Tag Archives: Cuba

8 Non-Profit Lessons From The Minnesota Orchestra’s Cuba Tour

The Minnesota Orchestra recently returned from a groundbreaking trip to Cuba. It was the first time an American orchestra had performed there since the process of normalizing relations began in December 2014. It was also the Minnesota Orchestra standing up on the international stage and saying, in a particularly badass way, we’re back, baby.

Lots of people who were lucky enough to be on the trip have been sharing their ideas about what the week meant. We’re all still digesting. But the people on the ground in Cuba weren’t the only ones to come away with exciting new perspectives. Eight big ideas keep repeatedly swishing around my brain like Caribbean waves along the shore…

You too can recover from disaster, because damn the Minnesota Orchestra is back in business. Their performance of the Eroica in particular was probably the greatest I’ve ever heard of that piece. It certainly far, far outstripped the intensity of their live performances I heard in April 2015 and July 2012. The Eroica was also the first symphony they played after the lockout ended in February 2014, and the difference between the two performances was mind-boggling. Can this orchestra play even better? Oh, I’m sure. But do they currently stand with the great ensembles of the world? F-, yeah. Give them a few more years and I have no doubt whatsoever that the lockout will recede into organizational history, eclipsed by fresh artistic triumphs from a new era.

One-on-one interaction is beyond priceless. Look at this photo gallery and tell me otherwise.

Twitter is an amazing tool to use during big live events to cement connections with readers and patrons. I associate Twitter more with political live-blogging or passive-aggressive celebrity feuds, but it actually works really well for documenting big live events like this tour. I’m still split about the idea of “Tweet seats.” But for a radio broadcast, where I was holed up in my bedroom and my furious typing wasn’t bothering anyone, it was a marvelous format. (And I definitely understand the appeal of Tweet seats now way more than I did.) I gained lots of new followers and had some truly meaningful exchanges with readers, including the official Classical MPR and Minnesota Orchestra accounts. That loops back to my preceding point.

At big events, non-profits need to employ someone whose main responsibility is creating content for social media. The Cuba trip was unique in that not all the responsibility for documentation was laid on the Minnesota Orchestra’s staff, since many major media outlets were toting along their own photographers and videographers. But the lesson still stands. All of my friends are sharing the Cuba pictures with all of their friends, and I have no doubt all their friends are, too. I wish it was possible to convert the value of that increased enthusiasm and engagement into dollars. But I have to believe the Orchestra at least broke even on the $1 million that Marilyn Carlson Nelson and her husband invested into this tour. Maybe even more than that, because a lot of the positive experiences we had cannot be bought…since they’re not for sale.

Speaking of which….

The greatest work of non-profits is, at the end of the day, not about the bottom line. There was a group of us who argued passionately during the Minnesota Orchestra lockout that the worst thing to do would be to regard the Orchestra’s bottom line as its sole metric of success. I hate to say I told you so, but… (Haha, KIDDING. I don’t hate saying that at all. I TOLD YOU SO.)

In future, all orchestras need to employ musician-writers the caliber of Rena Kraut and Sam Bergman. Click here to read a Rena entry; click here to read one from Sam. Yes, finding others with their talents may be a tall order, but it needs to happen. Rena and Sam’s accounts of their trip brought on countless of tears and bonded many hundreds of hearts closer to the Orchestra. I have to believe there are equally talented writers at every American orchestra who would be willing to step up to the plate. (I don’t know how – or if – it could work, practically speaking, but… If there were two candidates for a position in a major American orchestra, their musical abilities roughly equal, and one was a ridiculously talented writer, or photographer, or interviewer, or podcaster, or whatever, you might just want to go with the candidate whose talents extend beyond music-making.) (Might this be a way for young musicians to distinguish themselves as competitors in a particularly cutthroat marketplace? How do we train young artists to write well, and whose responsibility is it to teach them?)

Crowd-funded arts journalism is a potential game-changer. Yes, blogger Scott Chamberlain had the chance of a lifetime to go on the Cuba tour after readers chipped in several thousand dollars to get him there, but he also had quite the responsibility: he couldn’t disappoint the people who had given him that money with the expectation of top-notch writing. Because those people were, in large part, his friends. Of course, he disappointed no one. The roaring success of his coverage brings up an interesting question: what comes next in the field of entrepreneurial arts journalism? If a blogger can finance a trip to Cuba…can a writer make a part-time job out of creating online content about classical music? A full-time job? Soon somebody is going to try. And I’m excited to watch content creators (I don’t like the limiting term “bloggers” in this particular context) push the envelope even further. We will all learn a lot about our art from the successes and failures that lie ahead. I’m not saying that crowd-funding is a magic bullet, especially if / when the marketplace becomes saturated. But it could be a potent weapon nonetheless.

When you’re recovering from institutional trauma, one healing tactic is to find a big goal and go for it. I’m thinking about the Atlanta Symphony in particular. They’re in a process of real institutional flux right now. They’re searching for a new CEO and trying to establish an identity of stability and relevance. I’m wondering if the best thing they could do right now is spearhead a major artistic project. Easy for me to say that, obviously; I have zero idea what that project could be. The Cuba idea, for instance, never would have occurred to me, which is why I write about the arts and don’t administer them. But I think the incoming Atlanta Symphony president, whoever he or she may be, should find one. Atlanta needs (and deserves) a “Cuba moment.”

So let’s take a moment to appreciate what Minnesota Orchestra CEO Kevin Smith and board Vice Chair Marilyn Carlson Nelson accomplished here. They acted boldly and smartly, and they refused to act out of a place of timidity or fear. I’ve learned a valuable lesson from them both. The best way to bond a group of people together is to work toward a major goal, all together. The board gave their money. The musicians gave their talent. The staff gave their time and expertise. And together they created something far more valuable than what any one group could have accomplished on its own. And consequently, lots of healing took place. Caveat: you must be reasonably sure you can achieve your major goal. If any number of things had derailed the Cuba tour, then… Well, let’s not go there. But the potential rewards were obviously worth the risk.

Those were my big takeaways from this extraordinary weekend that all Minnesota Orchestra lovers were privileged to share.

What were yours?

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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.

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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 –

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Hola, Cuba! #MNOrchCuba <3

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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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Interview with Scott Chamberlain: Part 2

In the second part of my interview with fellow blogger Scott Chamberlain, we talked about his upcoming Cuba trip. Catch up on the first part here.

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Scott's logo

The famous mask…

EH: So. I’ve ignored the elephant in the room long enough. The whole reason I even thought of connecting with you in interview format is that you’re going with the Minnesota Orchestra to cover their historic Cuba tour. They’ll be the first American orchestra in the Obama era to visit. And you’ll be writing about it, even though you aren’t a professional arts writer. And I want to take a minute to talk about that.

I’ve never heard of an arts writer – amateur or professional – trying to crowdfund accompanying an orchestra on a tour. And not only trying, but succeeding. As I’m writing this entry, you’re at 55% of your goal, and it’s only been a few days. (Readers, please, if anyone has done anything like this before, let me know in the comments.) I know this project didn’t come about as some grand plan or anything like that, but obviously as I’m watching the total tick up and up, and getting excited about having a writer friend on the ground in Cuba to share his thoughts… I’m wondering about whether you think this is a strategy that arts writers will use in future to get more and better coverage of our beloved arts. I have mixed feelings about whether it could work besides for a few very charismatic people, but I’m curious what you think. Do you think your support is just a one-off thing because you developed relationships with your readers in the depths of a historic lockout, or do you think other arts writers in other times and places could do it, too? Many times I find myself wondering, “are the cool things that are happening here a direct result of the lockout, or could these cool things happen everywhere?” Do you know what I mean?

SC: I do think it’s unusual—in fact, the co-founder Musicovation.com, a website devoted to covering news and industry trends from across the musical world, contacted me to ask these very questions.

And I have to say I’m learning as I go. Given the complexities of this tour, it is fairly expensive… even for those of us who are getting the press discount. As an independent writer, coming up with the cost of the trip seemed daunting, but a number of supporters suggested that this was a perfect fit for a GoFundMe campaign… and off I went.

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