Category Archives: Reviews

Mahler in Minnesota


Alma Mahler


In January 1918, Alma Mahler Gropius saw writer Franz Werfel at a performance of her dead husband’s fourth symphony.

During the concert, Alma and Franz exchanged long, lingering glances.

At intermission, she brought him home, cheating on the man she had cheated on Mahler with.

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Review: Minnesota Orchestra at Carnegie Hall

Gray concrete. Distant sirens. Half-heard conversations. Bicyclists sailing down avenues. Tangles of pedestrians caught at stoplights, overflowing into crosswalks. Defiant bray of taxi horns. Spring wind whistling past storefronts. Dark low murky clouds. Glowing yellow lights stacked to the sky. Hurried, impatient clack-clack-clack of heels.

Midtown Manhattan at night. There were too many impressions to absorb at once.


Tickets for the Minnesota Orchestra’s March Carnegie Hall show went on sale last August. I had a reminder on my calendar to buy them first thing that morning. I was up by nine, but I should have set my alarm for six. The Carnegie website was creaking under the demand, and the only seats left at that point – I repeat, the morning they went on sale – were in the balcony.

So it was that, precious tickets in hand, my friend and I set out to climb to the rafters of Mt. Carnegie.

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Review, Carnegie Preview: Minnesota Orchestra, Hilary Hahn in Sibelius

How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

Two options:

  • Practice practice practice, ~OR~
  • Use the Minnesota Orchestra’s first post-lockout performance in New York City as an excuse to fly in from Minneapolis and creep out native New Yorkers with your girlish, shockingly unprofessional enthusiasm!

I chose the second option. Practicing can be a drag, and I’m good at screaming in concert halls.


The Minnesota Orchestra and guest soloist Hilary Hahn take the stage at Carnegie Hall on Thursday, March 3rd. This past weekend, they performed the program they’ll be bringing on tour. I went on Friday and Saturday nights to get a sense of how the orchestra is sounding in this benchmark repertoire.


The program begins with Sibelius’s underplayed third symphony. Osmo recently described the piece in a Minnesota Public Radio interview: “I love all of the symphonies, but in this context I would like to give something which is almost totally unknown piece, but great piece of music.”

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Review: Kullervo, Minnesota Orchestra

The Minnesota Orchestra performed Jean Sibelius’s Kullervo last weekend, and I still haven’t recovered.

Music is always difficult to describe, but this piece verges on impossible. It’s long, for one. Its scope rivals a DeMille-directed Biblical epic. It is a glimpse into the very heart of terror and savagery and ice. It enshrines the ghost of a young Sibelius. In Kullervo, Sibelius began to chop a road through a dark and snowy forest. He may have abandoned that road, ultimately preferring another path of tighter, leaner construction. But his decision makes the road untaken all the more fascinating. As listeners, we stand at the edge of Kullervo and peer into the vast unexplored darkness beyond.

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The Marathon


A year ago today my mother was diagnosed with cancer, and six weeks later she was dead. I try to hold her hand in my memory, but it’s not working; it’s not working. Every day she becomes less human, more ethereal. I signed a lease on an apartment in St. Paul recently. It has bay windows and French doors and a glass porch. A young person’s first place has no right to be so beautiful.

The juxtaposition of the two events is jolting and sad. Numbing.

I hear you’re not supposed to “put a timeline” on grief. But I want to. Because grief hurts and whips and drains like a motherfucker, and I want to be done with it. Or at least be able to regard it knowingly, and from a great distance.

Sometimes I feel like I’m making progress. Like I’ve come through intact. But then every time I’ve caught my balance, I trip on something else.

Sometimes I don’t even know what I’m feeling until it’s too late. Then I realize I’ve been putting on a facade for other people.

Or, more likely, putting on a facade for myself.

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Review: Season Opener, Audra McDonald, Minnesota Orchestra

This past weekend at the Minnesota Orchestra was a gala of flashy moments: sparkling drop necklaces, dazzling tunes, dashing (impossibly talented) men in tuxes, elegant (impossibly talented) women in gowns, champagne bubbling over, sequins and beads and feathers. Big and little moments of excitement and anticipation and joy, coming one after another after another, our first opening night in a new era of peace, stability, and prosperity.


My seat is in right balcony B, a perfect perch from which to observe the crowd and the band and the night. The music begins with the Star Spangled Banner arranged by St. Stan himself. Soprano voices soar high. String players’ chins tilt over their instruments as they survey the crowd, their parts memorized. A roar of applause, an unspoken “play ball!” echoing in the inner ear.


Magic Flute overture. Chords: round and bold. Strings: one voice magnified, then another, as the Mozartean lines skitter to and fro, some higher, then lower, call and response flitting instantaneously across the stage. My hand as I lean over the short wall, watching the back stands of violas and the basses, then leaning back again and straightening out my dress. Dry air. The rustle of a crisp new program book beside me, its cover folded back. Powerful women glittering under the spotlight in their gowns. Delight. Awe.


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II: Eaux Claires Festival: Afternoon

On a cold March night, I found a video of The Staves and Justin Vernon singing Make It Holy.

It was early in the month: the time of year when spring seems both impossibly near and far. My mother and I were living at my grandmother’s farm, sleeping in my dead grandfather’s bed. There was nowhere else to put us.

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Microreview: Minnesota Orchestra, Sibelius and Mahler

Can you believe it’s the last Microreview of the season? What HAPPENED? It’s like…time passed or something!

Rob Hubbard caught the Minnesota Orchestra’s Sibelius 6 and 7, but not the Mahler, and he wrote about it in a June 4th Pioneer Press article. His report was 366 words, and so, as is tradition, mine is 363.

But before I get to that, I want to quickly extend my thanks to all those who made this season such an extraordinary one. The Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra, of course, and their Music Director, as well as their beloved audience, the professional and amateur writers who covered this institution this year, the readers who cared so deeply about what we said, and Minnesota Public Radio, whose broadcasts have brought so much joy into so many listeners’ lives. And a special shout-out to Minnesota Orchestra CEO Kevin Smith, who I was lucky enough to meet this season!

I’m probably going on a Microreviewing hiatus over the summer. I have lots to do in preparation for moving home base to the Twin Cities this year. But look for them again this fall, and in the meantime, feel free to contribute your own. And don’t be surprised if one fine Friday evening during Summerfest you find me yapping and #livelarking away on Twitter.

So without further ado –


This was a program of personal premieres. I’ve never sat through Sibelius six or seven or even Mahler one. Turns out I was busy the last two years. So I’m in no position to describe the fidelity of the performance to the score. But I can say what this music made me feel my first time around.

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Review(ish): Minnesota Orchestra and Garrick Ohlsson in Brahms and Beethoven

This weekend at the Minnesota Orchestra was a love fest.

Love. What a loaded, completely inexplicable word. You can love institutions. You can love art. You can love people as friends or as lovers. Or as both. Your love can be sacred or carnal or some kind of crazy bewildering hybrid. It’s a verb with a thousand meanings, each definition, each possibility more confusing than the last.

I’ve thought a lot about the love that Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms shared. I find it fascinating. I find people’s responses to it fascinating. It was, by and large, a positive force in both their lives. Love of Clara certainly inspired Brahms, and I wonder if Clara would have retained her sanity after her husband’s break with it, had Brahms (and his brilliance) not been in her life. But because there is doubt they made physical love, many people regard their relationship as somehow abnormal or dysfunctional. It’s certainly idealized less than the love that Robert and Clara shared…I’m assuming because it didn’t follow the neat little dramatic trajectory that Robert and Clara’s did. Brahms and Clara lived with ambiguity for decades. And they managed to find a power in the messiness of it.

The emotions that ambiguity unleashed are explored in Brahms’s first piano concerto, which opened the Minnesota Orchestra’s program this weekend. Brahms struggled with the concerto’s musical material throughout his early twenties. He also struggled with a love for Clara, who was in turn struggling with mourning her husband’s sanity and eventually life. In 1856, a few months after Robert died, Brahms wrote to her the famous quote that invariably appears in this concerto’s program notes: “I am also painting a lovely portrait of you; it is to be the Adagio.”

The outer movements are flashier. The first especially has more meat. But the heart of this concerto is the movement devoted to Clara. This weekend, Minnesota’s hushed strings made this music radiate warmth and soul and…that inexplicable, indefinable word, love. This music has a very sacred air to it, and we were honored to have Garrick Ohlsson be our priest to lead us through the sacrament. The notes passed like ghosts, suspended and turning in the air.

But there is a danger in thinking of this music as solely ethereal. In an intermission interview on Minnesota Public Radio, Ohlsson shared a historical tidbit I had never heard before.

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#livelarking: Minnesota Orchestra IN CUBA!: Night 2

5:55 PM. The second Minnesota Orchestra broadcast from Cuba is rapidly approaching! Please join me! Facebook, Twitter (those two places were where most of the action was last night), or here on the blog. So pour your drinks and make your Cuban inspired dinner. Please don’t go to Taco John’s.

6:06 PM. If you need some pre-concert reading, take a peek at Scott Chamberlain’s blog, Mask of the Flower Prince! He’s on the ground in Cuba tonight. Pretty sure that this is the first orchestra-related crowdfunded arts journalism effort ever. And that is awesome.

6:28 PM. This shirt is in honor of Richard Marshall, Minnesota Orchestra violist and notorious pun lover.


7:01 PM. Brian Newhouse begins the broadcast with a series of touching observations about the contrasts between beauty and hardship in Cuba. He reports that the Cubans have been hugely welcoming to our American orchestra! Flutist Wendy Williams observes she feels she is living in Technicolor in Havana. We’re then treated to a Minnesota Orchestra Ibert recording. *excitement*

7:19 PM. The highlights of the broadcasts so far – aside from the amazing performances, obviously – have been the MPR interviews with Cuban music students. I feel honored that we can hear snippets of their stories, hopes, and dreams! I hope that the Minnesota Orchestra inspires their studies as profoundly as they inspired mine…

7:27 PM. Feeling some intense hometown pride as Brian Newhouse runs snippets of interviews with Cuban concertgoers who express gratitude and who (not surprisingly) want the Orchestra to return. (I’m starting the hashtag now: #CubaTour2016.) One woman says they don’t have this sound in Cuba. Not many places do. We are beyond blessed to have this ensemble in our backyard, just in case you haven’t thought about that lately.

7:42 PM. An astonishing moment as the Cuban and American national anthems are played one after the other, with loud enthusiastic applause following. Wow.

7:53 PM. The Bernstein Symphonic Dances are going along swimmingly, with plenty of verve and swing!

8:06 PM. The orchestra is fine form, sounding relaxed and assured. I forget sometimes how truly lovely the Bernstein Symphonic Dances are, so it’s fabulous to be reminded.

8:15 PM. Audiences immediately reward the Bernstein with resounding Bravos! Brian Newhouse muses aloud if this is partly due to the extraordinary gesture of the two side-by-side national anthems that preceded the first half of the show.

8:16 PM. Last night MPR interviewed a Cuban audience member, who observed how in the old days, luminaries such as Heifetz and Rubenstein used to visit annually. Let’s hope the high-level music-making resumes and continues.

8:31 PM. During intermission, Minnesota Public Radio is playing an excerpt from Osmo’s first concert as music director with the Minnesota Orchestra… Grieg, Peer Gynt. I was in my early teens back then. Feeling a serious time warp. So much has happened. So much. And I’m grateful.

8:40 PM. The orchestra launches into a threateningly intense Prokofiev performance. Shades of a delicious nightmare.

8:45 PM. The lower strings, cellos in particular, are really grabbing my attention tonight…

8:55 PM. As the Prokofiev continues, the music dances back and forth between carefree sarcasm and mesmerizing, practically otherworldly beauty.

9:00 PM. Practically had a heart attack when my signal dipped out for half a second. I’m clinging to these sounds like they’re oxygen.

9:01 PM. ~~~DRAMA~~~ as the broadcast signal goes down! OMG! But Brian Newhouse remains cool as ever, smoothly citing “gremlins” and redirecting us to a Sudbin / Vanska / Minnesota Orchestra recording. You can tell they’ve rehearsed what to do if this happens. We’re in good hands.

9:08 PM. The signal is back online, returning us to glorious Prokofiev!

9:16 PM. In the last few minutes alone we’ve been treated to so many ghostly sounds: brass choirs, so-soft-you-can’t-breathe string chords, and now some tenderly foreboding oboe lines. The end was so quiet, so magical… The applause begins slowly, audience stunned.

9:20 PM. Now to bravos!

9:24 PM. Two encores. Eric Sjostrom, Orchestra librarian, has just shared on my Facebook page: “The first encore was the Caturla Danza lucumi, from Three Cuban Dances. Now they are playing Malagueña by Ernesto Lecuona.”

9:30 PM. And the final encore is the same encore as last night, Säkkijärven Polka, as arranged by The Man himself, Osmo Vanska. As Eric noted: “There is no more music in the folders.” He would know!

9:35 PM. We end this extraordinary evening with a recording of turbulent Sibelius. I remember that not too long ago Sibelius 2 was being played at the Minneapolis Convention Center in the middle of a dark, cold winter of discontent…a winter both literal and metaphorical. That winter is now over. And so we pass into a bright spring of possibility.

I really loved the dress I wore that night. And now is as good a time as any, between the tour news, and the Sibelius, and (most excitingly) the likely Osmo / musician contract extensions alluded to today in the Strib, to share that I will be PACKING said dress…in my suitcase…for my flight…next March…to New York City!

New York! Carnegie! Hilary Hahn! Sibelius! EXCITEMENT!

Lots of details have yet to be ironed out, but I just wanted to give a little teaser that SOTL is going on the road to NYC in March 2016 to cover the Orchestra’s next tour, and I could NOT be more excited to share the trip with my dear readers!

So thank you one and all for joining me on the journey – not just to Minneapolis, or to Havana, or to Carnegie, but to this moment! An overwhelming moment that transcends place and time.

I won’t be #livelarking or microreviewing this week; I’m set to visit Orchestra Hall in person to catch Stan’s Brahms and Beethoven and welcome our oh-so-seductive heroes back home to Minnesota. Nonetheless, stay tuned, and be sure to follow my Facebook and Twitter page for up-to-the-minute Minnesota Orchestra news. (And be sure to check both those places to read what went down on the sites during the broadcast tonight!) Love you guys. Signing off –


Hola, Cuba! #MNOrchCuba <3



Filed under Minnesota Orchestra, Reviews