If I could go back in time a few years to talk to my twenty-year-old self, the first thing I’d say is, prepare for endings and beginnings. Prepare for rebellion, discombobulation, and a new ambition that will stun you with its ruthlessness. Prepare for a pivot; prepare for change.
It’s no coincidence that this new taste for new things has been reflected in my musical life. In the last year, I did my best hipster impression at my first indie rock concert – said “screw it” and learned some challenging new repertoire I’d been holding back on learning without a teacher – joined a semi-professional orchestra, and didn’t die – took up viola on a whim, and liked it – found myself cheering on an effort to commission a half-hour orchestral composition – and then, strangest of all, found myself attending the premiere of said half-hour orchestral composition. (Is this the same girl who as a teenager pretty much refused to listen to anything written less than a hundred years ago? Really?) I’d never been to a premiere before, so I didn’t know what to expect. But for a variety of reasons, I decided to dress up Friday night and give it a chance.
And I’m so glad I did.
The program, consisting of the premiere of Judd Greenstein’s new four-movement orchestral work Acadia, attracted quite the mix of patrons, ranging from well-dressed elderly couples to young families to enthused hipsters. Two college kids sat behind me, one of whom had never been to Orchestra Hall before. He burst out laughing when he read in the program that Greenstein is writing his doctoral dissertation on hip-hop. “Dude, that is just so cool. Can you imagine?”
The concert was part of the Minnesota Orchestra’s Inside the Classics series, so, as is customary, the first half of the show was devoted to discussing and dissecting the piece, the second to performing it in full. To start things off, series host and Orchestra violist Sam Bergman observed that music that exists on the page alone isn’t really finished; it requires both performers and an audience to bring it life. This inspiring thought made me applaud all the harder when Greenstein himself came onstage to take part in the discussion about his work. If he was remotely nervous at the thought of talking in front of hundreds of people about the piece he’s devoted the last year of his life to writing, he didn’t show it. He immediately won the crowd over with an air of relaxed, good-humored genius. Thanks in large part to his eloquence, the first half of the show was over in an enlightening flash. After intermission, conductor Sarah Hicks ascended the podium and cued the orchestra to begin.
At first listen, Acadia was astonishing. I’ve never heard anything like it. I got dizzy attempting to put various passages in context – oh, look, Pärt! Glass! minimalism! Copland? hip-hop! Romantic sweep and color! jazz! Ravel! Boulanger? movie music! … Bon Iver? These genres aren’t supposed to mix, but the mix not only worked; it felt inevitable. The themes came and went, bubbled to the surface then melted back into it, sometimes yearning, sometimes insistent, always full of character and rhythmic drive. Like a good lover, they were both attractive and interesting: attractive enough to catch your attention at first glance, interesting enough to spend time getting to know. The pace was unnervingly masterful – almost frighteningly so for a composer who has never attempted a work of this scale before. The narrative struck me as being one of journey, reflection, then finally acceptance, maybe even celebration. Change. Evolution. Growth. Happily, Greenstein was smart enough never to detail what exact events had inspired him, so instead of feeling as if we were merely listening to his experiences, we felt as if he were giving voice to ours. There’s a power in ambiguity.
Certain passages were so clever and so unexpectedly beautiful that I looked around to try to catch someone, anyone’s, eye. Can you believe this?, I wanted to ask them. Are you feeling what I am? What am I feeling? Because I don’t know – I’ve never felt anything like this before. What do you think?
But no one else met my glance; rows upon rows of people were totally absorbed, sitting absolutely quietly, concentrating. No coughs, no sneezes, no rustling of programs. It felt as if the very walls were listening.
As I sat there, I toyed with the thought of what it must have felt like to attend a premiere of a piece by Beethoven or Tchaikovsky or Bartók. Did premieres of the (for lack of a better word) classics feel different from others? Did they feel anything like this? The communal electricity here was a strange mix of thrilling and hot, happy and anxious. I watched the impassive back of Greenstein’s head twenty rows ahead of me. Did he know he’d created something really special, or was he merely hoping? For that matter – had he? Is this piece really as fantastic as I think it is, or am I just predisposed to like it after having followed its progress for so many months? I don’t know. Does it matter? I don’t know.
A little over half an hour after it began, Acadia’s satisfying (and surprising!) last note reverberated through the hall. The audience clung to the sound. It wasn’t long before a grateful Greenstein was taking bows before a very loud standing ovation.
Will Acadia have a life beyond the Minnesota Orchestra? I’d be comfortable placing a bet that it will, and I’m not a betting woman. But even if it doesn’t, it and the project around it accomplished things classical musicians always say we want to do, but rarely actually get around to: it brought a new audience into the hall, it took (some pretty crazy) risks, it gave a brilliant young composer a chance to test-drive a world-class orchestra. In an industry that spends an awful lot of time bemoaning its ever-approaching irrelevancy and demise, those are things to celebrate.
In January Greenstein wrote some words on the Minnesota Orchestra blog that have been stuck in my brain for months. The day I got back home, I went to reread them. After hearing the piece they described, they resonated more than ever.
“I first heard the term Acadia in the context of Acadia National Park, where I spent a few incredible days camping with a good friend, a long weekend that turned out to be a pivotal time – literally, in the sense of a pivot – in my life. If I were to break my life into two sections, the first part would end in that Acadian weekend, hiking in hills on the edge of open ocean, exploring the southern tip of that land that stretches along the coast, upward to the Arctic… And so, for a commission that means as much to me as any I’ve ever received, I wrote this piece with that word in mind, a pivotal word for a composition that may mark the end of something, or the beginning.”
Endings and beginnings. Who knows what kinds? The beginning of a young composer’s triumphant career writing for orchestra? – the end of the Minnesota Orchestra’s commitment to new music? – the beginning of a new way of paying for commissions? – the end of a time in my life when I only feel capable of engaging with the work of dead men? – the beginning of my personal musical maturity, and the end of its childhood? The beginning of the concert life of Acadia? – the end of it? I have guesses and gut instincts, but honestly, I don’t know. No one does. We may have brought Acadia to life, but now it has to live or die on its own merits. Nonetheless, no matter what happens in the future, what happened last weekend was special – unbelievably so – and I’ll always remember it.
A portion of Greenstein’s autograph, inscribed with an important theme from Acadia
And even if you weren’t there, maybe you’ll remember, too, because a free recording of Acadia is available here. You have to sign up for an account with the Minnesota Orchestra, but doing so is quick and easy. Both Twin Cities critics gave the piece a rave, and everyone I’ve heard talking about it loved it, so it just might be worth your while to check it out.