Review: Minnesota Orchestra in Bernstein, Heitzeg, Copland, Greenstein

Giddy excitement, bittersweet reflection, screams from audience members…

Nope, it wasn’t a lockout concert (although it felt like it). Rather, it was the first show in the Minnesota Orchestra’s 2015 American Voices festival, a massive extravaganza held Friday night at Orchestra Hall. How massive was it? So massive that the ushers told us anxiously and individually as they scanned our tickets: “Intermission is only fifteen minutes.” Aww, yeah. This is my kind of concert.

The show – and it really was a show – opened with Bernstein’s Divertimento. Sassy, sassy, saucy. As the piece went along, the classical trappings of the instrumentation kinda clattered away, and by ten minutes in, it felt like we were in a classy 2000-seat strip club. The hams in the brass section were milking the Blues movement for every single penny it was worth. Maybe even a few pennies’ more. During this section, I noticed a violist or two glancing over at the brass with a raised eyebrow. I can’t tell if they were skeptical or just jealous.

Possibly the least sexy instrument in the orchestra.

We can’t really pull off the strip club vibe with this.

Next came the premiere of Steve Heitzeg’s American Nomad trumpet concerto, written for Minnesota Orchestra musician Charles Lazarus. It was a huge hit in the hall, and the Strib wanted to marry the piece and have its babies. I’m sincerely glad it was loved. But my own personal feelings were more ambivalent. I was discontent throughout the opening. The abundant movement, paradoxically, struck me as frustratingly static. The middle movement was more successful, its pale, sparse scoring gorgeous and affecting. The written part of the third movement struck me as rather stale and routine…until the improv started, and then it exploded to life. In general it felt like music you’d use for a Copland documentary if the original Copland was still under copyright. But of course your mileage will vary. I was definitely in the minority. And as I’ve said on the blog before, I think Heitzeg’s soundtrack absolutely made the unforgettable PBS documentary “Death of the Dream.” I have no ax to grind.

Also, here’s a shout-out to Charles Lazarus. I know nothing about jazz, trumpet, or jazz trumpet. But what a mesmerizing soloist he was, in a very understated Minnesotan way. He has the aura of a grown-up band geek, with the haircut and glasses. His stage presence combines a cool modesty and a steely confidence, and he was such a treat to watch.

But. Let’s face it. The inevitable highlight of the evening was always going to be the return of former Minnesota Orchestra clarinetist Burt Hara to play the Copland concerto.

During the lockout, Burt left the principal Minnesota Orchestra seat for the associate principal chair at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Upon his departure, back when the Vänskä/Henson cage fight was still ongoing, Burt wrote, “I am resigning now because I do not believe the current leadership has the vision to restore the Orchestra to its place among the great orchestras of the world.”

It is my life’s work to make Burt Hara regret his life choices.

(I say that tongue in cheek.)

(…Well, partially tongue-in-cheek.)

Minnesota certainly did its part to fête him. For instance, he got a standing ovation for taking the stage. (How this must have come across to orchestra newcomers: “GOOD JOB WALKING THOSE FEW DOZEN FEET, MR. CLARINET SOLOIST, WOOHOOOOOO!” I definitely got the side-eye from a few patrons after I sent a couple dozen shrieks into the acoustically perfect air. Sorry. But you gotta understand: Burt Hara’s in the house, and it’s exciting.) He appeared simultaneously embarrassed and secretly delighted at the effusions, but, as he is apt to do, he got down to the music-making right away.

Burt Hara is unreal. He takes a gulp of air and bobs and sways, and the most extraordinary sounds emerge from the magic black stick. It is as if music itself comes from the ground and escapes through his breath and fingertips.

The opening of the Copland brought to mind a wide black prairie sky, lit by pinpricks of distant starlight.

Time vanished in a long clarinet line that unfurled into the very ceiling.

Then slowly, somehow, the starlight transitioned into a wild hoedown, taken at such a ferocious, frenetic pace that even Burt Hara clipped a note or two. But the clips only served to make the performance more exciting. It was a shock when the final exuberant glissando closed the piece in bright-eyed triumph. The sixteen minutes of the concerto had literally felt like two.

Cue pandemonium!

“COME HOME,” audience members yelled.

“WHEN ARE YOU COMING BACK?”

“WE LOVE YOU, BURT!”

He blushed and looked away, for a brief time unable to make eye contact. Maybe he shed a tear or two. If he did, it means we’ve done good work here.

Obviously an encore was inevitable. He chose Saint-Saens’s The Swan. Such a simple, potentially trite melody. Here it was created anew into a thing of breathtaking wistful delicacy. The mastery of the phrasing immediately reduced me to tears.

Burt Hara is one of the people who helped me define what a great musician is. A great musician is someone whose technique and musicianship transcends their instrument. Someone who you think of as a musician first, and a violinist or cellist or clarinetist second. And by that measure, surely Burt Hara is one of the greatest musicians to take the Minnesota stage. Ever.

Callback after callback ensued, followed by too many bouquets to hold. Through the sustained applause, I had a bitter thought or two about the past. About what might have been. I know others did, too. But – we have those thoughts, and then we move on. These thoughts are a part of the healing process. I guess.

Also, I don’t want to insinuate that the Minnesota Orchestra’s greatness rests on Burt’s shoulders alone. The Minnesota Orchestra is not the Burt Hara Band, and it never ever will be. Acting principal Greg Williams has moved me to tears, too. But we all miss Burt’s history, and his generosity, and his smile. As he continues his sparkling career, I hope he makes regular pilgrimages back to his adoring public in Minnesota.

Every weekend, maybe. :)

The night wrapped up with Judd Greenstein’s Acadia. I loved it from the first time I heard it. Even then I didn’t know if that was so much the innate value of the work itself, or the personal connections I have to it. (I was part of the audience that paid to commission it… I’m familiar with Greenstein’s other work… I follow him on Twitter… It was the last piece I heard in Orchestra Hall before the renovation and the lockout… My late mother loved the piece, and had very specific ideas about its narrative of loss and ultimate redemption… Etc. You get the idea.) So I’m in no position to judge Acadia objectively, and I decided today that I don’t care. Because I love every moment of it. A lot.

From my seat, the premiere performance was cleaner and had a stronger narrative arc to it. Maybe this was because the premiere was part of a less exhausting program. Or maybe conductor Mischa Santora didn’t feel as intense of a connection to the work as Sarah Hicks did. But it was still so special to hear it live. It’s orchestrated in such an interesting way. The individual parts are obviously exhausting to play. But the sound created when all those exhausting parts blend together in the audience space of the hall… They create such a magical soundscape that, sadly, none of the musicians can actually hear from their seats. Acadia received the five millionth standing ovation of the night.

One of the truly great joys of hearing untested new music is the joy of discussion and disagreement. After the show, one of my friends said she would happily cut a substantial portion out of Acadia. I totally disagree. And obviously I wasn’t blown away by the trumpet concerto, when lots of people were. I love that! I love when the intelligent and independent can hold such different ideas about repertoire. This isn’t a verdict on the ultimate value of a piece. Obviously no single person is capable of delivering that. But the potential for disagreement forces us to engage more deeply with new works, in a way we can’t engage with Bach or Beethoven or Brahms, because they’ve been tested and assimilated. I love the classics. But new works can be so intellectually and emotionally exciting!

I also want to mention that this extraordinary exuberant concert was dedicated to the memory of Lee Henderson, an audience advocate who died suddenly this week at the age of 59. I can’t imagine a more fitting program to celebrate his life. Lee’s sudden death, and my mom’s, combined with the passion of the musicians – and maybe even more importantly, the passion of the audience – reminded me this weekend to embrace every single moment as intensely as possible. My heart goes out to Lee’s friends and family. May they take solace in the fact that Lee left behind an orchestra and an organization that is back on track, in part because of his clarity of vision.

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Our sugar cube ceiling. Healing comes to those who visit here.

***

7 Comments

Filed under My Writing, Reviews

7 responses to “Review: Minnesota Orchestra in Bernstein, Heitzeg, Copland, Greenstein

  1. Lisa Renee Ragsdale

    Emily, (and others)
    I’m going to keep this short for several reasons. I was there Friday night also and enjoyed the entire concert.

    I loved the Bernstein. Great music. This was my first time hearing an orchestral work of Steve Heitzeg. The Title of “American Nomad” for Trumpet and Orchestra could be slightly adjusted to: “for Orchestra with solo trumpet and percussion.” Yes there was probably more percussion than trumpet and I agree with Emily that the middle movement was the best and easiest part of the work. I got lost in the third movement.

    Burt Hara + Copland’s clarinet concerto + Minnesota Orchestra = as close to perfection as one can get. I’m not going to criticize a single note there.

    This was my first hearing of “Acadia.” If I have heard it before I do not remember it. A 21st century work of art that I enjoyed, liked, and found just one tiny thing I would have changed: take 5 minutes out of it. Despite wishing it was shorter I cannot say anything bad about Judd Greenstein’s composition. Excellent orchestration, superb use of various styles and total command of assembling a lot of notes into a cohesive statement.
    The end.

  2. JKM

    Too bad you don’t know anything about jazz.

    • Lisa Renee Ragsdale

      I know something about jazz having listened to a wealth of Keith Jarrett before he went classical, as well as other jazz artists on instruments other than the piano. Other than noting that Heitzeg’s work had jazz elements, it did not strike me as very effective. Either there should have been MORE jazz elements or none. IMHO.

  3. Karin Erickson

    I was totally with you on the music and our dear Burt, but then knocked down by news of Lee Henderson. Such a loss!

  4. Bondgirl

    Completely with you on the Heitzeg, only more so. I found it facile and so, so repetitive. Generic Dances With Wolves soundtrack music (though I also agree that Charles Lazarus was a lovely revelation). On the other hand, Acadia blew me away. It really is one of the joys of new music, isn’t it, the strong difference of opinion and debate. I wasn’t familiar with the Bernstein, but thoroughly loved it. That man was one of a kind. And Burt Hara!!! So yeah, pretty much what you said!

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