Review: Minnesota Orchestra Musicians in Wagner, Mozart, Brahms

The thing that strikes me: by all rights, we should be despondent. And yet – I don’t think I’ve ever been to a more joyful concert.

The Minnesota Orchestra should be playing in its newly renovated hall in downtown Minneapolis. And yet – thanks to a fifteen-month-long musician lockout, they aren’t. Ted Mann Concert Hall on the University of Minnesota campus has been rented for musician-produced concerts instead, and it works just fine.

Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, the former music director of the Minnesota Orchestra, is ninety. Most men his age are crippled or dead. He shouldn’t be physically able to lead magisterial performances of Brahms and Wagner. And yet – here he is tonight, graciously accepting our wild applause, magically drawing forth music, gladly flouting his former employer in the classiest possible way.

The musicians should be performing on a newly renovated stage, fresh from triumph at Carnegie Hall. And yet – their Carnegie concerts are canceled and their music director is gone. Instead, they’re learning the fine art of PR, renting halls, serving on fundraising committees, debating repertoire, coordinating educational activities, and selling out concerts.

My volunteer audience activist friends should be occasional concertgoers and amateur musicians who go to concerts, enjoy them, and then go home to their families. And yet – now they’re devoting endless hours to poring over various orchestras’ financial records, while befriending influential politicians and studying the principles of non-profit management.

I should be curled up at home, a woman in her mid-twenties happy in her anonymity, writing essays about Victorian violinists that nobody reads. And yet – thanks to the lockout, I recently went on a WQXR podcast talking about the impact of social media on the arts with the former head of social media with the Dean campaign.

The last fifteen months have been one long story of “x should be, but y is.” Unintended consequences abound. People have tried to control them, but those who try, inevitably fail.

“It would be easy to be bitter, but I am thankful,” horn player Ellen Dinwiddie Smith tells us before the Brahms symphony. She is thankful for the audience, she says. For her colleagues. But most importantly, she is thankful for music.

Yes, I think. Yes.

We’ll soon announce a star-studded self-produced season to begin in the New Year, Ellen then says, very coyly, and the audience murmurs with excitement.


I keep fighting the instinct that a quiet sea change is underway. That the long game of high stakes tug-of-war is trending slowly but surely in our direction. I fight the feeling because there is no rational reason for it. But after the body blow of Osmo Vänskä’s resignation on October first, there have been some developments that might – eventually – turn promising. A firmly pro-musician mayor was just elected in Minneapolis. The realization has suddenly dawned in the press that Orchestra Hall is not actually owned by the Minnesota Orchestral Association; it’s owned by the city of Minneapolis and merely leased out to the MOA…and as you can imagine, this might have some interesting implications. Any claims the management ever had to fiscal responsibility were shattered a few weeks ago when it was revealed that CEO Michael Henson took home over $619k, including $200k in bonuses, the year before laying off sixteen employees to “save” $450k. In December, a new board chair will be ascending to power. He or she will be taking stock of an organization whose credibility with the government and broader community is shot. Will the new chair be more sympathetic to the shrill public outcry? Likely not – stubbornness, thy name is MOA – but the thought is tempting. Meanwhile, listeners keep gleefully guessing what conductors and soloists will come perform with our musicians at their self-produced concerts this spring. Big names, we’re assured. Big names.

And there’s a titillating whisper on every patron’s lips: might Osmo return…to work for the musicians?

There is a feeling that a new stage of the fight is imminent. We just have no clue what that is, or what it means.

But – “No matter what happens, the music will go on,” a cellist tells me in the lobby, after giving me a hug. I am comforted.


The Wagner on the program is from Tristan, the Prelude and Liebestod. The story? Ecstasy in death.

What I notice first: the silence is just as affecting as the sound. World-class orchestras can make silence tremble, and the Minnesota Orchestra is a world-class orchestra, still. The players intensify Wagner’s lurching chromaticism layer by layer by layer. I’ve never heard Wagner played by a great orchestra, have never heard those massive swells of decadent sound before…and I’ve never realized from recordings how unabashedly sexual this music is.

Beauty of an entirely different kind ensues when pianist Lydia Artymiw takes the stage for the refinement of Mozart K488 in A. Lydia reminds me of descriptions I’ve read of Clara Schumann, a soul I’ve spent a great deal pondering lately. She is classical, elegant, poised, fiery, in complete submission to the music, a perfect vessel. The second movement is all wistful soft-edged melancholy; from there, she launches determined into the third movement, fierce clarity sparking from her fingers.

Intermission is a time to meet and greet, to exchange snippets of compliments and gossip. The stage is porous. Over the last year the metaphorical wall that had once been there has been demolished, no doubt once and for all. Performers kneel down at the edge to chat and laugh with the crowd. Without exception, every face I see onstage is bright and shining. What magic well of strength are they drawing from?

They should not be joyful. But in this moment, they are.

In turn, the thought: I should not be joyful. But in this moment, I am.


I respect Wagner. I like Mozart. But I love Brahms.

Brahms 2 is a feast. It feels like a long heartfelt conversation with a beloved friend – over the course of a cold fall afternoon, maybe, tucked safe and warm and together inside, rain reflecting yellow lights in the street. The sound of the orchestra is so inviting, and loving, and familiar, with all those long-spun phrases that stretch out clear to next Tuesday. Stan plumbs the depths of every luscious phrase. Intellectually, I know I should want something a little brisker, with more direction, a tauter narrative…but emotionally? I’m ready for luxury. My soul soars; I want to cry – but I can’t, because that same beauty makes me so happy.

I shouldn’t be happy, but I am.

The gentle opening half-steps rock to and fro. The rhythm crackles with offbeats. The cellos shine and yearn. The fourth movement starts quiet, distant, then pops triumphantly in our faces at the fortes.

The applause and hoorahs afterward are electric.

When the lights rise and my head clears, I notice all the young people scattered throughout the hall, some of them clearly at their very first orchestral concert. What an introduction. What a time and place to come of age. I tuck the thought of their dear excited faces away for the tough days, just in case my love of symphonic activism ever starts to wane.


Those who say they know exactly how the lockout is going to end are lying to others, or lying to themselves, or both. I’ve been writing about the lockout since day one. I know what I’m talking about.

Over the course of the dispute, I’ve come to expect one thing: the unexpected. Because that’s all this lockout has been, from the very very beginning. Unexpected.

X should be – but Y is.

During an orchestral lockout, there should be silence. Instead, there’s music. There should be paralyzing sadness. Instead, there’s gratitude and joy. In our hardship, we have also – somehow! – found happiness.

Orchestra musicians performing an educational concert last week


Filed under Labor Disputes, Minnesota Orchestra, Reviews

17 responses to “Review: Minnesota Orchestra Musicians in Wagner, Mozart, Brahms

  1. Thank you for this review. It was a wonderful concert, and I believe that the joy we (audience members and musicians alike) are experiencing stems from this fact: despite the hardship of the lockout and the intransigence of the board and management; the musicians play on, filling our hearts and souls with the glory that is MUSIC.

    • You are so right, Erika. It must be next to inconceivable to the MOA how both musicians and supporters are carrying on without them and doing it with joy in our hearts. That is the glory and the power of great music.

  2. Jan Carr

    I’ve enjoyed reading your musings on the MN Orchestra situation.

    If you wanted to spread your wings a bit, it would be interesting to have your thoughts on other aspects of the classical music scene in MSP — community orchestras, chamber groups, etc. It would be good to comment on performances, but it would be even better if you did some interviews, so your reader can get a sense for the mission and character of these various groups.

  3. What a lovely post. That’s a concert I would have loved to have attended.

  4. John Davenport

    Emily, your characterization of the concert is right on target, in particular the emotions of the evening: the individual MOM musicians [as we sat down close on the far right we had a particularly intimate visual and sonic connection with the basses]; Skrowaczewski’s careful toddling and puffing on and off the stage; the uncommonly engaged audience. You’re right again about Brahms, and Wagner. It was all electric!

  5. John Davenport

    Pertinent to all about MOM, and Emily, please see this on the New Yorker website; the print version will be coming out this week:

  6. John Cornell

    We seldom publish what a treasure both the legacy and the continued presence of Maestro Skrowaczewski is to Minnesota. In this reply, though, I what to add what I perceive as a forgotten personal aspect of these trials and tribulations. I grew up in a small town just west of the metro area and attended my first Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra concert at Northup in the late 1960s, with a program that included the 1812 overture, with the U of M marching band (shades of May 2014!!!) and Mstislav Rostropovich as the featured soloist. He played one of the Bach cello suites as an encore, and I can still hear that pin that didn’t drop. That concert was a life-changing experience. The memory is a bit dim, but I’m certain that Maestro Skrowaczewski conducted. Now these many years later, I live in the western suburbs, and have three children, all of whom study with locked-out members of the Minnesota Orchestra. Maestro Skrowaczewski lives just a few blocks away, in the house that he settled in with his family decades ago. He’s the backyard neighbor of friends of my daughter, and it boggles my mind that my daughter has trick-or treated at the doorstep of the man who conducted the 1948 Paris premiere of Shostakovich’s 5th symphony with the composer in attendance. Skrowaczewski’s children took piano lessons from the same neighborhood teacher as all three of my children. But, this honored citizen of the world is also a person, and a long-term citizen of Plymouth, Minnesota. He pays his taxes, and he makes his way regularly to the airport. (If you happen to not know, he celebrated his 90th birthday conducting in Tokyo, and this spring will conduct in Saarbrucken, Cracow, Berlin, and London – WHAT?!?!) But I digress. In a similar vein, the three current LOMOMO who are so marvellously teaching my young uns violin and viola each have an average tenure of 31 years with the Minnesota Orchestra. They are also long-standing citizens of the Twin Cities. They volunteer. They shop at Target and Cub. They have kids at St. Olaf. They are active in churches and the community. They are committed. They are GOOD PEOPLE. They are not knuckle-dragging, mouth-breatihng union thugs, as certain un-named Davises and Campbells would have people believe. They are committed to their art, to their families, and to this community. I apologize for the long post. Musicians–my friends–may you win this battle and remain with us here in what is supposed to be the great State of Minnesota.

  7. John Cornell

    . . . And now, unless I’m mistaken, it’s time for the Michael Henson Memorial Song of the Lark Invitational Hall-Renaming Competition. The newly-remodeled meeting and banquet facility at 11th and Nicollet in Minneapolis prominently displays the name “ORCHESTRA HALL.” This unfortunate design flaw needs to be corrected, since the intent of the lessee of the building apparently is that an “orchestra” (as it is commonly understood) is really not involved. So, the board of the Minnesota Orchestra seeks a more accurately-descriptive name for the building. Now, due to budgetary constraints (you know, hefty legal fees, etc.), the name must use most or all of the letters already in place on the building (O-R-C-H-E-S-T-R-A -H-A-L-L) because they were pretty darn expensive to put up there. However, those letters will be shuffled around to display your winning entry by our talented and dedicated NON-UNION letter re-arrangers. Your entry may reflect the true intended use of the hall or any aspect of the demonic-driven strategy which is obvious in the history of the remodel. The prize for the winning entry will be the monetary equivalent of the amount which has actually been paid (all salary and benefits and any additional compensation) by the Minnesota Orchestra Association since October 1, 2012 to Erin Keefe, Concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra. Good luck!

  8. Yes, it was a wonderful concert!
    I agree that the board do seem largely out of options. I think we need to really make use of the 2014 legislative session. If there is no headway by the end of the session, I think that will be bad news.

  9. Tom Foley

    What a great post from John Cornell. I especially like the part where he reminds us that the orchestra is made up of long standing citizens of our city and state, citizens who volunteer, who give blood, whose kids are our kids friends, who participate in the PTA and in our churches and synagogues. We’re so fortunate to have them.

    I believe I too was at the mid-60s concert with Mstislav Rostropovich. He played the Dvorak cello concerto, and the saraband of the Bach cello suites as an encore. And yes, the silence before the applause was one of the greatest “you could here a pin drop” moments of all time.

  10. squirrel

    Sorry, off topic comment… I am a little surprised to see the Minnesota Orchestra’s spring Carnegie Hall concerts listed as “Cancelled” on the Carnegie website. I know the Fall appearances were cancelled but didn’t know that the future concerts were ruled on yet. Any info?

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