This past weekend, the Minnesota Orchestra held its sixtieth annual Symphony Ball to celebrate the end of an ambitious 2015/16 season…and to raise money for the next one. It was a fun and fascinating experience. One could go to the dinner (expensive), and/or the dancing after (expensive, but less expensive) (and what I chose to do). Attendees were encouraged to dress in 1920s attire, so I had fun slinking around in a beaded capelet, bringing out antique family jewelry, and pretending I’m way cooler than I actually am. The live auction was a veritable thunderstorm of generosity, with folks pouring out thousands upon thousands of dollars for ultra-glamorous prizes. “If you have five thousand,” the auctioneer chirruped, “you have six thousand!” Afterward I consoled myself as to my economic status by eating cupcakes with sparkly lemon frosting and listening to the after-party band, the Wolverines, blast out The Lady Is A Tramp (Life without care / she’s broke, and it’s oke!). CEO Kevin Smith was his usual charming, reassuring, welcoming self. Violinist Rebecca Corruccini’s black feather hairpiece stole the show. The orchestra played Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (with Minnesotan Andrew Staupe on piano) and Ravel’s La Valse. My dark side wholeheartedly approves of whoever programmed a piece about the death throes of European society at a light-hearted fundraising gala. Osmo and the orchestra finished up with Diamonds Are Forever, which I can only interpret as a timely endorsement of Swiddleston. A board member won the chance to conduct the orchestra in Stars and Stripes Forever, and he did so with a commitment that rivaled Osmo’s during a Mahler climax. After the orchestra was done playing, I listened to the Wolverines and wished I knew how to dance, because my jumping and fringe-shaking at rhythmic intervals did not feel particularly historically accurate (although it did inspire commentary from onlookers). I didn’t leave the lobby until one in the morning, which was when the crew started turning the lights up and disassembling tables. All in all, an evening well-spent. I hope the orchestra raised oodles of money.
It was a fitting way to celebrate the end of an exhilarating season, and it got me feeling sentimental. Then I realized: hey, I can indulge those feelings, because it’s time for an end of season review!
So as has become blog tradition, here are my choices for best Minnesota Orchestra performance of the 2015/16 season, in reverse countdown order. For no reason in particular, I chose seven:
#7. Erin Keefe in Brahms violin concerto, May 2016
This is one of the most lyrical Brahms concertos I’ve ever heard: a warhorse played like freshly composed chamber music. What a beautiful collaboration between soloist, conductor, and orchestra. The rest of the program was first-rate, too, with a witty work by Nielsen (his underplayed sixth symphony) and a sweeping Two Mountain Scenes by Kevin Puts.
#6. Mahler Symphony No. 5; Christian Teztlaff in Berg violin concerto; June 2016
This is how you kick off a Mahler cycle: with passion and exactitude in equal measure. Even I, the non-Mahlerite, had goosebumps sprayed down the backs of my arms during this performance. I’m beyond thrilled it was recorded. And I’m afraid that in all the Mahler hubbub, Christian Tetzlaff’s stunning Berg concerto was overlooked. What a dramatic performance of a famously thorny piece.
#5. Inside the Classics history of opera show, May 2016
The entire 2016 ITC season was great, but the highlight was the finale: a single show that traced the entire history of opera in a way that was both enlightening and entertaining. Most people have no clue how difficult such a thing is to do, so a shout-out to orchestra violist Sam Bergman for doing it. It was great fun to see the series jump so thoroughly out of its comfort zone.
Honorable mention: Kevin Smith’s hilarious cameo in the February Haydn/Mozart ITC, in which he defended calling Haydn boring in a Star Tribune interview.
#4. Beethoven Symphony No. 2 / Piano Concerto No. 5 / Symphony No. 5, January 2016
The Beethoven marathon – in which all nine symphonies and all five piano concertos were trotted out in a period of days – was one of the most exciting experiences I’ve ever had as a listener. I’ve never been plunged into the idea of a cycle quite so intensely, and I know I’ll never hear the Beethoven symphonies the same way again.
#3. Carnegie Hall Sibelius program, February/March 2016
Well, New York, aren’t you jealous? The Minnesota Orchestra program that you raved over wasn’t even its best of the season! Ha! That being said, it was close to the top. The focus and energy of the players during Sibelius 1 and 3 made for intoxicating performances, both in Minneapolis and New York. And Hilary Hahn was on fire in the Sibelius concerto. (This season there were two categories of soloists at Orchestra Hall: Hilary Hahn, and everyone else.) Visiting the hallowed corridors of Carnegie Hall – together with several hundred Minnesotans on pilgrimage – was an experience I’ll never, ever forget.
#2. Beethoven Symphony No. 7, Piano Concertos 1 & 2, January 2016
This probably made it as far up as it did for reasons more sentimental than objective. (If you want to win my heart, let’s talk Beethoven 7.) That being said, this was a great performance, and I think it’s fair to label it one of the best of the year. Osmo was on fire, and those flames spread through the whole orchestra. And aside from the symphony, it was a great treat to see a soloist – in this case, Yevgeny Sudbin – playing two concertos in one evening.
But the best program of the season was…
#1. Sibelius Kullervo
If you’d asked me last fall what 15/16 program would be my favorite, I would never have guessed this obscure quasi-symphony by a young Sibelius. I simply wasn’t prepared for the beauty of the writing, the electricity in the hall, the brutality of the story. The YL Male Voice Choir knocked everyone’s socks off. Then the Finlandia finale blew the roof off the hall. It was a great reminder that sometimes the best concerts are the ones you aren’t anticipating.
Luckily for everyone, Kullervo was recorded live. I’m going to be one of the first in line to buy the disc. If you like Sibelius – or heck, if you like orchestras – you should be, too.
These were my favorites based on what I saw in person; others who went to more or different concerts will likely have other favorites. For instance, Rob Hubbard over at the Pioneer Press claimed the Shostakovich 8 was the best of the season. I asked the question on Facebook, and every one of my friends had a different favorite. Which I think speaks strongly to the quality of the product the Minnesota Orchestra is putting out these days.
I’d love to hear your end-of-season reflections. Comment here or on Facebook or on Twitter, and share your excitement with friends and family. Because as I was reminded at Symphony Ball…an orchestra is only as successful as its community decides to make it. Donate here, or sign up to volunteer.