Monthly Archives: November 2014

Thanksgiving!

I don’t usually post anything on Thanksgiving (I’m more into Advent calendars, to be honest), but this year has been a special one, and I think it’s worthy of a word or two of gratitude.

First off, I’m grateful for my readers. You guys are so inquisitive, so smart, and you care so deeply.

I’m grateful for the knowledge of teachers, and how generous the best are with their very selves.

I’m grateful for technology. I’m grateful I can write and publish long essays on Rebecca Clarke or Baumol’s Cost Disease while curled up on the couch. (Keep an eye out for those.)

I’m grateful that sarcasm is a thing.

I’m grateful for sound, and especially the layers of it I hear in Orchestra Hall. You can spend a lifetime in that sound and never tire of it.

I’m grateful to live in a place that values, treasures, and loves its symphony orchestra so intensely. It would have been so easy for Minnesota to give up this past year. You didn’t.

I’m grateful for those dreamers back in 1903 who said, “Let’s start a symphony orchestra,” and a community that said, “Okay!” I’m grateful to all those board members who raised so much money over so many decades, and to the musicians of the past who played on to achieve the highest levels of musicianship, despite all the economic uncertainties surrounding them.

I’m grateful for the modern-day musicians who had the courage to risk their health, their careers, their homes, to save an institution.

I’m grateful for the people I criticized so harshly during the lockout, because without them, I wouldn’t have you. Without their myriad of muck-ups, the Minnesota Orchestra would be in a much weaker position than it is today.

I’m grateful for strong, wise leadership – for Osmo, Kevin Smith, the heads of Save Our Symphony Minnesota. They’ve married professionalism with passion, and the results are deeply moving and deeply inspiring.

And most of all, I’m grateful we have the chance to begin anew, to embark on a process of self-invention. The thought of it is simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating, and also terrifying. (And exhilarating…)

The Minnesota Orchestra posted an adorable picture on their Facebook page of musicians holding up signs of gratitude. Mine isn’t nearly as wonderful, but I did just sit down at my desk, scribble my own handwritten sentiments on a notecard, and place a sprig of holiday sparkle next to it.

Happy Thanksgiving, all! And…

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Review: Minnesota Orchestra in Gabrieli, Dietter, Tchaikovsky

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.

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Bad News, Good News

In case you missed the news, the Minnesota Orchestral Association has promoted Kevin Smith from Interim CEO to Actual CEO. He’s staying until the end of the 2017-2018 season (at least), and he will be negotiating both Osmo’s and the musicians’ new contracts. The board voted unanimously to keep him.

I haven’t met Mr. Smith yet, but nearly all of my musical friends have, and I’ve heard nothing but good about him. A few things are abundantly clear. He knows what he’s doing. He knows the Twin Cities. He has years of experience under his belt. And, perhaps most importantly of all, he listens. Stakeholders respect this man. When he has to make the tough decisions that lie ahead, I may not always agree with his choices, but I will respect them, and I will know that he is working for the good of the organization and the art form and the community. You can’t buy that kind of trust.

In fact, if I had to choose what’s the bigger news, Osmo’s rehiring or Kevin’s promotion… I’d probably go with Kevin’s promotion. And you all know how thrilled I was that Osmo was re-hired. So you can guess how excited I am about Kevin.

But wait. As the infomercials say, there’s more. In an interview the other night on Almanac, when asked if Osmo’s contract would be renewed, Smith said:

We are talking about that. I would hope and expect, yes.

I would hope and expect, yes.

I would hope and expect, yes.

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The phrase “I would hope and expect, yes” in a pretty font and decorated with my excited yellow Rays of Yay

 

It’s a tribute to how far we’ve come that this quote isn’t plastered all over blogs and Twitter and Facebook and Strib articles.

I think most people would agree that

  1. the chances of a second lockout have declined precipitously
  2. we just might be looking at a fair musicians’ contract extending until approximately 2020, and
  3. the Osmo era is likely going to continue.

It’s looking like the Minnesota Orchestral Association has entered its own Era of Good Feelings. And I’m on board with that.

So it might be time to bid a fond farewell to the Song of the Lark Outrage Machine. The Outrage Machine ran fast and hard for a very long time, fueled by the spittle from my flail-y freak-outs and the sarcasm of animated GIFs. But between Kevin Smith’s hiring and the Atlanta Symphony lockout ending, it looks like outrage is going out of style. Which is great.

It’s just too bad I can’t take the Outrage Machine out for a final spin to commemorate old times and old scandals.

Unless…

Somehow… somewhere… some news could break about the Era of Bad Feelings.

But, no. That’s impossible. Michael Henson has been gone from the Minnesota Orchestra for months now. His vision – or maybe that’s “myopia” – has been thoroughly repudiated by all. Surely there’s no new news left about his tenure…

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I’m sorry, guidestar.org, the website that “gather[s] and disseminate[s] information about every single IRS-registered nonprofit organization“…did you say something?

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Oh? What’s this? The 990 form for the Minnesota Orchestral Association covering the time span of September 2012 to August 2013, which features only one non-lockout month?

Do you hear that roar in the distance? I think it’s the outrage machine revving up for one last final outing! So jump aboard now, for one last ride, for nostalgia’s sake…

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Microreview: Minnesota Orchestra in Nazaykinskaya, Mozart, Prokofiev

For those new to SOTL, Microreviews are my thoughts on the Minnesota Orchestra subscription concerts broadcast live on MPR. I take the word count of the “official” newspaper reviews of the week’s concerts and use that as a guideline. (This week I’m using Rob Hubbard’s Pioneer Press review, which clocked in at 379 words.) You can join in the Microreviewing fun by catching the MPR broadcast along with me and then writing about it, whether on your own blog or on Facebook or in the comment section here. My mantra is: the more people talking about and dissecting Minnesota Orchestra concerts, the healthier our cultural habitat will be! (It’s a long mantra.)

So here are my thoughts on what the concert sounded like via MPR last night.

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The concert began with Polina Nazaykinskaya’s Winter Bells. Nazaykinskaya is the only woman composer in the Minnesota Orchestra’s sizable 2014-2015 subscription season, and also my Facebook followers are tired of hearing me complain about this.

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“Yeah, Emily, I know. The lack of female composers definitely sucks.”

 

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“Yep, Emily, we get the message, the lack of women composers is hugely unfortunate and a downside of an otherwise brilliant 14-15 season. Agreed.”

"OH MY GOD, EMILY, JUST SHUT UP ABOUT THIS ALREADY THIS IS THE THIRD TIME YOU'VE POSTED ABOUT IT LET IT REST OMG"

“OH MY GOD, EMILY, JUST SHUT UP ABOUT THIS ALREADY; THIS IS THE THIRD TIME YOU’VE POSTED ABOUT IT; LET IT REST; OMG”

Ah well. If women could only make one contribution to programming this year, Winter Bells was definitely a fabulous choice. How often does a work by a 22-year-old hold up against Prokofiev and Mozart? The orchestra’s treatment of the gorgeous score felt hugely confident; the lower brass blasted away with spectacular abandon. And the way the sound evaporated away at the end? Pure magic.

Soloist Jonathan Biss was a polite presence at the piano in Mozart 20. Perfectly lovely and unobjectionable. Which isn’t to say the performance wasn’t enjoyable. But it wasn’t gripping. It felt a bit like filler. And I wonder if I’m the only one idly curious how Mozart ended up in an Art of Russia program. Orchestra advertising justified it by saying that Mozart was “a Russian at heart.” O-kay. That being said, I’m not sure how well live Mozart transfers over Internet radio, so your mileage may vary if you saw it live. And the audience reaction sounded wild, so this one might be on me.

Prokofiev 5 was the meat of the program. Gleaming propulsive meat, with an earnestly, sometimes nostalgically, beating heart…and a dash of insanity. The intensity of the last few notes of the first movement was simply shattering. Said intensity carried over into the maniacally metronomic second movement. I love this music; it sounds like sarcastic skeletons dancing. (Somehow.) The spitting runs in the strings and winds were genuinely creepy, both because of the sound produced and because I didn’t know it was humanly possible. The third movement was balletic: graceful, luscious, very Russian. But still slightly odd, as if the skeletons had put on tutus. (Somehow.) These sounds are strange, maybe even slightly dangerous, but they’re so seductive, and in the hands of these players Friday night, so committed and so heartfelt. The finale began with a quiet wild-eyed mania, seizing one idea after another, before going completely batshit crazy with agitated caffeinated palpitations. Perfection.

Definitely my favorite radio broadcast so far this season.

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369 words. *dusts hands*

I know I say it every week, but this week I really mean it. Buy tickets for tonight at minnesotaorchestra.org. Seriously. I’m incredibly depressed I won’t see it live.

Can’t guarantee a Microreview for next week, as I’m aiming to catch Tchaikovsky 5 in-person! So keep an eye out for an entry on that, as well as some others that are cooking on the back burner.

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Microreview: Minnesota Orchestra in Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Stravinsky

The Minnesota Orchestra launched its Russian festival this week with concerts devoted to the works of Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky, led by Courtney Lewis. Both local papers were impressed. The Pioneer Press wrote 340 words of praise, the Strib 465.

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The performance began on a somber note with the addition of Stephen Paulus’s “Veil of Tears” from To Be Certain of the Dawn. Paulus passed away on October 19 at the heartbreaking age of 65. Words don’t suffice, and I hope this moving musical tribute brought a measure of peace to the family and friends who have lost so much.

After the moment of reverent silence, excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s The Snow Maiden began. This music sounds as if it belongs in a snow globe: the Nutcracker minus the “oh no not again” baggage of the omnipotent warhorse. Warm horn calls, silvery woodwinds, rich and shapely lines in the strings… I craved a bit more forward motion at certain points earlier in the piece, but the Dance of the Tumblers finale more than made up for that with a truly dizzying propulsion. I’d never heard The Snow Maiden before, but it’s going on my playlist of winter favorites for sure.

Pianist Kirill Gerstein took the stage for Shostakovich second concerto and Prokofiev first, performing with clarity, nuance, and sensitive, exciting musicality. Moments in the interior of the first movement of the Shostakovich were absolutely explosive, and the songfulness of the andante was almost vocal. He brought similar intensity to the spiky Prokofiev first. What manic, electric repertoire, and what manic, electric playing!

The program officially closed with Stravinsky’s Symphonic Suite from The Fairy Kiss. Tchaikovsky practically deserves a co-writing credit here, as Stravinsky used bits and pieces of Tchaikovsky as subjects. To put it in bloggy terms, this is Stravinsky writing fanfiction in Tchaikovsky’s universe. My relationship with Igor is one based in ambivalence, and that’s likely why I wasn’t particularly grabbed by this piece or performance as a whole. That being said, there was some brilliant orchestral playing going on (as there always is): some beautifully blended contributions from the woodwinds, and strings full of power and character. But I do agree with the Pioneer Press that the program order would have worked better with the Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky reversed.

The encore was the finale from the Firebird: a piece that will forever have a place in the heart of Twin Cities audiences as one of the anthems of the lockout. Good news: the phoenix has risen from the ashes, and you can hear it sing this program once more tonight at 8pm at Orchestra Hall.

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And I came right in the middle between the two newspaper reviews, at 397 words. Were you at the concert? Leave your thoughts below and contribute a microreview of your own! The more people talking about the Minnesota Orchestra, the better.

Tickets for tonight here. Be sure to check out the collection of Russian art on display in the lobby, on loan from the Museum of Russian Art.

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