Monthly Archives: April 2015

Microreview: Minnesota Orchestra in Griffes, Rachmaninoff, and Stravinsky

Not a single professional reviewer discussed the concert this week, so I’ll throw out my word count limit.

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This week the Minnesota Orchestra’s program featured three pieces I’ve never sat down to listen to in their entirety: The Pleasure Dome of Kubla-Kahn by Charles Griffes, Rachmaninoff third concerto, and…the Rite of Spring. I know. You’re allowed to crucify me. It’s probably the single most unforgivable blind spot I have.

Conductor Michael Stern was on the podium. I have to transcribe what he said in his brief pre-performance address because I don’t want his words vanishing into the Mists of Time. He was talking about how the works on the program had the force of tradition behind them, yet all three struck out on new paths of their own…

And ladies and gentlemen, I must say publicly, this is the way I see the Minnesota Orchestra: with its long tradition, with its great history, yet now they are on the precipice of inventing something new. And there is a very good reason for that. They have great leadership. You have a great music director. You have a community that believes in music. But you also have these incredible musicians who, despite the recent past, exhibit a kind of bonding solidarity and a commitment to craft and art and a devotion to making great music happen for this city and for the entire region which I know, from my personal experience, and from all my colleagues, is nothing short of inspiring. And you are lucky to have them in your city.

[applause] [applause] [applause]

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Critiquing Criticism of Season Announcements

I’m not sure how to introduce this one besides Greg Sandow recently wrote an article about the Minnesota Orchestra’s season announcement press release, and I was unconvinced by what he said. Here’s why.

Mr. Sandow begins:

I don’t mean to pick on the Minnesota Orchestra.

Of all the sentences in the English language, “I don’t mean to pick on the Minnesota Orchestra” is among the most inspirational to me.

I don’t mean to pick on the Minnesota Orchestra.

Which is why 73% of the words in Mr. Sandow’s 1385 word article are about the Minnesota Orchestra…

Or on anyone.

Okay…

But this is the time of year when symphony orchestras announce next year’s season, and their press releases…are weak. The most basic fact about classical music today is that we need new listeners. But I can’t see these press releases doing much to find those. Which to me is a serious problem.

Is there an art form where season announcement press releases attract new attendees? Seriously, is that a thing? If it is, I wanna fall in love with THAT art form, because THAT sounds like a way easier field to make a living in.

Quick question: who among my readers went to their first orchestra concert because the season announcement press release was cool? I ask because I’m trying to put myself in a newcomer’s shoes. The closest parallel I can think of: I’ve never gone to the Guthrie. Therefore, I don’t read the Guthrie’s press releases. The Guthrie is going to hook this particular twentysomething via recommendations from friends, advertisements, social media, cheap tickets, and, once I attend for the first time, a meaningful high quality experience at the theater.

Can’t we learn to talk about classical music, in a way that might make compelling, so we can people — especially people outside our world — reasons to go to our performances?

First, I don’t know what “learn to talk about classical music, in a way that might make compelling, so we can people” means. I can guess what it means but I’m not sure. Second, I don’t think a season announcement press release is the first place we should be spending our compellingness energy on. Recommendations from friends, advertisements, social media, and cheap tickets are going to give first-timers way more compelling reasons to go to performances. Make those hooks compelling first.

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Interview with Scott Chamberlain: Part 2

In the second part of my interview with fellow blogger Scott Chamberlain, we talked about his upcoming Cuba trip. Catch up on the first part here.

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Scott's logo

The famous mask…

EH: So. I’ve ignored the elephant in the room long enough. The whole reason I even thought of connecting with you in interview format is that you’re going with the Minnesota Orchestra to cover their historic Cuba tour. They’ll be the first American orchestra in the Obama era to visit. And you’ll be writing about it, even though you aren’t a professional arts writer. And I want to take a minute to talk about that.

I’ve never heard of an arts writer – amateur or professional – trying to crowdfund accompanying an orchestra on a tour. And not only trying, but succeeding. As I’m writing this entry, you’re at 55% of your goal, and it’s only been a few days. (Readers, please, if anyone has done anything like this before, let me know in the comments.) I know this project didn’t come about as some grand plan or anything like that, but obviously as I’m watching the total tick up and up, and getting excited about having a writer friend on the ground in Cuba to share his thoughts… I’m wondering about whether you think this is a strategy that arts writers will use in future to get more and better coverage of our beloved arts. I have mixed feelings about whether it could work besides for a few very charismatic people, but I’m curious what you think. Do you think your support is just a one-off thing because you developed relationships with your readers in the depths of a historic lockout, or do you think other arts writers in other times and places could do it, too? Many times I find myself wondering, “are the cool things that are happening here a direct result of the lockout, or could these cool things happen everywhere?” Do you know what I mean?

SC: I do think it’s unusual—in fact, the co-founder Musicovation.com, a website devoted to covering news and industry trends from across the musical world, contacted me to ask these very questions.

And I have to say I’m learning as I go. Given the complexities of this tour, it is fairly expensive… even for those of us who are getting the press discount. As an independent writer, coming up with the cost of the trip seemed daunting, but a number of supporters suggested that this was a perfect fit for a GoFundMe campaign… and off I went.

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Interview with Scott Chamberlain: Part 1

Many times over the past two years I found myself messaging Scott Chamberlain:

You want to cover this one, or should I?

Scott Chamberlain, the author of the widely linked Mask of the Flower Prince blog, and I share a lot: mediums, outlooks, communities, topics, inspirations, and a passion for our Minnesota Orchestra, as well as the performing arts in general. In other words, I’m not sure why I haven’t interviewed him on the blog before. So yesterday I emailed him a list of discussion topics about the role of blogs in the orchestra world, why the [expletive] we kept writing about the Minnesota Orchestra meltdown for as long as we did, and oh, yeah, a little bit about his historic trip to Cuba. (Stay tuned for part 2 of my interview for that.) And he was good enough to email back. So without further ado –

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This is Scott's blog. It's a good blog.

This is Scott’s blog. It’s a good blog.

EH: It’s surreal to me we haven’t had a public chat yet. We’ve each linked to each other a million times, but we’ve never actually sat down for a conversation, so I feel like this entry is way overdue.

First I want to hop in a time machine back to June 2013, which was the month your blog started. It was the exact middle of the Minnesota Orchestra lockout. You were crazy prolific during that time. Why did you feel compelled to spend months documenting this disaster? For me, it was because this orchestra meant so much to me, and it was cathartic to dissect the news. And gradually it became more rewarding than anything I’d ever done, even when the news was really bad. (And it was almost always really bad.) But I was curious why you kept at it. Looking back, don’t you think rational people should have given up after Osmo resigned?

SC: The funny thing is, in many ways I fell into blogging as an afterthought. As many people know, I used to work for the Orchestra and had several friends among the musicians and the staff. So when the negotiations fell apart in fall 2012, it really felt personal. I think like many people out there, I started off thinking that this was a standard-issue labor dispute. For me that changed on November 28, 2012, when the Star Tribune published an op-ed piece by the board chairs of the Minnesota Orchestra detailing their views of the lockout. There were so many things in that op-ed that were disrespectful, and flat out wrong. I was irritated enough that the next day I posted an extensive deconstruction of it on my Facebook page.

I had no idea anyone would ever read it… I mostly wrote it just for my own peace of mind. Plus, such a lengthy rebuttal was way, way too long for Facebook. I fully expected that any attention it received would fade quickly, just like everything else on social media. But oddly enough, this post didn’t die away quietly. I watched in disbelief as my rant took on a life of its own, shared by hundreds of people I didn’t know and had never met. Within a week my number of Facebook friends had nearly doubled. (I ultimately re-posted that piece here on my blog, if you’d care to read it.)

I followed up this commentary with many others, but given their size and scope they weren’t particularly suited for Facebook. I was a fan of “Song of the Lark,” and wondered if a blog might be a better way to get my ideas out into the real world. With a great deal of prodding from my wife and other friends, I made it happen.

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Microreview: Minnesota Orchestra in Haydn, Mahler

Well, that period of my life is over, so…back to Microreviews, I guess.

For those new to the blog, Microreviews are my thoughts on that week’s Minnesota Orchestra MPR broadcast. There’s only one catch: they have to be the same length or shorter than the mainstream media’s review.

Rob Hubbard at the Pioneer Press was the sole professional reviewer of this concert of Haydn and Mahler. He gave the show a 516 word rave: “one of the most arresting performances I’ve encountered in recent memory.”

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I’m in the midst of packing away my mother’s things, so this week’s Minnesota Orchestra performance of farewell-flavored works felt timely.

The first work on the program was Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 45, the (can you guess the nickname?) Farewell. Unfortunately, my first impression was fuzziness, especially in the upper strings. It was impossible to tell if this was the acoustic, the recording, or the exposed nature of the part writing. I also have a hunch there was a discussion on vibrato that ended inconclusively. Regardless, it was charming – of course. It was Haydn. And nobody else milks leaving the stage like the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra.

But the evening’s center of gravity was, of course, Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth). I love the description of Das Lied as chamber music for orchestra, and Minnesota amped up this idea with some truly virtuosic clarity. Any fuzziness in the Haydn was long gone after the auxiliary forces took the stage. The ensemble’s confidence and cohesion spoke well for the Mahler 5 recording scheduled for June 2016.

Tenor Anthony Dean Griffey and mezzo Mihoko Fujimura were beautiful to listen to. In fact, the first few movements were all very beautiful.

But from its very first notes, the finale felt different. It felt more than beautiful. The opening oboe and flute solos had a sultriness; the answering mezzo a haunting chaste purity. This was the dangerous beauty of a lush late summer night, sun gone, wild meadows lit now by the moon. The lower winds and strings laid out a soft carpet of a dirge. The upper strings slid above them with clear, silvery tones.

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As Mahler wrote:

I stand here and wait for my friend;
I wait to bid him a last farewell.
I yearn, my friend, at your side
to enjoy the beauty of this evening.
Where are you? You leave me long alone!

It was chilling, and hugely unsettling.

As affecting as the broadcast was, clearly it was even more so in the hall. The best Mahler is live Mahler. And so this broadcast made me all the more desperate to box up the past and finish my own farewells.

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The Lark Ascending

The last time I heard the Eroica symphony was in July 2012: the Minnesota Orchestra playing in Winona for the Minnesota Beethoven Festival. My mom wanted to bring me. Her daughter had no money. She had no money. But together we had some money, and so we went.

In those days, Erin Keefe was the new concertmaster. In fact, in the first half of the Eroica concert, she made her concerto debut with the Minnesota Orchestra in the Beethoven violin concerto. A man named Osmo Vänskä was conducting. That performance marked the beginning of a very promising musical relationship.

The Orchestra’s Eroica that day was thrilling. Every pitch was hit, every jarring accent pounded. But looking back, there was not much joy to it. There was fire, conviction, energy, passion – but not much joy. It was an Eroica that intimidated in its hard-edged perfection, like a diamond you’d admire breathlessly but be afraid to wear. And I have a recording off MPR of that July weekend’s concerts, so I’m not reconstructing this entirely by memory.

I remember talking briefly to one musician after the show and somehow intuitively understanding that he was very, very distracted. In fact, there was a distant look in all the players’ eyes that scared me. I remember fretting. I felt I had seen something very important without understanding why it was very important, and I drove home with Mom feeling blown away and very, very uneasy.

Turns out negotiations for the musicians’ new contract had begun that spring. They were going badly. To the best of my knowledge, that performance – in a middle school auditorium in Winona, Minnesota – was the last time that Osmo Vänskä conducted the Minnesota Orchestra before the sixteen month lockout broke everything apart.

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