Category Archives: Reviews

#MNOrchTour: First Stop: Minneapolis

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.

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Mahler in Minnesota

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Alma Mahler

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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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.

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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.

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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.

Escape.

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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 –

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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 1

5:35 PM. Hey guys! So excited to see you online. Welcome to my first Cuba #livelarking entry. The MPR broadcast of the Minnesota Orchestra’s historic Cuba concert starts in about ninety minutes, so set your clocks. I invite you all to join me and other fans online. Celebratory listening is just more fun when others join you!! Follow along at #livelarking on Twitter and my Facebook page, and feel free to refresh this page for updates and commentary as the night goes on.

I felt that this milestone deserved a brief video entry, so I took to my backyard to show you a bit how I’m celebrating today, and also to give a major thank you to the people who made this trip possible.

Well, before it gets much later, I’ve got to make something to eat for dinner. Turns out a tiny tiny plate of nachos doesn’t really hold a ravenous blogger. I’ll be back!

6:45 PM. What’s the funnest thing to do when you’re bouncing off the walls waiting for a historic orchestra broadcast? SELFIES, OBVIOUSLY. Tell me and show me where you’re listening!

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Listening and ready to go wooohooooo

6:54 PM. Just for old time’s sake…a GIF.

7:04 PM. Brian Newhouse gets philosophical with a wave metaphor, comparing the ocean waves to the waves of cultural change coming to Cuba. MPR then gets the party started with a recording of Gershwin’s Cuban Overture by (who else?) the Minnesota Orchestra.

7:19 PM. The recording of Beethoven 8 reminds me what a treasure our orchestra has been, is, and…thanks to you…always will be. Counting down the minutes until the live performance (ten).

7:29 PM. This Beethoven 1 finale is full of such verve and energy. Every chord is like a blast. I’m guessing we’ll hear some of that trademark energy tonight! (Oh yeah, Captain Obvious is in the house!)

7:38 PM. The instruments and their players arrive onstage with a welcome that sounds very wild, very Minnesotan!

7:42 PM. I will not soon forget the sheer violence of that first chord, later followed by the contrast of the melting winds. Glorious!

7:49 PM. My orchestra is back in business. *drops mic* *walks away* *comes back to listen*

7:52 PM. We’re now treated to a gorgeously sensitive opening to the Beethoven Choral Fantasy by Cuban-born pianist Frank Fernández.

8:04 PM. I’m not familiar with the Choral Fantasy – so feel free to pull my Critic’s Credibility Card (c) – but I’m enjoying these sounds very much. I can just hear the passion dripping from them.

8:11 PM. There is such a beautiful quality of ethereality (is that a word? well, it is now) to the Cuban National Choir and Coro Vocal Leo. Really affecting.

8:15 PM. The crowd sounds hugely excited and appreciative! Deepest gratitude to Havana for welcoming our musicians with such wide open arms.

8:22 PM. MPR’s report on how the Minnesota Orchestra worked with students yesterday is really amazing. If you missed it, it’s worth your while to find and listen to. If I can get a link, I’ll share it. Support MPR!! Edit: here’s a link to a story, although not the full-length one featured on the broadcast.

8:33 PM. I’m really enjoying the auxiliary musical selections, which so far have included the Bernstein Divertimento and movements from the Minnesota Orchestra Vanska Beethoven 1 and 8 recordings.

8:38 PM. We’re back from intermission. For those of you who were taking bets what time I would start crying, it was at 8:40 CST, at the opening couple minutes of the Eroica. This orchestra and this piece have featured profoundly in my life recently, and I’m feeling a weird combination of overwhelming pride, sadness, excitement, and sheer unadulterated joy. It is a miraculous thing when old music intertwines with your modern life, as it has intertwined with the lives of so many generations before us.

8:52 PM. I’m needing the Kleenex now. The performance was great before but something has just entered another sphere of intensity. I don’t know if they can feel it in the hall, but I feel it over the airwaves.

9:00 PM. I’m sorry to keep raving, but this performance has a depth and beauty that is beyond words. So every description I come up with feels completely inadequate. The political significance of this, the emotional significance of this, the historical significance of this, the musical significance of this… It’s almost too much to handle. Like many others, I’ve devoted my life to this orchestra, and performances like these are why. I’m not sure if people who haven’t been in the trenches like we have get how truly significant this moment is, but trust me: it is. This is a rebirth, a resurrection, the likes of which this industry has never seen before. We are so blessed.

9:14 PM. Such subtlety to the funeral march, with so many details to enjoy and absorb. And now such exacting saucy triumph in the scherzo.

9:24 PM. I am having SO MUCH FUN on Facebook and Twitter I’m neglecting the blog. Stop by!!! You still have a few minutes before the show ends!

9:30-ish PM… Victorious ecstasy.

9:45 PM. Um…I think…it’s over. I’m exhausted by the excellence and the emotion. I don’t know what to say. I’m afraid if I gush too much more I’ll lose all credibility.

So let me end with: This orchestra is back, baby.

I’ll see you tomorrow, same place, same time, for the Minnesota Orchestra’s second concert live from Havana!

And if you want to reread my REAL TIME REACTIONS, take a peek at my perhaps too overly enthusiastic Twitter page and this Facebook thread!

Love you guys!

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#livelarking: Minnesota Orchestra, Eric Whitacre

7:24 PM. I’m playing two concerts tomorrow, so I won’t be able to Microreview like usual tomorrow morning. The fact that I have a life is the bad (?) news. The good (?) news is that I’m liveblogging tonight’s Minnesota Public Radio broadcast. As I said on Facebook, “Mainly I just want to have FUN, enjoy a performance by my fave orchestra, and take a break from pesky extras like ‘correct grammar’ or ‘cohesiveness of thought.'”

Speaking of Facebook, I have a Facebook page, and if you want to join the liveblogging fray there, you can. Or you can hang out on Twitter with the hashtag #livelarking, because lower case letters are cool, and lower case letters with alliteration are even cooler. And I’ll be updating this entry, too. We’ll see how adeptly I can cycle between three sites.

We’ve got about half an hour before the broadcast starts, so pop some popcorn and tell all your two friends that might be interested in this. Standing by.

7:36 PM. For those of you who don’t know, I’m a violinist and violist. My sojourns in choir were sad, sad, tremendously sad failures. So I’m gonna be honest with you: I’m about to lose my Eric Whitacre virginity. In front of all of you. Publicly. I know he’s a guy with long blonde hair that I’m assuming moves around dramatically when he conducts or breathes, but other than that, I’m completely clueless. I also see he’s a social media star, with fifty bazillion Facebook followers. I can appreciate that.

I DID watch this, though: an Eric Whitacre interview with Minnesota Public Radio’s Brian Newhouse. Too bad I shared this seventy-minute video with you fifteen minutes before the concert started. But trust me, it’s good. You would have liked it.

7:51 PM. So, somewhere in Minneapolis there’s a room of 2200 people reading these program notes. I’ll join them. Except I’m in my pajamas with no makeup on. #livingthedream

7:57 PM.Ecstatic Waters is music of dialectical tension—a juxtaposition of contradictory or opposing musical and extra-musical elements and an attempt to resolve them.” Sentences like these are why I’ll never be smart enough to be a composer.

8:00 PM. I’m hearing celestial choral sounds! Eric Whitacre must be in the house.

8:08 PM. First up is Lux Arumque, by Whitacre. These are hugely moving cinematic sounds. But I’m guessing they’re even more affecting in choral format, blessed by the humanity of the human voice.

8:13 PM. Blow It Up, Start Again: funky.

8:15 PM. So do choral geeks view Eric as like, choral Jesus? Is that a thing? Damn, he’s got charisma.

8:19 PM. Quiet City by Aaron Copland. Oh, Marni. Oh, Manny. Suddenly I feel like I’m in a big city, free and lonely. Which I guess is the point.

8:25 PM. The dynamics. I don’t want to type. The sound of my typing will cover the sounds up.

8:32 PM. Onto Stephen Bryant’s Ecstatic Waters. I’m interested in this piece within the first five seconds, so that’s a good sign.

8:35 PM. Thankfully I don’t need to understand the big composer words to enjoy the journey here. For this first listen, at least, the little soprano tinkling is such an effective device.

8:41 PM. Now it sounds like we’ve entered a cold warehouse. We’re characters in a movie thriller. There’s some kind of cyborg dragon in the next room. We are attractive and wearing skin-tight leather post-apocalyptic costumes, and we have buzzing devices that are telling us we need to move in for the attack right…now.

8:44 PM. That’s clearly Satan’s dental drill.

8:48 PM. I think the cyborg dragon has been vanquished, but I’m not sure. It might just be unconscious. Now we’re looking into each other’s eyes, haunted by the failures of our past. Our hands are shaking as we try to disarm the bomb. I know there’s a bomb we’re disarming cuz I hear it ticking.

8:53 PM. Wait a minute, I’m hearing slivers of Quiet City here. I think. Awesome. They aren’t direct quotes – I don’t think – but they’re emotional quotes, certainly. The programmer knew what he was doing. I see what you did there.

8:57 PM. Wait, intermission? What? Time flies when you’re having fun and talking to readers on three separate media platforms. This has been a really enjoyable concert. I like the feeling that I’m listening with you. Brief plug for the Minnesota Orchestra’s historic Cuba concerts: I’m planning on doing this #livelarking thing again next Friday.

9:07:15 PM. The all-enveloping ambiance of the Deep Field app sounds very cool. I’ll totally get the same effect as the audience in the hall. I have a $5 pair of headphones, and I’m listening over a compressed Internet stream.

9:07:20 PM. Also, this blog specializes in sarcasm.

9:16 PM. Looking at the program notes again, as you do during intermission. I have to appreciate a man who plays with animal crackers.

9:18 PM. Eric Whitacre shares a quote from the late Stephen Paulus: “Why go with your fifth bad idea when you can go with your first bad idea?” I feel sad I never had a chance to meet him except through his music.

9:20 PM. I can tell that the Minnesota Chorale enjoys singing under the direction of this man. I don’t know how I can tell that. I just can. And of course the Paulus is beautiful.

9:26 PM. We’ve gotta read a script, too, to fully appreciate the obscure intense plot-heavy masterwork that is Godzilla Eats Las Vegas. *balances reading script, blogging, tweeting, Facebook status updating*

9:29 PM. Over on Twitter, I formally requested an Eric Whitacre interpretation of Airport: 79, my favorite bad movie, and I’m going to repeat the request here.

9:35 PM. I’m gonna assume there is an army of Elvises advancing on stage. Gonna go with it.

9:37 PM. Oh no, in my Twitter- and Facebook-updating I got lost in the plot. I think we’re somewhere in between Wayne Newton’s death and the pirate ships.

9:41 PM. Oh the silly. Praise be to the silly. Remember how back in September, just a few short months ago, the Minnesota Chorale was nailing the ethereal Mahler Resurrection symphony? Versatility, thy name is Minnesota Chorale. Bravo.

9:47 PM. Off to the cosmos.

9:51 PM. Grace in the face of hiccups is a trait that I admire greatly, and one in which I am completely lacking. (Someone’s phone went off as the piece was about to begin, in case you’re wondering where that vague philosophical thought came from.)

9:54 PM. Enjoying what I’m hearing so far. That being said, the work’s biggest highlight – the use of the app – could also be its biggest distraction. We’ll be able to judge in a few minutes.

9:58 PM. I think there’s one thing I know for sure, though: this is not a piece best appreciated using cheap headphones. Go see this one live, don’t judge it on recordings.

10:02 PM. Also, if you can’t hear a live version, try listening to it in the dark. You can absorb aural ambiances much better in the dark. One of my readers is listening under the stars. That is such a magical suggestion.

10:04 PM. I just opened my bedroom window. The spring air is cold, and smells rainy.

10:07 PM. What if we thought of Deep Field as less of a piece of music than an experience? How would that change how we listen?

10:10 PM. Don’t really want to turn on the lights. Just want to crawl into bed after that, and dream.

10:12 PM. So here are some quick preliminary thoughts on Deep Field, subject to change (as quick preliminary thoughts are apt to do). I think it’s probably more successful in person than on recording. I think it’s completely transporting. I think any hiccups with the app will clear up after more people get used to the idea. I think it is best listened to in the darkness, on the prairie. I liked it. And I think this has been a very, very fun night. Bravo Minnesota Orchestra, Minnesota Chorale, Marni Hougham and Manny Laureano, Eric Whitacre, et al. Nights like these bring fun into the concert experience. It almost…somehow…makes the quality of the music secondary, if the experience around it is fun and appealing enough.

I’ll catch you #livelarking next Friday, when we travel to Cuba together!

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