I went to see the Minnesota Orchestra in Winona, Minnesota, yesterday. Things have changed since I saw them there last, in the summer of 2010. To put it bluntly, the musicians’ contracts expire in September, and from the outside, things are looking unnervingly unsettled. The musicians have written a few carefully vague blog entries that include such sentences as “management’s current proposals would seriously diminish the artistic quality of the orchestra in its ability to retain and attract the best musicians possible and, thus, jeopardize its current top-tier status.” The orchestra’s CEO has sent a couple of odd emails to patrons discussing some of the fundraising triumphs of the past season, with a mention at the end that oh, yeah, by the way: “We continue in contract talks with our musicians, hopeful that we will be able to find common ground to resolve our significant financial challenges.” It is tempting, if ultimately futile, to read between those lines. Staff members have been fired; the upcoming season is short and unabashedly unadventurous; Orchestra Hall is in the middle of a major renovation, and everyone is working in temporary spaces. Maybe I’m paranoid, but this feels awfully like the uneasy calm before a storm.
Some people have seized upon the conflict with a kind of ghoulish delight, braying opinions with all the class, subtlety, and intellectual prowess of CNN covering the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act. I understand why: it’s a chance for everyone, no matter how ill-informed (and at this point, just about everyone is ill-informed) to advance their pet theories about why orchestras are doomed. And oh, how people in the classical music biz love debating why orchestras are doomed! Add in a juicy topical debate about the role of unions and the ultra-wealthy in a community’s artistic life, and the topic becomes irresistible. Mix, bake, set out to cool. Serves a savory meal for hundreds of cultural critics – professional, amateur, and those in the gray netherworld in between.
In short, this may become a big story. There is, potentially, a lot at stake.
Only none of us on the outside knows exactly what.
So, we wait.
Anyway, those were some of the uplifting thoughts cycling through my head yesterday. I’ve been looking forward to this show since it was announced (especially since the program included the concerto debut of the Orchestra’s new concertmaster Erin Keefe), but there was a part of me that was weirdly hesitant to go. I’m only too aware that, thanks to the abridged season, I’m more than likely not going to see the Orchestra until 2013. (Rather unbelievably, there are only four daytime classical concerts left in 2012, and two of those are holiday performances of Brandenburg concertos and The Messiah…) There’s so much uncertainty in my life right now – personally as well as musically – that at this point, 2013 seems like a distant mirage that might never actually get here. What will transpire in the next six months? As I drove the two hours to Winona, I tried my best to shake the feeling I might be saying a kind of good-bye.
The opening was the Coriolan Overture: dramatic, defiant, burning with a raw, almost sinister power. The sound was savage, striking again and again with brute staccato force. Quiet dolce passages offered no relief from the tension; they only tightened the screws, making the next terrifying forte blast all the more devastating. By the time the quiet, albeit emphatic, pizzes brought the piece to an end, it was clear the artistic gauntlet had been thrown. Top that, was the unspoken insinuation. Clearly, despite (because of?) what’s going on behind closed doors, this is an orchestra that knows exactly what to say and exactly how to say it…maybe now more than ever.
After the fierce overture, Erin Keefe strode onstage looking like a veritable goddess in a violet gown, long pleated skirt pooling at her feet. Not only was this her first time soloing with the Orchestra, it was her first time playing the Beethoven concerto; she learned it specifically for this set of concerts. Although she didn’t look it, I had to wonder if she was, at least on a certain level, terrified. What violinist wouldn’t be? But from the moment those opening octaves pierced the air, it was clear she – and we! – had absolutely nothing to fear.
I’ve never heard the first movement of the Beethoven concerto played with such a striking narrative arc. So often so many passages can feel superfluous, leading to the old “it’s nothing but scales!” complaint – but here every note, every phrase, felt indispensable. Her sound was silvery, her dynamics breathtaking, her Kreisler cadenzas shudderingly bold and fearless. Maybe there was a little fatigue in the second half – or certain places where the sound felt a tad scrunched – or a few barely out of tune notes here and there – but these teensy tiny things were more reassurances of her humanity than actual flaws. Tears ran down my face…tears of joy, sadness, satisfaction, yearning, triumph, defeat, and every irreconcilable emotion in between. When played well, the Beethoven concerto has the power to say everything. And thanks to Erin Keefe and her colleagues in the Orchestra, yesterday, it said everything.
After intermission came the Eroica. This is one of those Beethoven pieces that I like and respect and admire but don’t wholeheartedly love…I’m more of a seventh symphony girl, I guess. But nonetheless, what a transporting joy it was to hear live: the orchestra played with all the tightness, conviction, and fire they’d displayed in the Coriolan. Precision – purpose – boundless, limitless, endless energy – all underlain with a restless, arresting passion that – at least in my listening experience – has never been so potent.
For whatever reason (probably in light of…recent events), throughout the afternoon I was struck by the humanity of the people onstage, and by the individuality of each player. Principal cellist Tony Ross warmed up with the devastating opening of the Elgar concerto. A violinist played through a portion of Dvořák New World over and over (they’re performing it in Minneapolis on Friday). Concertmaster Stephanie Arado mouthed some words to a cellist; he nodded. The air conditioning made a racket in the first half of the program, so it was turned off for the second, resulting in the word going round of “lose the jackets and ties!” Men came back out sporting exposed suspenders and rolled-up cuffs; women took off their white sweaters to reveal short-sleeved shirts and bare arms. Sweaty faces glimmered determined in the lights. In between movements of the Eroica, a violinist’s shoulder rest fell off (I sympathized; it looked like the same model as mine, and golly that thing has a tendency to fall off during the most inconvenient times). Everyone watched the reattachment except for Maestro Vänskä, who stood by impassively, pretending to be lost in abstract contemplation of the music before him, only raising his hands again once the rest was re-secured. At the very end of the show, when Vänskä gave each section the opportunity to stand and receive plaudits from the audience, the musicians gave a resounding congratulatory whoop to the ever under-appreciated violas, in one of the group’s many awesomely orch-dorky traditions.
In short, I remembered how the Minnesota Orchestra is not a monolith, not a hive of mindless worker bees, not a colony of bow-tied ants, no matter how often it can look like it, what with the single-minded discipline and bows moving in breathtaking unison and all. It’s made up of a diverse collection of passionate, obscenely talented, well-rounded individuals. For most of them, merely playing an instrument at the very highest level was not enough. So they also became conductors and writers and competitors and composers and historians and educators and artistic directors…among other things. They are the best of the best the musical world has to offer, and their love of their art serves as an example to the rest of us. May we listeners never take them – or musicians like them – for granted.
The Minnesota Orchestra is clearly in flux. They have a new concertmaster who over the course of the last year has proven herself to be an orchestral musician, chamber player, and soloist of the very first rank. A number of important names from the orchestra roster will not be returning in 2012-13 season. Next year a renovated Orchestra Hall will be opened, and if the renderings are any indication, it will be stunning. There are indications that programming in the future will be…um, different. Eventually, a new contract will be signed. Those five changes are likely just the tip of the iceberg. I have my fingers crossed that throughout all the changes, the glory of the core product remains unaffected. My hoping won’t actually do any good, but whatever. It makes me feel better.
I’m not delusional enough to think that anyone with any power from either “side” in Minneapolis is actually reading the bloggy ramblings of a 23-year-old amateur string-player from Wisconsin, nor am I delusional enough to think that they should. But I do hope that as they make the difficult decisions that lie ahead, they never stop remembering the passion of the people onstage, not even for a moment. If the organization’s plans to “Build for the Future” neglect to harness the musicians’ passion, then those plans aren’t worth making. Simple as that. Passion is an asset no budget can buy, and yesterday afternoon, I realized that we underestimate the power of that passion at our peril.