#MNOrchTour: Thoughts From Over Reykjavik


As I type, we’re between times and days. It’s three-thirty in the morning in Reykjavik and ten-thirty at night in Minneapolis. The in-flight entertainment system reports that the temperature outside is seventy below, and we’re creeping toward the Labrador Sea. I just finished watching an arty Icelandic movie about two estranged brothers who both raise sheep. Scabies hits the farms in the valley and complications ensue. The brothers eventually decide to reconcile and work together to save their breeding stock. The film ends with their flock escaping in a blizzard, and the brothers clinging to each other naked in an ice cave that one of them dug while seeking protection from the wind. I’m beginning to get a sense of the pathos that awaits us in Scandinavia. For the flight from Reykjavik to Helsinki, I’m planning on lighter entertainment fare. (Namely, Fargo.) (“Prowler needs a jump!”)

Everything went according to plan today. In fact, it went too well, and I felt suspicious all day that I was forgetting something major. I walked around my neighborhood doing last-minute errands, and I resisted the temptation to scream at everyone that “HEY, YOUR STATE’S ORCHESTRA IS GOING ON TOUR AND I’M GOING WITH THEM AND I DUNNO WHY I’M YELLING BUT I FEEL LIKE YOU SHOULD ALL KNOW THIS CRUCIAL INFORMATION.”

At 4:45, sub cellist Kirsten Whitson and her family picked me up. She and I walked triumphantly through the door of Terminal 2 – with me obnoxiously squealing, “OH MY GOD IT’S ACTUALLY. HAPPENING. WE ARE ACTUALLY GOING. ON. TOUR!” It didn’t seem real until that moment. And even though we arrived separately, we ended up in the Icelandair check-in line between violinist Dave Brubaker and brand new principal second Peter McGuire, which I think is a dream come true for any orch dork.

Eventually the musicians were shepherded to an expedited group check-in while I trudged through the cattle line with my fellow mortals. But we all met up again at our gate. I bought a sandwich and sat down on the floor to have an airport picnic with Kirsten, who in my absence had been joined by violist Sam Bergman.

The expedited group line reminded me again of how much work the indefatigable staff puts in to make tours run smoothly. Before we left, a musician forwarded the final detailed itinerary to me, just in case parts of it would make my trip easier. And it will. It’s about thirty pages long and provides a small window into how much work goes into trips like these. There are endless details. Every musician needed special luggage tags to identify themselves. Lists had to be assembled to record what musicians were on what flights. Notes had to be made about which flights included meals and which flights didn’t. The itinerary even included information about how musicians can book time with a massage therapist to ward off injury after traveling so far. (Note: as I’m posting this pre-written entry on the night of August 19/20, I’m awake with aching shoulders; I’m really glad I don’t have to play a high-stakes concert feeling this way!)

Before we got on the plane, Kirsten and I checked our boarding passes. Earlier in the day I’d changed my reservation to a window seat so I could see the scenery better. Right before boarding, we discovered that we were….drumroll….SITTING. NEXT. TO. EACH. OTHER. Seriously, what are the odds? We laughed and gave each other a congratulatory hug and later took a selfie to commemorate. It feels like a fabulous omen: expect great and unexpected things this trip!

Going down the jetway, Greg and Julie Gramolini Williams, clarinet and oboe players respectively, were right in front of us. Jason Arkis was enthusiastically explaining to curious passengers: “We’re the Minnesota Orchestra, and we’re going on tour to Finland and Amsterdam and Edinburgh and Copenhagen!” Woo!

Going down the aisle, I saw friendly face after friendly face. Everyone seems like they’re in an upbeat mood. Tim Zavadil is in my row as I write this. Principal viola Tom Turner is in front of me. (Haha; speak of the devil, as I typed this sentence, he just stood up to stretch his legs.) I was treated to a Peter McGuire Smile (TM) as I shuffled onboard. And before we took off, the woman sitting next to Tom asked: “Are you part of a group?” Tom explained that members of the Minnesota Orchestra are on the flight, and they’re going on a European tour. She said, “Oh, I wondered what was going on! I saw so many people talking to each other in the line, I thought to myself: they have to be a group.” Yes. Yes, they are indeed a group.

As we taxied through the humid August air, we watched the Icelandair safety video. It was hilarious. To represent how, in case of emergency, passengers should leave their personal items on the plane, the video featured a Nordic woman joyfully casting off her backpack somewhere in rural Iceland, her only objective to skip into the dazzling mountainous horizon. Apparently emergency evacuations in Iceland are exhilarating and glamorous.

Every announcement on this flight has been in Icelandic first, then English second. I’m feeling extremely dumb for only speaking one language. It is amazing how incapacitated you can feel if you can’t read signs.

Now it’s almost one o’ clock Minneapolis time, and our first flight is almost over. Outside the window, there is a distant glow over the horizon: a sunrise already! I’ve never seen the sunrise at (what feels to me like) 11:30 at night. It is magically disorienting. It’s early, but as I told Kristen: so far this whole experience feels like a slumber party…only with the greatest orchestral musicians in the world.

And random confession: I keep thinking of how if we crash, I’ll be smashed into smithereens along with principal players from the Minnesota Orchestra, which I think is a particularly epic way to go. I’ve never been so content contemplating my death. lol.


Descending into Reykjavik

Also…. I hope I don’t write too much about her this week, because I don’t want my tour blog to turn into a cliched Wild rip-off. But I have to mention my mom at least once.

She died on an early March afternoon. The sky that evening was blue and pink and raw: artists’ colors dashed across the clouds. In the center of the horizon stood a column of pink light, a meteorological phenomenon I later learned is called a Jacob’s Ladder: a staircase to heaven. After I took a picture of it, the ladder vanished into the mist.

As the plane took off this evening, the whole sky was burning with her colors. They were like watercolors in the humid August evening. And we raced down the runway, and we flew up into them, and we fast gained distance from the ground, and what had once seemed so massive and consequential (highway exchanges, entire neighborhoods, even the Mississippi River) miniaturized and drifted peacefully away. I often get a little queasy climbing and banking when I fly…but this time, I had my nose glued to the window. I had no fear, because I was with friends, and I was embraced by the sunset.

I’ve wondered so often what it was like for her to die. I so hope it felt something like this.


Again, I want to thank my readers for contributing to the GoFundMe that made this trip possible. I am so honored by your generosity. (Apologies for repeating these sentiments ad infinitum, but be prepared: there will be more repetition coming.) To the best of my knowledge, we’re making a bit of journalism history here: I don’t think an independent arts writer has ever crowdfunded coverage of an American orchestra’s European tour before. Hopefully I’m the first the first in a long line of writers to have the same opportunity. If you want to be a part of the experiment, I’ll still be accepting contributions here throughout the trip.


Hot tip: for up-to-the-minute tour excitement, I’d recommend visiting my brand new Instagram account. I won’t be able to upload to multiple social media platforms in a timely fashion, so right now, since so much tour reportage is image-heavy, I’m using Instagram for short posts and this blog for long posts. So if you stay tuned to them, you won’t miss much, if anything!


Filed under My Writing

3 responses to “#MNOrchTour: Thoughts From Over Reykjavik

  1. jake

    Your comment about the airplane crashing reminded me that such a tragedy did happend with an American orchestra some years ago. Was it the Atlanta Symphony that lost most of its players? It seems only prudent that the MN ORCH not travel on the same plane as a matter of policy, a practice that royalty and politicians have been known to wisely follow. Such an accident, God forbid, would be even worse than a long LOCK OUT as we experienced.

    I almost feel guilty reading your blog without contributing to your trip. As a teacher who retired early I have to budget carefully and can not even dream of taking such a tour with my favorite orchestra. Other needs are greater. But thank you for the vicarious experience offered to your readers. You bring the orchestra to life in a different way than the musiciasn through your gift of writing.

  2. Elizabeth Erickson

    I love how you see the beauty and value of things that are so often dismissed in our everyday lives. I was transported back to my first trip to Europe some 30 + years ago on the same night Icelandic Air flight. I think your mom was right along your side.

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