Minnesota Orchestra, July 2010

This was an important review for me. It originally appeared on violinist.com here.


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

Well, it did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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