I can recommend crashing a Minnesota Orchestra tour rehearsal if you ever get the chance.
My fellow fangirl Aly and I were eating lunch on Michigan Avenue this Sunday when we texted a musician to see if crashing was an option.
It was, if we could get there in five minutes.
Somehow I’ve ended up backstage at several of the world’s great halls. The ceilings are always low; the corridors narrow. Musicians and staff – the invisible superheroes of every tour – shoot quick smiles and turn their hips sideways to squeeze past each other. We went down and up stairs. For a split second I wondered why the railings were wrapped in a cushy rubbery covering, but then I realized: of course, it’s to protect the precious instruments carried up and down these storied dingy staircases every night.
After a cramped maze of a backstage, we came upon a crimson and cream interior that soared into the sky. It’s a fitting auditorium shape for the city that invented the skyscraper.
Where to sit when every seat is free? Aly and I went big and settled side-by-side in a center box.
A solitary Tony Ross began to play among the empty seats. He looked everywhere and nowhere simultaneously, in communion with the moment and the instrument.
For a few moments I waited for the ghosts of Willa Cather and Thea Kronborg:
The concert began at two-thirty, and Thea was in her seat in the Auditorium at ten minutes after two–a fine seat in the first row of the balcony, on the side, where she could see the house as well as the orchestra. She had been to so few concerts that the great house, the crowd of people, and the lights, all had a stimulating effect. (x)
Soon after, I looked down and saw Minnesota Orchestra CEO Kevin Smith striding off the stage. A few minutes later, he appeared in the box next to Aly and me. “Emily!” he said in warm greeting, not minding that there was no reason really for us to be there. It made me wonder how many other orchestra CEOs recognize individual patrons by name and greet them with such enthusiasm. I wonder what this business might look like if they did.
The rehearsal was a quick brush-up that lasted about twenty minutes. Only a few excerpts were touched, all completely ripped free of context, and some turning comical as a result.
The rehearsal began with an encore. (I later learned it was the Dance-Intermezzo from Sibelius’s op. 42.) Aly and I took special note of its presence: it would be our responsibility, as screamy Minnesotan pilgrims, to serve as unofficial Encore Encouragers (TM), because the Chicagoans would not be expecting one, and – dangerously – they might give up applauding too soon.
From my seat, the playing initially sounded careful and a little meek. I was tempted to feel nervous about this, but luckily I have enough experience now to know it takes a few moments for all to settle. (And experience has trained me well; the actual performance of the encore was the furthest thing from meek imaginable.)
Next came a few snippets of the Tchaikovsky piano concerto, including the opening fanfare. The difference in the amount of sound bordered on unnerving. It just blossomed.
My gut instinct is that you can’t understand this hall’s acoustic unless you hear many kinds of repertoire while sitting in many different seats, over many months or years learning the quirks of the space. Minneapolis has a plushness and uniformity, but perhaps has less…spike? It’s difficult to verbalize these impressions. Aly said that she felt like there was a curtain behind the strings.
But any acoustical quirks aside, how can you resist a visual experience like this? You can’t.
For the concert itself, Aly and I bought seats in the choir loft. We traded a balanced acoustic for the chance to sit behind the orchestra. It was worth it.
As the crowd filtered in, we hung over the railing, scanning for familiar faces. Flutist and piccolo goddess Roma Duncan tried her hand at the French horn while Bruce Hudson stood by. Bruce then tried playing the piccolo. Roma’s face lit up when he triumphantly peeped out a single note, which sounded over the murmuring crowd like a startled parakeet.
Aly had somehow gotten the trumpet section’s attention and they were posing for a photo when an usher in a very official-looking red coat told us to lean back. Well, whoops.
A man wearing a black turtleneck sat next to us. For some reason (maybe the #mnorch buttons maniacally pinned to our lapels), he deduced we were from Minnesota. He was intrigued, and a friendly interrogation began.
“Have you been to Symphony Center before?”
“Have you heard Chicago?”
“Which do you think is the stronger orchestra?”
“How do you think they play differently?”
“Have you ever sat in this particular section before?”
“Who’s this conductor? Is he your regular music director? How do people feel about him in Minneapolis?” (Aly and I tried our best to explain Osmo in two sentences.)
“And what do you think of Muti?” I haven’t seen Muti; Aly has; I demurred to her, and she shared her thoughts.
He nodded. “I give Muti…a B,” he pronounced.
Immediately the woman next to him gasped a gasp so deep all the oxygen disappeared from the hall. “Muti a B?” she said, leaning forward at this sacrilege. “No no no no no no no.”
“Well, Barenboim…” he said.
“Barenboim?” she interjected, incredulous.
He explained the reasons behind his preference, then turned back to us. “Of course,” he said matter-of-factly, “the greatest was Solti.”
I nodded, humbled suddenly at the titanic legacy that this Midwestern orchestra carries on its shoulders. Minnesota will always be my sentimental favorite. But sitting in Symphony Center, among an audience clearly restless for excellence, I remembered again how you just can’t escape the Chicago mystique.
That being said –
The pacing of En Saga, the concert opener, was mesmerizing. I don’t know what the Saga’s narrative is, but I heard one of intensely personal, irreparable loss. The last few deathly murmurs were like a sick animal’s last breaths. It would have been a completely satisfying concert by itself.
The Tchaikovsky concerto was a thunderstorm. Some notes may have scattered in the wind, but watching the lightning was worth it. Everyone onstage, including soloist Inon Barnatan, found subtlety in a score that’s so often played without any. The cheers began before the final note rang out.
At intermission we yelled at Brian Mount and Kevin Watkins, who were preparing for the second half below. We talked about our seats. Kevin reminded us that if they ever sounded early, it wasn’t because they were early; it was because they play to the back of the hall, and not to us. “It’s the nature of how sound travels,” he called up to us, concerned that we understand this. We reassured him that we trust they know what they’re doing.
From the choir loft, Beethoven seven came across as a symphony scored for timpani and French horns with occasional winds and distant strings. But it didn’t matter: it was thrilling, gorgeous, electric nonetheless.
The gentle whispers of the second movement strings were so beautiful they made me desperately, desperately sad.
“Oh, he’s very good,” the man in the black turtleneck said in the break between the second and third movements.
It’s also worth noting that the violins were seated antiphonally, and I think they pulled it off. I once played Beethoven 7 in an antiphonal arrangement in the last stand of the second violins, and I could not hear a single note the firsts were playing. The Minnesota back stands – as well as the principal players who led them – deserve a Grammy for Best Antiphonal Performance in Unfamiliar Acoustic.
At the end of the concert, there was a surprisingly quick standing ovation. I thought that a Chicago audience, given the weighty legacy of their own symphony, might be more reserved than our now-exuberant Minnesotan one. But I was wrong.
I will confess, though: Aly and I did yell out a few trademark Minnesota lung-busting WOOOs, because there was a dangerous moment or two when the clapping felt like it might die down before the encore. They don’t do orchestral encores in Chicago. But ultimately the applause lasted long enough that Osmo was completely justified in hopping back on the podium and ending with the Sibelius Intermezzo.
“I am so proud right now,” Aly said after it was all over. I didn’t know what else to say besides “I know.”
It’s one thing to get a chance to love an orchestra.
It’s another honor altogether to get to see other audiences love it, too.