Is Twin Cities Business Publishing Clickbait About Our Orchestra?

Two weeks ago, Twin Cities Business ran an article about the Minnesota Orchestra called:

Does The Minnesota Orchestra Have Sustainable Labor Contracts?

Okay, Twin Cities Business: you’ve immediately pulled my Pissiness Pulley by using the words “Minnesota Orchestra” and “sustainable” in the same sentence. Much like the ideas of American exceptionalism or precooked meat products, the concept of sustainability in the orchestra world has been used to justify some truly terrible stuff. Twin Cities Business should know this, and tread carefully.

Next comes a worrying, intestine-twisting subheadline:

The orchestra’s finances might not be as stable as they seem

worried 2

we’re gonna die; we’re ALL GONNA DIE

Okay, let’s back up.

First off: the finances have recovered enough to seem stable? I missed that. The fact there’s even a perception of stability is news in and of itself.

Second, why the passive-aggressive tone? Is it sunny outside? I don’t know; it seems like it, but the weather might not be as stable as it seems.

Well, seeds of doubt as to the purpose and seriousness of this article have already been planted in the headline and sub-headline, so the actual article itself should be fun!!!!11!11!

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II: Eaux Claires Festival: Afternoon

On a cold March night, I found a video of The Staves and Justin Vernon singing Make It Holy.

It was early in the month: the time of year when spring seems both impossibly near and far. My mother and I were living at my grandmother’s farm, sleeping in my dead grandfather’s bed. There was nowhere else to put us.

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I. Eaux Claires Festival: Morning

Her family owns a woods, and like a girl in a fairytale, she disappears between the trees. Leaves murmur above her. Sun dapples her face. Brittle twigs snap beneath her feet.

She is in her mid-twenties, tall and fine-boned and long. Her eyes are piercing. They have a touch of skepticism in the corners. She has a sharp tongue, and a crippling insecurity. She is oblivious to her own strength.

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SOTL on Performance Today

I was recently interviewed for “Performance Today” on the subject of music nerd-ism. The interview aired July 21.  I’m going to backdate this entry to make it look like I’m somewhat on top of my career. I totally posted this on July 22nd, guys. Totally. *shifty eyes*

*pastes in scrapbook*

*pastes in scrapbook*

Click here. I’m in Hour 2, minute 16:45, for about four minutes. Right now my bucket list looks somewhat like this:

  • shoot the breeze with Fred Child

When I was in seventh grade, and away at school during the day, I’d order my mom to tape an hour of public radio so I could listen to it when I got home. Clearly, not just the music nerd-ism, but the public radio nerd-ism runs deep. After this, there’s obviously not much left for me to accomplish, so I may just announce my retirement at twenty-six. (Just Kidding! How could anyone retire with all of the potential 2015 labor disputes brewing?) I’ll post more this August. I’m taking the summer to write some more experimental essays, before launching into the Minnesota Orchestra’s star-studded 2015-2016 season, as well as any out-of-town labor disputes that boil over. I promise cool content and fewer family-death-induced hiatuses.



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Death and the Maiden

I have a lot of music news to write about that I just haven’t, and I kinda want to explain why.

Saturday June 20th was my grandfather and mother’s dual memorial service. I admit, I wasn’t thrilled about including my mother on the double bill, but it all worked out, and it was lovely. I threw together a violin and cello version of the Dvorak Largo, and a friend and I played it. I know at least a couple of my readers were in the congregation, and I want to extend my deepest thanks to them for attending.

On Wednesday the 24th, my grandmother Carol Hogstad woke up, walked past the kitchen table of half-finished thank-you notes, went outside with the dog, and died.

If there is such a thing as a perfect death, she had it. She was eighty-six. Her heart just – stopped. She had no, or a very brief pain: the autopsy revealed she was dead before she hit the ground. She was on the land she’d loved. She’d never had to endure the dehumanization of an extended stay in a hospital or nursing home. Her mind was still sharp. She cooked until the end. Speaking of which, she fortunately hadn’t started her daily baking yet, so there were no flames licking the sky a la the finale of Rebecca. Her body didn’t fall on the dog (in fact, the dog actually slept on her back after she passed). She died outside, so none of us needed to break in a door or window. She’d spent the week previous with family she hadn’t seen for years. She met all nine of her great-grandchildren, and sat for pictures with them. She’d stubbornly survived the death of her husband and her baby daughter, and the only thing left to wrap up from their service was some cold cut leftovers. She was stubbornly strong…but she was also very tired.

She was an extraordinary steely woman. There was much to learn from her. I look forward to sharing some of the lessons she taught me. (DISCLAIMER: My family is currently averaging a death a quarter, so I may not survive long enough to share, but trust me, they were good lessons.) (DEATH JOKES!)

My most recent selfie

My most recent selfie

Anyway! Until I’m done with writing her obituary, and planning her memorial service, and working with the bedraggled survivors to determine how to settle her estate – forgive another (hopefully brief) absence from the blog. Please feel free to laugh about the absurdity of this situation. She didn’t suffer, she missed her husband and her daughter so much, we are all doing okay, and I think we all learned during the lockout that the best way to break absurdity is to deride it.

So. Rest in peace, dear soul. You worked hard. You did a great job. You earned every moment of the sweet rest you are now enjoying. I’m proud I was your granddaughter.

I’ve had a couple of people ask, so I’ll mention it here. The family requests that memorial gifts go to UW-Stout, the college that she earned her multiple degrees at, and where she was a well-beloved professor for many years. Many thanks.

Also: hello, Hartford Symphony. I can already tell my muse is coming after you next. Hopefully my family will stop dying long enough for me to cover the inevitable orchestral labor disputes that every modern autumn brings.



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Thrilling, not-at-all-appalling news today out of Minneapolis! Read all about it:


Either those are fireworks, or the entire city is orgasming.

I never saw this one coming. No one else did, either… Not even US Bancorp CEO Richard Davis, as recently as February 2012:

I caught up with U.S. Bancorp CEO Richard Davis on Friday to ask about a rumor that had the Minneapolis-based lender offering to pay for naming rights to a new Minnesota Vikings football stadium. The catch, my tipster said, was that the stadium would need to be in Minneapolis…

But it didn’t check out. Davis, speaking as a past honoree at the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal’s Executive of the Year event in Minneapolis, told me that neither he nor his bank has made any such offer.

Davis said the opportunity makes sense for the bank, but that such discussions would be premature since there’s no stadium location or financing plan yet.

And I definitely did not, day before yesterday, have dinner with friends at Brit’s and swear on the patio that it was only a matter of time before this announcement happened. I was completely, utterly blindsided.

Obviously my first thought is: “this really speaks to the quality of US Bank’s corporate leadership.” This is, after all, the same Richard Davis who brought us the popular Minnesota Orchestra lockout (Mr. Davis, in fact, was chair of the management’s negotiating committee for months, months, and months). And I remember during his tenure there, back in 2012, when regional finances were deemed so tight that the Minnesota Orchestra’s deficit of a few million dollars a year was rendered completely unsolvable by the combined wealth of the state. But since that “very painful time“, US Bank’s fortunes have apparently improved…so much so that they now have $220 million to invest in naming rights for a stadium. O, what bold and intrepid leadership! From dredging the lowest depths of poverty to buying a stadium name in a mere three years! That is some “fortitude and consistency of planning,” right there. Indeed, every Minnesotan taxpayer is in US Bancorp CEO Richard Davis’s debt.

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Microreview: Minnesota Orchestra, Sibelius and Mahler

Can you believe it’s the last Microreview of the season? What HAPPENED? It’s like…time passed or something!

Rob Hubbard caught the Minnesota Orchestra’s Sibelius 6 and 7, but not the Mahler, and he wrote about it in a June 4th Pioneer Press article. His report was 366 words, and so, as is tradition, mine is 363.

But before I get to that, I want to quickly extend my thanks to all those who made this season such an extraordinary one. The Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra, of course, and their Music Director, as well as their beloved audience, the professional and amateur writers who covered this institution this year, the readers who cared so deeply about what we said, and Minnesota Public Radio, whose broadcasts have brought so much joy into so many listeners’ lives. And a special shout-out to Minnesota Orchestra CEO Kevin Smith, who I was lucky enough to meet this season!

I’m probably going on a Microreviewing hiatus over the summer. I have lots to do in preparation for moving home base to the Twin Cities this year. But look for them again this fall, and in the meantime, feel free to contribute your own. And don’t be surprised if one fine Friday evening during Summerfest you find me yapping and #livelarking away on Twitter.

So without further ado –


This was a program of personal premieres. I’ve never sat through Sibelius six or seven or even Mahler one. Turns out I was busy the last two years. So I’m in no position to describe the fidelity of the performance to the score. But I can say what this music made me feel my first time around.

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On Extinction Quotes and Watermelon Ballers

As many of you know, this weekend the League of American Orchestras is hosting its 2015 conference. Or, as it’s known in the biz, “Conference.” Yo.

Definite articles are overrated.

Definite articles are overrated.

It’s no secret that lots of people, especially musicians and rabble-rousing audience types, are wary of the League. I am, too. Everyone has their own reasons. Mine are complicated. I think it’s mainly because their organization provided a total vacuum of leadership during the Minnesota Orchestra meltdown, and that vacuum sucked. I understand that their responding would have come with a steep price. But if the organization’s mission is indeed “to help orchestras meet the challenges of the 21st century,” shouldn’t they have played a major role in addressing…I dunno, the biggest challenge of the 21st century? (That biggest challenge being, of course, the recent wave of lockouts, and in particular the organizational arson set at the Minnesota Orchestra.) Maybe I’m expecting too much. Or maybe they expect too little. Regardless, someday I’d like to go to a conference to get my own idea of what this group is, what it’s seeking to do, and how effective it is at doing it. I don’t know if I’ll make to Baltimore next year, but I do have dear Save Our Symphony friends in Detroit, and so I’d love to crash Conference 2017. (And I bet a ton of attendees will be just thrilled I’m doing so. /SARCASM FONT) But alas, until I actually go to Conference, obviously my perspective will be limited, so take this all with a grain of salt. This is very much the view of an outsider looking in.

Anywho. Like a good little orchestra nerd, I’m following the official Conference hashtag #orch2015. I noticed yesterday in the Twitterverse that two quotes were uber-popular:

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Review(ish): Minnesota Orchestra and Garrick Ohlsson in Brahms and Beethoven

This weekend at the Minnesota Orchestra was a love fest.

Love. What a loaded, completely inexplicable word. You can love institutions. You can love art. You can love people as friends or as lovers. Or as both. Your love can be sacred or carnal or some kind of crazy bewildering hybrid. It’s a verb with a thousand meanings, each definition, each possibility more confusing than the last.

I’ve thought a lot about the love that Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms shared. I find it fascinating. I find people’s responses to it fascinating. It was, by and large, a positive force in both their lives. Love of Clara certainly inspired Brahms, and I wonder if Clara would have retained her sanity after her husband’s break with it, had Brahms (and his brilliance) not been in her life. But because there is doubt they made physical love, many people regard their relationship as somehow abnormal or dysfunctional. It’s certainly idealized less than the love that Robert and Clara shared…I’m assuming because it didn’t follow the neat little dramatic trajectory that Robert and Clara’s did. Brahms and Clara lived with ambiguity for decades. And they managed to find a power in the messiness of it.

The emotions that ambiguity unleashed are explored in Brahms’s first piano concerto, which opened the Minnesota Orchestra’s program this weekend. Brahms struggled with the concerto’s musical material throughout his early twenties. He also struggled with a love for Clara, who was in turn struggling with mourning her husband’s sanity and eventually life. In 1856, a few months after Robert died, Brahms wrote to her the famous quote that invariably appears in this concerto’s program notes: “I am also painting a lovely portrait of you; it is to be the Adagio.”

The outer movements are flashier. The first especially has more meat. But the heart of this concerto is the movement devoted to Clara. This weekend, Minnesota’s hushed strings made this music radiate warmth and soul and…that inexplicable, indefinable word, love. This music has a very sacred air to it, and we were honored to have Garrick Ohlsson be our priest to lead us through the sacrament. The notes passed like ghosts, suspended and turning in the air.

But there is a danger in thinking of this music as solely ethereal. In an intermission interview on Minnesota Public Radio, Ohlsson shared a historical tidbit I had never heard before.

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8 Non-Profit Lessons From The Minnesota Orchestra’s Cuba Tour

The Minnesota Orchestra recently returned from a groundbreaking trip to Cuba. It was the first time an American orchestra had performed there since the process of normalizing relations began in December 2014. It was also the Minnesota Orchestra standing up on the international stage and saying, in a particularly badass way, we’re back, baby.

Lots of people who were lucky enough to be on the trip have been sharing their ideas about what the week meant. We’re all still digesting. But the people on the ground in Cuba weren’t the only ones to come away with exciting new perspectives. Eight big ideas keep repeatedly swishing around my brain like Caribbean waves along the shore…

You too can recover from disaster, because damn the Minnesota Orchestra is back in business. Their performance of the Eroica in particular was probably the greatest I’ve ever heard of that piece. It certainly far, far outstripped the intensity of their live performances I heard in April 2015 and July 2012. The Eroica was also the first symphony they played after the lockout ended in February 2014, and the difference between the two performances was mind-boggling. Can this orchestra play even better? Oh, I’m sure. But do they currently stand with the great ensembles of the world? F-, yeah. Give them a few more years and I have no doubt whatsoever that the lockout will recede into organizational history, eclipsed by fresh artistic triumphs from a new era.

One-on-one interaction is beyond priceless. Look at this photo gallery and tell me otherwise.

Twitter is an amazing tool to use during big live events to cement connections with readers and patrons. I associate Twitter more with political live-blogging or passive-aggressive celebrity feuds, but it actually works really well for documenting big live events like this tour. I’m still split about the idea of “Tweet seats.” But for a radio broadcast, where I was holed up in my bedroom and my furious typing wasn’t bothering anyone, it was a marvelous format. (And I definitely understand the appeal of Tweet seats now way more than I did.) I gained lots of new followers and had some truly meaningful exchanges with readers, including the official Classical MPR and Minnesota Orchestra accounts. That loops back to my preceding point.

At big events, non-profits need to employ someone whose main responsibility is creating content for social media. The Cuba trip was unique in that not all the responsibility for documentation was laid on the Minnesota Orchestra’s staff, since many major media outlets were toting along their own photographers and videographers. But the lesson still stands. All of my friends are sharing the Cuba pictures with all of their friends, and I have no doubt all their friends are, too. I wish it was possible to convert the value of that increased enthusiasm and engagement into dollars. But I have to believe the Orchestra at least broke even on the $1 million that Marilyn Carlson Nelson and her husband invested into this tour. Maybe even more than that, because a lot of the positive experiences we had cannot be bought…since they’re not for sale.

Speaking of which….

The greatest work of non-profits is, at the end of the day, not about the bottom line. There was a group of us who argued passionately during the Minnesota Orchestra lockout that the worst thing to do would be to regard the Orchestra’s bottom line as its sole metric of success. I hate to say I told you so, but… (Haha, KIDDING. I don’t hate saying that at all. I TOLD YOU SO.)

In future, all orchestras need to employ musician-writers the caliber of Rena Kraut and Sam Bergman. Click here to read a Rena entry; click here to read one from Sam. Yes, finding others with their talents may be a tall order, but it needs to happen. Rena and Sam’s accounts of their trip brought on countless of tears and bonded many hundreds of hearts closer to the Orchestra. I have to believe there are equally talented writers at every American orchestra who would be willing to step up to the plate. (I don’t know how – or if – it could work, practically speaking, but… If there were two candidates for a position in a major American orchestra, their musical abilities roughly equal, and one was a ridiculously talented writer, or photographer, or interviewer, or podcaster, or whatever, you might just want to go with the candidate whose talents extend beyond music-making.) (Might this be a way for young musicians to distinguish themselves as competitors in a particularly cutthroat marketplace? How do we train young artists to write well, and whose responsibility is it to teach them?)

Crowd-funded arts journalism is a potential game-changer. Yes, blogger Scott Chamberlain had the chance of a lifetime to go on the Cuba tour after readers chipped in several thousand dollars to get him there, but he also had quite the responsibility: he couldn’t disappoint the people who had given him that money with the expectation of top-notch writing. Because those people were, in large part, his friends. Of course, he disappointed no one. The roaring success of his coverage brings up an interesting question: what comes next in the field of entrepreneurial arts journalism? If a blogger can finance a trip to Cuba…can a writer make a part-time job out of creating online content about classical music? A full-time job? Soon somebody is going to try. And I’m excited to watch content creators (I don’t like the limiting term “bloggers” in this particular context) push the envelope even further. We will all learn a lot about our art from the successes and failures that lie ahead. I’m not saying that crowd-funding is a magic bullet, especially if / when the marketplace becomes saturated. But it could be a potent weapon nonetheless.

When you’re recovering from institutional trauma, one healing tactic is to find a big goal and go for it. I’m thinking about the Atlanta Symphony in particular. They’re in a process of real institutional flux right now. They’re searching for a new CEO and trying to establish an identity of stability and relevance. I’m wondering if the best thing they could do right now is spearhead a major artistic project. Easy for me to say that, obviously; I have zero idea what that project could be. The Cuba idea, for instance, never would have occurred to me, which is why I write about the arts and don’t administer them. But I think the incoming Atlanta Symphony president, whoever he or she may be, should find one. Atlanta needs (and deserves) a “Cuba moment.”

So let’s take a moment to appreciate what Minnesota Orchestra CEO Kevin Smith and board Vice Chair Marilyn Carlson Nelson accomplished here. They acted boldly and smartly, and they refused to act out of a place of timidity or fear. I’ve learned a valuable lesson from them both. The best way to bond a group of people together is to work toward a major goal, all together. The board gave their money. The musicians gave their talent. The staff gave their time and expertise. And together they created something far more valuable than what any one group could have accomplished on its own. And consequently, lots of healing took place. Caveat: you must be reasonably sure you can achieve your major goal. If any number of things had derailed the Cuba tour, then… Well, let’s not go there. But the potential rewards were obviously worth the risk.

Those were my big takeaways from this extraordinary weekend that all Minnesota Orchestra lovers were privileged to share.

What were yours?



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