Tag Archives: Minnesota Orchestra

Review: Kullervo, Minnesota Orchestra

The Minnesota Orchestra performed Jean Sibelius’s Kullervo last weekend, and I still haven’t recovered.

Music is always difficult to describe, but this piece verges on impossible. It’s long, for one. Its scope rivals a DeMille-directed Biblical epic. It is a glimpse into the very heart of terror and savagery and ice. It enshrines the ghost of a young Sibelius. In Kullervo, Sibelius began to chop a road through a dark and snowy forest. He may have abandoned that road, ultimately preferring another path of tighter, leaner construction. But his decision makes the road untaken all the more fascinating. As listeners, we stand at the edge of Kullervo and peer into the vast unexplored darkness beyond.

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The Marathon

I.

A year ago today my mother was diagnosed with cancer, and six weeks later she was dead. I try to hold her hand in my memory, but it’s not working; it’s not working. Every day she becomes less human, more ethereal. I signed a lease on an apartment in St. Paul recently. It has bay windows and French doors and a glass porch. A young person’s first place has no right to be so beautiful.

The juxtaposition of the two events is jolting and sad. Numbing.

I hear you’re not supposed to “put a timeline” on grief. But I want to. Because grief hurts and whips and drains like a motherfucker, and I want to be done with it. Or at least be able to regard it knowingly, and from a great distance.

Sometimes I feel like I’m making progress. Like I’ve come through intact. But then every time I’ve caught my balance, I trip on something else.

Sometimes I don’t even know what I’m feeling until it’s too late. Then I realize I’ve been putting on a facade for other people.

Or, more likely, putting on a facade for myself.

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Now It’s Really Over

Yesterday I got a call from Minnesota Orchestra bass player Kathryn Nettleman. (Well, Kate Nettleman. It feels weird to call our Kate “Kathryn.”) She wanted to make sure I heard about the big news.

The Minnesota Orchestra has had a lot of big news lately. In January 2014, the sixteen-month lockout of musicians ended. The CEO and board chair departed. Former music director Osmo Vänskä, who had resigned during the lockout, was re-hired. He married concertmaster Erin Keefe, who had been a leading candidate for the New York Philharmonic concertmaster seat. She decided to stay in Minnesota. The organization hired a new temporary CEO, Kevin Smith, who quickly became a long-term CEO. Recording sessions started up again. The third disc in the Grammy-winning Sibelius cycle was finished, and we’re waiting on the release date now. There was a trip to Cuba, planned and executed in record time. Then within a few days of the orchestra’s return to America, it was announced that musician contracts had been negotiated two years ahead of schedule (with modest raises), and that Osmo himself had signed on until at least 2019. Major multi-million dollar gifts were announced. The organization just posted its first surplus in a while (using a prudent endowment draw rate, no less).

If you take a step back, you realize what a veritable barrage of good news there has been here lately. Apparently we’re living in an era of sparkly unicorn rainbows. Thanks to a spirit of collaboration and mutual respect, the Minnesota Orchestra is proving that it is an organization on the move.

But Kate was calling me with even more big news to share. I didn’t know what to expect. Some kind of series devoted to the history of women in music? The construction of the Kevin Smith Room within Orchestra Hall, from which Kevin is never allowed to leave? (He would be fed well.) The first orchestra tour to the moon? After the past two years, nothing seems impossible.

As she spoke, I realized that one vestige of the lockout still remains: the musicians’ independent 501c3. This was the organization that the musicians used to self-produce concerts during the lockout.

“We’re dissolving it,” Kate said.

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Review: Season Opener, Audra McDonald, Minnesota Orchestra

This past weekend at the Minnesota Orchestra was a gala of flashy moments: sparkling drop necklaces, dazzling tunes, dashing (impossibly talented) men in tuxes, elegant (impossibly talented) women in gowns, champagne bubbling over, sequins and beads and feathers. Big and little moments of excitement and anticipation and joy, coming one after another after another, our first opening night in a new era of peace, stability, and prosperity.

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My seat is in right balcony B, a perfect perch from which to observe the crowd and the band and the night. The music begins with the Star Spangled Banner arranged by St. Stan himself. Soprano voices soar high. String players’ chins tilt over their instruments as they survey the crowd, their parts memorized. A roar of applause, an unspoken “play ball!” echoing in the inner ear.

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Magic Flute overture. Chords: round and bold. Strings: one voice magnified, then another, as the Mozartean lines skitter to and fro, some higher, then lower, call and response flitting instantaneously across the stage. My hand as I lean over the short wall, watching the back stands of violas and the basses, then leaning back again and straightening out my dress. Dry air. The rustle of a crisp new program book beside me, its cover folded back. Powerful women glittering under the spotlight in their gowns. Delight. Awe.

Escape.

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Balanced Budget Celebration!

The Minnesota Orchestra will report a balanced budget for FY 2015.

I’ve got one phrase for this:

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Some excerpts from the press release, accompanied by reaction gifs.

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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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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 –

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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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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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#livelarking: Minnesota Orchestra IN CUBA!: Night 2

5:55 PM. The second Minnesota Orchestra broadcast from Cuba is rapidly approaching! Please join me! Facebook, Twitter (those two places were where most of the action was last night), or here on the blog. So pour your drinks and make your Cuban inspired dinner. Please don’t go to Taco John’s.

6:06 PM. If you need some pre-concert reading, take a peek at Scott Chamberlain’s blog, Mask of the Flower Prince! He’s on the ground in Cuba tonight. Pretty sure that this is the first orchestra-related crowdfunded arts journalism effort ever. And that is awesome.

6:28 PM. This shirt is in honor of Richard Marshall, Minnesota Orchestra violist and notorious pun lover.

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7:01 PM. Brian Newhouse begins the broadcast with a series of touching observations about the contrasts between beauty and hardship in Cuba. He reports that the Cubans have been hugely welcoming to our American orchestra! Flutist Wendy Williams observes she feels she is living in Technicolor in Havana. We’re then treated to a Minnesota Orchestra Ibert recording. *excitement*

7:19 PM. The highlights of the broadcasts so far – aside from the amazing performances, obviously – have been the MPR interviews with Cuban music students. I feel honored that we can hear snippets of their stories, hopes, and dreams! I hope that the Minnesota Orchestra inspires their studies as profoundly as they inspired mine…

7:27 PM. Feeling some intense hometown pride as Brian Newhouse runs snippets of interviews with Cuban concertgoers who express gratitude and who (not surprisingly) want the Orchestra to return. (I’m starting the hashtag now: #CubaTour2016.) One woman says they don’t have this sound in Cuba. Not many places do. We are beyond blessed to have this ensemble in our backyard, just in case you haven’t thought about that lately.

7:42 PM. An astonishing moment as the Cuban and American national anthems are played one after the other, with loud enthusiastic applause following. Wow.

7:53 PM. The Bernstein Symphonic Dances are going along swimmingly, with plenty of verve and swing!

8:06 PM. The orchestra is fine form, sounding relaxed and assured. I forget sometimes how truly lovely the Bernstein Symphonic Dances are, so it’s fabulous to be reminded.

8:15 PM. Audiences immediately reward the Bernstein with resounding Bravos! Brian Newhouse muses aloud if this is partly due to the extraordinary gesture of the two side-by-side national anthems that preceded the first half of the show.

8:16 PM. Last night MPR interviewed a Cuban audience member, who observed how in the old days, luminaries such as Heifetz and Rubenstein used to visit annually. Let’s hope the high-level music-making resumes and continues.

8:31 PM. During intermission, Minnesota Public Radio is playing an excerpt from Osmo’s first concert as music director with the Minnesota Orchestra… Grieg, Peer Gynt. I was in my early teens back then. Feeling a serious time warp. So much has happened. So much. And I’m grateful.

8:40 PM. The orchestra launches into a threateningly intense Prokofiev performance. Shades of a delicious nightmare.

8:45 PM. The lower strings, cellos in particular, are really grabbing my attention tonight…

8:55 PM. As the Prokofiev continues, the music dances back and forth between carefree sarcasm and mesmerizing, practically otherworldly beauty.

9:00 PM. Practically had a heart attack when my signal dipped out for half a second. I’m clinging to these sounds like they’re oxygen.

9:01 PM. ~~~DRAMA~~~ as the broadcast signal goes down! OMG! But Brian Newhouse remains cool as ever, smoothly citing “gremlins” and redirecting us to a Sudbin / Vanska / Minnesota Orchestra recording. You can tell they’ve rehearsed what to do if this happens. We’re in good hands.

9:08 PM. The signal is back online, returning us to glorious Prokofiev!

9:16 PM. In the last few minutes alone we’ve been treated to so many ghostly sounds: brass choirs, so-soft-you-can’t-breathe string chords, and now some tenderly foreboding oboe lines. The end was so quiet, so magical… The applause begins slowly, audience stunned.

9:20 PM. Now to bravos!

9:24 PM. Two encores. Eric Sjostrom, Orchestra librarian, has just shared on my Facebook page: “The first encore was the Caturla Danza lucumi, from Three Cuban Dances. Now they are playing Malagueña by Ernesto Lecuona.”

9:30 PM. And the final encore is the same encore as last night, Säkkijärven Polka, as arranged by The Man himself, Osmo Vanska. As Eric noted: “There is no more music in the folders.” He would know!

9:35 PM. We end this extraordinary evening with a recording of turbulent Sibelius. I remember that not too long ago Sibelius 2 was being played at the Minneapolis Convention Center in the middle of a dark, cold winter of discontent…a winter both literal and metaphorical. That winter is now over. And so we pass into a bright spring of possibility.

I really loved the dress I wore that night. And now is as good a time as any, between the tour news, and the Sibelius, and (most excitingly) the likely Osmo / musician contract extensions alluded to today in the Strib, to share that I will be PACKING said dress…in my suitcase…for my flight…next March…to New York City!

New York! Carnegie! Hilary Hahn! Sibelius! EXCITEMENT!

Lots of details have yet to be ironed out, but I just wanted to give a little teaser that SOTL is going on the road to NYC in March 2016 to cover the Orchestra’s next tour, and I could NOT be more excited to share the trip with my dear readers!

So thank you one and all for joining me on the journey – not just to Minneapolis, or to Havana, or to Carnegie, but to this moment! An overwhelming moment that transcends place and time.

I won’t be #livelarking or microreviewing this week; I’m set to visit Orchestra Hall in person to catch Stan’s Brahms and Beethoven and welcome our oh-so-seductive heroes back home to Minnesota. Nonetheless, stay tuned, and be sure to follow my Facebook and Twitter page for up-to-the-minute Minnesota Orchestra news. (And be sure to check both those places to read what went down on the sites during the broadcast tonight!) Love you guys. Signing off –

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Hola, Cuba! #MNOrchCuba <3

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