Category Archives: My Writing

Review: Minnesota Orchestra in Bernstein, Heitzeg, Copland, Greenstein

Giddy excitement, bittersweet reflection, screams from audience members…

Nope, it wasn’t a lockout concert (although it felt like it). Rather, it was the first show in the Minnesota Orchestra’s 2015 American Voices festival, a massive extravaganza held Friday night at Orchestra Hall. How massive was it? So massive that the ushers told us anxiously and individually as they scanned our tickets: “Intermission is only fifteen minutes.” Aww, yeah. This is my kind of concert.

The show – and it really was a show – opened with Bernstein’s Divertimento. Sassy, sassy, saucy. As the piece went along, the classical trappings of the instrumentation kinda clattered away, and by ten minutes in, it felt like we were in a classy 2000-seat strip club. The hams in the brass section were milking the Blues movement for every single penny it was worth. Maybe even a few pennies’ more. During this section, I noticed a violist or two glancing over at the brass with a raised eyebrow. I can’t tell if they were skeptical or just jealous.

Possibly the least sexy instrument in the orchestra.

We can’t really pull off the strip club vibe with this.

Next came the premiere of Steve Heitzeg’s American Nomad trumpet concerto, written for Minnesota Orchestra musician Charles Lazarus. It was a huge hit in the hall, and the Strib wanted to marry the piece and have its babies. I’m sincerely glad it was loved. But my own personal feelings were more ambivalent. I was discontent throughout the opening. The abundant movement, paradoxically, struck me as frustratingly static. The middle movement was more successful, its pale, sparse scoring gorgeous and affecting. The written part of the third movement struck me as rather stale and routine…until the improv started, and then it exploded to life. In general it felt like music you’d use for a Copland documentary if the original Copland was still under copyright. But of course your mileage will vary. I was definitely in the minority. And as I’ve said on the blog before, I think Heitzeg’s soundtrack absolutely made the unforgettable PBS documentary “Death of the Dream.” I have no ax to grind.

Also, here’s a shout-out to Charles Lazarus. I know nothing about jazz, trumpet, or jazz trumpet. But what a mesmerizing soloist he was, in a very understated Minnesotan way. He has the aura of a grown-up band geek, with the haircut and glasses. His stage presence combines a cool modesty and a steely confidence, and he was such a treat to watch.

But. Let’s face it. The inevitable highlight of the evening was always going to be the return of former Minnesota Orchestra clarinetist Burt Hara to play the Copland concerto. Continue reading

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Microreview: Minnesota Orchestra in Griffes, Rachmaninoff, and Stravinsky

Not a single professional reviewer discussed the concert this week, so I’ll throw out my word count limit.

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This week the Minnesota Orchestra’s program featured three pieces I’ve never sat down to listen to in their entirety: The Pleasure Dome of Kubla-Kahn by Charles Griffes, Rachmaninoff third concerto, and…the Rite of Spring. I know. You’re allowed to crucify me. It’s probably the single most unforgivable blind spot I have.

Conductor Michael Stern was on the podium. I have to transcribe what he said in his brief pre-performance address because I don’t want his words vanishing into the Mists of Time. He was talking about how the works on the program had the force of tradition behind them, yet all three struck out on new paths of their own…

And ladies and gentlemen, I must say publicly, this is the way I see the Minnesota Orchestra: with its long tradition, with its great history, yet now they are on the precipice of inventing something new. And there is a very good reason for that. They have great leadership. You have a great music director. You have a community that believes in music. But you also have these incredible musicians who, despite the recent past, exhibit a kind of bonding solidarity and a commitment to craft and art and a devotion to making great music happen for this city and for the entire region which I know, from my personal experience, and from all my colleagues, is nothing short of inspiring. And you are lucky to have them in your city.

[applause] [applause] [applause]

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Critiquing Criticism of Season Announcements

I’m not sure how to introduce this one besides Greg Sandow recently wrote an article about the Minnesota Orchestra’s season announcement press release, and I was unconvinced by what he said. Here’s why.

Mr. Sandow begins:

I don’t mean to pick on the Minnesota Orchestra.

Of all the sentences in the English language, “I don’t mean to pick on the Minnesota Orchestra” is among the most inspirational to me.

I don’t mean to pick on the Minnesota Orchestra.

Which is why 73% of the words in Mr. Sandow’s 1385 word article are about the Minnesota Orchestra…

Or on anyone.

Okay…

But this is the time of year when symphony orchestras announce next year’s season, and their press releases…are weak. The most basic fact about classical music today is that we need new listeners. But I can’t see these press releases doing much to find those. Which to me is a serious problem.

Is there an art form where season announcement press releases attract new attendees? Seriously, is that a thing? If it is, I wanna fall in love with THAT art form, because THAT sounds like a way easier field to make a living in.

Quick question: who among my readers went to their first orchestra concert because the season announcement press release was cool? I ask because I’m trying to put myself in a newcomer’s shoes. The closest parallel I can think of: I’ve never gone to the Guthrie. Therefore, I don’t read the Guthrie’s press releases. The Guthrie is going to hook this particular twentysomething via recommendations from friends, advertisements, social media, cheap tickets, and, once I attend for the first time, a meaningful high quality experience at the theater.

Can’t we learn to talk about classical music, in a way that might make compelling, so we can people — especially people outside our world — reasons to go to our performances?

First, I don’t know what “learn to talk about classical music, in a way that might make compelling, so we can people” means. I can guess what it means but I’m not sure. Second, I don’t think a season announcement press release is the first place we should be spending our compellingness energy on. Recommendations from friends, advertisements, social media, and cheap tickets are going to give first-timers way more compelling reasons to go to performances. Make those hooks compelling first.

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The Lark Ascending

The last time I heard the Eroica symphony was in July 2012: the Minnesota Orchestra playing in Winona for the Minnesota Beethoven Festival. My mom wanted to bring me. Her daughter had no money. She had no money. But together we had some money, and so we went.

In those days, Erin Keefe was the new concertmaster. In fact, in the first half of the Eroica concert, she made her concerto debut with the Minnesota Orchestra in the Beethoven violin concerto. A man named Osmo Vänskä was conducting. That performance marked the beginning of a very promising musical relationship.

The Orchestra’s Eroica that day was thrilling. Every pitch was hit, every jarring accent pounded. But looking back, there was not much joy to it. There was fire, conviction, energy, passion – but not much joy. It was an Eroica that intimidated in its hard-edged perfection, like a diamond you’d admire breathlessly but be afraid to wear. And I have a recording off MPR of that July weekend’s concerts, so I’m not reconstructing this entirely by memory.

I remember talking briefly to one musician after the show and somehow intuitively understanding that he was very, very distracted. In fact, there was a distant look in all the players’ eyes that scared me. I remember fretting. I felt I had seen something very important without understanding why it was very important, and I drove home with Mom feeling blown away and very, very uneasy.

Turns out negotiations for the musicians’ new contract had begun that spring. They were going badly. To the best of my knowledge, that performance – in a middle school auditorium in Winona, Minnesota – was the last time that Osmo Vänskä conducted the Minnesota Orchestra before the sixteen month lockout broke everything apart.

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Winging Up and Up

On March 9th, my mother Dorothy (Dodie) Hogstad passed away at the age of 59. Less than six weeks had elapsed from her cancer diagnosis to her death. Her dad had died a little over seven months previous.

My mother and I, August 1995

My mother and me, late August 1995

We are overwhelmed and humbled by the fundraiser my friends and readers set up to help the family with the many expenses associated with her passage, and I simply do not know what to say besides: thank you.

Thank you.

After Stephen Colbert’s beloved mom Lorna Colbert passed away, he did a segment on The Report in tribute to her. So much of what he said applies to my own relationship with my mother. You can watch the whole thing here, but here are some excerpts:

I’ve been away from the Report for a week because one week ago today my mother, Lorna Tuck Colbert, died. And I want to thank everybody who offered their thoughts and prayers. Now if you watch this show, and you like this show, that’s because of everybody who works here, and I’m lucky to be one of them. But when you watch the show, if you also like me, that’s because of my mom.

She made a very loving home for us… Hugs never needed a reason in her house. Singing and dancing were encouraged, except at the dinner table…

She was fun.

She knew more than her share of tragedy… But her love for her family and her faith in God somehow gave her the strength not only to go on, but to love life without bitterness, and to instill in all of us a gratitude for every day we had together…

We were the light of her life and she let us know it til the end.

And that’s it. Thank you for listening. Now we can get to the truly important work of television broadcasting, which is what she would want me to do. When I was leaving her last week, I leaned over and I said, “Mom, I’m going back to New York to do the show.” And she said, “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

So. [deep breath]

With that in mind, this is the Colbert Report.

And this is Song of the Lark.

So. Once I settle our affairs, and the time is right, and the finances work out, I will be moving from Eau Claire and starting a new life in Minnesota. Her rebirth into death will ultimately bring a rebirth to the blog, to my work, to my education, to my passion for great orchestral music. There is no more beautiful final gift she could have given.

Thankfully, her presence is enveloping. I dearly hope that her legacy of love and love of beauty and love of hilarious snark can somehow live on in me. And thankfully, music heals. I’ll be at Orchestra Hall a lot this spring, so I anticipate a lot of healing. I look forward to being the best I can possibly be, and to making you – and her – proud. Keep an eye on this space.

In lieu of a funeral I am in the early stages of planning a celebration of her life to take place sometime this year: a fabulous chamber music concert with Minnesota Orchestra musicians as guest artists. I will keep the community posted when I know more.

A few adapted lines of George Meredith’s poem The Lark Ascending:

For singing till her heaven fills, / Tis love of earth that she instils, / And ever winging up and up, / Our valley is her golden cup, / And she the wine which overflows / To lift us with her as she goes…

The sunset that appeared a few hours after Mom slipped away.

The sunset that appeared a few hours after Mom slipped away

With much gratitude – Emily

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Farewell to 2014

Well that was quite the year.

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In the tradition of years past, here’s a New Year’s summary of what all happened at this address over the past twelve months.

Here are the year’s most popular entries in reverse order. Spoiler alert: it was an Atlantapalooza!

5. Doug Hertz Takes On The Crazy People. 4 October. Woodruff Arts Center board chair Doug Hertz gave the strangest interview of the year to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, where he called his musicians “crazy” and suggested that his music director could help the negotiations with “ideas.”

4. Stanley Romanstein’s Massive Bonuses: 2012 Lockout Edition! 18 September. Former Atlanta Symphony CEO Stanley Romanstein raked in $45k in bonuses during the first musician lockout in 2012, and people were pissed.

3. Naked Nymphs and the Atlanta Symphony. 3 October. Arguably the weirdest entry of the year, in which I took a wide-eyed look at the Atlanta Symphony’s bewildering 2014-15 season brochure, which boasted massive naked ladies and lots of strategically flung red scarves.

2. Stanley Romanstein’s Massive Bonuses. 8 September. The #2 entry in 2013 was Michael Henson’s Massive Bonuses, so it’s only fair that the companion piece “Stanley Romanstein’s Massive Bonuses” received the #2 slot in 2014.

And the most popular entry…

1. The Atlanta Symphony Facebook Page Loses It. 11 September. It’s not often that you get to watch a major American orchestra throw a temper tantrum on their Facebook page, but 2014 was a truly special year. It also included my favorite reaction GIF of 2014.

tumblr_mywhx2ztBn1qi86x2o1_250

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I spent a lot of time in the early part of 2014 volunteering for Save Our Symphony Minnesota. (As you can imagine, during the Henson / Osmo showdown and resulting administrative churn, there were a lot of things that community members needed to do to make their voices heard.) Mainly because of all that volunteer work, and also because of some sad losses in my personal life, there were only 41 entries in 2014, as opposed to 97 in 2013, and traffic declined by 36%. In other news, readers visited from 155 countries this year, as opposed to 149 last year.

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As for personal favorites…

Favorite Blog: Scott Chamberlain had some great entries at Mask of the Flower Prince. He was extraordinarily prolific this year, and he provided lots of food for thought about the Met Opera negotiations in particular. Scott’s now president of the Minnesota Chorale board, so that’s cool.

Favorite Microreview: the November 14 concert

Favorite Ousted CEO in the Non-Profit World: Impossible to choose

Favorite Non-Ousted CEO in the Non-Profit World: Kevin Smith.

Favorite Interview: Actually, my only interview…a chat with Emily Green, founder of Young Musicians of Minnesota

Favorite Essay / Favorite Concert / Favorite Life Experience: the Sibelius 1 and 4 concert in March. It will never be repeated. It will never be surpassed. My essay about that concert is here.

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And in case you missed it first time around, here’s the 2014 SOTL Advent calendar, which surveys the year and includes 24 wintry-themed music videos. If you haven’t stopped by yet, and you enjoy that kind of shameless nostalgia, be sure to check it out!

2015 will be a crucial year for the Minnesota Orchestra. I hope you’re ready to donate, to support, to brag, and most importantly, to buy tickets! The possibilities are truly endless, but first we all need to step up to the plate together.

And I’m sure you will. You always have, because you’re the best. Catch you in 2015.

Some notes I'm working on

Some doodles I’m working on

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Cost Disease Confusion: Part 1

Ever since the Minnesota Orchestra lockout began, I’ve read a lot of articles on arts administration. (And from a unique perspective, too: not as a board member or an employee or a union shill, but as a concerned audience member.) Once in a while I’ll disagree with a particular point, debate it with friends, and then tuck the insights away.

But. Last month I read an article that made me say “wait a minute…” so many times, I knew it could be used as bloggy fodder and discussion. It’s called Baumol’s Cost Disease Is Killing Me, and it was written by management consultant Duncan M. Webb. I feel very strongly that post-Minnesota, people who are still talking about Baumol’s Cost Disease in the way that Webb does are doing themselves and the institutions they advise a disservice. So I thought I’d take the chance to think out loud about some of the points he raises…from an audience member’s point of view.

Webb’s entry begins:

I first read Baumol and Bowen’s The Economic Dilemma of the Performing Arts some 20 years ago, almost 30 years after it was first published in 1965. The theory was fairly straightforward: the problem in our sector is that because there are no productivity gains associated with the creation of the work (it takes the same time and energy to rehearse and perform a Brahm’s Requiem today as it did when first performed in 1868), and because costs always increase over time and earned revenue growth is limited by a range of market forces, we are doomed to fall further and further behind, essentially forcing the more aggressive pursuit of contributed income just to balance the budget. And the problem is progressive, meaning that every year we fall a little bit further behind. This phenomenon has come to be known as Baumol’s Cost Disease.

Let’s start at sentence number two. It takes the same time and energy to rehearse “a Brahm’s Requiem” now as it did in 1868?

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2014 Advent Calendar

Hey guys, it’s that time of year again:

Advent Calendar Time!

The blog has a long and proud tradition (and by “long and proud tradition,” I mean “a tradition that began on Tumblr in December 2012″) of Advent-calendar-making.

So I threw another together this year, just because it’s fun. Every day from now until December 24, a new entry will be posted at the calendar. This year features a variety of my favorite wintry musical selections (some of which were chosen by readers!), as well as various memories from the past year. A new entry goes up every morning at 6AM. I hope you enjoy the pieces and maybe find a performance or two that is new to you. So be sure to bookmark the calendar and keep coming back throughout December: sotladventcalendar.tumblr.com.

My attempt to make the world's most annoying holiday SOTL Blingee ever. Animated Christmas cats, guys!

My attempt to make the most annoying holiday SOTL Blingee ever. Animated Christmas cats, guys! AWW!

And since I’m using the same Tumblr account that I used last year, you can even scroll back to read 2013’s calendar. Can you CONTAIN your EXCITEMENT?

Also one more tip: the Minnesota Orchestra has a Cyber Monday sale going, and most 2015 tickets are 50% off, so you might want to check that out. Even if you have all the seats you need for this season, tickets are a great gift idea.

If the thought of the holidays or holiday music makes you want to strangle kittens, stay tuned, because there’s a lot more non-holiday content coming. I actually think this December might be my content-heaviest month of 2o14… Right now I’m sitting on a whole clutch of rough drafts.

~Emily

who is apparently an elf now

and a hen

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Thanksgiving!

I don’t usually post anything on Thanksgiving (I’m more into Advent calendars, to be honest), but this year has been a special one, and I think it’s worthy of a word or two of gratitude.

First off, I’m grateful for my readers. You guys are so inquisitive, so smart, and you care so deeply.

I’m grateful for the knowledge of teachers, and how generous the best are with their very selves.

I’m grateful for technology. I’m grateful I can write and publish long essays on Rebecca Clarke or Baumol’s Cost Disease while curled up on the couch. (Keep an eye out for those.)

I’m grateful that sarcasm is a thing.

I’m grateful for sound, and especially the layers of it I hear in Orchestra Hall. You can spend a lifetime in that sound and never tire of it.

I’m grateful to live in a place that values, treasures, and loves its symphony orchestra so intensely. It would have been so easy for Minnesota to give up this past year. You didn’t.

I’m grateful for those dreamers back in 1903 who said, “Let’s start a symphony orchestra,” and a community that said, “Okay!” I’m grateful to all those board members who raised so much money over so many decades, and to the musicians of the past who played on to achieve the highest levels of musicianship, despite all the economic uncertainties surrounding them.

I’m grateful for the modern-day musicians who had the courage to risk their health, their careers, their homes, to save an institution.

I’m grateful for the people I criticized so harshly during the lockout, because without them, I wouldn’t have you. Without their myriad of muck-ups, the Minnesota Orchestra would be in a much weaker position than it is today.

I’m grateful for strong, wise leadership – for Osmo, Kevin Smith, the heads of Save Our Symphony Minnesota. They’ve married professionalism with passion, and the results are deeply moving and deeply inspiring.

And most of all, I’m grateful we have the chance to begin anew, to embark on a process of self-invention. The thought of it is simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating, and also terrifying. (And exhilarating…)

The Minnesota Orchestra posted an adorable picture on their Facebook page of musicians holding up signs of gratitude. Mine isn’t nearly as wonderful, but I did just sit down at my desk, scribble my own handwritten sentiments on a notecard, and place a sprig of holiday sparkle next to it.

Happy Thanksgiving, all! And…

IMG_5542

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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…

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