stanislaw Skrowaczewski conducted the first homecoming concert back in February, with everyone in the music world gruesomely interested in whether this great orchestra had survived a sixteen-month lockout intact. The Osmo Sibelius Grammy concerts happened as the board was deciding whether to rehire him. Same with the one-night Josh Bell / Osmo show. The glitzy, hugely expensive, and ultimately successful Renee Fleming gala was pressured to be ultra flashy and fabulous. The Mahler Resurrection concerts in late September mused on themes of fricking Life, Death, and Life After Death. It was a joy just to have crazy fun again, to hear the depth of sound that this great orchestra makes, and to walk out the lobby door to downtown Minneapolis with the faith that everything will be okay.

***

5 Comments

Filed under Reviews

Bad News, Good News

In case you missed the news, the Minnesota Orchestral Association has promoted Kevin Smith from Interim CEO to Actual CEO. He’s staying until the end of the 2017-2018 season (at least), and he will be negotiating both Osmo’s and the musicians’ new contracts. The board voted unanimously to keep him.

I haven’t met Mr. Smith yet, but nearly all of my musical friends have, and I’ve heard nothing but good about him. A few things are abundantly clear. He knows what he’s doing. He knows the Twin Cities. He has years of experience under his belt. And, perhaps most importantly of all, he listens. Stakeholders respect this man. When he has to make the tough decisions that lie ahead, I may not always agree with his choices, but I will respect them, and I will know that he is working for the good of the organization and the art form and the community. You can’t buy that kind of trust.

In fact, if I had to choose what’s the bigger news, Osmo’s rehiring or Kevin’s promotion… I’d probably go with Kevin’s promotion. And you all know how thrilled I was that Osmo was re-hired. So you can guess how excited I am about Kevin.

But wait. As the infomercials say, there’s more. In an interview the other night on Almanac, when asked if Osmo’s contract would be renewed, Smith said:

We are talking about that. I would hope and expect, yes.

I would hope and expect, yes.

I would hope and expect, yes.

I-Would-Hope-And-Expect

The phrase “I would hope and expect, yes” in a pretty font and decorated with my excited yellow Rays of Yay

 

It’s a tribute to how far we’ve come that this quote isn’t plastered all over blogs and Twitter and Facebook and Strib articles.

I think most people would agree that

  1. the chances of a second lockout have declined precipitously
  2. we just might be looking at a fair musicians’ contract extending until approximately 2020, and
  3. the Osmo era is likely going to continue.

It’s looking like the Minnesota Orchestral Association has entered its own Era of Good Feelings. And I’m on board with that.

So it might be time to bid a fond farewell to the Song of the Lark Outrage Machine. The Outrage Machine ran fast and hard for a very long time, fueled by the spittle from my flail-y freak-outs and the sarcasm of animated GIFs. But between Kevin Smith’s hiring and the Atlanta Symphony lockout ending, it looks like outrage is going out of style. Which is great.

It’s just too bad I can’t take the Outrage Machine out for a final spin to commemorate old times and old scandals.

Unless…

Somehow… somewhere… some news could break about the Era of Bad Feelings.

But, no. That’s impossible. Michael Henson has been gone from the Minnesota Orchestra for months now. His vision – or maybe that’s “myopia” – has been thoroughly repudiated by all. Surely there’s no new news left about his tenure…

990s

I’m sorry, guidestar.org, the website that “gather[s] and disseminate[s] information about every single IRS-registered nonprofit organization“…did you say something?

990s

Oh? What’s this? The 990 form for the Minnesota Orchestral Association covering the time span of September 2012 to August 2013, which features only one non-lockout month?

Do you hear that roar in the distance? I think it’s the outrage machine revving up for one last final outing! So jump aboard now, for one last ride, for nostalgia’s sake…

Continue reading

18 Comments

Filed under My Writing

Microreview: Minnesota Orchestra in Nazaykinskaya, Mozart, Prokofiev

For those new to SOTL, Microreviews are my thoughts on the Minnesota Orchestra subscription concerts broadcast live on MPR. I take the word count of the “official” newspaper reviews of the week’s concerts and use that as a guideline. (This week I’m using Rob Hubbard’s Pioneer Press review, which clocked in at 379 words.) You can join in the Microreviewing fun by catching the MPR broadcast along with me and then writing about it, whether on your own blog or on Facebook or in the comment section here. My mantra is: the more people talking about and dissecting Minnesota Orchestra concerts, the healthier our cultural habitat will be! (It’s a long mantra.)

So here are my thoughts on what the concert sounded like via MPR last night.

***

The concert began with Polina Nazaykinskaya’s Winter Bells. Nazaykinskaya is the only woman composer in the Minnesota Orchestra’s sizable 2014-2015 subscription season, and also my Facebook followers are tired of hearing me complain about this.

bitching3

“Yeah, Emily, I know. The lack of female composers definitely sucks.”

 

bitching2

“Yep, Emily, we get the message, the lack of women composers is hugely unfortunate and a downside of an otherwise brilliant 14-15 season. Agreed.”

"OH MY GOD, EMILY, JUST SHUT UP ABOUT THIS ALREADY THIS IS THE THIRD TIME YOU'VE POSTED ABOUT IT LET IT REST OMG"

“OH MY GOD, EMILY, JUST SHUT UP ABOUT THIS ALREADY; THIS IS THE THIRD TIME YOU’VE POSTED ABOUT IT; LET IT REST; OMG”

Ah well. If women could only make one contribution to programming this year, Winter Bells was definitely a fabulous choice. How often does a work by a 22-year-old hold up against Prokofiev and Mozart? The orchestra’s treatment of the gorgeous score felt hugely confident; the lower brass blasted away with spectacular abandon. And the way the sound evaporated away at the end? Pure magic.

Soloist Jonathan Biss was a polite presence at the piano in Mozart 20. Perfectly lovely and unobjectionable. Which isn’t to say the performance wasn’t enjoyable. But it wasn’t gripping. It felt a bit like filler. And I wonder if I’m the only one idly curious how Mozart ended up in an Art of Russia program. Orchestra advertising justified it by saying that Mozart was “a Russian at heart.” O-kay. That being said, I’m not sure how well live Mozart transfers over Internet radio, so your mileage may vary if you saw it live. And the audience reaction sounded wild, so this one might be on me.

Prokofiev 5 was the meat of the program. Gleaming propulsive meat, with an earnestly, sometimes nostalgically, beating heart…and a dash of insanity. The intensity of the last few notes of the first movement was simply shattering. Said intensity carried over into the maniacally metronomic second movement. I love this music; it sounds like sarcastic skeletons dancing. (Somehow.) The spitting runs in the strings and winds were genuinely creepy, both because of the sound produced and because I didn’t know it was humanly possible. The third movement was balletic: graceful, luscious, very Russian. But still slightly odd, as if the skeletons had put on tutus. (Somehow.) These sounds are strange, maybe even slightly dangerous, but they’re so seductive, and in the hands of these players Friday night, so committed and so heartfelt. The finale began with a quiet wild-eyed mania, seizing one idea after another, before going completely batshit crazy with agitated caffeinated palpitations. Perfection.

Definitely my favorite radio broadcast so far this season.

***

369 words. *dusts hands*

I know I say it every week, but this week I really mean it. Buy tickets for tonight at minnesotaorchestra.org. Seriously. I’m incredibly depressed I won’t see it live.

Can’t guarantee a Microreview for next week, as I’m aiming to catch Tchaikovsky 5 in-person! So keep an eye out for an entry on that, as well as some others that are cooking on the back burner.

***

4 Comments

Filed under Reviews

Microreview: Minnesota Orchestra in Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Stravinsky

The Minnesota Orchestra launched its Russian festival this week with concerts devoted to the works of Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky, led by Courtney Lewis. Both local papers were impressed. The Pioneer Press wrote 340 words of praise, the Strib 465.

***

The performance began on a somber note with the addition of Stephen Paulus’s “Veil of Tears” from To Be Certain of the Dawn. Paulus passed away on October 19 at the heartbreaking age of 65. Words don’t suffice, and I hope this moving musical tribute brought a measure of peace to the family and friends who have lost so much.

After the moment of reverent silence, excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s The Snow Maiden began. This music sounds as if it belongs in a snow globe: the Nutcracker minus the “oh no not again” baggage of the omnipotent warhorse. Warm horn calls, silvery woodwinds, rich and shapely lines in the strings… I craved a bit more forward motion at certain points earlier in the piece, but the Dance of the Tumblers finale more than made up for that with a truly dizzying propulsion. I’d never heard The Snow Maiden before, but it’s going on my playlist of winter favorites for sure.

Pianist Kirill Gerstein took the stage for Shostakovich second concerto and Prokofiev first, performing with clarity, nuance, and sensitive, exciting musicality. Moments in the interior of the first movement of the Shostakovich were absolutely explosive, and the songfulness of the andante was almost vocal. He brought similar intensity to the spiky Prokofiev first. What manic, electric repertoire, and what manic, electric playing!

The program officially closed with Stravinsky’s Symphonic Suite from The Fairy Kiss. Tchaikovsky practically deserves a co-writing credit here, as Stravinsky used bits and pieces of Tchaikovsky as subjects. To put it in bloggy terms, this is Stravinsky writing fanfiction in Tchaikovsky’s universe. My relationship with Igor is one based in ambivalence, and that’s likely why I wasn’t particularly grabbed by this piece or performance as a whole. That being said, there was some brilliant orchestral playing going on (as there always is): some beautifully blended contributions from the woodwinds, and strings full of power and character. But I do agree with the Pioneer Press that the program order would have worked better with the Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky reversed.

The encore was the finale from the Firebird: a piece that will forever have a place in the heart of Twin Cities audiences as one of the anthems of the lockout. Good news: the phoenix has risen from the ashes, and you can hear it sing this program once more tonight at 8pm at Orchestra Hall.

***

And I came right in the middle between the two newspaper reviews, at 397 words. Were you at the concert? Leave your thoughts below and contribute a microreview of your own! The more people talking about the Minnesota Orchestra, the better.

Tickets for tonight here. Be sure to check out the collection of Russian art on display in the lobby, on loan from the Museum of Russian Art.

***

7 Comments

Filed under Reviews

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.

***

4 Comments

Filed under Reviews

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.

***

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews

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.

***

2 Comments

Filed under Reviews

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.”

***

17 Comments

Filed under My Writing

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.

***

4 Comments

Filed under My Writing

SOTL Q&A with Emily Green, 17, Aspiring Minnesota Orchestra CEO

On May 4, 2013, a sixteen-year-old girl messaged me via my Facebook page:

Hello Emily, my name is Emily Green and I am a Young Musician of Minnesota looking to do something about this lockout! I currently am in MYS [Minnesota Youth Symphonies] and a few of us students are forming a large group of young musicians to make a powerful video in regards to the lockout. Would you be interested in joining us? (Your articles are amazing, by the way!)

And that was my introduction to YMM, a group of talented young people determined to support the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra during their 2012-14 lockout.

YMM outside Ted Mann Concert Hall, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota, summer 2014.

YMM outside Ted Mann Concert Hall, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota, summer 2014.

 

Over the last year, under Emily Green’s leadership, YMM has done a lot more than just shoot a powerful video. In their own words:

The Young Musicians of Minnesota (YMM) is a student-led and operated organization, consisting middle school through college graduate music students from across the state who have bound together to preserve and promote classical music throughout the state. YMM is entirely student-led, with students taking on roles such as conductor, orchestra manager, logistics advisor, concert event manager, and as performing musicians. YMM serves as a gateway to the professional music world, believing in offering students opportunities to challenge themselves, grow in their musical leadership and technical abilities, develop a greater appreciation for classical music, and work alongside professionals, all for NO COST. YMM members have held a presence in the community through filming our own YouTube video, participating in rallies, performing at the Minnesota State Fair, Orchestrate Excellence forums, our own youth orchestra concerts, chamber performances in the Orchestra Hall lobby, and as well as at We Day Minnesota 2013 (which is an educational event and movement of our time—a movement of young people leading local and global change).

Not bad for a teenager!

Continue reading

6 Comments

Filed under Interviews