Review: Minnesota Orchestra and Erin Keefe in Beethoven, July 2012

I went to see the Minnesota Orchestra in Winona, Minnesota, yesterday. Things have changed since I saw them there last, in the summer of 2010. To put it bluntly, the musicians’ contracts expire in September, and from the outside, things are looking unnervingly unsettled. The musicians have written a few carefully vague blog entries that include such sentences as “management’s current proposals would seriously diminish the artistic quality of the orchestra in its ability to retain and attract the best musicians possible and, thus, jeopardize its current top-tier status.” The orchestra’s CEO has sent a couple of odd emails to patrons discussing some of the fundraising triumphs of the past season, with a mention at the end that oh, yeah, by the way: “We continue in contract talks with our musicians, hopeful that we will be able to find common ground to resolve our significant financial challenges.” It is tempting, if ultimately futile, to read between those lines. Staff members have been fired; the upcoming season is short and unabashedly unadventurous; Orchestra Hall is in the middle of a major renovation, and everyone is working in temporary spaces. Maybe I’m paranoid, but this feels awfully like the uneasy calm before a storm.

Some people have seized upon the conflict with a kind of ghoulish delight, braying opinions with all the class, subtlety, and intellectual prowess of CNN covering the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act. I understand why: it’s a chance for everyone, no matter how ill-informed (and at this point, just about everyone is ill-informed) to advance their pet theories about why orchestras are doomed. And oh, how people in the classical music biz love debating why orchestras are doomed! Add in a juicy topical debate about the role of unions and the ultra-wealthy in a community’s artistic life, and the topic becomes irresistible. Mix, bake, set out to cool. Serves a savory meal for hundreds of cultural critics – professional, amateur, and those in the gray netherworld in between.

In short, this may become a big story. There is, potentially, a lot at stake.

Only none of us on the outside knows exactly what.


So, we wait.

Anyway, those were some of the uplifting thoughts cycling through my head yesterday. I’ve been looking forward to this show since it was announced (especially since the program included the concerto debut of the Orchestra’s new concertmaster Erin Keefe), but there was a part of me that was weirdly hesitant to go. I’m only too aware that, thanks to the abridged season, I’m more than likely not going to see the Orchestra until 2013. (Rather unbelievably, there are only four daytime classical concerts left in 2012, and two of those are holiday performances of Brandenburg concertos and The Messiah…) There’s so much uncertainty in my life right now – personally as well as musically – that at this point, 2013 seems like a distant mirage that might never actually get here. What will transpire in the next six months? As I drove the two hours to Winona, I tried my best to shake the feeling I might be saying a kind of good-bye.

The opening was the Coriolan Overture: dramatic, defiant, burning with a raw, almost sinister power. The sound was savage, striking again and again with brute staccato force. Quiet dolce passages offered no relief from the tension; they only tightened the screws, making the next terrifying forte blast all the more devastating. By the time the quiet, albeit emphatic, pizzes brought the piece to an end, it was clear the artistic gauntlet had been thrown. Top that, was the unspoken insinuation. Clearly, despite (because of?) what’s going on behind closed doors, this is an orchestra that knows exactly what to say and exactly how to say it…maybe now more than ever.

After the fierce overture, Erin Keefe strode onstage looking like a veritable goddess in a violet gown, long pleated skirt pooling at her feet. Not only was this her first time soloing with the Orchestra, it was her first time playing the Beethoven concerto; she learned it specifically for this set of concerts. Although she didn’t look it, I had to wonder if she was, at least on a certain level, terrified. What violinist wouldn’t be? But from the moment those opening octaves pierced the air, it was clear she – and we! – had absolutely nothing to fear.

I’ve never heard the first movement of the Beethoven concerto played with such a striking narrative arc. So often so many passages can feel superfluous, leading to the old “it’s nothing but scales!” complaint – but here every note, every phrase, felt indispensable. Her sound was silvery, her dynamics breathtaking, her Kreisler cadenzas shudderingly bold and fearless. Maybe there was a little fatigue in the second half – or certain places where the sound felt a tad scrunched – or a few barely out of tune notes here and there – but these teensy tiny things were more reassurances of her humanity than actual flaws. Tears ran down my face…tears of joy, sadness, satisfaction, yearning, triumph, defeat, and every irreconcilable emotion in between. When played well, the Beethoven concerto has the power to say everything. And thanks to Erin Keefe and her colleagues in the Orchestra, yesterday, it said everything.

After intermission came the Eroica. This is one of those Beethoven pieces that I like and respect and admire but don’t wholeheartedly love…I’m more of a seventh symphony girl, I guess. But nonetheless, what a transporting joy it was to hear live: the orchestra played with all the tightness, conviction, and fire they’d displayed in the Coriolan. Precision – purpose – boundless, limitless, endless energy – all underlain with a restless, arresting passion that – at least in my listening experience – has never been so potent.

For whatever reason (probably in light of…recent events), throughout the afternoon I was struck by the humanity of the people onstage, and by the individuality of each player. Principal cellist Tony Ross warmed up with the devastating opening of the Elgar concerto. A violinist played through a portion of Dvořák New World over and over (they’re performing it in Minneapolis on Friday). Concertmaster Stephanie Arado mouthed some words to a cellist; he nodded. The air conditioning made a racket in the first half of the program, so it was turned off for the second, resulting in the word going round of “lose the jackets and ties!” Men came back out sporting exposed suspenders and rolled-up cuffs; women took off their white sweaters to reveal short-sleeved shirts and bare arms. Sweaty faces glimmered determined in the lights. In between movements of the Eroica, a violinist’s shoulder rest fell off (I sympathized; it looked like the same model as mine, and golly that thing has a tendency to fall off during the most inconvenient times). Everyone watched the reattachment except for Maestro Vänskä, who stood by impassively, pretending to be lost in abstract contemplation of the music before him, only raising his hands again once the rest was re-secured. At the very end of the show, when Vänskä gave each section the opportunity to stand and receive plaudits from the audience, the musicians gave a resounding congratulatory whoop to the ever under-appreciated violas, in one of the group’s many awesomely orch-dorky traditions.

In short, I remembered how the Minnesota Orchestra is not a monolith, not a hive of mindless worker bees, not a colony of bow-tied ants, no matter how often it can look like it, what with the single-minded discipline and bows moving in breathtaking unison and all. It’s made up of a diverse collection of passionate, obscenely talented, well-rounded individuals. For most of them, merely playing an instrument at the very highest level was not enough. So they also became conductors and writers and competitors and composers and historians and educators and artistic directors…among other things. They are the best of the best the musical world has to offer, and their love of their art serves as an example to the rest of us. May we listeners never take them – or musicians like them – for granted.

The Minnesota Orchestra is clearly in flux. They have a new concertmaster who over the course of the last year has proven herself to be an orchestral musician, chamber player, and soloist of the very first rank. A number of important names from the orchestra roster will not be returning in 2012-13 season. Next year a renovated Orchestra Hall will be opened, and if the renderings are any indication, it will be stunning. There are indications that programming in the future will be…um, different. Eventually, a new contract will be signed. Those five changes are likely just the tip of the iceberg. I have my fingers crossed that throughout all the changes, the glory of the core product remains unaffected. My hoping won’t actually do any good, but whatever. It makes me feel better.

I’m not delusional enough to think that anyone with any power from either “side” in Minneapolis is actually reading the bloggy ramblings of a 23-year-old amateur string-player from Wisconsin, nor am I delusional enough to think that they should. But I do hope that as they make the difficult decisions that lie ahead, they never stop remembering the passion of the people onstage, not even for a moment. If the organization’s plans to “Build for the Future” neglect to harness the musicians’ passion, then those plans aren’t worth making. Simple as that. Passion is an asset no budget can buy, and yesterday afternoon, I realized that we underestimate the power of that passion at our peril.


Filed under My Writing, Reviews

5 responses to “Review: Minnesota Orchestra and Erin Keefe in Beethoven, July 2012

  1. Ken

    Hello, there! I know what you are saying. I am worried about the future of the orchestra as well. I’m coming to the same conclusions you are. I also received a copy of the odd email you mentioned from the CEO. In my mind, everything points to a work stoppage. I’m sure they are gingerly trying to prep us for that without actually saying so.

    I’m also going to miss a number of players who are leaving – most notably, Sarah Kwak and Basil Reeve. I’ve never heard Sarah play a wrong note – she was a sure hand if ever there was one. Certainly the orchestra quality will take a major hit without her here. I’ll also never forget Basil’s solo at the beginning of the slow movement of Barber’s violin concerto. It could melt hearts. That’s the other thing – sure, there are always people that come and go and retire and such, but why so many all at the same time? Surely I would want to go out on top before any ensuing fire-sale begins.

    Since I am back here in the Twin Cities – I attended last Friday’s concert – the one with Benjamin Grosvenor. Well, that was the portion of the concert I most wanted to hear. As with most of the young lads out on the circuit these days – traditional concert dress is a thing of the past. He looked handsome.

    I wouldn’t write off going to the convention center to hear the orchestra next season if I were you. Although the offerings are down and there is nothing too adventurous, there still are some good things. You are NOT going to want to miss Harmonium by John Adams on October 25-27. Amazing piece. My favorite Adams work by far. I was wondering if Osmo would ever program it. De Waart conducted it once here many years ago now. Martin Fröst playing Copland should be really good. Simon Trpčeski playing Rachmaninoff should be good too – I usually avoid Rach 2, but I heard Trpčeski in L.A. a few years ago with Rach 1 and he did a good job. Dvorak’s 7th comes up in January – my favorite symphony ever? And along with Janacek – awesome.

  2. Ken, good to hear from you, and good to hear you’re back in Minneapolis. I’d like to run into you sometime at a show.

    What’s tough about the situation is that we just don’t know anything yet. We can read between the lines. We can read terrifying unsubstantiated articles and piss ourselves in sadness and anger and fear. We can talk about things we’ve heard from people we’ve heard from people we’ve heard from people. But I don’t think it’s fair to either “side” to gin up a whole narrative about the situation before anybody – including the people making decisions! – knows all the details yet. At this point I’m trying not to worry, because things are very definitely out of our hands. All we can do right now is send our best wishes, support the people who are going to be affected, and hang tight.

    Actually, it’s not all that different of a dynamic from what political junkies have to deal with every four years. There’s the same vibe of important stuff being at stake – the total certainty that if things don’t go your way, disaster will ensue. You can read the presidential tea leaves from afar, dissect every little poll and press release, but in the final analysis, the time you spend doing so is honestly pretty much wasted. Just about the only time you have any power is when you share your opinions with others in a constructive way, and when you donate and vote, and that’s about it. There’s a similar dynamic going on with this orchestra stuff. I sometimes wonder how much of our modern politics is seeping into our arts organizations…and how much should.

    Thanks for the Adams recommendation; I’ll keep it in mind. I have a new position with a local chamber orchestra, and also am auditioning for a symphony, and so hopefully come fall will have a bit more pocket money to spend to come on day-trips to Minneapolis. Did you ever go to the February preview concert? I’m curious what the acoustics are like in the convention center auditorium. And you aren’t the only one excited for Janacek… There are actually quite a lot of programs in the upcoming season I’m interested in. I’m more annoyed with the shorter season, but of course that can be explained away by the hall renovation. I’m especially interested in what happens in the 2013-14 season once the orchestra is back in Orchestra Hall. How many more pops concerts will be scheduled? How much will the pops shows take away from the kind of programs the musicians were actually trained for decades to play? What kinds of pops shows will they program? If that pivot from classical-to-pops happens, how will they market it? What is their long-term post-renovation vision? How many Midwesterners will care? (I would say Minneapolitans, or Minnesotans, but truth is, the Orchestra is viewed as “ours” even here in western Wisconsin. The arts scene in the Twin Cities is a regional treasure, and should be treated accordingly.)

    And, perhaps most tellingly, which musicians will stay in town…and who will move from Minneapolis, or retire, or switch occupations entirely?

    • Ken

      I’m definitely not panicking yet. I’m concerned and somewhat frustrated, but not panicked. I wish there was something I could do to help. I suppose the best thing I can do is continue to go to the concerts and show my support that way, which naturally I would do anyway.

      Interestingly, there has been a lot of talk about all the pops concerts. My view on those is rather complicated. Personally, I hate pops concerts – I’ve never been to one. But the reality is, more and more of those type of concerts are getting scheduled – and not just here. On the other hand, I think there is a market for some of those concerts.

      I like what the Boston Symphony does – they cram together a tightly-woven classical season and then come late Spring they turn it over to the Boston Pops. Now, the Boston Pops is certainly a name I respect – I listen to some of their programs on the radio and have many of their recordings. It seems to me that if the Minnesota Orchestra had a distinct pops season completely separate from the classical season, the actual classical season would seem less diluted with the fluff that turns off the die-hard classical base.

      I didn’t have an opportunity to go to any of the convention center concerts this past season. So I’ll have to wait until October to check it out and see how things sound in there. Even if the sound is bad, it was the best location they could have held the season, I think. Are the Northrup renovations completed yet? Last time I went by there (which was late last Summer), there was a gaping hole in the back of the building as construction on the building had only recently begun. I will say this, Ted Mann was a great facility for Sommerfest – I figured it would be. Nice riverside location, nice hall. Yes, it’s smaller and so revenue will be lower, but it’s still a great place.

      The shortened season is bothersome. I have my doubts whether those additional earlier weeks will be replaced when the renovations are completed. The season has been trending to start date later and later in the month of September in recent years.

      I have to stop. I’m doing exactly what I shouldn’t be doing. Speculating. There’s no point. There’s nothing I can do. In the end, everything will be fine. The orchestra has played through tougher times than this.

      What is this music lovers’ auction being advertised on the MO’s website? The link is down tonight so I can’t check it out – but it sounds like it could be cool.

      Will you be blogging about your position with the chamber orchestra? What are you doing for them? Envious.

      • Won’t really be blogging about the chamber orchestra. Although I love the group, there’s not much to say about it. It’s a program-by-program schedule, so if they need somebody and I’m free, I’ll take the job. First show is playing second violin for Vivaldi, Bach, and Haydn. Pretty technically easy stuff; the focus will more be on cohesiveness as a group, I think. Still…paycheck! Small paycheck, but paycheck.

        “I have to stop. I’m doing exactly what I shouldn’t be doing. Speculating. There’s no point. There’s nothing I can do.” Exactly. I’m guessing there are plans being made behind closed doors about how the audience can show support for the musicians during a strike, if it comes to that…they just can’t tell us yet. So we’ll just have to hang tight, and band together if (um, when) the time comes.

        I’d be interested in seeing interesting challenging pops concerts. Stuff that doesn’t insult the abilities of the musicians. Why don’t you just form a whole other orchestra made up of much less talented players (like me) for playing half notes for bad singers that impersonate dead singers? Oh, that’s right…money. Well, whatever. Money’s overrated. ;) I’d love to see Bon Iver do a show with orchestra. I’m sure if Justin Vernon worked with the right people, they could come up with just a mind-blowing show for his band and orchestra that I would pay a lot of money to go to. There’s got to be lots of amazing groups whose music doesn’t consist of all quarter notes, that could be adapted for orchestra in an artistically fulfilling way, that could still sell out a hall as well as a tribute to the Carpenters. There’s just got to be. So I’m not against the idea of pops concerts, per se. If the rep is right and the musicians are employed to something close to their full technical potential, then they could be totally awesome. But the majority of the pops concerts I’m seeing on the schedule are…not totally awesome. Once again, I think we’ll have to see the 2013-14 schedule to start getting a better idea of where the powers-that-be want to take us.

        Always easy to be an armchair referee when you don’t have the arts administration training, have no access to the books, don’t know the people involved, don’t know the history or the politics or the biases of the people involved, and have a strong instinctive sympathy for unions and musicians.

  3. Pingback: The Lark Ascending | Song of the Lark

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s