“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.