Yesterday I made the two hour trek across the tundra for a 2pm performance of Eiji Oue conducting the Minnesota Orchestra at Orchestra Hall.
Snow came early to the northern plains this year. It feels like December – indeed, a lot of people have just said “screw it” and lit their lights a couple weeks early – but obviously we’re not even to Thanksgiving yet, so we’re also in a kind of holiday limbo land. It’s a weighty question: do we follow the calendar or the snow?
I mention this because the program opened with various selections by Giovanni Gabrieli for two brass choirs. And especially at this time of year, said instrumentation bellows carol, cathedrals, Christmas. It felt like implicit permission to kick off the warmth and coziness of the holiday season without guilt.
The two choirs were situated on opposite sides of the Orchestra Hall stage, one anchored by tuba, the other by bass trombone (shout-out to new kid Andrew Chappell!). Obviously they’re normally tucked behind an impenetrable Wall of Strings, so it was a fascinating joy to watch the players and their faces. I really think the orchestra is onto something by programming smaller pieces in the first half, followed by a big blockbuster in the second. My Sunday audience seemed to enjoy the set-up too; as the sharply sculpted phrases were traded back and forth, listeners’ heads oscillated from side-to-side in appreciation. And what a sound a brass choir makes. You have to be in the same room with that core-rumbling buzz to really experience it.
After the Gabrieli came another rarity: a double bassoon concerto by Christian Ludwig Dietter. A different colleague joined principal John Miller, Jr., for each movement. Miller arrived at the Minnesota Orchestra in 1971 (before Orchestra Hall was even built, much less remodeled), and is the longest serving principal player in Orchestra history. That kind of devotion not just to an art, but to an ensemble and a community, is hugely humbling. My hat goes off to anyone who sticks with an organization through so many years…especially through the intermittent hopelessness of the last three.
The music in the Dietter may have been slight, but it was perfect for showcasing the easy chemistry of the soloists. What a joy to see colleagues working so effortlessly together. (In between movements, the departing colleague would high-five the arriving one, to warm applause and scattered laughter at the informal unconventionality of the gesture.) I think it’s easy to forget how outright beautiful the gentle bassoon can be, placed as it is in the orchestra’s texture, so it was lovely to have this reminder. As for the orchestra, I’ve definitely heard them give crisper accompaniments, but clarity isn’t always Maestro Eiji Oue’s first priority… For an encore, Miller played a Swedish Walking Song with ethereal orchestral accompaniment, and that was delicately breathtaking.
The big marquee event, though, came after intermission: Tchaikovsky 5.
Tchaikovsky 5 is one of those pieces I really, really know. I really, really love it. I am really, really uncool. And yet, bizarrely, I have no favorite recordings, no interpretation I’m married to…or even dating. Which was good, because if you’d gone into the hall expecting a particular interpretation, you were going to be disappointed, simply because this one was soooo far out there.
The craziest thing about it was the tempi. There were so many yanks and tugs at tempo that the bartenders could have sold Dramamine instead of drinks at intermission. Tchaikovsky can feel pretty episodic to begin with, and instead of smoothing over the seams, Eiji Oue highlighted them by stopping, starting, and occasionally sprinting through them. So that’s one way of approaching a potential problem, I guess: highlighting it, and making no apologies for it. It definitely resulted in a unique interpretation. Sometimes that interpretation veered so far from conventional practice (not to mention the score), it almost came across as a pastiche.
And I was smiling the whole time. Both at the beauty of it, and the ballsiness of it. The interaction between conductor and orchestra was hilarious to see. Mom caught Dave Williamson cracking up. Erin Keefe’s body language was all like: follow me through the storm! And there was one priceless moment when Eiji leaned over to principal viola Tom Turner virtuosically scrubbing away, enticing Tom to give just a little more, and I could practically see Tom’s thought bubble: I’M GIVING ALL I GOT.
And that final movement! Only a virtuoso band could pull off what they did. It continually danced on the edge of completely imploding and exploding in a fiery cataclysm of confusion and honking horns. But of course at the very last minute, the tempos would lurch back, and everyone somehow burst through the exultant finish line together. You’ve got to hand it to the strings in particular for dashing forward with such confidence and cohesion.
I’ve seen him in-concert twice now, and I think my relationship with Eiji Oue is like my relationship with candy corn. Outside the period of approximately one week in the late autumn, candy corn is not particularly appealing. But once a year, candy corn is WONDERFUL. It’s fun. It’s corn-y. It mimics the shape of a kernel of a nourishing vegetable, and that’s cool. In fact, I went out of my way earlier this year to buy a bag of candy corn, and I didn’t regret the purchase. Would I want candy corn every weekend? No. Does that mean I dislike candy corn? I just got done telling you I consider candy corn to be great fun.
So. I could argue very persuasively about why this performance should not work, could not work, and did not work. But one of the valuable lessons I took away from the lockout is, sometimes it doesn’t really matter how something is played, providing the experience surrounding it is unique enough. And you have got to admit, between the sparkly pants, generous swooping, and grins of manic wild-eyed sincerely-felt joy, Eiji Oue creates experiences. I think people who focus solely on the quality of performance, ignoring or even criticizing the air of electricity, are maybe missing the point. This was definitely a show worth catching, an experience worth having.
It was a joy to see such joy. 2014 has been a year of historic, absurdly high stakes shows at Orchestra Hall. Stanislaw Skrowaczewski conducted the first homecoming concert back in February, with everyone in the music world gruesomely interested in whether this great orchestra had survived a sixteen-month lockout intact. The Osmo Sibelius Grammy concerts happened as the board was deciding whether to rehire him. Same with the one-night Josh Bell / Osmo show. The glitzy, hugely expensive, and ultimately successful Renee Fleming gala was pressured to be ultra flashy and fabulous. The Mahler Resurrection concerts in late September mused on themes of fricking Life, Death, and Life After Death. It was a joy just to have crazy fun again, to hear the depth of sound that this great orchestra makes, and to walk out the lobby door to downtown Minneapolis with the faith that everything will be okay.