Tag Archives: 2015-2016 season

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!

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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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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.


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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.




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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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