Category Archives: Uncategorized

#MnOrchTour: Copenhagen

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 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.)

(For now.)


I mention this story not to entertain, but to encapsulate my experience of Copenhagen, where everything was Just. Plain. Weird.

Continue reading


Filed under Uncategorized

The Best Show of the Season

This past weekend, the Minnesota Orchestra held its sixtieth annual Symphony Ball to celebrate the end of an ambitious 2015/16 season…and to raise money for the next one. It was a fun and fascinating experience. One could go to the dinner (expensive), and/or the dancing after (expensive, but less expensive) (and what I chose to do). Attendees were encouraged to dress in 1920s attire, so I had fun slinking around in a beaded capelet, bringing out antique family jewelry, and pretending I’m way cooler than I actually am. The live auction was a veritable thunderstorm of generosity, with folks pouring out thousands upon thousands of dollars for ultra-glamorous prizes. “If you have five thousand,” the auctioneer chirruped, “you have six thousand!” Afterward I consoled myself as to my economic status by eating cupcakes with sparkly lemon frosting and listening to the after-party band, the Wolverines, blast out The Lady Is A Tramp (Life without care / she’s broke, and it’s oke!). CEO Kevin Smith was his usual charming, reassuring, welcoming self. Violinist Rebecca Corruccini’s black feather hairpiece stole the show. The orchestra played Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (with Minnesotan Andrew Staupe on piano) and Ravel’s La Valse. My dark side wholeheartedly approves of whoever programmed a piece about the death throes of European society at a light-hearted fundraising gala. Osmo and the orchestra finished up with Diamonds Are Forever, which I can only interpret as a timely endorsement of Swiddleston. A board member won the chance to conduct the orchestra in Stars and Stripes Forever, and he did so with a commitment that rivaled Osmo’s during a Mahler climax. After the orchestra was done playing, I listened to the Wolverines and wished I knew how to dance, because my jumping and fringe-shaking at rhythmic intervals did not feel particularly historically accurate (although it did inspire commentary from onlookers). I didn’t leave the lobby until one in the morning, which was when the crew started turning the lights up and disassembling tables. All in all, an evening well-spent. I hope the orchestra raised oodles of money.

It was a fitting way to celebrate the end of an exhilarating season, and it got me feeling sentimental. Then I realized: hey, I can indulge those feelings, because it’s time for an end of season review!

Continue reading


Filed under Lists, My Writing, Uncategorized

SOTL in NYC: Part 1

“This way,” Richard Marshall said. He’s a violist, but I trusted him anyway.

We trotted up a narrow staircase. Down a narrow hallway. Notices were taped on white walls and lit by bright, unflattering lights. Unfamiliar faces passed by in a hurried, harried blur. I kept my eyes on the viola case on Richard’s back, afraid if I lost sight of it, I’d get lost and ultimately starve in the byzantine corridors.

“Have you been here before?” he asked, opening another door.

“No,” I said. I felt like repeating that several times for emphasis: No. I have not been here before.

Finally we made our way into a room with a tall ceiling and worn black floors. “You’re over there,” someone told Richard. I heard a disembodied voice mention that rehearsal was set to start in thirty-five minutes.

I glanced to my left. And I froze.

There, past the open door – past the clusters of my friends chatting and laughing – past the semi-circle of empty chairs – past the dozens of stands of Sibelius – past the brass railing of the podium – past the creamy walls dripping with gilt – was the plush, blood red velvet of the auditorium seats.

My hand involuntarily clapped to my mouth. “Oh my God,” I said.

How many people get their first glance of Carnegie Hall from backstage?

The route seemed like a metaphor for the Minnesota Orchestra’s return to New York. It was circuitous. It was unexpected. For most of it, I had no idea where the f*ck we were going. But in the end, by golly, we got here. And maybe in the process we got a better appreciation for the building than those who waltz through the front door in the traditional way.



This orchestra’s recent history is already well-worn, and it seems dumb to retread it. (Especially on this blog.) But it’s difficult to discuss the emotional impact of this particular concert without acknowledging what a pivot point Carnegie Hall proved to be. The cancellation of the prestigious residency here in the 2013-14 season is what led to Osmo Vänskä’s resignation. His departure triggered a chain reaction that ultimately led to the orchestra staggering, then clawing, then roaring, its way back to life.

So although nobody dared to say it out loud…I didn’t even want to think it…there was an intense thirst to make a splash on the first trip back. It was a circle that needed closing. Outwardly I think we all had the attitude of, no matter how the orchestra is received, it’s a big deal that we’re back, so yay! But inwardly, I think we all had the attitude of: let’s hit New York so f’ing hard they don’t know what the hell happened to them.

Before the house opened for rehearsal, I drifted down the hallway lined with framed and autographed scores. Muffled brass and woodwind scales noodled away in the distance. Somehow I found myself in the Carnegie Hall museum. I was alone in the room. Videos of famous performances played on flatscreen TVs. Across the walls hung programs, posters, telegrams, notes, newspaper articles, photographs. A timeline unspooled across one wall, every year decorated by an immortal name. Across the way was an architectural rendering of the bright red skyscraper that had nearly replaced the hall in the 1960s. Upon seeing it, I felt nauseous with relief.

For some reason, the object that sticks the most in my mind was a tiny portion of the Carnegie Hall stage floor, sporting a nail in its center. The caption next to the artifact explained why it was there. Vladimir Horowitz had strong opinions about acoustics. Every time he played at Carnegie, he would direct the stagehands to move the piano to a particular spot of his own choosing. Finally, without telling him, they nailed a nail into the floorboards underneath the piano leg to see how consistent he was from performance to performance. Turns out Horowitz directed the instrument to the exact same location, by ear, every single time.

I’d heard the stories. I’ve read the names. But somehow being in the same hall as that history, hearing my orchestra warm up behind me, everything changed. I’d arrived in Manhattan exhausted from my flight, a touch skeptical at the claustrophobic electric gray of the city. But as I gazed at the wall of artifacts, I slowly began to grasp the mystique. This is the place where all the ghosts of our art have lived and died on top of one another. This is where they all come alive again.



During rehearsal, the main floor was maybe half full with observers. “Row K and back,” the ushers said to every person who came through the doors. “Row K and back.” A program was distributed, much like at a concert. I had to laugh at the instructions to audience members under the heading Rehearsal Rules and Etiquette:

Please refrain from applause so as not to disturb the musicians and take away from their rehearsal time.

The Minnesotan next to me mused, “They don’t say anything about screaming…”

Our row (K, obviously) consisted of four wild Minnesotan fangirls, as well as a New Yorker. He’d had tickets for the canceled Carnegie show and was looking forward to seeing Osmo for the first time. He was so invested in the experience that he was attending both rehearsal and concert. This was my first interaction with a New Yorker listening to my orchestra, and I suddenly felt a weird sense of ownership. Like the Minnesota Orchestra was a boyfriend I needed to pre-emptively apologize for loving, just to manage expectations. I know he comes across as neurotic at first, but once you get to know him, he’s super sweet!

At the top of the hour, Erin stood and tuned the band. Osmo strode out, gait loose and energetic. There were no preliminaries. “First symphony. Third movement,” he said, followed by the shuffle of scores.

At his words, you could feel the momentary hesitancy, then ultimate resignation from the players. Ensemble-wise, this was one of the most difficult parts of the program. He was throwing the players into the deep end from the very beginning. The reasons why were implied and presumably understood.

And so it was that the first notes I heard in Carnegie Hall were the frantic strums of the scherzo to Sibelius 1.

As a listener, it was fascinating to try to unpack the new acoustic. The only analogy I can think of is that the changes reminded me of a hairstyle. (Stay with me.) A friend’s hair can look very different from day to day, but ultimately you always recognize it as the same hair, with the same texture and color. The sound of the Minnesota Orchestra was the hair, and the different acoustic was how it was styled. Different aspects of the orchestra’s sound were emphasized in the new space, but they never felt unbalanced or accidental. The sound from row K was very big, very lush. It sounded how the red velvet of the seats looks.

As for the playing itself, it felt slightly disjointed for the first quarter hour or so. Not bad. Just not magical. I narrowed my eyes at the stage, as if the sheer force of my wrinkled brow could tie the players together. But after that first quarter hour passed, I found myself unconsciously nodding at passages. The more great performances I hear, the more I trust my body’s involuntary physiological responses – the brush of goosebumps, the unintentional clench of fingers on an arm-rest, the flicker of an awed smile – to discern the divine from the very good. The orchestra reached divine a few times in the rehearsal. The notes spun and whirled onstage like dust in a Dyson.


The view from Row K

Principal cello Tony Ross provided an endless amount of entertainment, so much so that my row-mates and I dubbed the rehearsal the Tony Ross Variety Show. At one one point he stood and whirled around to address his section, while Osmo kept conducting placidly on. He stretched out his long legs on either side of his cello. He made an exaggerated shrug. He shook his head in horror when he and Erin didn’t synch their entrances properly in the introduction to the fourth movement of the first symphony. He was like a cello jaguar up there, ready to pounce on and attack any little detail, ready to devour it whole.

The single most memorable moment, though, belonged to Osmo. He was trying to get a tricky bit of the third symphony together. He tried a couple times. Shook his head at both attempts. Then finally, with the authority of a Karajan or Toscanini, he raised his arms majestically and…began to clap. Like a Suzuki teacher with a group of kindergartners. My row of Minnesotans lost it, since it doesn’t say anything about giggling on the etiquette sheet. I’ve heard about Osmo’s clapping – (oh, have I heard about the clapping) – but to actually see it…to actually see one of the greatest orchestras in the world playing along to an energetically clapping maestro at Carnegie Hall…it was amazing. And the thing is, it worked. This is your Minnesota Orchestra, ladies and gentlemen: an ensemble that is never too proud or full of itself to do anything, just as long as it works. I will never be ashamed to use a metronome again.

There was another fabulous moment when Osmo pointed at the bass section and mentioned that one particular measure was too loud. Horowitz’s piano came to mind.

Break came. Players trotted off the stage. Some conferenced among themselves, glancing up and around at the empty balconies. Bass player Dave Williamson wandered through the aisles to say hey to the Minnesota pilgrims. He’s one of the few Minnesota-born members of the Orchestra (as well as a strong St. Paul partisan), and we discussed my move to the city a bit. Then I proceeded to fangirl over newly (re)hired violinist Peter McGuire, a Mankato native who just won the audition for principal second. “He’s a chamber music player,” Dave said approvingly.

During the break, Osmo crouched down at the edge of the stage and talked with folks milling about. One would expect such an intense maestro with so much at stake to be holed up in his dressing room, sweating, pacing, maybe drinking. But no. He was intense, but relaxed. Demanding, but encouraging. Polite and professional, but unrelenting.

Suddenly a beautiful woman dressed in a fashionable boho chic ensemble wandered onto the stage, glancing to her left and right, violin in hand. With a start I realized it was Hilary Hahn. The players tuned, the rehearsal audience dispersed back to their seats, and the second half got underway.

Hilary and the orchestra played the Sibelius concerto all the way through without stopping once. Just as she had been in Minneapolis, Hilary was a tornado of technique. At the end of the first movement, you could hear the audience shifting about, fighting for breath after the assault of sound, trying desperately not to applaud. Hilary and Osmo consulted over tempo during the slow movement, but without stopping. On the whole, they seemed to understand what the other was doing through listening and body language alone. It was a hugely instructive communication to watch.

At the end of the Sibelius, despite the admonitions of the Rules and Etiquette sheet, a smattering of applause broke out in the hall. Hilary smiled and nodded and acknowledged it. Then she asked for a brief moment to address the players. She said something along the lines of how special every trip to Carnegie Hall is, how phenomenally they were playing, and what an honor it was to be with them for this show. Another round of applause all around. The love affair between soloist and orchestra appears to be mutual and genuine.

The rehearsal ended with two encores that – honestly – were played even more beautifully than the main body of the program. They consisted of excerpts from Sibelius’s incidental music to The Tempest. The final piece was the Cortege. The word suggests that it might be a solemn funeral procession. But it’s actually a celebratory polonaise. I hear you loud and clear, Minnesota Orchestra.

And with that, rehearsal came to a close. The next notes played would be under the spotlight at show-time. As the musicians stood up and smiled apprehensively and shook hands, we Minnesotan audience members looked at each other and grinned.

I had forgotten the New Yorker beside me. He had been watching silently, absorbed, throughout the entire rehearsal. Now he stood up. “You have a lot to be proud of,” he said, and he walked away.


Filed under Uncategorized

Carnegie Broadcast

For those of you who don’t use Facebook or Twitter…

The Minnesota Orchestra’s Carnegie Hall performance will be broadcast on WQXR on Thursday night at 7pm CST. Details here.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.




Filed under Uncategorized

Announcing A Partnership With Interlude!

I’m busy packing for Carnegie today (PACKING FOR CARNEGIE, GUYS) (PACKING. FOR. CARNEGIE.). But amidst the madness of spare socks and dress-wrapping, I’m excited to announce that I’m writing for classical music website Interlude HK!

I’ll be writing essays, 500 to 600 words or thereabouts, on topics having to do with classical music. If you have any favorite stories you’d like to see covered, let me know!

My first Interlude essay is called “Music by a Medium: The Story of Rosemary Brown.” It’s about a woman composer, yes, but with a twist: Rosemary Brown believed she was channeling the music of the dead.


I will link to new entries on SOTL’s Facebook and Twitter pages as they’re published. For those who only check the blog, I’ll try to remember to post an entry at the end of each month containing links to my Interlude essays.

Be sure to explore the Interlude archives! There are lots of great stories there about the personal lives of great composers and musicians. Also, former Minnesota Orchestra cellist Janet Horvath is a long-time contributor, and she has written some great essays about behind-the-scenes life at Minnesota. Here’s her contributor page.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to vacuum the cat hair off my suitcase…


Filed under Uncategorized

Dead Women Are Dead To American Orchestras

If you spend any time in the online orchestra world, you’ve probably seen the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s infographic about American orchestras’ 2014/15 seasons. A few days ago, the BSO released figures tracking the 15/16 season, and this year, the data net has been cast even wider. Writer Ricky O’Bannon describes the methodology:

This season we collected programming data for both major American symphonies as well as smaller regional orchestras — 89 in total — to give a more holistic view of symphonic repertoire in the United States.

My thoughts after reading that:

Oh, cool! With so many more orchestras included in the data-gathering this year, surely the proportion of living and historic women composers has skyrocketed, or at least inched upward gradually!

Hahahaha. Hahahahahahahaha.

Last season, the works of female composers accounted for 14.3% of the performances of living composers (and a mere 1.8% of the performances overall). This year, even with the wider field? 14% and 1.7%, respectively.

And then there’s this little asterisk at the bottom of the graph.

every composer

*deep breath*


Look, I know it’s hard for orchestras to program works outside The Canon. And at this point, pretty much every orchestral work by women is outside The Canon. But no one in the bunch of eighty-nine orchestras wanted to program a single work by a female composer once? No one thought that would be musically or historically or politically or culturally interesting? No one thought that would be unique or exciting? No one thought that would be fantastic press release material? No one thought that would excite donors? No one thought that would advance orchestras’ missions to broaden audiences or educate communities? No one saw this as The Easiest Way Ever to outperform peer organizations? For crap’s sake, a random orchestra could program a dead lady’s ten-minute overture once, and wow, suddenly they’re playing 100% more historic women than any other orchestra in America! Congratulations, random orchestra! Your commitment to underrepresented demographics is palpable.

download (1)

The 2015 Song of the Lark Award for Demographically Diverse Orchestral Programming

And hell, it’s not like I’m asking every orchestra to throw an annual month-long Vagina Festival. It just would have been nice to see one orchestra play one work by one woman at one point. I thought that someone, somewhere, would throw us a pity Gaelic Symphony or Farrenc third or Clara Schumann concerto. But, nope.

Anyway. I would love to offer probing analysis. But it’s pretty f***ing hard to analyze the number zero.


Filed under My Writing, Uncategorized

Now It’s Really Over

Yesterday I got a call from Minnesota Orchestra bass player Kathryn Nettleman. (Well, Kate Nettleman. It feels weird to call our Kate “Kathryn.”) She wanted to make sure I heard about the big news.

The Minnesota Orchestra has had a lot of big news lately. In January 2014, the sixteen-month lockout of musicians ended. The CEO and board chair departed. Former music director Osmo Vänskä, who had resigned during the lockout, was re-hired. He married concertmaster Erin Keefe, who had been a leading candidate for the New York Philharmonic concertmaster seat. She decided to stay in Minnesota. The organization hired a new temporary CEO, Kevin Smith, who quickly became a long-term CEO. Recording sessions started up again. The third disc in the Grammy-winning Sibelius cycle was finished, and we’re waiting on the release date now. There was a trip to Cuba, planned and executed in record time. Then within a few days of the orchestra’s return to America, it was announced that musician contracts had been negotiated two years ahead of schedule (with modest raises), and that Osmo himself had signed on until at least 2019. Major multi-million dollar gifts were announced. The organization just posted its first surplus in a while (using a prudent endowment draw rate, no less).

If you take a step back, you realize what a veritable barrage of good news there has been here lately. Apparently we’re living in an era of sparkly unicorn rainbows. Thanks to a spirit of collaboration and mutual respect, the Minnesota Orchestra is proving that it is an organization on the move.

But Kate was calling me with even more big news to share. I didn’t know what to expect. Some kind of series devoted to the history of women in music? The construction of the Kevin Smith Room within Orchestra Hall, from which Kevin is never allowed to leave? (He would be fed well.) The first orchestra tour to the moon? After the past two years, nothing seems impossible.

As she spoke, I realized that one vestige of the lockout still remains: the musicians’ independent 501c3. This was the organization that the musicians used to self-produce concerts during the lockout.

“We’re dissolving it,” Kate said.

Continue reading


Filed under My Writing, Uncategorized

2015 Advent Calendar

Welcome to the 2015 Song of the Lark Advent calendar! Every day until Christmas Eve, a new entry will go live at Each includes a 2015 blog memory, as well as a piece of holiday music. (You can also go back in time and read blog highlights and hear musical selections from previous years’ calendars. Navigate through the archives by using the arrows on the left side of the calendar.)

This season’s calendar was therapeutic to assemble… The illness and death of my mother made 2015 the worst year of my life, by far. (2015, may the door hit your ass on the way out. Hard.) I apologize again for not writing more the last few months. But my mind has been cloudy.


The other day I read through a big chunk of the SOTL archives. Some pieces I still like; some are more meh; but I was proud to see that I’ve never insulted a topic by not caring about it. Better days are coming, both in my personal life and on the blog. I think my capacity for caring is slowly returning, and I’m cautiously optimistic about the new life that awaits in 2016.

Which is fitting, I guess. After all, the idea of Advent is about looking inward, taking stock, and preparing for the arrival of new life: a New Year, and a new start.

Cheers. *raises champagne glass*

If holiday music is your thing, I hope you check out the link above every day. I’ll put up another post around New Year’s in case you want to browse the whole thing at once. And please feel free to share the names of your favorite winter / holiday pieces in the comment section! 2016 will be here before we know it, and after four years of calendars (can you believe it??), I’m reaching the outer edges of my winter-related repertoire, haha.

Happy holidays, merry Christmas, and/or a blessed New Year’s to you and yours! Thank you for giving me the greatest gift of all…your readership. It sounds hokey, but I mean it with every inch of my heart.

With deep appreciation, Emily

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Happy Thanksgiving, Y’all!

HAPPY THANKSGIVING, Y’ALL. Is there a better tune to celebrate with than Turkey in the Straw? I THINK NOT.

Sorry that things have been so quiet this month… But I’ve got a couple of great entries in the hopper, as well as some cool big bloggy news I’ll be announcing…soon; I’m just taking my time with those things because I want them to be super awesome, and also I’m slow. There should also be a (FOURTH!) (FOURTH) (BEHOLD THE RELENTLESS PASSAGE OF TIME) online SOTL Advent calendar that goes live on December 1st (if I get my act together) (I’ll get my act together) (I think) (lol).

In the meantime, enjoy giving thanks for all the blessings in your life. My blessings include a supportive community of readers and the greatest music in the world. And I can’t ask for much more than that. Thanks, all! Have a marvelous holiday season full of everything you love best, and keep in touch!!



A public domain turkey image I just found on Wikipedia


Filed under Uncategorized

Five Takeaways From The Conversation on Female Composers (Link)

Hey, y’all! I just wrote a follow-up to my last blog entry for NewMusicBox:

“Five Takeaways From The Conversation on Female Composers”

Many thanks to the fine folks over there. Feel free to continue the conversation! The places where I’d most like you to continue the conversation would be at local artistic committee meetings, at music stores, at your private teachers’, and anywhere else where repertoire is decided and debated.

It's been fun, Spectator!

It’s been fun, Spectator!


Filed under Uncategorized