As many of my readers know, I was diagnosed with several incurable chronic illnesses when I was a child. In my teens, I went through a physical, emotional, and spiritual agony as I desperately tried to come to terms with what these diagnoses meant. I faced a future not just of constant pain and exhaustion, but perpetual poverty, societal scorn, and a black, ever-simmering self-loathing. In short, I faced an acute narrowing of possibility: a future spent in a dark and lonely limited cell.
My story is not unique. Every single human being wrestles with something akin to this at some time in their life, whether they’re dealing with death or divorce or discrimination, or something equally devastating. The unlucky ones stumble in the darkness until they finally collapse, and a kind of light within them goes out. But the lucky ones find a key – and escape.
In large part to the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra, I found a key out of my prison. When I saw the orchestra for the first time in 2003, I realized that my key was classical orchestral music. My key was going to concerts, exploring repertoire, talking to musicians, playing in professional orchestras, playing in amateur orchestras, writing about concerts, writing about musicians, talking about the philosophy of sound. Thanks in large part to them, I found a voice and a mission and an inspiration, and year after year after year, I am amazed to find that that voice and mission and inspiration continually transcend any physical limitations I might have.
It was not any old Minnesota Orchestra that gave me that key. No, it was this Minnesota Orchestra, which was excelling and inspiring in a very specific way during my formative teenage years. Would the Minnesota Orchestra of thirty years ago have done the same? I read and I hear stories, and I’m not convinced it would have. There is a difference between very good and world-class, and sometimes that difference makes all the difference. I promise you: their excellence was my inspiration…and thus my salvation.
So you can imagine how utterly devastating it has been for me to watch the actions of Minnesota Orchestra management, which is so clearly bent on making things as unpleasant as possible for as many musicians as possible. They haven’t even tried to save face during their negotiations. Toward the beginning of the conflict, a board member was quoted as saying that we can expect some turnover among musicians…as if these people, and the connections they’ve forged within the community over decades, are easily replaceable cogs. (My friendships are not easily replaceable cogs, thanks much, and I defy you to insinuate so to my face. You will be surprised at the punch a 90-pound disabled girl can throw.) Management obfuscates and deceives and omits so often on their website that one can only assume they take some kind of sadistic pleasure in confusing their loyal public. They even removed a damning 2010 article from their own website discussing in what great shape their finances were in…but only after people started asking questions about it. Their management strikes not just me, but literally 99% of the people I’ve talked to in the Twin Cities, as being completely and utterly untrustworthy. (And I have talked to a lot of people.) Management’s failure to do its job in a transparent, honest, respectful way is not just an attack on the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra. No, this is an attack on the key that set me free. This is an attack on a key that has set others free. This is an attack on a key that promises to free others who are downtrodden and depressed and desperate.
And thanks solely to management’s insistence on intransigence, it’s become increasingly clear that this key is in danger.
Management locked out their musicians on October 1, and they also canceled concerts clear the way to November 25. The musicians responded by mounting a gala opening night concert by themselves. On October 10 they announced a concert on October 18. They rented the hall (the Minneapolis Convention Center auditorium, where the orchestra was going to play the 2012-13 season as the Orchestra Hall lobby got a $50+ million facelift), found the music, rented (secret) rehearsal space, hired a soloist and a conductor, publicized the show, designed the programs, printed them out, and figured out how to work an online ticketing system…all in about a week and a half. I’d promised to come to their first concert back, under whatever circumstances that concert might be held, and I am a woman who keeps her promises. So on October eighteenth I made the two hour drive into Minneapolis, checked into my hotel, and got dressed for what was clearly going to be one of the strangest musical evenings of my life. (By the way, I brought quite a bit of money into both the public and private economies of Minneapolis that would have stayed in my pocket had there been no concert… Just throwing that out there.) Getting ready, I didn’t know what to feel. I had no idea what to expect: would this be a triumphant gala, as promised (how could it be?) – a small angry rally of college students and union folks – or more of a funeral, and a good-bye? When would the Minnesota Orchestra play again? Who wouldn’t be there once they did? How many musicians have to leave before the Minnesota Orchestra isn’t really the Minnesota Orchestra anymore?
Before the show, I met up with a brand new friend I’d met online. (Making connections with dozens of wonderful people has been one of the few silver linings in a very cloudy sky.) Within the blink of an eye, we were chatting as if we’d known each other all our lives. Such connections don’t happen very often in a lifetime. And yes, I’m well aware of the irony that a beautiful connection only occurred because of a brutally ugly lockout. I’m quickly learning that certain very good things can only come through certain very bad things: “no light without darkness,” and all that. So there is that upside, leastways. Together we earnestly discussed the wonderful ensemble and the terrible situation that had brought us together. “This isn’t just an attack on this orchestra,” she said. “This is an attack on beauty! And I will not stand for it!”
After dinner we hurried through the sparkling lights of a Minneapolis night to the convention center. As soon as we hit the throng of patrons, the buzz hit like a brick wall. I’ve never seen or heard a crowd like it. It consisted of all kinds: college students brandishing homemade pro-musicians signs, middle-class middle-aged folk, many elderly who looked to be disgruntled season subscribers. Some of the attendees had never even been to an orchestra concert before; they just felt the musicians had been terribly mistreated in the course of management’s “negotiations”, and wanted to come out to show solidarity. There was even a woman there whose family name ought to be familiar to most Americans…and to every Minnesotan. She didn’t need to say a word: her silent presence sounded louder than the brass section. Everyone was passionate, defiant, panicked, weirdly hopeful, desperate, hot, and very, very, very angry. Minnesotans are not an overly dramatic people. It takes a lot to rile them up. However, once you do…well, then may God have mercy on your soul. “The musicians have been betrayed!” one elderly gentleman cried as I passed. “Betrayed!” You haven’t understood the meaning of the word “terrifying” until you see an angry elderly Minnesotan shouting “BETRAYED!” in a lobby full of other angry Minnesotans.
On my way to the auditorium doors I briefly greeted a few more dear souls I’d written to online but hadn’t yet met. I gave a sideways hug to a musician, quickly wishing him luck. We exchanged a few words. “We’re sold out,” he said before he slipped away into the crowd and backstage.
I didn’t have any time to mull over the implications of this. Before I could catch my breath from my dash through the lobby, the auditorium lights dimmed. One-by-one the orchestra members came onstage, together, unified, chins proud and high.
The musicians had so much support from this crowd that the mere act of their successfully walking garnered the first standing ovation of the evening. We were just screaming at them: high-pitched squeals, bravo!, we love you! Some musicians beamed into the audience, while others looked very studiously away from us and busied themselves with arranging the already-arranged music on their stands. I forgive those individuals. I know how hard it is to read music with tears in your eyes.
We sat again. There was a moment of proud tension – then an elderly gentleman came walking very slowly, very carefully onto the stage, and we all stood up again. The gentleman was eighty-nine-year-old conductor Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, a petite, utterly darling figure beloved by Twin Cities audiences. He was the Minnesota Orchestra’s conductor when the ensemble built its home in downtown Minneapolis in 1974. Today that same hall is undergoing a lavish remodel, and many people within the Twin Cities feel that it is diverting valuable resources away from sustaining musicians’ salaries. “Stan” had just come off giving a simply brutal interview to MPR, in which he pointedly shamed management for its priorities, going so far as to proclaim that the proposed cuts will “destroy” the orchestra, and that the way management is going about things is “against all principles that this hall and our work was done.” Aww snap. Management ignores his words at their peril: this is a man who has conducted the Minnesota Orchestra every year for the last fifty-three years, and his knowledge of this orchestra and its core mission is unparalleled. My heart just about burst as he ascended the podium; I felt just the strangest mix of desperate pride and proud despair. It would not surprise me in the least if management retaliates against him by denying him opportunities to conduct in future. They’ve already interfered in other much (much much) smaller decisions. I saw him up there, and I thought to myself, now this is conviction: risking something that means the world to you – in this case, the chance to conduct the orchestra you’ve devoted half a century to nurturing – in order to stand up for what you believe in.
After he took the podium, the orchestra launched into the national anthem. The audience laughed a little as we stood, amused that we’d forgotten. Well of course we’d start with the national anthem! After all, this wasn’t just any old concert that the musicians were taking back; it was Opening Night. And every proper Opening Night of every American orchestra season ought to start with the national anthem! Over two thousand voices rose proud and strong. There was a catch in at least one of them.
Post-anthem, principal cello Tony Ross strode onstage, ready to solo in the evening’s concerto. I don’t know if y’all know this, but if you’ve been following the conflict very closely, you’ll know that he’s intimately involved with the negotiations. So if you can possibly imagine, amidst all the insanity of the lockout, he’s also been pulling together the Dvořák concerto.
And as it turns out, he’s been pulling it together brilliantly.
There were certain moments in the first few minutes when I wasn’t quite sure if everyone had settled properly into the acoustic. (Maybe it’s just me, but from my seat, it sounded like a very different venue from Orchestra Hall.) I don’t think anyone would blame anybody if things were a little shoddy technically. I mean, combine the emotion of the night, this strange new venue, the fact they haven’t performed together as a full ensemble since July, the quickness with which the show had been organized……but oh for crap’s sake, this is the Minnesota Orchestra we’re talking about, so of course they only needed a few minutes to gauge the acoustic and blink away their tears and pull it all together. When will I learn that they are superheroes and can do anything they desire?
This Dvořák performance had the mood of a stereotypical Elgar concerto: melancholy, introverted, laced with a teary determination. There was a bitter fire in Ross’s playing…an anger, a betrayal. He played out the same strange mix of feelings I heard being expressed out in the lobby, and the strange mix of feelings within me. I guarantee you: in this particular place and this particular time, no other cellist on the face of this earth could have turned in a better, more meaningful performance. And Ross’s colleagues were there for him every single step of the way, trading off phrases, drawing out the lush lines beneath him, drawing back in the moments he needed to shine alone. This is magic; it requires chemistry. And chemistry is such a rare and precious thing…and so easily endangered.
The most stunning moment of the entire concerto is, I think, toward the very end, when Dvořák incorporates a sad, sweet melody in honor of his dying sister-in-law, the woman he’d once loved. It is a bittersweet remembrance of something dearly beloved, now on the verge of disappearing. The poignancy of that idea within this particular context was not lost on me.
Of course the performance warranted an immediate standing ovation. Somewhere around in here I lost track of how many were given over the course of the night.
Intermission passed in a teary, buzzy blur. The musicians hung along the edge of the stage, signing autographs and reaching out to grasp hands with the crowd. I saw some people I hadn’t met before – waved to various people – then, in a strange turn of events, found myself awkwardly sobbing on a new friend’s shoulder, quite frankly making a wild spectacle of myself, directly in front of the very important woman I referenced earlier in this entry. My life in music is never boring.
Afterward we all got back to our seats, listened to the orchestra tune, and got ready for the meat of the evening: Shostakovich five. But before the orchestra began to play, violist and De Facto Musician Public Speaker Sam Bergman hopped up from his seat and came to the front of the stage to address us. Everyone looked at him expectantly.
“Well,” he said, surveying us back. Then – “Welcome to opening night!”
And we went nuts. After his every sentence, we shrieked back our approval. “You’ve sold out this hall – ”
[WILD GIDDY ECSTATIC APPLAUSE]
“Thank you to our volunteers – ”
[WILD GIDDY ECSTATIC APPLAUSE]
“The amazing staff here at the convention center – ”
[WILD GIDDY ECSTATIC APPLAUSE]
“Thank you to the business community who has supported us – ”
[WILD GIDDY ECSTATIC APPLAUSE]
“We hope you’ll join us in the lobby for a champagne toast afterward, where we’ll be available to answer any questions you might have – ”
[WILD GIDDY ECSTATIC APPLAUSE]
He could have thanked anyone at that point – Voldemort, Sauron, or Moriarty, for instance – and we all would have been like “YAY THOSE GUYS ARE TOTALLY AWESOME WOOOOOO!!!!”
His little speech was pitch-perfect, calmly summarizing the state of events from the musicians’ point of view, thanking the audience for its support, and reminding us of the gravity of the situation. His tone was very polite, very sincere…but also very firm. I often find that polite firmness is much more terrifying than aggression. When you’re aggressive and rude and adversarial (as management has been), you’re invariably putting more cards on the table than when you’re polite. If you’re polite in your firmness, your opponents can only guess at what might be up your sleeve…and this can prove unnerving. I’m willing to bet that there is a considerable strength lying just beneath the musicians’ public politeness. And this is a strength that clearly has not yet been leveraged to its full potential. You’ve been warned.
It was the best performance of Shostakovich five I’ve ever heard, and doubtless ever will hear, recorded or live. Maybe the clichés are right; maybe this is music that can only be fully appreciated in the face of a great struggle. The maestro – who actually knew Shostakovich – pulled off an absolutely brilliant performance, all from memory. This is inspirational. If I live to be eighty-nine, I’ll be lucky to remember where my glasses and pills are, let alone all the notes in Shostakovich five.
In the midst of the terror and despair of the first movement, I smiled a very bitter smile. There is a moment that sounds like the musical representation of ~ certain people ~ who are involved in this conflict. I looked around to reassure myself that I was the only person having this terrible terrible terrible thought. But alas, I was not.
Hint: if your name comes unbidden to multiple audience members’ minds as this theme from Stalinist Russia starts playing, then you are probably not negotiating with your orchestra in good faith.
The heartbreaking slow movement was so stunningly sculpted, and the greatest technical accomplishment of the evening. But it was not the moment that reduced me to shoulder-shaking tears. No, that came during the last half of the fourth…the supposedly “triumphant” movement. I have never bought into the theory that the narrative of Shostakovich five is “triumphant.” If one was to compare it to a battle, it’s a piece written before you go out on the field – before you know what happens – when your future and your life and the outcome is still hanging precariously in the balance, when you realize you can do nothing but your best, when absolutely nothing (except maybe your resolve) has actually changed. I just can’t bring myself to call such an emotion “triumph.” Desperate hope, maybe; grim determination; a resolve to keep pushing against impossible odds…but not triumph. On the other hand, maybe there is something triumphant in just the mere idea of vowing to fight an important battle you don’t know if you can win? … Aha, musicians. I see what you did there.
In any case, I’m still not entirely sold on the whole triumphant Shostakovich five meme, and so as the brass blared, I started to feel profoundly uncomfortable, and a little desperate, knowing that the show was coming to a close, not knowing when (if) there might be another. My ears tried frantically to grip each note. I wanted to somehow slam on the brakes, stop all these terrible changes in their tracks, rip from power all those who have been so shamefully disrespectful over the course of their disastrous tenures. The musicians don’t deserve that kind of “leadership”, and this community doesn’t deserve that kind of “leadership.” Period. My eyes flitted from player to player, dear sweet individual to dear sweet individual, all such inspirations to me, and to so many countless others, wondering which ones might be gone by the time they play together next. Then I closed my eyes tight and prayed desperately, silently, and very uselessly – oh please God, please God, keep them here. I was too busy wrapped up in my spontaneous prayer to notice, but I heard later that the audience behind and around me slowly and reverently rose to their feet a full minute or two before the end of the piece. In case you didn’t know, Minnesotans don’t do this.
At the final note, everyone who was still sitting rose to their feet. The applause went on and on, and on and on. Eventually, spontaneously, it settled into a wild uptempo beat. Now that’s something I’ve never heard in-person before. Hoarse-throated screams echoed through the hall. The din only ended when the orchestra members apologetically began to leave the stage. And since we’ve learned our lesson in the Twin Cities, that stages are nothing without musicians on them, we resisted the urge to applaud empty infrastructure, and fell silent.
As we filtered out, the very important woman behind me said, quite to herself, “Amazing. Amazing.”
Outside, the lobby buzzed. Ushers handed out copies of an essay discussing the conflict from the musicians’ point of view. People were hugging each other, laughing. There were tears, some of which were mine. I’m still not sure if they were from happiness or sadness. After a while, once everybody had a chance to shuffle through the crowd in the direction of the champagne table, Tony Ross offered a simply lovely toast over the lobby microphone. Hundreds raised their glasses to him. It ended with the sentiment: “To art, which we believe makes life worth living.”
“Cheers,” two thousand voices murmured. A chill ran down the back of my arms. If my beloved orchestra is going down, then I’m going down with it, and we’re going down with hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of other people, and we’re going down fighting. And as dark as that sentiment might sound, in a situation as bleak as this one, it’s not nothing.
That being said, after this event, I simply can’t imagine that management isn’t feeling the heat. I don’t think anyone dreamed the musicians could sell out an unfamiliar 2100-seat hall in a week. Former conductors Neville Marriner, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, and Edo de Waart have all come out very publicly, very scathingly, against management. (Big signs with their joint Strib editorial printed on them were prominently placed throughout the convention center lobby.) Osmo has very quietly, but very publicly, made his affection for his musicians known online (if you know where to look, you’ll know what I mean). The time may not be right yet for him to take center stage – there are risks to his doing so – but if he does eventually become a player in this drama, I think it’s pretty clear whose side he’ll be on. The attitude of exasperated criticism is even seeping into the mainstream press, which has an understandable tendency to solicit quotes from both sides and then (as the Daily Show says) “leave it there.” MPR recently published an article online discussing the blogosphere’s universal condemnation of management’s heavy-handed tactics. On Thursday the Star Tribune shot a professionally produced video that was basically a love letter to the musicians’ cause. Whenever orchestra CEO Michael Henson issues a statement, it is invariably lame and often bordering on irrelevant, and consequently buried deep within articles. When was the last time management was able to wrest control of the media narrative out of the musicians’ hands? How many articles have you read lately that lead off with a quote from Michael Henson, much less a persuasive quote from Michael Henson? Exactly.
I have a vague distant hope that things might be shifting, however glacially. An article praising the financial status of the orchestra in 2010 was recently removed from the Minnesota Orchestra’s website, proving that someone somewhere is concerned that management’s arguments are being undermined by their very own words. (Clumsy clumsy.) Those in power have agreed to publicly release the details of the changes in the contract and hash them over on Drew McManus’s blog. Important donors are obviously unhappy, and one of the most important of all has made her displeasure known – and very publicly, too. Civic leaders are beginning to apply pressure. Stuff is clearly happening behind the scenes. The heat is being turned up, degree by degree by degree. Hopefully the frankly unbelievable passion this concert evoked will help to speed up the process.
And yet in the meantime…musicians are auditioning for jobs elsewhere, and playing as subs in other cities. And the clock is ticking.
We can pretend that orchestral music is irrelevant. That orchestral musicians aren’t reaching out to our audiences or engaging with our communities in any kind of meaningful way. That only a handful of people care, and that those people will be dead soon anyway, so what’s the point. I can’t speak for your city, but clearly if we think this way in Minneapolis, we’d be deluding ourselves, and doing a serious disservice to our community. Minneapolis understands what the Minnesota Orchestra board of directors does not: the world-class work that this particular group of people does is a key. It is a key to self-improvement, a key to understanding, a key to beauty. A key to meaning. We know that key has the power to open locked doors and free souls. I refuse to stand idly by if you try to take that key – and these musicians – from me. And after Thursday night’s show, I know that thousands of people in Minneapolis refuse, too. And in the face of such steep odds, there’s a comfort in that.
If you want to see some incredible photos from this incredible evening, head over here.