Review: Minnesota Orchestra and Midori in Britten, Sibelius, and Debussy

Confession time: I live in small-town Wisconsin, and it’s driving me crazy. This year I’ve spent quite a bit of time in the Minneapolis metro, and while doing so I’ve discovered beyond a shadow of a doubt that I’m actually a big city girl at heart. (Well, bigger city girl, anyway. I realize that some people don’t consider Minneapolis to be a big city. However, I invite those people to move to western Wisconsin, live there for twenty-two years, and then visit Minneapolis. I can assure you they will reconsider their opinion.) Nothing else fulfills me – artistically, emotionally, spiritually – like the kind of world-class performances you find so often in the Twin Cities. Every time I walk down Nicollet Mall to Orchestra Hall, drunk with the throbbing energy of the city, dizzy with the thought that any minute now I’ll be in the big hall with the big orchestra and the big soloists, I feel like a magical new dimension of life is opening up before me. So you can imagine how thrilled I was this week when the stars aligned and I had the opportunity to see the Minnesota Orchestra and Midori in an 11AM program of Britten, Sibelius, and Debussy. The concert exceeded expectations in unexpected ways; I learned more about orchestral music in one morning than I’ve ever learned at a single concert before.

The concert began with the haunting Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten. I haven’t listened to much Britten, and I’m not sure why; I invariably love whatever I hear, but I just never take that next step to seek out more. Note to self: more Britten. This is lovely, powerful, weirdly unsettling music, soaked through with misty moonlit atmosphere. I love it. The orchestra played beautifully, although I don’t recall any individual standout moments. (Upon reflection, this may have been because I was too busy fangirling and thinking “oh my God I’m in Orchestra Hall! and look! there’s Osmo Frigging Vanskä! and Erin Keefe and Sarah Kwak and Sam Bergman and Peter McGuire and Tony Ross and all the others oh my God!” to pay as much attention as I should have to the actual music.) I did, however, get the general impression that the Britten was, more than anything else, serving as a curtain-raiser for the event that the orchestra website and brochures have been trumpeting for months: the return of Midori to the Twin Cities.

This is not my first encounter with Midori; I saw her in July 2010 in recital in Winona, Minnesota, and I wrote after that concert that “Her sound – at least as I heard it from the front row of the balcony – was clear, classic, elegant, beautiful, but maybe a bit small, and focused at the center of the hall, as opposed to extending out to the sides.” This time I was way out on the side of Orchestra Hall in the seventh row, so I had a chance to test out my July 2010 hypothesis. Turns out my doubts as to whether her sound could carry out to the corners were well-founded. Her playing was anemic, and it wasn’t a matter of mere acoustics; concertmaster Erin Keefe pierced through much more effortlessly during her brief solos in the second half of the program than Midori did in any of the Sibelius. In an attempt to get another perspective I listened to the MPR broadcast of Friday night’s concert, and I heard the same thing there. In both the broadcast and in real life, certain brief passages came across as clear and loud and gutsy, as if a technician had turned up a mike, but then within a few measures the sound would invariably, mysteriously, fade away again. I’d noted the same disconnect in her sound between the main body of her program and her encore in her July 2010 recital; it’s a very odd phenomenon. To add to the awkwardness, one of the Minnesota Orchestra’s trademarks is a huge dynamic range. Usually, of course, this is a divine treat, but in this particular performance, it almost became a liability as various players struggled not to obliterate their soloist. Whenever a tutti came and they were cut loose to do their wild magnificent thing, it ended up sounding like a toddler was futzing with the volume dial on a very expensive speaker. They never did find their balance, at least not from my seat. I’m sure part of the problem is that I’ve never heard the Sibelius live, and I’m spoiled with unnatural balance on recordings, but my gut’s saying it was more than that, that another player could have pierced through more often. Hopefully someday I’ll get another shot at hearing the Sibelius live, and then I’ll see if this was just a fluke, or if everybody vanishes so far away into the texture. (And who knows, maybe someday I’ll realize I owe Midori an apology for expecting superhuman volume.)

Aside from the projection issues, there were a couple of strange interludes in the first and second movements where everything seemed to slow down, where I didn’t quite understand where she was headed, where my thoughts wandered, where my attention was drawn to the second violinists, or audience members up high in the tiers, or the sheen of Erin Keefe’s hair underneath the spotlight. (Although to be fair, Erin Keefe does have gorgeous hair.) I heard a lot of passion in what Midori was playing, but I felt absolutely none of it. It felt very odd – almost voyeuristic, as if I was in the same room with someone who was crying over a love letter that I’d never be allowed to read.

Clearly, for whatever reason, our two souls didn’t quite connect that morning. Question: why do some performances grip you; assault you; touch, burn, something raw and searing and elemental deep within you – while others only make you think “hmm, impressive” and nod appreciatively while the bravos are shouted and the bows are taken? I know, I know, music is subjective, even (especially?) at the very highest levels of performance. It’s probably part of the reason I love it so; I enjoy being frustrated by ambiguity. But it’s still mind-boggling to me how I can be in the same room with two other much more experienced listeners and apparently hear a totally different performance.

Now it sounds like I’m coming down hard on a great violinist, which I don’t mean to do. There were elements to her performance that I really liked, too, like the dozens of little details she put into that ethereal opening, and her beautiful yearning shifts. Her technique felt solid, aside from a couple of passages in that beastly third movement where just about everyone struggles. She clearly has the chops. But based on my experiences seeing her last year in-recital, and hearing various mind-blowing Vanskä Sibelius performances over the radio, my pre-concert guess was that the orchestra itself would be the real star during the concerto…and I was right. I wish there had been a solo encore so I could hear how she sounded without having to compete with the orchestra. Maybe she’s just one of those violinists whose strengths are best appreciated in a recital setting.

After intermission came an orchestral arrangement of Clair de Lune. Vanskä has a habit of striding onstage and starting the orchestra before the buzz of the acknowledging applause has entirely dissipated in the hall. I’m not sure if he’s frustrated with audiences taking too long to clap as he comes onstage, or if he’s just that excited to get to the music, or what. That quick transition from applause to music didn’t work so well here; the weird result was that the entrance to Clair de Lune sounded jarring. The orchestra played beautifully (of course), but the arrangement itself struck me as rather cloying. I suppose it didn’t help that I watched Twilight last week and there’s that awful scene where Edward and Bella stand around in Edward’s bed-less bedroom for approximately eight hours while blankly stammering and breathing at each another, before randomly, improbably, bonding over their mutual appreciation for (you guessed it) Clair de Lune. (Note to self: don’t ever watch Twilight before going to see a Debussy performance. It will ruin it for you.) (Actually, just to be on the safe side, don’t ever watch Twilight again, period.)

Erin Keefe had a small solo during the piece, and now seems as good a time as any to mention that she is total dynamite. She approaches her new job with the precision and body language of a chamber musician, and she clearly has technique and musicality to burn. I hope her coworkers love her as much as I do. Halfway through the program I even caught myself imagining how amazing it would be to play in her section, and that has certainly never happened before. I’m itching to see if she can deliver the goods playing a concerto gig. Minnesota Orchestra programmers: get on this.

An arrangement of the piano piece L’Îsle Joyeuse came next. This piece was much more satisfying in orchestral form than Clair de Lune was. What a sweep of elegance and excitement! In the program Eric Bromberger mentioned that Debussy worked on the piece while vacationing with his mistress on the Isle of Jersey. Hmm. I’d heard the story before, but I never would have made the connection between the Isle of Jersey and L’Îsle Joyeuse; it certainly lent a whole new dimension to the defiant, bittersweet exultation that permeates the piece. I love enlightening program notes.

The last work on the program, La Mer, was the highlight of the morning by a million miles. Lushness, color, beauty, everything, and lots of everything. Sweeps and slides galore – touches of gorgeous schmaltz – washes of pure sound, followed by perfectly articulated clarity – astonishing, impossible dynamic contrasts. Phrases of only a few notes had (and I’m not exaggerating) five or more dynamics. Every single phrase was gorgeously shaped, especially in the lower strings; principle cellist Tony Ross in particular was a total standout. The whole concert I was really struck by all the principles, and how they interacted with one another and with Vanskä. For whatever reason, the entire orchestra gave off the vibe of a chamber group, and it was such a joy to watch. Music students: watch and learn.

There was a big moment toward the end of the first movement when a bold brass fanfare soared through the hall, and I felt as if I was on the top of a cliff overlooking a choppy salty sea, hair whipping across my face, coat whipping against the wind, totally absolutely against-all-odds invincible. Right away the tears began to prick at my lashes. Okay, I admit it – the brass made me cry. Not the violins, not the violas, not the cellos…the brass. So kudos to them for making this brass-averse string-player tear up. They were just magnificent. From now on whenever I listen to that portion of La Mer I know I’ll remember the way that the notes surged out above me, and how they so brilliantly, so miraculously, encapsulated everything I felt that morning – the relief of escape, the glory of the ecstasy of sound, the exultation of being in a big bustling city crowded full with interesting people who share my obsessive quirky passions. What a breathtaking experience.

So if you have the chance to see a great orchestra and haven’t yet taken advantage of it, for God’s sake, stop putting it off. Go into the city – find a friend to split the costs – take a very long day-trip – just do it. Find a way to make it happen, because I guarantee you that no CD or DVD or Blu-Ray or state-of-the-art surround-sound system can deliver inspiration with the same intensity that a world-class ensemble like the Minnesota Orchestra can. Trust me on this one.

9 Comments

Filed under My Writing, Reviews

9 responses to “Review: Minnesota Orchestra and Midori in Britten, Sibelius, and Debussy

  1. I would prefer to hear Erin Keefe play anything over Midori. but that’s just me. Keefe is a very exciting player, and she has loads of stuff inside to share. Midori can play concertos in her sleep, and some people don’t notice the difference between someone who is genuinely excited about playing, and someone who might play everything perfectly yet has trouble connecting with her own personal passions about it.

    On the other hand, if there were a great deal at stake for Midori, and if she were to take musical risks (if she even knew how), people who have the usual expectations for perfection from her might be disappointed. There are only a handful of violin soloists who allow their deamons on stage with them. Keefe might have allowed hers to be with her, but she was in a safe spot.

  2. Ken

    What a wonderful blog you have here! I hope you have an opportunity to get out of small-town Wisconsin at some point in the near future! At any rate, I was at the Friday night show and had the same thoughts about Midori that you discussed. I was half-way back on the main floor and had a difficult time hearing her. I’m not sure if this is due to inadequacies in her playing or rather her conception of the piece. There were parts of the 2nd movement that were quite moving and her quiet playing in those parts made sense, but I was looking for more in other parts.

    Greetings from Saint Paul. I’ll continue reading more of your blog!…

    • Hi Ken, Great to hear from you. Interesting that we both had the same impressions about Midori – as the two professional reviews of the concert show, people don’t always agree with me! I hope you enjoy your time in this blog. Maybe our paths will cross someday in Minneapolis… Thanks for your comment.

      • Ken

        Still reading!…the list of great female violinists you’ve posted is really excellent (this entire blog is quite a history lesson). The mention of Guila Bustabo particularly interested me, since I’ve always been interested in a recording of the Bruch concerto she made with Mengelberg (which is here on my shelf). I was beginning to think that today really is the age of the female instrumentalist, but after looking at your list, I’m not so sure. Certainly, there are many, many outstanding players, but how many will the be remembered 100 years from now? Certainly an Anne-Sophie Mutter would be, but would a Nicola Benedetti? Too early to know, but my guess is the names may end up being foreign to many, as numerous names on your list are to me now.

        A couple of months ago in fact, I was mulling over names in my head and wondering who I thought the best violinist playing today is. I narrowed it down to a list of 3 names: Joshua Bell, Frank Peter Zimmermann, and Christian Tetzlaff. Of those three, I think I prefer Tetzlaff, even though realistically, I think Bell is probably the best technically speaking – but even so, I don’t like him as much. Surprisingly, there were no women left on my list after I narrowed it down, even though it was a close call – Julia Fischer?

        No, people don’t always agree with the reviews that appear in the papers. There have been some concerts that I have adored, that the critics seem ho-hum about (so far this year I’m thinking of the Greg/Stephen Paulus ‘TimePiece’ from 9/30), and some others that they go crazy about that I simply didn’t go for at all. Now that I think about it, it seems to me that Midori spent a lot of time almost scrunched up like a ball during her playing, as if she were playing for herself and not to an audience…very introverted playing. And perhaps, if someone were that type of person or in that type of mood, everything would feel just right… What’s nice is that there is no right or wrong answer for the most part. Certainly though, you’ll get another opportunity to hear the Sibelius live – no shortage of performances. I think this is the 3rd time Osmo has conducted it here already…and I’ve heard 2 of the 3 (the prior one I heard was Viktoria Mullova).

        Keep writing reviews and other items, as you’re doing a really good job! I used to write reviews on my blog of all the concerts I attend, but discontinued that a couple of years ago due to time constraints. Unfortunately, my work pretty much zaps me of energy and so I lost focus on other stuff and prefer to decompress instead of posting reviews. But there have been lots of good concerts in the past couple of years that I would have loved to write about (I was in NYC a few weeks ago, and went the MN Orch show there – that would have been a good one to comment on).

        Have you had a chance to make a road trip to go catch the Chicago Symphony? It’s not that long of a drive, and well worth it. Your trips into Minneapolis remind me of when I lived a couple hours away and would drive in to hear some of the shows. It was a really big deal. I am thinking of one show right now (Slatkin/Pamela Frank/Mozart/Mussorgsky) that I had to miss because it was so cold outside I couldn’t get my car to start!

        Anyway, Cheers!

        Ken

  3. Wow, great to have such a detailed comment, Ken!

    Going backward in your post… I have heard a portion of the Chicago Symphony once. As a substitute for prom / high school graduation gift, I was able to go to Chicago to see Ehnes in the Weill concerto for violin and woodwinds, with a stopover at the Art Institute, in 2006. (Much better memories than any prom could have been!) But it wasn’t the whole group playing the concerto, obviously. My impression then was that based on what I did hear, I liked the CSO better than the Minnesota Orchestra, but nowadays… I’m thinking it might be a closer call. Even I have noticed a huge difference in quality in Minnesota between the first time I saw them in the summer of 2003 and now.

    I think Tetzlaff and Zimmerman are fantastic. Not so huge on Bell; not sure why. Hilary Hahn belongs in the top tier. A few of her recordings leave me totally cold, but her Bach, Shostakovich, and Brahms I find very enjoyable, and she has a frighteningly good technique. Fischer is amazing but for some reason I’m still waiting for her to really blossom. (She’s coming to the Schubert Club this February, as you no doubt saw at the end of the November Showcase; unfortunately I won’t be able to go…) Lisa Batiashvili… I actually really enjoy Jinjoo Cho; she made the competition rounds a while ago, but I haven’t heard much from her. Rachel Barton Pine, who should be commended for her adventurous tastes and passion for research as much as her playing. (She has done a lot of research on Maud Powell and is probably, out of any violin virtuoso today, the most connected with the history of women in violin playing.) There’s also this woman named Erin Keefe I hear we should be keeping an eye on…

    Best, Emily

    • Ken

      Emily, haha…yeah, I am hearing a lot about Erin Keefe these days. I’m sure she’s going to be fantastic, although I was a big fan of Jorja…big shoes to fill!

      I went to one of the Batiashvili concerts here a few years ago, when she performed the Shostakovich 1. She’s amazing, but I am not nearly so happy with her recording of the same piece that came out about a year ago.

      Simone Lamsma is another one to keep an eye on. She was here in Saint Paul only a couple months ago playing the Lindberg concerto…naturally I went to that concert . Very impressive.

      Have you had a chance to hear any of the Hilary Hahn Ives disc that was recently released? I really like it a lot, and it may well be my favorite of the recordings that she’s issued (I have many of them). Hilary also has a cool blog. It humanizes the star performer…I like that.

      I think the CSO is the better orchestra, for sure. But the MN Orch plays with much more energy – how can you not with someone like Osmo on the podium? And I like the wind section in our orchestra better. I also prefer the acoustic here in Minneapolis (even though it could use some toning down – it’s a bit too bright) better than Orchestra Hall in Chicago. So I like different orchestras for different reasons. Sometime I’d like to be able to hear the Czech Philharmonic live – they are my favorite.

      It’s too bad that you will not be able to make it to the Fischer Schubert Club recital. I’m sure it will be memorable. You should try to juggle your schedule around. I’ve been mulling that one over – looks like tickets are getting a little scarce for that one. Oh, and look – Tetzlaff will be at Ted Mann on 3/19/11, as well as with the SPCO 3/22-25/11 and with the MN Orch on 3/16 & 17/11!

      Do you ever hear the SPCO? You can get tickets for $10 to sit on the main floor. They reconfigured the stage this season and the sound is terrible now, but for $10 it’s worth it still. I snatch those up all the time.

      My apologizes for the long commentary.

      Ken

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