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.


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]

The first piece on the program was the Griffes. I could make a comment about how if we’re going to program an obscure male composer, we also have the ability to program an obscure female composer, but I’m passive aggressive that way and won’t actually say it outright. (Yeah, I have an agenda. Sue me.)

On first listen there were parts I really liked – especially the opening with all those murky colors. There were other parts, like the center section, where I didn’t know quite where we were going with all the sensually twisting wind lines. To a sunny pleasure dome with caves of ice, I guess.

Somewhere in this general vicinity

Whatever and wherever that is. Maybe somewhere in this general vicinity. Curse you, Porlock!

Anyway. I enjoyed it, but this one’s still a mystery. It holds secrets I wasn’t able to access in first hearing.

Rachmaninoff third concerto came in a more familiar musical language. Simon Trpčeski was the soloist. His playing was fearsomely powerful and athletic. It was superhuman. So much so that I feel guilty even suggesting it, but there were moments – over the broadcast, anyway – when I felt less like I was listening to a Rachmaninoff concerto and more like I was listening to Simon Trpčeski playing a concerto. (It’s impossible for me to describe why, but there is a difference.) That being said, it came over differently in person, because the audience was completely sold. Radio broadcasts, especially Internet radio broadcasts, can do weird things to performance perceptions.

My favorite part of the night was the Rite. Even though I’ve never sat down to listen to the whole thing, I found I knew a lot of it already. This piece has seeped through the last century of music-making in a way you can’t fully appreciate unless you hear it for the first time later in life! I obviously can’t say much about the accuracy of the performance, but it felt fabulous. Very rich, very colorful, with an irresistible wallop of refined carnality. I wanted to work while I was listening, but the mesmerizing brutality of this music – and this performance – kept drawing me back, until I finally surrendered. This music, as played by this particularly group of frenetically energetic virtuosos, feels like it could singlehandedly yank spring out of the cold Minnesota earth. And given the weather forecast…

Maybe it did

Maybe it did.

Speaking of next week, won’t you join me in person at the hall? It’s going to be a great show. Copland, Heitzeg, Bernstein, Greenstein,…plus Hara. Don’t miss it.



Filed under Minnesota Orchestra, Reviews

8 responses to “Microreview: Minnesota Orchestra in Griffes, Rachmaninoff, and Stravinsky

  1. Lisa Renee Ragsdale

    Hi Emily,
    I like your review. I can add just a few little things only because I’ve heard the Griffes more than once before and the Stravinsky MANY times. First, though, it just so happens that just last weekend Simon Trpceski performed this same Rachmaninoff Concerto with the St. Louis Symphony so I heard that over my computer last Saturday. Oddly it sounded just a little brighter last Saturday. Not that it was that dull over the radio, but I just attribute that to the completely different acoustics of the two venues. Also I missed part of the 1st movement and most of the 2nd movement of the Minnesota performance due to a phone call.
    The Griffes “Pleasure Dome” is kind of a cross between Debussy and, uh, Griffes. One might say it is an Americanized Debussy. Its nice, but its not great.
    There was something missing in the Rite of Spring that, honestly, shocked me; an absence of percussion in one specific place and possibly in other places. Its very difficult to describe what did not happen, as only one who has heard this work several times and then heard the performance on Friday would know what I am talking about. All I can say is remember the number 11. Overall it was an excellent performance, but the one thing Stravinsky used a lot of was percussion.

  2. JAKE

    In the interest of supporting the arts, the mainstream media should at least accept the music reviews of bloggers such as yourself if their regular critics do not plan on covering the events. (Of course the substitute should receive a respectable remuneration.) I heard the concert over MPR internet radio in MEXICO and heartily agree with your analysis. The pianist is someone to watch in the coming years. Michael Stern had a strong, disciplined rapport with the orchestra in three difficult works, especially the Rite of Spring.
    Now, I was wondering if the music bloggers would be interested in calling for a small change in the Friends of the Mn Orchstra programs. Presently held in up scale restaurants, hotels and country clubs at a price of $25 to $38 per ticket. To me this hints of something elitist and for the upper class. Instead, would it not do more to promote the classics and audience development if these educational/social events took place in churches and community centers for a low or no cost? Please consider a doing a post on this issue.

    • Kevin Kooiker

      Yes, the Friends are pretty much an elitist group. They are mostly women, (used to be WAMSO: Women’s Auxilliary of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, & stayed WAMSO for years after the Orchestra changed its name,) and are mostly both big donors and dedicated volunteers. I think it would take a sea-change in the organizational culture to get them to give up their $30 lunches; that’s their native habitat.
      I joined at the beginning of the lockout, in hopes of speaking to some people with power. I felt very bad when I made the president cry; she was insisting that she had to stay “neutral” on the lockout as an ex-officio member of the Board; I maintained that “neutral” was the same as supporting the Executive Committee against the musicians and the interests of the community.

    • To be fair, the Pioneer Press and Strib both sent reviewers to Roberto Abbado’s farewell concert at the SPCO, so I think that’s where the music criticism budget went this week. That being said, the arts journalism model is clearly broken. THAT being said, I think there are solutions to try… If the big institutions aren’t going to be able to represent our interests, why don’t we represent ourselves?

      FOMO is FOMO. They have a long history and I think the prices of their events makes sense in the context of that history. FOMO is meant to appeal to people in Twin Cities Society, with a capital S. SOSMN is more the organization for the everyman, so I feel less bothered about FOMO than I otherwise could be. We need those society ladies. We need rich people who give money. Just as long as they don’t assume their donation gives them the right to dictate the direction of the organization, I’m beyond thankful for their contributions. We need them. And they need us.

      As for the Minnesota Orchestra’s ticket prices, I’d love to see $10 tickets for students, maybe twentysomethings, frequent concertgoers, something. I dunno what economically makes sense. You can also go too far down the path of affordability (this is a loaded topic, and loads of people will disagree with me, but I feel like the SPCO shot itself in the foot with its ultra cheap tickets). The Crescendo Project offers discounts, so that’s another organization you can look at. But I do agree, price – and even perception of price – can be a major barrier to many.

      However, I feel confident that all of these problems are just waiting for solutions.

  3. Jeanne Ellen

    I was at the concert last night and I can say that “in person” it was mesmerizing. I hadn’t heard the Pleasure Dome or Rachmaninoff Concert #3 before. Watching the musicians concentrate and work together to be sure that each note is played at exactly the right time, with the right weight, perfect phrasing, etc., is different than listening electronically.

    Thank you, Emily, for printing Stern’s comments on the musicians. The audience was filled with pride.

    As to the Friends, yes, they are well-to-do, well-connected, skilled women and men, mostly. I and some others are not well-to-do, but I don’t think $30 is too much for a good meal and a chance to meet people. I don’t stop for coffee everyday or go out for beers after work because I think it costs too much. Jake, I’m sure you have $30 for the things you value. Membership to the Friends is only $25 and next year’s Friend’s president is a man.

    • Great comment, thanks Jeanne.

      I also want to point out to Jake re: FOMO that joining nets you some pretty hefty ticket discounts.


      “AND attend Minnesota Orchestra concerts at a wonderful discount of 50% off select Minnesota Orchestra subscriptions and $5 ticket specials.”

      Sorry I didn’t mention that earlier; I totally should have. I was tired when I answered Jake’s comment!

      • JAKE

        To follow up with the comments on FOMO, it is precisely because I value classical music so greatly that I think we should remove any road blocks. The FOMO educational programs featuring different musicians should be open to people at low or no cost. Perhaps those who want to enjoy a light supper and wine for $25 per ticket could eat and socialize before the presentation. Those who do not care to eat or just have limited resources could show up for the program. The last event held at a country club cost $38 per person, something very taxing to the resources of many retirees and working people, especially families.

        I joined WAMSO some years ago out of an interest in their Gear Your Ear Program, serving to coordinate the program at a junior high school in Minneapolis. I viewed WAMSO as having an important mission to promote music and the Orchestra. I was glad the name was changed to be Friends of the MN Orchestra to be more inclusive serving a larger audience. It was in this spirit that I questioned the necessity to sell tickets for food and drinks, a potential turn off. I fear that many Minnesotans still view classical music as a bit high brow, elitist and stuffy.
        So, how can we be more accessible to all, helping low income students and parents to feel comfortable at the meetings? What is the message we want to send and what truly serves great music?

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