Tag Archives: Minnesota Orchestra

Vintage Minneapolis Symphony Programs, Part 1

Here’s are some bound 1966/67 Minneapolis Symphony programs, from the estate of dearly missed music director Stanisław Skrowaczewski.

Some notes…

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#MNOrchTour: Thoughts From Over Reykjavik

8/18

As I type, we’re between times and days. It’s three-thirty in the morning in Reykjavik and ten-thirty at night in Minneapolis. The in-flight entertainment system reports that the temperature outside is seventy below, and we’re creeping toward the Labrador Sea. I just finished watching an arty Icelandic movie about two estranged brothers who both raise sheep. Scabies hits the farms in the valley and complications ensue. The brothers eventually decide to reconcile and work together to save their breeding stock. The film ends with their flock escaping in a blizzard, and the brothers clinging to each other naked in an ice cave that one of them dug while seeking protection from the wind. I’m beginning to get a sense of the pathos that awaits us in Scandinavia. For the flight from Reykjavik to Helsinki, I’m planning on lighter entertainment fare. (Namely, Fargo.) (“Prowler needs a jump!”)

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Is Twin Cities Business Publishing Clickbait About Our Orchestra?

Two weeks ago, Twin Cities Business ran an article about the Minnesota Orchestra called:

Does The Minnesota Orchestra Have Sustainable Labor Contracts?

Okay, Twin Cities Business: you’ve immediately pulled my Pissiness Pulley by using the words “Minnesota Orchestra” and “sustainable” in the same sentence. Much like the ideas of American exceptionalism or precooked meat products, the concept of sustainability in the orchestra world has been used to justify some truly terrible stuff. Twin Cities Business should know this, and tread carefully.

Next comes a worrying, intestine-twisting subheadline:

The orchestra’s finances might not be as stable as they seem

worried 2

we’re gonna die; we’re ALL GONNA DIE

Okay, let’s back up.

First off: the finances have recovered enough to seem stable? I missed that. The fact there’s even a perception of stability is news in and of itself.

Second, why the passive-aggressive tone? Is it sunny outside? I don’t know; it seems like it, but the weather might not be as stable as it seems.

Well, seeds of doubt as to the purpose and seriousness of this article have already been planted in the headline and sub-headline, so the actual article itself should be fun!!!!11!11!

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#livelarking: Minnesota Orchestra, Eric Whitacre

7:24 PM. I’m playing two concerts tomorrow, so I won’t be able to Microreview like usual tomorrow morning. The fact that I have a life is the bad (?) news. The good (?) news is that I’m liveblogging tonight’s Minnesota Public Radio broadcast. As I said on Facebook, “Mainly I just want to have FUN, enjoy a performance by my fave orchestra, and take a break from pesky extras like ‘correct grammar’ or ‘cohesiveness of thought.'”

Speaking of Facebook, I have a Facebook page, and if you want to join the liveblogging fray there, you can. Or you can hang out on Twitter with the hashtag #livelarking, because lower case letters are cool, and lower case letters with alliteration are even cooler. And I’ll be updating this entry, too. We’ll see how adeptly I can cycle between three sites.

We’ve got about half an hour before the broadcast starts, so pop some popcorn and tell all your two friends that might be interested in this. Standing by.

7:36 PM. For those of you who don’t know, I’m a violinist and violist. My sojourns in choir were sad, sad, tremendously sad failures. So I’m gonna be honest with you: I’m about to lose my Eric Whitacre virginity. In front of all of you. Publicly. I know he’s a guy with long blonde hair that I’m assuming moves around dramatically when he conducts or breathes, but other than that, I’m completely clueless. I also see he’s a social media star, with fifty bazillion Facebook followers. I can appreciate that.

I DID watch this, though: an Eric Whitacre interview with Minnesota Public Radio’s Brian Newhouse. Too bad I shared this seventy-minute video with you fifteen minutes before the concert started. But trust me, it’s good. You would have liked it.

7:51 PM. So, somewhere in Minneapolis there’s a room of 2200 people reading these program notes. I’ll join them. Except I’m in my pajamas with no makeup on. #livingthedream

7:57 PM.Ecstatic Waters is music of dialectical tension—a juxtaposition of contradictory or opposing musical and extra-musical elements and an attempt to resolve them.” Sentences like these are why I’ll never be smart enough to be a composer.

8:00 PM. I’m hearing celestial choral sounds! Eric Whitacre must be in the house.

8:08 PM. First up is Lux Arumque, by Whitacre. These are hugely moving cinematic sounds. But I’m guessing they’re even more affecting in choral format, blessed by the humanity of the human voice.

8:13 PM. Blow It Up, Start Again: funky.

8:15 PM. So do choral geeks view Eric as like, choral Jesus? Is that a thing? Damn, he’s got charisma.

8:19 PM. Quiet City by Aaron Copland. Oh, Marni. Oh, Manny. Suddenly I feel like I’m in a big city, free and lonely. Which I guess is the point.

8:25 PM. The dynamics. I don’t want to type. The sound of my typing will cover the sounds up.

8:32 PM. Onto Stephen Bryant’s Ecstatic Waters. I’m interested in this piece within the first five seconds, so that’s a good sign.

8:35 PM. Thankfully I don’t need to understand the big composer words to enjoy the journey here. For this first listen, at least, the little soprano tinkling is such an effective device.

8:41 PM. Now it sounds like we’ve entered a cold warehouse. We’re characters in a movie thriller. There’s some kind of cyborg dragon in the next room. We are attractive and wearing skin-tight leather post-apocalyptic costumes, and we have buzzing devices that are telling us we need to move in for the attack right…now.

8:44 PM. That’s clearly Satan’s dental drill.

8:48 PM. I think the cyborg dragon has been vanquished, but I’m not sure. It might just be unconscious. Now we’re looking into each other’s eyes, haunted by the failures of our past. Our hands are shaking as we try to disarm the bomb. I know there’s a bomb we’re disarming cuz I hear it ticking.

8:53 PM. Wait a minute, I’m hearing slivers of Quiet City here. I think. Awesome. They aren’t direct quotes – I don’t think – but they’re emotional quotes, certainly. The programmer knew what he was doing. I see what you did there.

8:57 PM. Wait, intermission? What? Time flies when you’re having fun and talking to readers on three separate media platforms. This has been a really enjoyable concert. I like the feeling that I’m listening with you. Brief plug for the Minnesota Orchestra’s historic Cuba concerts: I’m planning on doing this #livelarking thing again next Friday.

9:07:15 PM. The all-enveloping ambiance of the Deep Field app sounds very cool. I’ll totally get the same effect as the audience in the hall. I have a $5 pair of headphones, and I’m listening over a compressed Internet stream.

9:07:20 PM. Also, this blog specializes in sarcasm.

9:16 PM. Looking at the program notes again, as you do during intermission. I have to appreciate a man who plays with animal crackers.

9:18 PM. Eric Whitacre shares a quote from the late Stephen Paulus: “Why go with your fifth bad idea when you can go with your first bad idea?” I feel sad I never had a chance to meet him except through his music.

9:20 PM. I can tell that the Minnesota Chorale enjoys singing under the direction of this man. I don’t know how I can tell that. I just can. And of course the Paulus is beautiful.

9:26 PM. We’ve gotta read a script, too, to fully appreciate the obscure intense plot-heavy masterwork that is Godzilla Eats Las Vegas. *balances reading script, blogging, tweeting, Facebook status updating*

9:29 PM. Over on Twitter, I formally requested an Eric Whitacre interpretation of Airport: 79, my favorite bad movie, and I’m going to repeat the request here.

9:35 PM. I’m gonna assume there is an army of Elvises advancing on stage. Gonna go with it.

9:37 PM. Oh no, in my Twitter- and Facebook-updating I got lost in the plot. I think we’re somewhere in between Wayne Newton’s death and the pirate ships.

9:41 PM. Oh the silly. Praise be to the silly. Remember how back in September, just a few short months ago, the Minnesota Chorale was nailing the ethereal Mahler Resurrection symphony? Versatility, thy name is Minnesota Chorale. Bravo.

9:47 PM. Off to the cosmos.

9:51 PM. Grace in the face of hiccups is a trait that I admire greatly, and one in which I am completely lacking. (Someone’s phone went off as the piece was about to begin, in case you’re wondering where that vague philosophical thought came from.)

9:54 PM. Enjoying what I’m hearing so far. That being said, the work’s biggest highlight – the use of the app – could also be its biggest distraction. We’ll be able to judge in a few minutes.

9:58 PM. I think there’s one thing I know for sure, though: this is not a piece best appreciated using cheap headphones. Go see this one live, don’t judge it on recordings.

10:02 PM. Also, if you can’t hear a live version, try listening to it in the dark. You can absorb aural ambiances much better in the dark. One of my readers is listening under the stars. That is such a magical suggestion.

10:04 PM. I just opened my bedroom window. The spring air is cold, and smells rainy.

10:07 PM. What if we thought of Deep Field as less of a piece of music than an experience? How would that change how we listen?

10:10 PM. Don’t really want to turn on the lights. Just want to crawl into bed after that, and dream.

10:12 PM. So here are some quick preliminary thoughts on Deep Field, subject to change (as quick preliminary thoughts are apt to do). I think it’s probably more successful in person than on recording. I think it’s completely transporting. I think any hiccups with the app will clear up after more people get used to the idea. I think it is best listened to in the darkness, on the prairie. I liked it. And I think this has been a very, very fun night. Bravo Minnesota Orchestra, Minnesota Chorale, Marni Hougham and Manny Laureano, Eric Whitacre, et al. Nights like these bring fun into the concert experience. It almost…somehow…makes the quality of the music secondary, if the experience around it is fun and appealing enough.

I’ll catch you #livelarking next Friday, when we travel to Cuba together!

***

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Review: Minnesota Orchestra in Bernstein, Heitzeg, Copland, Greenstein

Giddy excitement, bittersweet reflection, screams from audience members…

Nope, it wasn’t a lockout concert (although it felt like it). Rather, it was the first show in the Minnesota Orchestra’s 2015 American Voices festival, a massive extravaganza held Friday night at Orchestra Hall. How massive was it? So massive that the ushers told us anxiously and individually as they scanned our tickets: “Intermission is only fifteen minutes.” Aww, yeah. This is my kind of concert.

The show – and it really was a show – opened with Bernstein’s Divertimento. Sassy, sassy, saucy. As the piece went along, the classical trappings of the instrumentation kinda clattered away, and by ten minutes in, it felt like we were in a classy 2000-seat strip club. The hams in the brass section were milking the Blues movement for every single penny it was worth. Maybe even a few pennies’ more. During this section, I noticed a violist or two glancing over at the brass with a raised eyebrow. I can’t tell if they were skeptical or just jealous.

Possibly the least sexy instrument in the orchestra.

We can’t really pull off the strip club vibe with this.

Next came the premiere of Steve Heitzeg’s American Nomad trumpet concerto, written for Minnesota Orchestra musician Charles Lazarus. It was a huge hit in the hall, and the Strib wanted to marry the piece and have its babies. I’m sincerely glad it was loved. But my own personal feelings were more ambivalent. I was discontent throughout the opening. The abundant movement, paradoxically, struck me as frustratingly static. The middle movement was more successful, its pale, sparse scoring gorgeous and affecting. The written part of the third movement struck me as rather stale and routine…until the improv started, and then it exploded to life. In general it felt like music you’d use for a Copland documentary if the original Copland was still under copyright. But of course your mileage will vary. I was definitely in the minority. And as I’ve said on the blog before, I think Heitzeg’s soundtrack absolutely made the unforgettable PBS documentary “Death of the Dream.” I have no ax to grind.

Also, here’s a shout-out to Charles Lazarus. I know nothing about jazz, trumpet, or jazz trumpet. But what a mesmerizing soloist he was, in a very understated Minnesotan way. He has the aura of a grown-up band geek, with the haircut and glasses. His stage presence combines a cool modesty and a steely confidence, and he was such a treat to watch.

But. Let’s face it. The inevitable highlight of the evening was always going to be the return of former Minnesota Orchestra clarinetist Burt Hara to play the Copland concerto. Continue reading

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Critiquing Criticism of Season Announcements

I’m not sure how to introduce this one besides Greg Sandow recently wrote an article about the Minnesota Orchestra’s season announcement press release, and I was unconvinced by what he said. Here’s why.

Mr. Sandow begins:

I don’t mean to pick on the Minnesota Orchestra.

Of all the sentences in the English language, “I don’t mean to pick on the Minnesota Orchestra” is among the most inspirational to me.

I don’t mean to pick on the Minnesota Orchestra.

Which is why 73% of the words in Mr. Sandow’s 1385 word article are about the Minnesota Orchestra…

Or on anyone.

Okay…

But this is the time of year when symphony orchestras announce next year’s season, and their press releases…are weak. The most basic fact about classical music today is that we need new listeners. But I can’t see these press releases doing much to find those. Which to me is a serious problem.

Is there an art form where season announcement press releases attract new attendees? Seriously, is that a thing? If it is, I wanna fall in love with THAT art form, because THAT sounds like a way easier field to make a living in.

Quick question: who among my readers went to their first orchestra concert because the season announcement press release was cool? I ask because I’m trying to put myself in a newcomer’s shoes. The closest parallel I can think of: I’ve never gone to the Guthrie. Therefore, I don’t read the Guthrie’s press releases. The Guthrie is going to hook this particular twentysomething via recommendations from friends, advertisements, social media, cheap tickets, and, once I attend for the first time, a meaningful high quality experience at the theater.

Can’t we learn to talk about classical music, in a way that might make compelling, so we can people — especially people outside our world — reasons to go to our performances?

First, I don’t know what “learn to talk about classical music, in a way that might make compelling, so we can people” means. I can guess what it means but I’m not sure. Second, I don’t think a season announcement press release is the first place we should be spending our compellingness energy on. Recommendations from friends, advertisements, social media, and cheap tickets are going to give first-timers way more compelling reasons to go to performances. Make those hooks compelling first.

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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.

***

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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Interview with Scott Chamberlain: Part 1

Many times over the past two years I found myself messaging Scott Chamberlain:

You want to cover this one, or should I?

Scott Chamberlain, the author of the widely linked Mask of the Flower Prince blog, and I share a lot: mediums, outlooks, communities, topics, inspirations, and a passion for our Minnesota Orchestra, as well as the performing arts in general. In other words, I’m not sure why I haven’t interviewed him on the blog before. So yesterday I emailed him a list of discussion topics about the role of blogs in the orchestra world, why the [expletive] we kept writing about the Minnesota Orchestra meltdown for as long as we did, and oh, yeah, a little bit about his historic trip to Cuba. (Stay tuned for part 2 of my interview for that.) And he was good enough to email back. So without further ado –

***

This is Scott's blog. It's a good blog.

This is Scott’s blog. It’s a good blog.

EH: It’s surreal to me we haven’t had a public chat yet. We’ve each linked to each other a million times, but we’ve never actually sat down for a conversation, so I feel like this entry is way overdue.

First I want to hop in a time machine back to June 2013, which was the month your blog started. It was the exact middle of the Minnesota Orchestra lockout. You were crazy prolific during that time. Why did you feel compelled to spend months documenting this disaster? For me, it was because this orchestra meant so much to me, and it was cathartic to dissect the news. And gradually it became more rewarding than anything I’d ever done, even when the news was really bad. (And it was almost always really bad.) But I was curious why you kept at it. Looking back, don’t you think rational people should have given up after Osmo resigned?

SC: The funny thing is, in many ways I fell into blogging as an afterthought. As many people know, I used to work for the Orchestra and had several friends among the musicians and the staff. So when the negotiations fell apart in fall 2012, it really felt personal. I think like many people out there, I started off thinking that this was a standard-issue labor dispute. For me that changed on November 28, 2012, when the Star Tribune published an op-ed piece by the board chairs of the Minnesota Orchestra detailing their views of the lockout. There were so many things in that op-ed that were disrespectful, and flat out wrong. I was irritated enough that the next day I posted an extensive deconstruction of it on my Facebook page.

I had no idea anyone would ever read it… I mostly wrote it just for my own peace of mind. Plus, such a lengthy rebuttal was way, way too long for Facebook. I fully expected that any attention it received would fade quickly, just like everything else on social media. But oddly enough, this post didn’t die away quietly. I watched in disbelief as my rant took on a life of its own, shared by hundreds of people I didn’t know and had never met. Within a week my number of Facebook friends had nearly doubled. (I ultimately re-posted that piece here on my blog, if you’d care to read it.)

I followed up this commentary with many others, but given their size and scope they weren’t particularly suited for Facebook. I was a fan of “Song of the Lark,” and wondered if a blog might be a better way to get my ideas out into the real world. With a great deal of prodding from my wife and other friends, I made it happen.

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Bad News, Good News

In case you missed the news, the Minnesota Orchestral Association has promoted Kevin Smith from Interim CEO to Actual CEO. He’s staying until the end of the 2017-2018 season (at least), and he will be negotiating both Osmo’s and the musicians’ new contracts. The board voted unanimously to keep him.

I haven’t met Mr. Smith yet, but nearly all of my musical friends have, and I’ve heard nothing but good about him. A few things are abundantly clear. He knows what he’s doing. He knows the Twin Cities. He has years of experience under his belt. And, perhaps most importantly of all, he listens. Stakeholders respect this man. When he has to make the tough decisions that lie ahead, I may not always agree with his choices, but I will respect them, and I will know that he is working for the good of the organization and the art form and the community. You can’t buy that kind of trust.

In fact, if I had to choose what’s the bigger news, Osmo’s rehiring or Kevin’s promotion… I’d probably go with Kevin’s promotion. And you all know how thrilled I was that Osmo was re-hired. So you can guess how excited I am about Kevin.

But wait. As the infomercials say, there’s more. In an interview the other night on Almanac, when asked if Osmo’s contract would be renewed, Smith said:

We are talking about that. I would hope and expect, yes.

I would hope and expect, yes.

I would hope and expect, yes.

I-Would-Hope-And-Expect

The phrase “I would hope and expect, yes” in a pretty font and decorated with my excited yellow Rays of Yay

 

It’s a tribute to how far we’ve come that this quote isn’t plastered all over blogs and Twitter and Facebook and Strib articles.

I think most people would agree that

  1. the chances of a second lockout have declined precipitously
  2. we just might be looking at a fair musicians’ contract extending until approximately 2020, and
  3. the Osmo era is likely going to continue.

It’s looking like the Minnesota Orchestral Association has entered its own Era of Good Feelings. And I’m on board with that.

So it might be time to bid a fond farewell to the Song of the Lark Outrage Machine. The Outrage Machine ran fast and hard for a very long time, fueled by the spittle from my flail-y freak-outs and the sarcasm of animated GIFs. But between Kevin Smith’s hiring and the Atlanta Symphony lockout ending, it looks like outrage is going out of style. Which is great.

It’s just too bad I can’t take the Outrage Machine out for a final spin to commemorate old times and old scandals.

Unless…

Somehow… somewhere… some news could break about the Era of Bad Feelings.

But, no. That’s impossible. Michael Henson has been gone from the Minnesota Orchestra for months now. His vision – or maybe that’s “myopia” – has been thoroughly repudiated by all. Surely there’s no new news left about his tenure…

990s

I’m sorry, guidestar.org, the website that “gather[s] and disseminate[s] information about every single IRS-registered nonprofit organization“…did you say something?

990s

Oh? What’s this? The 990 form for the Minnesota Orchestral Association covering the time span of September 2012 to August 2013, which features only one non-lockout month?

Do you hear that roar in the distance? I think it’s the outrage machine revving up for one last final outing! So jump aboard now, for one last ride, for nostalgia’s sake…

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Microreview: Minnesota Orchestra and Chorale, Heitzeg, Stravinsky, Orff

Time for the last Microreview of the season! *gets weepy*

Catch this fabulous program tonight at 8pm and tomorrow at 2pm at Orchestra Hall; tickets at minnesotaorchestra.org. SOTL Microreviews will return this fall as we all embark on the Best Season Evar! Feel free to contribute a Microreview of your own, too.

My word count comes from this week’s enjoyable Rob Hubbard Pi-Press review: 429. I think it’s best for everyone if we forget the Strib’s review of weirdness ever existed, so 429 words it is. Here goes!

***

This week the sacred and the sexual mix unabashedly in a program of Stravinsky, Orff, and Minnesota composer Steve Heitzeg.

I’m not so familiar with Heitzeg, although I love his soundtrack for Death of the Dream, the TPT documentary about abandoned Midwestern farmsteads. It was sparse and devastatingly effective. So it was interesting to hear his voice in this new context. “Now We Start The Great Round” has the flavor of movie music written for a Copland biopic, and it serves as a sweeping curtain raiser. But it finished before it started, especially when the stage change took half as long as the piece itself.

After the Stage Change of Interminability came Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. Way too late I realized: maybe it’s irresponsible to write about a performance of this piece, especially when

  1. I’ve never heard it before,
  2. I don’t know anything about choirs, and
  3. my two instruments have left the stage (violins! violas! come back!).

So I put the critiquing ears away and just soaked in the ambiance. From that perspective, the Symphony was all melancholy angularity, lit by the glow of the sound of the Chorale. It sounded like candlelight flickering in an Escher cathedral. Lush, sacred…and very odd. Last night I didn’t grasp the narrative. It was all very lovely, but meh. Then again, I don’t find much Stravinsky seductive, so…

Oh, you're the bad boy of music alright.

Oh, you’re the bad boy of music alright

The narrative for Carmina Burana, on the other hand, hit like an anvil to the head. From the first notes it felt like straight-line winds were blowing over the radio. O FOR-TUN-A, indeed. I think the Minnesota Chorale put every single emotion of being locked out of Orchestra Hall for sixteen months into that opening phrase. The bitter sneer of those consonants! My takeaway? Do not get on the wrong side of the Minnesota Chorale. Damn.

It was immediately clear that members of the Chorale could not only sing Carmina in their sleep, but under general anesthetic. That familiarity could easily lead to a bored performance, but of course they’re above that. Their effervescent joy at being back on that stage was contagious, and so deeply satisfying to hear. The Orchestra supported them all the way, but – dare I say it? – it was the Chorale’s show last night. And deservedly so.

As for the baritone in Ego Sum Abbas, I wish I sang that well drunk.

To sum up the 2014 season:

Away with sadness!
summer returns,
and now departs
cruel winter…

wretched is the person
who neither lives,
nor lusts
under summer’s spell.

***

Addendum: An earlier version of this review misspelled composer Steve Heitzeg’s name. Awkward, and my apologies.

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