The script of my first conversation in Denmark went something like this:
(EMILY has left the airport on a train. This train may or not be headed to Copenhagen. EMILY looks at her phone, then looks at her ticket, then back at her phone. It becomes increasingly obvious that EMILY has gotten on the wrong train system entirely.)
(Abruptly, a DANISH MAN approaches and begins speaking Danish. DANISH MAN is wearing a neon vest. It is clear that DANISH MAN will fine – or more realistically, jail – EMILY for inadvertently bumming free train rides. EMILY stammers.)
EMILY: Sorry, I’m a dumb American and don’t speak Danish and also I’m on the wrong train, sorry, and I also have a ticket but I just realized it’s wrong, so.
DANISH MAN (switches to perfect English; pretends that EMILY makes sense): That is fine! I am not collecting tickets. I am conducting a survey about customer satisfaction on Danish trains.
(DANISH MAN brings out a clipboard to record EMILY’s profound thoughts on customer satisfaction on Danish trains.)
(SCENERY: whizzes by in wrong direction)
EMILY: Actually, I think I need to get off now.
DANISH MAN: I’m sorry?
EMILY: I need to get off at this next stop. I’m on the wrong train.
DANISH MAN: Oh, this is your stop?
EMILY: I need to get off now.
DANISH MAN: You need to get off now?
EMILY: I need to get off the train now.
(EMILY jumps off and onto an empty platform.)
(THREE wrong platforms, TWO sets of conflicting directions, and ONE five minute train ride later, EMILY opens a door to a building that appears to be the hotel. She is greeted by, I kid you not, a hotel lobby filled with live trees. It smells as though monkeys might start swinging from the branches at any moment. EMILY leaves again and looks at her phone’s map app. A SECOND DANISH MAN yells to her from a window.)
SECOND DANISH MAN: YOU HAVE TO GOT. TO GO. AROUND!
(SECOND DANISH MAN slams window shut in disgust. EMILY staggers through the summer heat with her suitcase and her backpack, tiptoeing around the construction surrounding the hotel, trying not to stumble into the path of a jackhammer. On the other side of the building, EMILY nearly collapses in relief when she sees MINNESOTA ORCHESTRA MUSICIANS leaving to go to lunch. She has survived her brush with Denmark.)
*FADE TO BLACK*
I mention this story not to entertain, but to encapsulate my experience of Copenhagen, where everything was Just. Plain. Weird.
Cellist Kirsten Whitson and I had achieved thrifting nirvana in Amsterdam, and we hoped to recapture some of the magic in Copenhagen. But aside from a fabulously funky black concert skirt for Kirsten, we didn’t find much. We also spent a decent amount of time sitting on a concrete construction barrier puzzling over a map cluttered with words like “Tordenskjoldsgade” and “Rådhusstræde.” Later, we passed an S&M shop (alas, closed) and then nearly got run over by a bus on H.C. Andersen Boulevard, which would have been a sad, albeit literary, way to go.
Tivoli Concert Hall is in a nineteenth-century amusement park called Tivoli Gardens, and I think we can all agree that’s a logical place for a major American orchestra to end its big comeback tour. Kirsten and I approached an entrance that was guarded by a uniformed man. She asked where the stage door was and proferred the facility map that the orchestra had printed for its players.
The guard spent about thirty seconds looking at the map of his place of employment.
He turned it to the side.
Then he turned it upside down.
His brow furrowed.
We stared at him, not quite sure if this delay was alarming or just hilarious. Finally he told us to ignore the instructions on the map (um……) and to go down the path to the right through the park. When he waved us through, we really had no other option but to press on.
Suddenly we were in what I can only describe as a Cold War county fair. I kept thinking of Pripyat Park, only before the Chernobyl meltdown. There were garish colors, and shacks to buy overpriced fair food at, and shooting galleries, and over-sugared children screaming in strollers, and the distant rumbles of a wooden roller coaster. Ominously, there were no Minnesota Orchestra musicians in sight an hour before rehearsal was due to start. I wondered if Rod Serling might appear from behind a ride, brandishing a cigarette and welcoming us to…the Twilight Zone.
But instead of Rod Serling, we saw principal flute Adam Kuenzel, who had somehow found the stage door, and seemed a little confused by how confused we were.
Kirsten wanted my opinion as to how her funky fabulous skirt looked, so I followed her backstage. Of course, this being northern Europe, none of the backstage spaces were air conditioned. Even during my quick visit, I could tell that “the greatest orchestra in the world” was rapidly becoming the stankiest orchestra in the world.
Cellist Sally Dorer cheerfully greeted us in the ladies’ locker room: “Just so you know, the curtain above the toilet doesn’t close all the way.”
Wait – what? My bladder refused to grasp the reality of the situation, so I stepped into the restroom to investigate. And yep, there was the toilet, situated beneath a thin curtain that didn’t quite span the width of the open window. No matter how I tugged at the fabric, daylight glowed in. Right outside was a ride filled with innocent children who I feared I was about to irreparably scar.
“Don’t worry,” Kirsten said. “The kids are too busy to notice us.”
I reflected on the glamour of tour life the whole time I peed, whooshes of high-pitched screams passing just behind my head.
I lost all sense of time sitting in the hall waiting for rehearsal to start. I hadn’t been in one place long enough to charge my phone since that morning in Amsterdam, so I couldn’t check the time, and I only had enough battery to take two pictures of the inside of the hall. It dates from the sixties and has supposedly been recently restored. The restoration apparently extended to ensuring that the auditorium retained an odor of stale popcorn and cotton candy.
At the pre-ordained time, Osmo whisked onstage, just as he had every other time on tour. But it soon became obvious that he was about to say something out loud. And he did.
At first I tried to listen, eager to hear, desperately curious what Osmo might possibly have to say at this moment to his players. I caught a couple of references to what fine work – pronounced verk – he thought the orchestra had done on this tour.
But then I realized suddenly that I didn’t want to hear, and also that it wasn’t my place to hear. The lines were blurred on this tour: what was I, anyway? Not a reporter, not an audience member, not a board member, not a wife or daughter or sister of the party, and certainly not a player. Plus, during the lockout, this was never my orchestra in the same way it was theirs. I’ve been so honored to watch them climb Mount Everest, but I’m also acutely aware that I’m not with them at that summit. I’ve been behind them, cheerleading them on, and that does count for something, but I also acknowledge they’ve shared an experience I won’t ever truly understand.
So that was all I heard, and all I needed to know: how proud Osmo was of his players, and how enthusiastically they shuffled their feet when he finished (the orch dork way to applaud when your hands are full with instruments and bows).
I’d classify the acoustic at Tivoli as more “aural assault” than acoustic. No matter how hard the orchestra tried, dynamics just came across as different gradations of loud. I even wondered briefly if the place was somehow amplified. I wasn’t the only one to notice it, either. During rehearsal, Osmo gave different players suggestions on how to adjust, tactfully noting that “the audience is very sensitive about brass balance.” Indeed. All that being said, the upside of hearing a lot was that you heard a lot. I caught a few interior lines in the Sibelius concerto and Beethoven 3 that I’d never heard before, and it was because of the hall.
As always, the rehearsal tumbled by, and – suddenly – it was done, and suddenly I was thinking: how is this so close to being over?
As the band disbanded, I tried to escape out the hall’s front doors. But of course they were locked from the inside, no doubt attempting to trap me forever in the Chernobylesque amusement park from hell. So I passed some time looking for my seat. I’d resolved not to be my usual front-row creeper self and bought seats in Row 5; I walked up to Row 5 and realized it was, inexplicably, the first row after all. So much for being low profile. Later I ended up in the basement lobby looking at a giant aquarium full of exotic fish. Why did a concert hall have a giant aquarium full of exotic fish? Why was the lobby in the basement? What is the meaning of life? Who knows! Also, there was a crab mosaic on the side of the stairs, because why the hell not. Later, before the show started, I went with a musician spouse to the hall’s coffee shop. They sold water in containers that looked like miniature orange juice cartons. No straws were provided.
Maybe it’s time to head back to Minnesota, I remember thinking to myself.
The crowd was small but enthusiastic. Maybe that’s the kind of group one should realistically expect at a concert held at an amusement park.
The program notes were written exclusively in Danish, and I couldn’t understand much of it, but it seemed to contain a long section about the lockout. I studied the words while I waited, interested by how interesting they thought the lockout was.
Pekka Kuusisto gave a raw and thought-provoking reading of the Sibelius violin concerto. It was miles different from Hilary Hahn’s big-toned, technically impeccable performance this spring, but it also said something very different, and something very human, and that diversity of conception serves to make our art interesting. One especially beautiful moment came during the first movement orchestral tuttis as Pekka graciously stepped back into the violin sections, drawing the audience’s attention to Sibelius’s powerful writing for solo orchestra. Brilliant.
The audience members were impressed, too. All twelve of them (no, I jest; I jest) offered Pekka a synchronized Euroclap: the first and only time I heard the Euroclap on the European tour.
When he came back onstage to introduce his inevitable encore, he actually started off by discussing the lockout, describing how for two years the musicians had had no professional home. “Where do you go when you are locked out of your own concert hall?” he asked. It was the most direct public indictment I’ve heard from a soloist about what happened. The Danish audience laughed with incredulity that such a thing had occurred. And it was true; in this particular moment, the recent past seemed like a fairy tale fantasy. “The fact that this orchestra, this untamed beast, is back…it is a miracle,” he said.
I tried very hard not to start sniffling then and there. I was, after all, in Row 5, which was Row 1, and conspicuous.
His last encore was his most haunting performance of the tour. Every night featured a new improvisation on the immigrants’ song, and in Copenhagen he actually sang and played at the same time. I wish I had a recording of it, and I’m so thankful I don’t. This way it can remain sacred in my memory.
Some of the audience members filtered out of the hall before the second half began. (Maybe to ride more roller coasters.) (Or to drink.) Perhaps as a result, the audience’s response to a swaggering Beethoven 3 was a touch cooler than their response to Pekka. But even so, the audience drew out two encores, and it seemed like everyone – audience and conductor and orchestra – left happy and satisfied.
I was convinced that if I didn’t follow the musicians backstage, I would suffer another incident on the Danish train. Not crazy about the idea of writing a blog entry called #MnOrchTour: Midnight And Lost In Copenhagen, I sought and received permission to board the musicians’ bus back to the hotel, despite the fact I technically wasn’t a member of the tour party. I waited backstage as the players changed and put away their instruments, pressed against a staircase wall and just trying to stay out of the way.
Suddenly an ecstatic Kevin Smith saw me. I gave him a huge hug. “Emily!” he said, warm and enthusiastic as ever. “How are you doing??” he said, as if this whole tour had been planned for my enrichment specifically. So we chatted briefly. He beamed. “Another group of musicians – they would have taken it easy tonight when the stakes maybe weren’t as high.” (It was true: there was a lot more press at the Edinburgh concert, and the Concertgebouw show had more prestige.) “But not our musicians. Not this group. They were amazing.”
Preach it, Kevin Smith.
Not long after, English horn player Marni Hougham saw me and called my name. Marni was to be my personal escort to the glamorous Musician Tour Bus.
I feel awkward blogging about anything specific that happens while the musicians are off-duty, but I think a few tidbits are shareable. First off, the air conditioning on our bus wasn’t working. Tim Zavadil was unanimously, and very organically, elected to go up to the driver to bargain for better riding conditions. Still, the air conditioning did not turn on for a very long time. Marni and I stared at Tim disapprovingly and spoke loudly and sarcastically of his failure until he noticed us, then he immediately stood up and continued to bargain with the driver, unfazed by the driver’s unwillingness to grant his colleagues relief. Finally the vents began roaring with cold air, and we began roaring with laughter. Congratulations were shouted at Tim. Still, perhaps it was too little too late: a violist said as she disembarked, “I smelled something weird on the bus. Then I realized it was me.”
That night Kirsten texted me to let me know that she’d left some groceries we’d picked up at the hotel’s front desk. I was just about to go to bed, but I yawned, sleepily slipped on my shoes, and took the elevator down to pick them up…
Then heard some familiar voices and raucous laughter in the restaurant adjacent to the lobby forest.
So it was that I ended up crashing the Minnesota Orchestra’s post-tour after-party. “Mind if I take this seat?” I asked; “please do,” was the answer. That gracious response sums up in two words how everyone from the orchestra family treated me during this tour, and for that, I’m so deeply grateful. To express a small fraction of that gratitude, I offered the musicians at my table the little container of cashews from my grocery bag. I could hear my mom’s voice in the back of my head: it’s important that they have protein. They’ve burned a lot of energy today. Of course my mother was right because the cashews soon vanished. Later – after midnight, I think – some pizzas found their way to our tables. Tim Zavadil distributed them, because of course he did.
It was deeply, unexpectedly moving just to sit there, watching, listening to the camaraderie…being treated like a beloved member of the family. There was no emoting about the enormity of what had occurred that week, or navel-gazing over everything the tour symbolized. No boasting about the stellar reviews; just measured, intelligent conversation about them. Add to that jokes and laughter and copious amounts of sarcasm…and maybe a little bit of harmless gossip here and there. It was good. It was all good.
I told Kevin Smith in the elevator that he should come over to my place for tea someday, and he agreed with a grin and said he’d love that. Future entry, maybe.
I spent the next day in my Copenhagen hotel room writing, and then I went to Reykjavik, and then I came back home to Minnesota.
And with that, the unforgettable #MnOrchTour was over.
I think I’ll put together one more entry with some closing thoughts and thank-yous, as well as a table of contents with links to all my coverage. Plus, I owe you a final report on how the groundbreaking experimental GoFundMe went. The brief version: I set my goal at $6k; I’m now hovering at $4.7k raised; and I know the trip came in under budget. Before I officially announce the campaign’s success, I still have to calculate exactly how far under budget. If any extra is raised, it will go toward future blog coverage of the Minnesota Orchestra’s adventures. So if you enjoyed these entries and are interested in contributing financially, this is your last chance! :) Regardless of if you contributed to the GoFundMe or not, I hope you enjoyed the journey half as much as I did… This orchestra’s resurrection wouldn’t have been possible without you.
So. Lots of love to all my dear readers from