The last time I was in Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis was in March 2012 to see the premiere of Judd Greenstein’s Acadia. This is a work for full and fabulous symphony orchestra, and it explores a narrative of change, loss, and redemption.
I left the hall that night happy – and completely oblivious to the fact that I’d be living those themes for the next two years.
Eight weeks after that concert, the Minnesota Orchestral Association (MOA) quietly fired the first shot in its aggressive PR battle, months before the work stoppage they were planning for even began. This shot at audiences and donors was completely unprovoked and completely indefensible. Presumably assuming that the wider world would never discover their dirty underhanded trick, somebody at the MOA authorized the purchase of a variety of domain names based on variations of the phrase saveourminnesotaorchestra.com. Why? During the Detroit Symphony strike, audience advocates there had created headaches for the board and management by creating an organization named Save Our Symphony to protest the direction the DSO was going. And consequently, the power players at the MOA wanted to make it harder for any Minnesota-based upstarts to start a similar group. This paranoid purchase proves that they were afraid that Minnesota audiences might try to derail the plans they had to choke the organization and remake it in their own image.
I can confirm that their fears were well-founded.
But there was no time to reflect on any of that as I stepped for the very first time into the Rorschach test of a new lobby. (Do you see a brand new $50 million boondoggle symptomatic of a dysfunctional organizational culture that values bricks and mortar over world-class orchestral music-making, or a badly needed remodel that will strengthen the Orchestral Association in a myriad of ways and foster community engagement and goodwill? Your answer will remain confidential between you and your therapist!) I immediately was in the arms of a musician friend, tearing up on a tux shoulder. Screw reflection; we’ve been to hell and back and we survived, so let’s celebrate. His words came out in a rushed tumble. We’re playing well, he said. Each week we’re sounding better. We need him back.
Of course, “him” is Osmo Vänskä: the beloved Finnish music director who brought the already great Minnesota Orchestra to even greater heights during his ten year tenure. He’d resigned during the sixteen-month-long lockout, and it is obvious he won’t bother to return unless and until the MOA board of directors demonstrates a renewed commitment to world-class orchestral music-making…a goal they, to be blunt, didn’t show any commitment to in 2012 or 2013. (Thankfully, 2014 is going a little better. So far.) What exactly that commitment might consist of, and what their terms might be, I don’t know, and of course it’s none of my business to know. But now that the lockout is over, there are at least some board members who want Osmo back. They’ve taken the first step to getting him back by overseeing the…completely voluntary resignation of the orchestra’s controversial CEO, Michael Henson. Osmo and the Orchestral Association are now in negotiations to see if they share enough of the same goals to make his return worthwhile. If the stars align, part two of our beloved Osmo’s tenure could be on its way. Plus, so many audience members are relieved to see the architect of the lockout packing his bags. Hence the electric buzz in the lobby.
Speaking of the audience…
Save Our Symphony Minnesota, the audience advocacy group the Minnesota Orchestral Association had so feared before the founders of SOSMN even knew they were going to found SOSMN, recently issued a call online to encourage people to dress up in blue and white and to wave Finnish flags at Osmo’s Sibelius concerts. This effort was labeled the “Finnish It” campaign. (We like puns.) SOSMN’s devoted mob of 10,000+ supporters immediately bought up all the Finnish paraphernalia in the Twin Cities metro area. Seriously. I am not joking about this. If it was related to Finland and could be waved or worn, it was out of stock. Even the grand dame of the orchestra, the divine Mrs. Judy Dayton, patron saint of the orchestra, was photographed pointedly waving a Finnish flag.
When I took my seat, wearing a long blue dress and a big white hairpiece, Finnish flag in hand, I felt like a die-hard sports fan who had made a wrong turn somewhere. I looked around at my fellow concertgoers. There was a sedate elderly couple to my right, sitting near the seat Mr. Henson has traditionally occupied post-lockout. I automatically stereotyped: old, probably uptight, anti-musician… Then, happily, my horrible awful stereotyping was shattered mid-judgment as she reached into her purse and withdrew a full-size Finnish flag. I grinned and applauded as they draped it from the balcony. The patron revolution is complete: the audience has literally planted their flag in Orchestra Hall.
Somewhere in all this excitement, the leaders of the MOA were sucked into a black hole…or so one assumes. CEO Michael Henson was on…vacation. (Details of their working relationships haven’t been made public, but the few that have make it clear there is no love lost between Mr. Henson and the Maestro.) No representative from the MOA’s management or board spoke from the stage to congratulate the Maestro or his Musicians on their Grammy win for their recording of Sibelius one and four. The Grammy win was ostensibly the whole reason for the concert, so….that was weird. There wasn’t even an employee in charge of ordering flowers for the stage. The lockout may be over, but clearly the profound institutional dysfunction that spawned it is not. So on Friday SOSMN promptly delivered a massive blue and white bouquet to the stage door. As the leadership of the MOA flails about, desperately trying to chart a direction in the aftermath of disaster, the audience is stepping in to direct the resulting cacophony. If we see the MOA is unable or unwilling to follow through with a good idea, we just step in and take care of it ourselves. The results are both amusing…and amazing.
The energy pre-concert was uproarious. I’ve never experienced anything like it. It was just as intense as Bon Iver’s homecoming show, and that was a performance designed for college-aged indie rock fans.
Suddenly a loud voice yelled through the pre-performance buzz: “Osmo, come home!“
And that was all the spark the gasoline-soaked tinder needed. The audience whooped and hollered and began to clap in anticipatory synchronicity at the still-empty stage. It’s a good thing there are no chandeliers hanging from the ceiling because I think otherwise we would have been hanging from them. Have you ever felt the force of 2100 people in a communal synchronized clap in a hall built for acoustic performance? The force of each clap comes close to knocking you off your feet. A few musicians told me later that when they heard the ruckus backstage, they checked the time and were surprised to see that there were still quite a few minutes to start time. They weren’t sure we could keep the applause going that long.
But of course we could. We’ve been metaphorically applauding these musicians for two long years. I think we can handle ten minutes of literal clapping.
You can imagine the tsunami of sound when the stage doors finally opened and musicians came pouring out, united, in the European fashion.
Vindication. Total, absolute, no-holds-barred vindication.
I have never seen a concert hall lit by so many joyful faces. This was the moment that Minnesota music lovers have been fighting for day and night for almost two years. A stage full of our virtuosos, facing a new day with new leadership, bruised and battered maybe, but still the greatest symphony orchestra in the world.
And they were about to prove it.
The celebratory mood dissolved abruptly as soon as Osmo raised his baton to lead his orchestra in Sibelius 4. The audience settled into its seats and the tone shifted from that of a raucous sporting event to something more akin to a religious service. Beloved long-time principal cello Tony Ross – who has been offered the principal position at the Chicago Lyric Opera, and may well leave Minnesota to take that job – played several yearning solos, indescribable in their maturity and beauty. The many layers of meaning there were just as pungent as you’d imagine them to be. The enigmatic sounds from the stage were wondrous: a wide view of the clouds and the cosmos. Are they sad sounds, or are they just so beautiful they make you sad…? In the first movement, the violins ascended into the stratosphere, a passage that could easily turn into intonation hell, transformed into ethereal heaven.
During the lockout, I think many of us had one specific moment that was worse than all the rest. One moment where all the hopelessness of the situation came to a head.
My dark night came in icy January. I don’t need to say what triggered it; that is private, and irrelevant to anyone but me. But suffice it to say, in this blackest night of the lockout, I wept. I cried. I sought my catharsis through tears.
I didn’t find it.
When you grapple with emotions this dark, and fail to come to terms with them, eventually the paralyzing realization strikes: you must somehow learn to live trapped between the ribs with them. You find you are terrified of your own self – of your own potent, impotent, fury, despair, fear.
As I fell asleep that night, I had a migraine from crying. Each horrible heartbeat pounded in my head. That heartbeat felt exactly like the end of the third movement of this symphony: a note, repeating again and again…sad half-thought phrases drifting all around it…ultimately dissolving into silence…sad unconsciousness.
I wept again in the hall, remembering that dark night of the soul.
Maybe this time there was a kind of catharsis to the tears.
Sibelius’s fourth symphony raised many cosmic questions, but it didn’t really answer any of them. As the orchestra questioned, there were several moments in the fourth movement when the strings began quiet, quiet, anxious, anticipatory, electric churns. The sound was so distant it felt like it was coming from another world: like we were hearing it through some kind of magical gauze. Incredible as it may seem to someone who hasn’t yet witnessed the miracle in person, when there’s a pianissimo on the page, a human whisper is literally louder than the Minnesota Orchestra under Osmo Vänskä. Audience members exchanged awed, delighted expressions. I don’t know that I’ve ever been more fulfilled. There was so much, it was impossible to take in.
At the very end of the symphony, the winds mentioned a few unremarkable phrases; the strings answered with commiserating murmurs; then there was — silence. The end of this symphony sounds like a sad woman at the end of a difficult day. She has her troubles, and she grapples with them, but she also sees that she has survived…for now. She will postpone her ultimate despair, her worry over an unknowable future. She will acknowledge the gift that is her present.
Osmo himself once said of the Fourth: “We are now moving in deep waters: the music tells us that life goes on despite difficulties. We are in the hands of God. Divine power cannot be excluded.”
There is nothing more to say.
Sibelius’s First Symphony is set in a completely different universe from the Fourth, and its operatic opening was the perfect bridge between the two. It was also a bridge symbolic of all we’ve lost. Burt Hara, our beloved superstar clarinetist, was driven away from Minnesota by the lockout and (more relevantly) the Orchestral Association’s profound institutional dysfunction. He has accepted a permanent position with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and he will not be returning to Minnesota. His glaring absence in the big clarinet solo was a bittersweet moment in a night of celebration.
But clarinetist Greg Williams stepped into those huge empty shoes, and he did so with grace, aplomb, and – yes – bravery. It was a brave thing to play as beautifully, as effortlessly, as he did Friday night.
But – there are so many empty seats onstage. So many homes shattered, so many friends and families separated. The wounds are deep, and so very real. They will take time to heal.
Let’s talk about these notes from the scherzo.
On the Orchestra’s Grammy-winning recording, those notes are there, obviously, but they don’t really draw attention to themselves. But in a live performance, they assault you every single time they appear, dancing from one section of the orchestra to the next. Why, it almost sounded as if years of pent-up aggression was being let loose in seven notes (…one for each year, perhaps?). Bum bum bum bada bum bum!
When will you hear an orchestra of this caliber play for its life like this?
Never again, I hope. Never again.
For the inevitable encore, Osmo and his musicians repeated the end of the First. You cannot imagine lusher, plusher, more luxuriant sounds. What could be more beautiful? What on the face of this earth is more beautiful? The correct answer to that: nothing. Nothing is more beautiful than the Minnesota Orchestra in full bloom!
The message of the symphony’s threateningly triumphant ending – as it gradually rose in pitch – as it gradually rose in dynamics – as it gradually gained a manic, frenzied, wild-eyed intensity – the message of the symphony was completely clear. Every single musician present in that beloved orchestra made a musical vow to every single audience member present in that unforgettable night:
No matter the tribulations — our great Minnesota Orchestra will survive.
The brass blared their final chords, and the promise was sealed.
Then came the last two notes, pizzicatos plinked out: