Tag Archives: the one and only time I’ll ever blog about brass instruments

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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Filed under Minnesota Orchestra, Reviews

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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Filed under Minnesota Orchestra, Reviews

Review: Minnesota Orchestra in Gabrieli, Dietter, Tchaikovsky

Yesterday I made the two hour trek across the tundra for a 2pm performance of Eiji Oue conducting the Minnesota Orchestra at Orchestra Hall.

Snow came early to the northern plains this year. It feels like December – indeed, a lot of people have just said “screw it” and lit their lights a couple weeks early – but obviously we’re not even to Thanksgiving yet, so we’re also in a kind of holiday limbo land. It’s a weighty question: do we follow the calendar or the snow?

I mention this because the program opened with various selections by Giovanni Gabrieli for two brass choirs. And especially at this time of year, said instrumentation bellows carol, cathedrals, Christmas. It felt like implicit permission to kick off the warmth and coziness of the holiday season without guilt.

The two choirs were situated on opposite sides of the Orchestra Hall stage, one anchored by tuba, the other by bass trombone (shout-out to new kid Andrew Chappell!). Obviously they’re normally tucked behind an impenetrable Wall of Strings, so it was a fascinating joy to watch the players and their faces. I really think the orchestra is onto something by programming smaller pieces in the first half, followed by a big blockbuster in the second. My Sunday audience seemed to enjoy the set-up too; as the sharply sculpted phrases were traded back and forth, listeners’ heads oscillated from side-to-side in appreciation. And what a sound a brass choir makes. You have to be in the same room with that core-rumbling buzz to really experience it.

After the Gabrieli came another rarity: a double bassoon concerto by Christian Ludwig Dietter. A different colleague joined principal John Miller, Jr., for each movement. Miller arrived at the Minnesota Orchestra in 1971 (before Orchestra Hall was even built, much less remodeled), and is the longest serving principal player in Orchestra history. That kind of devotion not just to an art, but to an ensemble and a community, is hugely humbling. My hat goes off to anyone who sticks with an organization through so many years…especially through the intermittent hopelessness of the last three.

The music in the Dietter may have been slight, but it was perfect for showcasing the easy chemistry of the soloists. What a joy to see colleagues working so effortlessly together. (In between movements, the departing colleague would high-five the arriving one, to warm applause and scattered laughter at the informal unconventionality of the gesture.) I think it’s easy to forget how outright beautiful the gentle bassoon can be, placed as it is in the orchestra’s texture, so it was lovely to have this reminder. As for the orchestra, I’ve definitely heard them give crisper accompaniments, but clarity isn’t always Maestro Eiji Oue’s first priority… For an encore, Miller played a Swedish Walking Song with ethereal orchestral accompaniment, and that was delicately breathtaking.

The big marquee event, though, came after intermission:  Tchaikovsky 5.

Tchaikovsky 5 is one of those pieces I really, really know. I really, really love it. I am really, really uncool. And yet, bizarrely, I have no favorite recordings, no interpretation I’m married to…or even dating. Which was good, because if you’d gone into the hall expecting a particular interpretation, you were going to be disappointed, simply because this one was soooo far out there.

The craziest thing about it was the tempi. There were so many yanks and tugs at tempo that the bartenders could have sold Dramamine instead of drinks at intermission. Tchaikovsky can feel pretty episodic to begin with, and instead of smoothing over the seams, Eiji Oue highlighted them by stopping, starting, and occasionally sprinting through them. So that’s one way of approaching a potential problem, I guess: highlighting it, and making no apologies for it. It definitely resulted in a unique interpretation. Sometimes that interpretation veered so far from conventional practice (not to mention the score), it almost came across as a pastiche.

And I was smiling the whole time. Both at the beauty of it, and the ballsiness of it. The interaction between conductor and orchestra was hilarious to see. Mom caught Dave Williamson cracking up. Erin Keefe’s body language was all like: follow me through the storm! And there was one priceless moment when Eiji leaned over to principal viola Tom Turner virtuosically scrubbing away, enticing Tom to give just a little more, and I could practically see Tom’s thought bubble: I’M GIVING ALL I GOT.

And that final movement! Only a virtuoso band could pull off what they did. It continually danced on the edge of completely imploding and exploding in a fiery cataclysm of confusion and honking horns. But of course at the very last minute, the tempos would lurch back, and everyone somehow burst through the exultant finish line together. You’ve got to hand it to the strings in particular for dashing forward with such confidence and cohesion.

I’ve seen him in-concert twice now, and I think my relationship with Eiji Oue is like my relationship with candy corn. Outside the period of approximately one week in the late autumn, candy corn is not particularly appealing. But once a year, candy corn is WONDERFUL. It’s fun. It’s corn-y. It mimics the shape of a kernel of a nourishing vegetable, and that’s cool. In fact, I went out of my way earlier this year to buy a bag of candy corn, and I didn’t regret the purchase. Would I want candy corn every weekend? No. Does that mean I dislike candy corn? I just got done telling you I consider candy corn to be great fun.

So. I could argue very persuasively about why this performance should not work, could not work, and did not work. But one of the valuable lessons I took away from the lockout is, sometimes it doesn’t really matter how something is played, providing the experience surrounding it is unique enough. And you have got to admit, between the sparkly pants, generous swooping, and grins of manic wild-eyed sincerely-felt joy, Eiji Oue creates experiences. I think people who focus solely on the quality of performance, ignoring or even criticizing the air of electricity, are maybe missing the point. This was definitely a show worth catching, an experience worth having.

It was a joy to see such joy. 2014 has been a year of historic, absurdly high stakes shows at Orchestra Hall. Stanislaw Skrowaczewski conducted the first homecoming concert back in February, with everyone in the music world gruesomely interested in whether this great orchestra had survived a sixteen-month lockout intact. The Osmo Sibelius Grammy concerts happened as the board was deciding whether to rehire him. Same with the one-night Josh Bell / Osmo show. The glitzy, hugely expensive, and ultimately successful Renee Fleming gala was pressured to be ultra flashy and fabulous. The Mahler Resurrection concerts in late September mused on themes of fricking Life, Death, and Life After Death. It was a joy just to have crazy fun again, to hear the depth of sound that this great orchestra makes, and to walk out the lobby door to downtown Minneapolis with the faith that everything will be okay.



Filed under Minnesota Orchestra, Reviews

Microreview: Minnesota Orchestra, Mendelssohn, Wagner

We all know I can write long. Even Alex Ross knows this.


I remember when this happened… *dreamy sigh*

But can I write short? Uh… Not really.

So to practice, I’m going to take the Strib’s review word count and work within that limit. This week’s Minnesota Orchestra Strib review belonged to Michael Anthony and clocked in at 456 words, so I’ll try to stay under 450. I do like to go long when I’m actually in the hall – in-person, I always see and hear a lot I want to write about – but when I’m just listening over the radio, I don’t see any harm in going short. I’m calling these micro-reviews. For lack of a better term.

If anyone wants to join in on the micro-review fun, do. The more the merrier when it comes to discussing concerts.


You know the best way to listen to a Minnesota Orchestra concert?

Livestreaming on a laptop!


Well, it’s better than nothing. After a fashion report from Brian Newhouse (apparently Erin Keefe was wearing a “beautiful dark blue sleeveless gown”), Friday’s concert began with the Mendelssohn violin concerto. It was disorienting to jump into a concerto without an overture, but there was a 70-minute ~WAGNER EXTRAVAGANZA~ after intermission to consider.

The orchestra played with fine, elegant understatement. And I’m not sure I cared for that. I usually like my Mendelssohn with icy aristocratic soloists and wild-eyed accompaniment. It was the opposite dynamic here: Erin was providing all the fire, and the orchestra the cool restraint. Maestro Wigglesworth was completely justified musically, historically, and philosophically in taking this approach, but I need more time to decide if I liked it or not.

Lest you think I’m bitching, I thought the orchestra played beautifully, and the wind section in particular made some of the most stunning contributions I’ve heard in any Mendelssohn, ever. The single bassoon note linking the first and second movements startled me with its character.

And need I say that Erin Keefe played flawlessly? Silver tone, searing vibrato, character to burn… She’s perfection.

Next came the Wagner adaptation and its attendant harps and horns. Also, horns.

I admit that when it comes to opera, I’m a philistine. I find it hard to take this music seriously. Any story that goes remotely like this…

…has me skeptical before a single note is played.

But of course the performance was first-rate. The wild, Romantic, edge-of-your-seat quality I was missing in the Mendelssohn was here in spades. (Possibly because there were a lot of players literally on the edges of their seats. Don’t think I haven’t seen those string parts. What kind of sadist writes four nights of that?)

This guy

This guy

There were times when the arrangement was successful. The Ride of the Valkyries, for instance, took on a whole new meaning inserted into a larger narrative. Here the character of the strings almost stole the show from the brass. (Almost.)

But after a while, it all turned into a bit of a…blur. Albeit a heavy, horn-y, supremely well-played blur. I had two antithetical impressions: certain ideas seemed truncated, yet everything was so long. Call this the “Paradox of the Orchestral Adventure.”

Hey, did I mention there was brass? There was, and they played gorgeously, majestically, with a rich, plummy sound.

But one detail made it tough for me to truly enjoy this piece: namely, it was by Wagner. Apparently the Minnesota Orchestra has played this extravaganza every ten years since 1994. Maybe in 2024 I’ll go see the next performance.

Or….maybe not.


453 words. *dusts off hands*

Just because I’m wary of Wagner doesn’t mean you should be. You can still buy tickets for tonight at minnesotaorchestra.org. Erin’s Mendelssohn is worth more than the price of admission. If I was in Minnesota this weekend, I’d be going in a heartbeat. Enjoy yourself!



Filed under Minnesota Orchestra, Reviews

We Finnished It

The last time I was in Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis was in March 2012 to see the premiere of Judd Greenstein’s Acadia. This is a work for full and fabulous symphony orchestra, and it explores a narrative of change, loss, and redemption.

I left the hall that night happy – and completely oblivious to the fact that I’d be living those themes for the next two years.

Eight weeks after that concert, the Minnesota Orchestral Association (MOA) quietly fired the first shot in its aggressive PR battle, months before the work stoppage they were planning for even began. This shot at audiences and donors was completely unprovoked and completely indefensible. Presumably assuming that the wider world would never discover their dirty underhanded trick, somebody at the MOA authorized the purchase of a variety of domain names based on variations of the phrase saveourminnesotaorchestra.com. Why? During the Detroit Symphony strike, audience advocates there had created headaches for the board and management by creating an organization named Save Our Symphony to protest the direction the DSO was going. And consequently, the power players at the MOA wanted to make it harder for any Minnesota-based upstarts to start a similar group. This paranoid purchase proves that they were afraid that Minnesota audiences might try to derail the plans they had to choke the organization and remake it in their own image.

I can confirm that their fears were well-founded.


But there was no time to reflect on any of that as I stepped for the very first time into the Rorschach test of a new lobby. (Do you see a brand new $50 million boondoggle symptomatic of a dysfunctional organizational culture that values bricks and mortar over world-class orchestral music-making, or a badly needed remodel that will strengthen the Orchestral Association in a myriad of ways and foster community engagement and goodwill? Your answer will remain confidential between you and your therapist!) I immediately was in the arms of a musician friend, tearing up on a tux shoulder. Screw reflection; we’ve been to hell and back and we survived, so let’s celebrate. His words came out in a rushed tumble. We’re playing well, he said. Each week we’re sounding better. We need him back.

Of course, “him” is Osmo Vänskä: the beloved Finnish music director who brought the already great Minnesota Orchestra to even greater heights during his ten year tenure. He’d resigned during the sixteen-month-long lockout, and it is obvious he won’t bother to return unless and until the MOA board of directors demonstrates a renewed commitment to world-class orchestral music-making…a goal they, to be blunt, didn’t show any commitment to in 2012 or 2013. (Thankfully, 2014 is going a little better. So far.) What exactly that commitment might consist of, and what their terms might be, I don’t know, and of course it’s none of my business to know. But now that the lockout is over, there are at least some board members who want Osmo back. They’ve taken the first step to getting him back by overseeing the…completely voluntary resignation of the orchestra’s controversial CEO, Michael Henson. Osmo and the Orchestral Association are now in negotiations to see if they share enough of the same goals to make his return worthwhile. If the stars align, part two of our beloved Osmo’s tenure could be on its way. Plus, so many audience members are relieved to see the architect of the lockout packing his bags. Hence the electric buzz in the lobby.

Speaking of the audience…

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Filed under Labor Disputes, Minnesota Orchestra, Reviews

I Hate…Er, And Also Am Apparently Subconsciously Programming Bruckner: An Epilogue

Last night I had a dream that I was in an orchestra. It was a very good group, made up largely of members from the Minnesota Orchestra, who had given up their careers in that august organization and relocated to my small Wisconsin hometown. We were searching for repertoire. “You should try Bruckner 8!” I said. Although most were ex-members of Minnesota, they weren’t familiar with Bruckner 8. So the music magically appeared and was distributed. We began the last movement first (as you do in dreams). We got to a certain point where everything (i.e., the strings, the horns, the horns, and the horns) came together, and you know what? It was magnificent. What a rush. However, we decided to cut it off at one of the climaxes because whatever concert we were programming for had a strict time limit.

I tried listening to the passage in question this morning, curious if my midnight dream had any effect on me. Sorry to say, it didn’t. Bruckner still grated. But I’m heartened my subconscious is working on it. We’ll see if this dream ever comes true. (Minus the mass exodus of Minnesota Orchestra members to Eau Claire, Wisconsin.)


Anyway. As the kids on Tumblr say…

“This has been a post.”

(If this blog means nothing to you, it’s probably for the best. Just keep scrolling.)


Filed under My Writing

Review: Bon Iver, Homecoming Concert, December 13

Imagine. You’re an ambitious kid from a small town. This small town’s most famous export is the inventor of fraud-proof ballot paper. The arts scene is pathetic compared to the ones in Minneapolis, Chicago, or New York. Every artist you admire – every artist you love and respect and desperately want to emulate – is from a big city, went to school in a big city, found themselves in a big city. Nobody comes here because they want to. Nobody stays here and is successful. As long as I’m here, you think to yourself, I will have no chance of making what I want to have happen, happen.

Why, then, is it so difficult to say good-bye?

As you grow older, never making the break, never quite finding the courage or the cash to move away, you struggle to choose between forging a career in the arts and embracing the family and the small-town culture that raised you. You try your best to come to terms with things, and to not be ungrateful. Because there are worse places to be.

Then, suddenly, a neighbor becomes an international superstar. He’s an alumnus of the high school your mom went to. You hear breathless rumors in the press that he shops at your grocery store. Your youth symphony rehearsals were held on the same university campus he attended. The superstar’s drummer used to play at a restaurant two blocks from your house. Thirty years ago your grandparents almost bought a house on the corner of Third and Lake…an unassuming intersection that the superstar makes famous in a Grammy-nominated song. You hear these things, and you’re heartened.

Slowly but surely, you start experimenting with shedding the insecurity. You start trusting yourself a little bit more. You think, well, if he can make it…why can’t I? You feel a tentative pride. I’m from western Wisconsin, and I’m not ashamed of it. Which isn’t to say you won’t ever leave your small town…you know you will; you know you have to, someday. But you see now, with clarity, what should have been obvious all along: your provincial background shouldn’t keep you from dreaming anything. There’s a chance that you might live happily – or at least, contentedly – ever after.

This isn’t some weird fairy tale. Bizarre as it seems, it’s a true story, and it’s mine.

The superstar in question is Justin Vernon and his band Bon Iver, the genre-busting nine-member group that has fused virtuosic musicianship with elements of rock, folk, jazz, and even contemporary classical to create their own unique, wildly popular indie-rock sound. Vernon is from my hometown of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, population 65,000, but he hasn’t given a hometown show since 2008. It turns out that earning multiple Grammy nominations, collaborating with celebrities, and embarking on sold-out international tours tend to take up a person’s time.

But this fall, Bon Iver announced they were coming home. Two hometown shows, December 12 and 13 at Zorn Arena at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire. $15 for gallery seats.

“You have got to be kidding me,” I said to my laptop when I read the news. “You are kidding me.”


Nothing went the way it was supposed to in 2011, for better and for worse. Three of my family’s four cats died. I met some outrageously talented people whose kindnesses moved me to tears. I participated in some disillusioning family feuds. I went to several world-class concerts. I tentatively started coming out of the closet as an asexual (a process much more difficult – and much more liberating – than it sounds). I had the chance to take a violin lesson, my first in five years. I played a couple of solos with string orchestra. I spent a day in Minneapolis admiring the cultural diversity and then came back to Eau Claire and found out that someone I’ve known my whole life takes a perverse pleasure in employing unspeakable racial slurs. Back and forth – forth and back – lows and highs – highs and lows. The combination of the dreadful and the divine was disorienting.

In short, everything got turned upside-down. So maybe in a weird way it was fitting that I, the self-avowed classical freak, found myself closing out the year by waiting in line for an hour in the Wisconsin winter to get good seats for an indie rock group.

I went to the show with the two people I love best in the world. (…If I admitted that one of them was my mom, would I lose some cool points? … I would? Okay.) We got a bit chilly and loopy in line, and so we started a drinking game, substituting hugs for alcohol. Hug whenever you see beards, flannel, plaid, blaze orange, or a Recall Walker petition. This was a Bon Iver concert held in Wisconsin directly after deer hunting season, so as you can imagine, we spent more time embracing than not. Our game was interrupted when the line began moving forward, and moving forward very quickly. I’m used to the leisurely pace of ticket collection at classical concerts, where elderly volunteers slowly rip off stubs and then hand you programs. Nothing like that here. People were jogging along the corridors to secure the best seats. We spun up the concrete stairs and into the gallery, and got front row bleacher seats overlooking the stage.


By nine o’ clock, after the opening act (the lovely Lianne La Havas) wrapped up, the anticipation had reached a fever pitch. The electricity was just burning through the arena; it was all I could do to keep from shrieking myself hoarse with excitement…and the band hadn’t even taken the stage yet. I briefly entertained the idea of what it would be like if orchestral audiences behaved this way – screaming, stamping, hollering FUCK YEAH, MAHLER!!! WOOOO! before the conductor ascends the podium. (Sacrilegious as it sounds, I now kinda want to experience this, for, as the cool kids say on Tumblr, reasons.)

Finally the band came onstage. Justin Vernon was there, and I was there, and my mom and my best friend were there, and 3497 other people were there, and we were all there, and were all there together, and in some inexplicably moving way, the fact was sacred. It felt a bit like we were at an indie rock revival: we had a wild hipster crowd of laypeople, eight virtuosic back-up apostles, and Justin Vernon as our bearded, angelic-voiced preacher. As soon as the band launched into Perth, the crowd went berserk. Right away I was so overcome by the percussion, brass, and audience thumping my sternum that I started grinning uncontrollably and tearing up like a crazy person. What a relief to be in a venue where I could react to good music however I like and not be afraid of showing it, instead of tightening up and holding it all in, as I’m forced to do during particularly thrilling bits of Shostakovich or Sibelius.

After Perth and Minnesota, WI came the gentle guitar in the entrance to Holocene. I completely and immediately lost it. This was a song that I’ve inadvertently tied up to the memory of one of my cats. She was the closest thing I’ll have to a child for a very long time – maybe ever – and her sudden death in May was the most devastating thing I’ve ever endured. Late this summer there came an afternoon when I realized, suddenly, that it was time to fold up the blanket she slept on. To steel myself, I turned on Holocene, and I did it.

And just like that, the lyrics burned into the memory, and the memory of the loss itself –

At once I knew I was not magnificent / High above the highway aisle / Jagged vacance thick with ice / And I could see for miles miles miles.

I cried that afternoon, but less than I thought I would. Less than I would have if I hadn’t had the companionship of the song and the lyrics and the voice. Of music.

I set the folded blanket down and looked out the open window. The breeze picked up. I looked beyond the trees and far away into the empty blue sky. Somehow I’d survived the loss. I might have cracked open, but, miraculously, I hadn’t broken.

“And I could see for miles miles miles,” I sang to myself – sang to the sky – and five months later, to Bon Iver.


One of the many life lessons I’ve learned this year is that genre doesn’t matter. If music is engaging, and if it touches you, it doesn’t matter what form it comes in – whether that be an hour-long violin concerto or an indie rock song with gorgeously impenetrable lyrics. And if Bon Iver is anything, especially live, it’s engaging. From the pulsating lights, to the astonishingly virtuosic bass saxophone solos, to Vernon’s oddly endearing bobbing onstage as he plays guitar…it’s all engaging, all of it.

Eventually Vernon paused for a moment to catch his breath and talk to us. I won’t use more than a couple of quotations since I can’t remember word-for-word what he said, but I do remember the gist of his impromptu remarks, and I always will.

Since his commercial success, he said, things have been strange. Everywhere he goes, everyone tells him how special he is. “Well, I already knew that,” he said. “My parents taught me that!” The crowd giggled. And that’s, he said, the reason he knows it’s important to stay connected with one’s geographically isolated small-town roots – to keep a sense of perspective, to remember not to rely on what “important” “big-name” people say. “Even though we do like to complain about all the shit that goes on in this town…” (Audience applause.) Being from a small town reminds you that we are, in fact, all small and – in the long run, no matter how successful we are – insignificant. “We’re small,” he said, “we’re small,” and he shrugged.

The last number of the night was The Wolves (Act I and II). The second portion of the song – the second act – is a line that drips again and again with desolation: “What might have been lost – what might have been lost – what might have been lost…” It’s a tradition at Bon Iver shows for the audience to sing along with the band, beginning very quietly, then getting louder and louder and louder, culminating at the end with a primordial, gut-choking, venue-wide shriek. Vernon was about to describe the tradition to us, but then suddenly he stopped short and stepped back from the mike and said, “You all know what to do.”

Yeah. We did.

The band began the song, Vernon’s voice straining and aching through the room through the first act. Then came the quiet, agonizingly insistent refrain. Sitting up high in the gallery, those five short words meant more to me than they ever had before, and probably ever will again.

What might have been lost…

The deaths of my cats – my sweet darlings – my kids…

What might have been lost…

The resulting vulnerability that cracked me open in ways I was never, ever expecting…

What might have been lost…

Having to let go of relationships that have become untenable, for heartbreakingly stupid reasons I’ll never really understand.

What might have been lost…

People I love, people I trust, telling me that I really shouldn’t do what I want – that what I want is too much to expect, too much to hope for. That I should sit down, shut up, stay in town, settle for the status quo, and stop rocking the boat…

What might have been lost…

New faces, kind faces, dear faces, telling me the exact opposite…

What might have been lost…

Having to choose between the two paths…

What might have been lost…

The relief and agony of knowing the latter path is the inevitable one; that even more difficult good-byes lay ahead…

What might have been lost…

My own paralyzing insecurity…which maybe, in the final analysis, is the only thing holding me back.

Don’t bother me…!

Eventually I couldn’t hear my thoughts anymore. My voice became the crowd’s, and the crowd’s became mine. At the end we let out a crazy long communal cry, together.

I broke down, gutted out.


There was no encore after that. How could there be? The band took their bows. Vernon looked up at the gallery where I was sitting and waved. He couldn’t see me, but I waved back wildly with gratitude, tears staining my face.

After the show I emerged from the buzz of Zorn Arena out into the silent December night. I walked over the university footbridge to get back to the car. I glanced over the railing at the blurry lights of the city wavering in the river. I’ve lived in Eau Claire my whole life, but from this new vantage point I couldn’t recognize any of the landmarks. All I could see was their abstract, impressionistic beauty, smeared across the night, floating away in the water.



Filed under My Writing, Reviews

Song of the Lark 2011 Roundup

I’m always a sucker for a good end-of-year review. What went right, what went wrong. The highlights, the lowlights. So without further ado…

Best Decision: Starting this blog.

Best Readers: You, obviously. *obsequious smile*

Best Concert as Performer: Community Table, April 2011. It impressed upon me what’s really important about our art. It’s not about the repertoire or the competition or playing every note perfectly. It’s about passion and communication – saying things that can’t be said in words. Everything else is a bonus.

Worst Concert as Performer: Let’s just say I’m glad I was paid for playing this concert. Interpret that as you will…

Best Concert as Audience Member: This category was super-difficult. I had the immense honor of seeing the Minnesota Orchestra three times this year. Only two of the concerts got written up in reviews. But I think  my favorite was actually the one concert I never wrote about – the Ravel Inside the Classics concert in Minneapolis in March. First of all, it was repertoire I’ve loved forever, and second, it was a lot of fun to hear musicians talking about it. That weekend opened so many doors for me, intellectually, emotionally, professionally… It was everything a good concert should be, and more. Possible Honorable Mention – I have tickets to one of the music world’s most coveted concerts of 2011…the final Bon Iver homecoming concert in Eau Claire on December 13. I have a gut instinct it will be one of the musical highlights of not just the year, but my life.

Worst Concert as Audience Member: Once again, won’t say, but the problem wasn’t actually the music, it was the snotty people around me!

Biggest Musical Regret: Not being part of an orchestra. I’m in a string orchestra, and I love that, but there…are times…that…I miss the brass and woodwinds. Okay, I said it. I won’t say it again.

Favorite Repertoire: Bach g-minor adagio. I will work on that piece until the end of my days and still not get to the bottom of it. But it’s so satisfying to try.

Favorite Impromptu Concert: A friend played some solo Bach for me on a warm breezy August afternoon. We were in the parlor of an 1880 house and the porch door was open and the birds were chirruping out the bay window. Those few moments were perfect. For the rest of my life, whenever I hear that piece, I will remember that moment in the parlor, and how the tears started draining down my face.

Best Remix: The Oh Long Johnson cat remix. Obviously.

Best Comment by a Conductor: “Okay, guys, let’s get out our Jewish Christmas carols!”

Worst Comment by a Conductor: From a guest conductor, and inappropriate to reproduce here.

Best Non-Classical Group And Track: Bon Iver. I love just about every one of their songs, but… The one that was the gateway drug for me was Skinny Love. Yeah, I’m a few years behind the times. Sue me.

Best Musical Movie Scene: Actually, make that seventy years behind the times. This year I discovered Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and in particular, their dance to Night and Day. I covet Ginger’s dress, which is the single most beautiful gown I’ve ever seen.

Favorite Soundtrack: The Fountain.

Favorite SotL Blog Entry, Tagged “My Writing”: Out of the fifty I’ve posted this year, this one.

Favorite SotL Blog Entry, Tagged “Not My Writing”: This one with Marie Hall. Her personality just shines through the pages. She was fearless.

Best Lyrics: From Bon Iver’s Holocene – And at once I knew I was not magnificent / strayed above the highway aisle / jagged vacance, thick with ice / I could see for miles, miles, miles. Those words say it all, really. They celebrate the significance of insignificance. If that makes any sense. It’s my Song of the Year already.

Most Encouraging Hometown-Related Epiphany: You can be based in Eau Claire and still take on the biggest names in music.

Best Music Blog: Inside the Classics. If I can be half as entertaining and informative as the folks over there, I’ll be a very happy blogger. Honorable mention, Emily Grossman’s thirty-day blogging project at violinist.com.

Best Music Website: Violinist.com, always.

Best Music Book: I’m not exactly in the center of the music book biz (/understatement); everything I read is courtesy of the Internet or the library. But the best book of the year that I did get my hands on was Alex Ross’s collection of essays, Listen to This.

Most Blatantly Obvious String Instrument Dub: The violinist on Celtic Woman.

Cruellest Violin-Related Tweet: Sherlock co-creator, writer, and deity Mark Gatiss, tweeting an image of Sherlock’s violin from the filming of season 2, with a quote from Doyle about Sarasate. New season of the show starts January first! (Forgive my enthusiasm, but when you’re 22, and you’ve been a Holmesian for over half your life, this show becomes a pretty big deal.)

Favorite Single Line I Wrote This Year, Taken Completely Out of Context: Everything about her was predictable: her eagerness, her enthusiasm, her obsequiousness, her obsessive thirstiness for knowledge, her conviction that classical music is a sacred art and every semi-talented practitioner of it a kind of high priest.

Best Colbert Report Duet: Technically not on the Colbert Report, but Stephen’s rendition of the modern-day classic “Friday” on Jimmy Fallon’s show. It was done to raise money for arts education in public schools, which is a cause I think anyone reading this blog can get behind.

Weirdest Google Books Find: This was a very strong category; I am a magnet for vintage Google Book crazy. In the end, I can’t decide between the article about brass players going bald from 1896 or or the crazy hilarious sexuality of musical instruments article from 1921.

Favorite Bit of SotL Spam: You guys miss so much spam on my blog. So much of it is so entertaining that I almost feel like starting a separate blog for hilarious spam. But the best one came about a week or so ago, when I had one from a diarrhea prevention website that quoted Mark Twain. Not even kidding.

Favorite Tumblr: Aside from mine, of course? Cough. Actually, Facepalmmozart. About half of the entries I reblog on my Tumblr come from there.

Favorite Tumblr Post from the Song of the Lark Tumblr

I can’t choose just one, so here are five.

1) Violinist, poet, salon leader, and outspoken lesbian Natalie Clifford Barney

2) Marie Hall anticipating the rise of female conductors in 1905.

3) Portrait of Marion Osgood, writer, violinist, teacher, conductor…the list goes on and on.

4) Portrait of Leonora Jackson in a lovely Victorian room.

5) A picture of Irma Saenger-Sethe and a quotation from the Bach d-minor partita.

Best Lesson I’ve Learned: Do what you want to do as an artist. Trust your gut. If you’re good at what you do, and you have potential, then seize that potential, and don’t make excuses. Don’t let anyone keep you from doing what you want to do. If  people keeping you hostage emotionally, and you decide to keep quiet about it to not upset them… You’ve lost. You’re either going to do what you want to do and have them be angry with you, or you’re not going to do what you want to do, and then you’ll get angry with them, and then they’ll get angry back. Both alternatives are painful. Incredibly painful. But the first one less so.

Thinking toward 2012…

Best Bet for Best Concert of 2012: Minnesota Orchestra and Ehnes in Brahms concerto in January 2012. Or the premiere of Judd Greenstein’s new Microcommission work for the Orchestra in March. But who knows…it may turn out that the best concert will actually be the one I have no idea is happening yet. Now that is an exciting thought.

Crazy Musical Goal That I Feel Insecure About And Will Continue To Waffle About Over The Next Several Months: Auditioning for a local orchestra.

Secret Musical Goal That I Feel More Confident About: To become semi-fluent in alto clef. Yes, I’ll admit it: I’m seventy-five percent sure I’m going to rent a viola next year. Edith Lynwood Winn said every violinist should be able to play viola, and I definitely think there’s some truth to that. I can’t imagine it will ever become my first instrument, though. I enjoy viola jokes too much. (And more seriously, I’m a very high-strung tension-prone double-jointed small person, and it remains to be seen how well I’ll take to a bigger instrument.) But in any case, I do hope to do this, and blog about the experience.

What You Can Expect From This Blog In 2012: I don’t even know what to expect on this blog in 2012! But safe to say it’ll probably include a lot more discussion about female violinists and, more broadly, the history of women in classical music, period. Because there just is not enough information out there about the wonderful women who made it possible for me and all the other ladies out there to partake in this beautiful art form.

I love this blog and I love my readers. Really and truly. Thank you for coming back again and again, and as always, if you have any questions or comments, please let me know. A happy holiday season to you and yours.

Love, Emily

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Filed under Lists, My Writing

Review: Minnesota Orchestra and Midori in Britten, Sibelius, and Debussy

Confession time: I live in small-town Wisconsin, and it’s driving me crazy. This year I’ve spent quite a bit of time in the Minneapolis metro, and while doing so I’ve discovered beyond a shadow of a doubt that I’m actually a big city girl at heart. (Well, bigger city girl, anyway. I realize that some people don’t consider Minneapolis to be a big city. However, I invite those people to move to western Wisconsin, live there for twenty-two years, and then visit Minneapolis. I can assure you they will reconsider their opinion.) Nothing else fulfills me – artistically, emotionally, spiritually – like the kind of world-class performances you find so often in the Twin Cities. Every time I walk down Nicollet Mall to Orchestra Hall, drunk with the throbbing energy of the city, dizzy with the thought that any minute now I’ll be in the big hall with the big orchestra and the big soloists, I feel like a magical new dimension of life is opening up before me. So you can imagine how thrilled I was this week when the stars aligned and I had the opportunity to see the Minnesota Orchestra and Midori in an 11AM program of Britten, Sibelius, and Debussy. The concert exceeded expectations in unexpected ways; I learned more about orchestral music in one morning than I’ve ever learned at a single concert before.

The concert began with the haunting Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten. I haven’t listened to much Britten, and I’m not sure why; I invariably love whatever I hear, but I just never take that next step to seek out more. Note to self: more Britten. This is lovely, powerful, weirdly unsettling music, soaked through with misty moonlit atmosphere. I love it. The orchestra played beautifully, although I don’t recall any individual standout moments. (Upon reflection, this may have been because I was too busy fangirling and thinking “oh my God I’m in Orchestra Hall! and look! there’s Osmo Frigging Vanskä! and Erin Keefe and Sarah Kwak and Sam Bergman and Peter McGuire and Tony Ross and all the others oh my God!” to pay as much attention as I should have to the actual music.) I did, however, get the general impression that the Britten was, more than anything else, serving as a curtain-raiser for the event that the orchestra website and brochures have been trumpeting for months: the return of Midori to the Twin Cities.

This is not my first encounter with Midori; I saw her in July 2010 in recital in Winona, Minnesota, and I wrote after that concert that “Her sound – at least as I heard it from the front row of the balcony – was clear, classic, elegant, beautiful, but maybe a bit small, and focused at the center of the hall, as opposed to extending out to the sides.” This time I was way out on the side of Orchestra Hall in the seventh row, so I had a chance to test out my July 2010 hypothesis. Turns out my doubts as to whether her sound could carry out to the corners were well-founded. Her playing was anemic, and it wasn’t a matter of mere acoustics; concertmaster Erin Keefe pierced through much more effortlessly during her brief solos in the second half of the program than Midori did in any of the Sibelius. In an attempt to get another perspective I listened to the MPR broadcast of Friday night’s concert, and I heard the same thing there. In both the broadcast and in real life, certain brief passages came across as clear and loud and gutsy, as if a technician had turned up a mike, but then within a few measures the sound would invariably, mysteriously, fade away again. I’d noted the same disconnect in her sound between the main body of her program and her encore in her July 2010 recital; it’s a very odd phenomenon. To add to the awkwardness, one of the Minnesota Orchestra’s trademarks is a huge dynamic range. Usually, of course, this is a divine treat, but in this particular performance, it almost became a liability as various players struggled not to obliterate their soloist. Whenever a tutti came and they were cut loose to do their wild magnificent thing, it ended up sounding like a toddler was futzing with the volume dial on a very expensive speaker. They never did find their balance, at least not from my seat. I’m sure part of the problem is that I’ve never heard the Sibelius live, and I’m spoiled with unnatural balance on recordings, but my gut’s saying it was more than that, that another player could have pierced through more often. Hopefully someday I’ll get another shot at hearing the Sibelius live, and then I’ll see if this was just a fluke, or if everybody vanishes so far away into the texture. (And who knows, maybe someday I’ll realize I owe Midori an apology for expecting superhuman volume.)

Aside from the projection issues, there were a couple of strange interludes in the first and second movements where everything seemed to slow down, where I didn’t quite understand where she was headed, where my thoughts wandered, where my attention was drawn to the second violinists, or audience members up high in the tiers, or the sheen of Erin Keefe’s hair underneath the spotlight. (Although to be fair, Erin Keefe does have gorgeous hair.) I heard a lot of passion in what Midori was playing, but I felt absolutely none of it. It felt very odd – almost voyeuristic, as if I was in the same room with someone who was crying over a love letter that I’d never be allowed to read.

Clearly, for whatever reason, our two souls didn’t quite connect that morning. Question: why do some performances grip you; assault you; touch, burn, something raw and searing and elemental deep within you – while others only make you think “hmm, impressive” and nod appreciatively while the bravos are shouted and the bows are taken? I know, I know, music is subjective, even (especially?) at the very highest levels of performance. It’s probably part of the reason I love it so; I enjoy being frustrated by ambiguity. But it’s still mind-boggling to me how I can be in the same room with two other much more experienced listeners and apparently hear a totally different performance.

Now it sounds like I’m coming down hard on a great violinist, which I don’t mean to do. There were elements to her performance that I really liked, too, like the dozens of little details she put into that ethereal opening, and her beautiful yearning shifts. Her technique felt solid, aside from a couple of passages in that beastly third movement where just about everyone struggles. She clearly has the chops. But based on my experiences seeing her last year in-recital, and hearing various mind-blowing Vanskä Sibelius performances over the radio, my pre-concert guess was that the orchestra itself would be the real star during the concerto…and I was right. I wish there had been a solo encore so I could hear how she sounded without having to compete with the orchestra. Maybe she’s just one of those violinists whose strengths are best appreciated in a recital setting.

After intermission came an orchestral arrangement of Clair de Lune. Vanskä has a habit of striding onstage and starting the orchestra before the buzz of the acknowledging applause has entirely dissipated in the hall. I’m not sure if he’s frustrated with audiences taking too long to clap as he comes onstage, or if he’s just that excited to get to the music, or what. That quick transition from applause to music didn’t work so well here; the weird result was that the entrance to Clair de Lune sounded jarring. The orchestra played beautifully (of course), but the arrangement itself struck me as rather cloying. I suppose it didn’t help that I watched Twilight last week and there’s that awful scene where Edward and Bella stand around in Edward’s bed-less bedroom for approximately eight hours while blankly stammering and breathing at each another, before randomly, improbably, bonding over their mutual appreciation for (you guessed it) Clair de Lune. (Note to self: don’t ever watch Twilight before going to see a Debussy performance. It will ruin it for you.) (Actually, just to be on the safe side, don’t ever watch Twilight again, period.)

Erin Keefe had a small solo during the piece, and now seems as good a time as any to mention that she is total dynamite. She approaches her new job with the precision and body language of a chamber musician, and she clearly has technique and musicality to burn. I hope her coworkers love her as much as I do. Halfway through the program I even caught myself imagining how amazing it would be to play in her section, and that has certainly never happened before. I’m itching to see if she can deliver the goods playing a concerto gig. Minnesota Orchestra programmers: get on this.

An arrangement of the piano piece L’Îsle Joyeuse came next. This piece was much more satisfying in orchestral form than Clair de Lune was. What a sweep of elegance and excitement! In the program Eric Bromberger mentioned that Debussy worked on the piece while vacationing with his mistress on the Isle of Jersey. Hmm. I’d heard the story before, but I never would have made the connection between the Isle of Jersey and L’Îsle Joyeuse; it certainly lent a whole new dimension to the defiant, bittersweet exultation that permeates the piece. I love enlightening program notes.

The last work on the program, La Mer, was the highlight of the morning by a million miles. Lushness, color, beauty, everything, and lots of everything. Sweeps and slides galore – touches of gorgeous schmaltz – washes of pure sound, followed by perfectly articulated clarity – astonishing, impossible dynamic contrasts. Phrases of only a few notes had (and I’m not exaggerating) five or more dynamics. Every single phrase was gorgeously shaped, especially in the lower strings; principle cellist Tony Ross in particular was a total standout. The whole concert I was really struck by all the principles, and how they interacted with one another and with Vanskä. For whatever reason, the entire orchestra gave off the vibe of a chamber group, and it was such a joy to watch. Music students: watch and learn.

There was a big moment toward the end of the first movement when a bold brass fanfare soared through the hall, and I felt as if I was on the top of a cliff overlooking a choppy salty sea, hair whipping across my face, coat whipping against the wind, totally absolutely against-all-odds invincible. Right away the tears began to prick at my lashes. Okay, I admit it – the brass made me cry. Not the violins, not the violas, not the cellos…the brass. So kudos to them for making this brass-averse string-player tear up. They were just magnificent. From now on whenever I listen to that portion of La Mer I know I’ll remember the way that the notes surged out above me, and how they so brilliantly, so miraculously, encapsulated everything I felt that morning – the relief of escape, the glory of the ecstasy of sound, the exultation of being in a big bustling city crowded full with interesting people who share my obsessive quirky passions. What a breathtaking experience.

So if you have the chance to see a great orchestra and haven’t yet taken advantage of it, for God’s sake, stop putting it off. Go into the city – find a friend to split the costs – take a very long day-trip – just do it. Find a way to make it happen, because I guarantee you that no CD or DVD or Blu-Ray or state-of-the-art surround-sound system can deliver inspiration with the same intensity that a world-class ensemble like the Minnesota Orchestra can. Trust me on this one.


Filed under My Writing, Reviews

Article: The Effect of Music On The Growth of the Hair, 1896

I have just found what is possibly my favorite article on Victorian music ever. It is from the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal of 6 February 1896.



The London correspondent of Le Temps writes that an English statistician has just demonstrated by figures the effect of music on the growth of the hair. The remarkable facts which he has discovered relate less to composers than to players. Among composers baldness is as frequent as among other professions, namely, twelve per cent., a proportion surpassed only by physicians, thirty per cent. of whom are said to be bald. The instrumental performer, however, almost always retained his hair up to an advanced period of life; performers on certain instruments retain their hair longer than others.

The piano and the violin, the piano in particular, prevent or arrest the loss of the hair. We are compelled to admit this on examining the portraits of Paderewski, Frederick Dawson, Vladimir di Pachmann, Léonard Borwich, Sapelloikoff, Henry Richard, Bird, and Emile Sauer, without including the prodigy, Joseff Hoffman, whose luxuriant growth of hair might be accounted for by his youth, even if he were not a pianist, and the aged Charles Hallé who died recently at an advanced age in possession of all his hair.

The same preservation of hair must be acknowledged to the violin, but in the players of this instrument the hair grows a little less luxuriantly, and there are a few cases of partial baldness. Eugéne Ysaye, Willy Hess, Sarasate, Tividar Nachez, Joachim, Betteman, Willy Burmseter, Fernandez Arboz, Johannes Wolf, Victor Wilhelms, all possess luxuriant heads of hair, but Louis Ries is compelled to use hair restorer, and John Tiplady Canodus could easily count the hairs which remain.

Similar observations have been made in the case of female violinists. The Swedish violinist Freda Scotta has an admirable head of black hair, and the yellow hair of the Austrian, Gabrielle Wietrowetz, falls to her feet.

Players on other instruments approach the mean of the learned professions, namely, about eleven per cent., of baldness. The ‘cello, the contra-bass, the alto and the harp preserve the hair fairly well, but one is not justified in placing much confidence in the hautboy, clarionette or flute, which do not guarantee the preservation of the hair much beyond the fiftieth year. On the other hand, brass instruments have a fatal influence on the growth of the hair, notably the cornet, the French horn, and the trombone, which apparently will depilate a player’s scalp in less than five years.

Our statistician simply states the facts, and leaves to scientific investigators the task of search for the causes which underlie them. It would certainly be interesting to find out why the slide trombone makes the hair fall out, while the piano preserves it. The statistician does not tell us, but his observations are well grounded, and will be easily confirmed by studying the musicians in the orchestras at concerts and theatres. The baldness which prevails among members of regimental bands has been given the name of “trumpet baldness,” calvitié des fanfares.

It would be interesting to know whether the predominance of brass instrument which the music of Wagner has introduced, has brought with it an increase of baldness among orchestras which are in the habit of rendering the music of that composer. It is also just possible that the baldness which is said to prevail among the habitués of the front rows at the theatre may be due to the proximity of the brass instruments, or may be caught by some contagion from the players themselves.


Filed under Not My Writing