It’s four minutes to midnight.
One of the reasons I love blogging is that I can chew through my own thoughts at my own pace. However, covering a whirlwind European tour in real time does not lend itself to lengthy rumination. So tonight, after the Minnesota Orchestra’s farewell pre-tour concert in Minneapolis, I’m setting a timer to see how long it takes to describe the night. Let’s see if I can replicate this schedule on the trip.
It’s two minutes to midnight.
I’ve gotta be honest: the concert was tacked on to my day. I was working on Europe stuff from the moment I got up to the moment I rushed out the door at 6:30. Paying bills, checking checking accounts, looking up temperatures, guessing what 20 degrees Celsius might be, finally relenting and converting Celsius to Fahrenheit, researching appropriate carry-on bag sizes, bemoaning small carry-on bag sizes. (Tomorrow’s activity will be laying everything out on my dining room table and making the final cut of what to bring and what to leave behind. Sigh. Damn.)
I also had one last ticket left to buy for the trip, for the Orchestra’s appearance at Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen. I’m pretty sure the Tivoli Gardens website employs cutting-edge 1998 dial-up technology. Seriously, this website was Bruckner paced. As a comparison, it was easier to buy fricking Adele tickets. So I was sitting on my bed cycling back and forth between my tablet and my phone, their buggy website failing at every turn. What made it hilariously worse was how polite the website was. It reminded me twice that I could purchase insurance for my ticket, just in case I would get sick and be unable to attend. (I HOPE THAT DOESN’T HAPPEN.) And also they could send a reminder to me via SMS, but just so I know, that service would cost me USD $2.37; would I like to do that? Dude, I’m American. All our non-subscription shows are non-refundable, and if I need a reminder for a concert I’m literally flying across the world for, I’ve got bigger problems than a $2.37 surcharge on a ticket purchase. Then at the end of the process the site cheerily informed me that I could either have my ticket mailed to me (……….yyyyyeah; about that…..) or I could print it out on my own. There was no will-call option. Which would be fine, except my printer’s ink cartridges have evolved from expired to empty. No matter what order I banged the printer buttons in, it wouldn’t print without new cartridges. So I had to visit Amazon for an emergency one-day delivery. It was a chance to pick up a couple of other things I needed, too, so it’s all fine. But I emerged frazzled.
I go into those kinds of details not to bore you, but to give an idea of how many pop up before a tour like this. I’m sure the musicians are dealing with the exact same kinds of humdrum things…especially since so many have been away at summer festivals. It feels dangerous to underestimate the time suckage these kinds of boring, unexpected delays cause.
It’s a quarter past twelve.
A musician came to my house to pick me up at 6:30. (She and I carpool to concerts sometimes; we’re both based in St. Paul.) The orchestra is packing its trunks tonight; apparently instruments were collected after the concert so they could be properly stowed away for the big trip. I came through the stage door because I was carrying some clothes for her. This doesn’t sound very professional on my part…I feel like “reviewers” are supposed to keep editorial distance, but…. That’s another thing about blogging that I love. I don’t need to be a journalist. Some of the musicians are my dearest friends. And I can be honest about that. And I can carry her clothes for her. So there. Thrillingly, the backstage was lined with trunks. And there was a big semi in the loading dock out back. I guarantee you: we have no clue how much behind-the-scenes work is going on. I’m looking forward to getting a glimpse of it this week.
It’s 22 minutes past twelve. (Technically, now we’re in the day before we leave for Europe. Squeal!)
As I walked into the lobby, volunteers handed out Finnish flags and Dutch flags and Danish flags. The concert was sold out, but there were a decent number of empty seats. (Maybe the torrential downpour that came around 6:30-7 freaked some people out? Or the 7:30 start time tripped them up?)
(Also, as a side note, how am I 600-odd words into this entry and not even to the part about the concert? I’m a firm believer that it’s hardest to write short quickly. You guys are going to have to put up with that. I’ll work on it. But as weird as this concept sounds, I won’t have time to write short.)
I took my seat in the front row, ready to be a creeper up close. The atmosphere felt very electric, very joyous. Stand partners Rebecca Corruccini and Deb Serafini (and I’m a poet, don’t you know it) were practicing some tricky parts together. Some folks were playing snatches of the Hungarian Dances by Brahms. Given that Brahms wasn’t on the printed program, I made the exceedingly clever deduction that they must be packing it as an encore. (Sherlock would be proud.)
Five minutes to show time, the musicians all scattered from the stage, leaving a buzz in their wake. Then a little after 7:30 Kevin Smith came out. The people sitting next to me looked a little concernedly at me when I screamed at him like he was a member of The Beatles. He thanked us for coming, noted that the concert was sold out, expressed his wish that everyone delayed by weather would have safe travels to the hall, thanked the anonymous couple (who he said was at the concert tonight) who helped fund the tour, acknowledged the support of the Doug & Louise Leatherdale Fund, reminded us about the complimentary champagne toast afterward, and announced that the Minnesota Orchestra Band (or as the cool kids call it, MOB) would be playing after the concert in the lobby, and the normal keyboardist was unavailable so he would be on piano. He also said something really interesting… Envelopes had been passed out with the programs. He explained that the orchestra was soliciting money not out of desperate need, but because the fiscal year ends this month, and they’re still trying to hit a Guaranty Fund target in order to balance the budget. “But if you feel inspired by what you hear tonight, feel free to donate,” he said. He also thanked us for buying our tickets and said he assumed that most of us in the audience were already donors. There’s a part of me that’s actually daring to dream about a small surplus this year. We can do that, can’t we? (SO DONATE, GUYS. DONATE.) When he talked about how this orchestra is going to represent our community, our state, our country overseas – OUR COMMUNITY – I nearly split my face smiling. Guys, I have been so embarrassed about America, and especially our presidential election, this year. I love my country, but I also regret the face we often show to the world. So it touched me deeply to know that THIS group will be the ambassador speaking for me overseas this summer: an organization that lives out values like love and mutual respect and consistency and self-improvement and hard work. The values I was taught growing up. The values I treasure so deeply. Then as a hilariously awesome side note, Kevin announced the release of Minnesota Orchestra Beethoven 5 ringtones. He said they’re easy to install on Android systems, but it’s more complicated on iPhones, BUT (and get this!) they had actual tech support out in the lobby for any iPhone users to get help installing them. Damn, this orchestra has its act together. Kevin had the crowd eating from his palm. And it was glorious.
It’s a quarter to one and I haven’t even gotten to the performance. Maybe for this tour, I should prioritize writing about the time around the music, more than the music itself… Because I don’t really feel like writing three long concert reviews of largely the same program. As you can tell, I’m still figuring out how to best do this.
But of course some space has to be devoted to it! Here’s the short version: it was thrilling, but I had mixed feelings about the program.
I was lukewarm about Stucky’s Rhapsodies. It was played well….I think….but it failed to grab me by the throat. Certain parts were gorgeous. Others seemed to be leading to destinations we never arrived at.
Next was Pekka Kuusisto soloing in Prokofiev first violin concerto. (God, I love that piece. I always forget how great it is until I hear it again.) Kuusisto oozes an unconventional, very Scandinavian charm. He’s blonde (of course) with a round face. He came out wearing a long black shirt that wasn’t tucked in, used a music stand, and I’m pretty sure he was using a foot pedal to turn pages on a sheet music app. (Someone correct me if I’m wrong.) I tip my hat to soloists who use sheet music, especially the notoriously-difficult-to-memorize Prokofiev 1. This isn’t a popular opinion, but we can’t all play our best from memory. (We’re not all Clara Schumann, who was the one to start the tradition of playing from memory.) Heads up: Kuusisto is one of those players who makes faces onstage. I kept thinking, involuntarily, of the phrase “benevolent fish.” But it’s hypocritical of me to criticize, because my face pulls the same crap when I play, except I look less like a benevolent fish and more like an angry one. There were parts of his interpretation that I really liked…and others I didn’t. But I confess my own bias came into play here. When given a choice, I always gravitate toward players with the most beautiful sounds. Oistrakh, Hahn, Kreisler, Ehnes, Rabin. (Keefe. Her tone melts me.) I’m taken out of the music by deliberately scratchy sounds, or flourishes that are almost certainly deliberate but can also be mistaken for technical slips. But luckily not everyone has my hang-ups, and those who like a sound full of smart character, who don’t long so intensely for consistently beautiful tone, would love him. The audience sure was enchanted. And it was heartwarming how much Osmo clearly adored him. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such obvious affection between him and a guest soloist. (Maybe with Sudbin.)
Totally unexpectedly, his non-classical encore was the highlight of the night. He said “thank you!” to us, and immediately a voice piped up from the balcony: “thank YOU!” and it felt for all the world like we were listening to a bunch of friends jam in a big living room. (This vibe just doesn’t HAPPEN at other orchestras. Does it??) Kuusisto prefaced the encore by reminding us how so many immigrants left Scandinavia to come…”well, here!” They were in such a desperate place that they left everything behind for the unknown. I was touched he brought the subject up. It has been on my mind ahead of my first European trip. (My grandfather, himself the grandson of Norwegian immigrants, always wanted to go to Scandinavia. He went to France to defeat Hitler instead.) So I was touched, but I was also wondering where he was going with this idea, when he said something along the lines of: “We are lucky that we can choose to travel. We can choose to bring beautiful music to people overseas. But there are many in the world who do not have that luxury.” So the encore, he explained, was a Swedish piece commonly known as The Immigrants’ Song (and there was no way I was going to remember the sing-songy multi-syllable name in its original Swedish). If anyone has more information on it, comment here. “So this is for all the people who have no homes,” he said, and then, as a matter-of-fact aside: “including this orchestra, not so long ago.” I hadn’t realized until tonight how impolite it feels to even mention the lockout nowadays, but I could tell from the electricity that murmured through the crowd that people were thinking: oh my God. Are we allowed to bring that up? Is it okay to bring that up? The husband of the couple next to me looked at his wife; she murmured, “Because of the strike.” I glanced at my lap, trying to process, then glanced at some musicians. Their faces all remained impressively neutral. (Although I saw one musician hide his chin behind his instrument a bit, haha.) An outsider coming onstage and saying something like that at such an important concert really makes me wonder: how should we acknowledge our uniquely painful and formative past? How often should we remember the events of 2012-2014? And in what context? I’m not saying I know the answers. I’m just describing what happened.
So he started playing this sad wistful Swedish tune, in a beautifully musical folk style, and it was breathtaking. The whole hall fell completely silent. At one point he nodded at Erin Keefe. She hummed to provide a drone. She looked a little self-conscious at first, but she’s Erin Keefe, and she went for it. And then the most heavenly clarinet playing wafted from the side of the stage. (Who is that? I thought. Greg Williams? The new principal? Tim Zavadil? David Pharris?) I was in the front row; I obviously couldn’t see anything. It was only after the piece was over that…Osmo walked out to take a bow.
I cannot imagine how this is going to bring the house down in Lahti. Hopefully no Lahti-ites (lol, what do they call themselves over there?) are reading this blog, because the surprise of him coming onstage during the soloist’s encore was magical. And choosing Erin to hum the drone… It was beautiful. It was a family.
So even if I’m not going to necessarily fall in love with his playing, I’m going to learn a lot from Kuusisto. And I’m grateful for that.
Osmo talked briefly after intermission. Strangely, unlike Kevin Smith, he had no microphone, and a lot of people had trouble hearing him. But since I was in the front, I heard everything perfectly. He explained they’d be playing a piece in memory of Einojuhani Rautavaara, the Finnish composer who passed away a few weeks ago. They chose the second movement from Concerto for Birds and Orchestra, marked “melancholy.” It was a beautiful, beautiful thing…then again, I also have a thing for birds. (ORLY?)
They made a bold choice about concert order, going from the mournful whispers of the Rautavaara right into the opening of Beethoven 5 without no break. I like the idea of it in theory (I love the idea of a piece commemorating a death leading straight into Beethoven appearing to rail against fate), but in practice, it was too much of a whiplash in the hall. A few people around me started involuntarily giggling at the contrast. That being said, it may play very, very differently in Finland, if they decide to do it there. I’m going to go out on a limb and trust Osmo’s instinct.
Beethoven five was great. Was it the best I’ve heard this orchestra play Beethoven? It was very good, but no. It had surges of electricity, rather than an ever-increasing burn. The second half of the first movement was mind-blowing (it was like someone threw a switch on!), but the electricity softened during the second movement. That being said, certain lines were brought out in a particularly gorgeous manner, though. The fourth movement came within a centimeter of being breathlessly exhilarating. Everyone was clearly giving their all. But I think the bottom line is that everyone is exhausted and everyone is distracted and everyone is feeling the pressure. If they have to leave everything on the table, and they can only do it a couple times, I think they’d be best served doing it in Europe and not here.
Plus, the timing and schedule for this trip is a hard ask. I talked to someone in the know after the concert. He said there were two rehearsals yesterday and one today…and then the concert. They haven’t played together for weeks, and not under Osmo since the recording session in June. And then musicians start leaving Wednesday! I feel like they needed more rehearsal to feel more secure. And obviously they’re not going to get that rehearsal. That being said, this orchestra has a habit of achieving laser focus at high-stakes moments (like the Havana Eroica, or the live recording of Kullervo, or most relevantly, the Carnegie show). And besides, Minnesota on a less-electric day is still more electric than just about anyone else. I remain more concerned about making our flight connection in Reykjavik than fearing they won’t live up to the hype. We’ll see how the Lahti show goes, I guess.
And who knows… The same distraction I’m feeling is the same kind they are. Who’s to say I didn’t bring my own distraction and my own inability to evaluate objectively into the hall?
Afterwards, a bunch of patrons stuck around for the champagne toast. If Osmo and Kevin were miked, they weren’t miked well, and I missed what they said. Then the Minnesota Orchestra Band took the stage in the lobby, featuring members Brian Mount, Charles Block (Kate Nettleman’s lucky husband, and principal bass at the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra), Matt Frischman, Tim Zavadil, and Kevin Smith (who commandeered the keyboard and also the percussion shakers). These men are hardcore adorkable. And honestly? The band is not terrible. (Maybe that could be their slogan! lol) As they cheerfully explained to their adoring audience members while breaking down their own set: “We are the best band in a Top Ten orchestra.” A pause. “I’m not even sure if any other Top Ten orchestra has a band, but we’re the best.” High five, guys.
I also want to reiterate that this is how far we’ve come: the CEO of the Minnesota Orchestra is sitting in on a band belonging to the chair of the musicians’ negotiating committee. Hardcore reconciliation, right here, right now.
The sizable crowd that stayed for the show loved it, and I was no exception. There were couples spontaneously dancing through the entire lobby. Ladies waved their European flags and threw down some moves right in front of the MOB boys. Sometimes they combined the flag waving and the move throwing. In between numbers people would scream out: “WE LOVE YOU!” and “KEVINNNNNN!” and “WE LOVE YOU, KEVIN!” I was on the balcony B level of the lobby looking down at the whole ridiculous ecstatic scene and just grinning in wonder. How did I get so lucky to have THIS be my hometown band? We’re living in a fairy tale that is borderline saccharine. And other orchestras ignore the Minnesota magic at their peril.
Before leaving, I talked briefly with a musician about flights. There are three flight options for musicians to choose from: Icelandair on Wednesday, Icelandair on Thursday, or Delta on Thursday. He asked which one I booked tickets on, and I said Thursday Icelandair. He’s taking that one too. I was informed that this is “the party flight.” Wooo! So just so you know, that’s the one the cool kids are taking. Suck it, Delta.
Everyone was so excited to talk about Europe. I had readers offer me travel tips and hugs. I had musicians squeal at me: “I’m so excited you’re coming along!” “I can’t wait to read what you write!” “I’m so HAPPY for you!” Kevin Smith gave me a hug – he seems happy I’m coming with, which moves me to my very core – and when some friends asked to take a picture of us, he said yes.
It’s four after two.
So. It’s not a short entry, and it might not be as well-written as it could have been if I’d taken my time, but it’s an entry produced in a little over two hours immediately after a very long day. I’ll take that as a good omen.
If you’re enjoying the coverage of the trip, the GoFundMe to help support it is here. NO PRESSURE. SERIOUSLY. But if you want to get involved with long form (apparently very long form lol) arts blogging, I’m here for you!
Proofreading done at 3:17AM. *post*