Something to Celebrate

Long-time readers know my penchant for writing about Minnesota Orchestra concerts—not exactly reviews, but commentaries that discuss on the entire concert experience, along with a few larger points about what the concerts mean. I had planned to do so again for the Eric Whitacre concerts, but my plans were almost derailed this week by a news story that broke just a few hours before concert time on Friday night… this year’s Symphony Ball was going to be cancelled.

For those not familiar with it, the Symphony Ball is the Orchestra’s largest fundraiser, which usually grosses around a million dollars. Plus, it is one the Twin Cities’ biggest social events, one that everyone wants to be seen at.

But this year, it’s defunct. Why? Because, in the words of the co-chairs, as related by the Orchestra’s Board Chair, “the current climate at the orchestra did not lend itself to celebration.”

I’m sorry… what?

Now, there are all sorts of perfectly understandable, perfectly rational reasons for calling off Symphony Ball, particularly in the wake of the ugly labor dispute that nearly ripped the organization apart. But because there’s nothing to celebrate?

I’ll take a deeper look into this turn of events in an upcoming blog entry; but before I do that, I want to unequivocally state that there is so much to celebrate right now. The lockout that lasted for more than a year is over. The Orchestra just won a Grammy Award for its CD of Sibelius’s First and Fourth Symphonies. The Orchestra’s divisive President and CEO has agreed to step down. Music Director Osmo Vänskä returned a couple of weeks ago to huge acclaim… and a riotous welcome from the community. There is still a chance he could return permanently (something I couldn’t imagine in November) and help rebuild ties with ticket buyers and donors. All of these things are wonderful, and celebration-worthy.

And so was this week’s concert… it was most definitely worth celebrating. Let me point out a few of the highlights.

I should say that I’m not going to review this concert per se—indeed, as a performer myself, it would be completely inappropriate for me to do so. I mean, of course it was perfection. Of course when the music started the moon stopped in its orbit, and choirs of angels descended from Heaven to join in the song.   But that’s hardly for me to say. Instead, I want to give a broader sense of what it was like to be involved in this project, and why I consider it one of the high points of my performance career.

* * *

First let me say kudos to the planners for putting together a great, and well-thought out program. As I alluded to in my preview of the concert, this was a beautifully constructed concert that had many linkages between works. By bringing together vocal music of Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber and Eric Whitacre himself, the audience was treated to a veritable masterclass on the history of American song. But the concert looked forward, too… presenting a new arrangement of Water Night for Strings, Equus for orchestra and chorus, and the brand-new Songs of Immortality. Plus, Eric linked his own work Equus with one of the works that inspired it, Wojciech Kilar’s Orawa. All in all, it helped create a rich, multi-layered concert—one where the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. Great job, all around.

* * *

There is always a bit of apprehension meeting and working with a big name in music for the first time. Will the person’s ego be the same size as his or her talent? Or bigger? Will this person roll into town barely aware of where he or she is, and simply be there to collect a paycheck? Will you discover that the hype is a façade and this person simply isn’t all that talented?

I was relieved to find that none of these were true of Eric Whitacre… and I had a blast working with him. There was never a hint that he was blowing into town to lead some formulaic Eric Whitacre Experience ™. He wasn’t phoning it in at all—the Chorale worked with him prior to our first Orchestra rehearsal, and he was wonderfully specific about what he was looking for and very attentive to the details, including the shaping of consonants (for example, he has very clear views on the letter “f”), phrasing, and more. I greatly appreciated that he was committed to work with us so that we got things right.

Moreover, in both the rehearsals and performances, he was clearly, visibly engaged in the music. There were several moments where you could see how deeply the performances were affecting him—you could see it in his eyes as we sang the final pages of Five Hebrew Love Songs, or when Tony Ross began his emotion-filled solo in The River Cam. These works weren’t rote compositions written to order, but deeply personal utterances that still stirred deep feelings inside him. And he stood behind every note.

I’d also like to point out that he could not possibly have been more collaborative. He constantly was checking with others to gauge balance, and how effects would play in the Hall. And he had no problem changing things if they weren’t working.

And I have to say, it was great to work with someone who clearly was thrilled to be working here, and working with us. He repeatedly talked about his many ties to Minnesota, openly acknowledging his debt of gratitude to Dale Warland and calling for the legendary conductor to stand and be recognized during Friday’s performance. Moreover, he proudly proclaimed his view that Minnesota was “the center of the choral universe.” Throughout the week he thanked us for taking this project on, and expressed hope for further collaborations in the future. This wasn’t just an obligatory, from-the-podium pep talk; he repeatedly came around and chatted with us, engaged with us—heck, he greeted us with hugs backstage when we survived the fiendishly difficult Equus. And again and again he remarked on what a thrill it was to work with such a great orchestra, and stated that doing so had been a revelation, giving him all kinds of ideas about orchestration, conducting, and composition generally. I like to think that this project will help shape his music for some time to come.

And… well, you have to appreciate a conductor who shows up at rehearsal wearing a T-shirt featuring a T-Rex fighting a rock-‘em-sock-’em robot.

* * *

Let me say a few words about the performance. Beyond the fact that, as we know, the moon stopped in its orbit and angels came down from Heaven….

A few random tidbits. One thing in particular I noticed was the string basses. I know not all our regulars were here this week—in the wake of the lockout, there are still musicians who had to take temporary gigs and substitute positions elsewhere. But the crew really outdid themselves. The section laid down a beautiful foundation for the sound, particularly in the strings-only rendition of Water Night and The River Cam. The upper strings usually get more attention and credit, and even the cellos get their due, but, damn! You should have been listening to the basses. And in truth, I remember thinking that same thing a couple of weeks ago in the Sibelius concert, too. This is one of those aspects of a concert that you really need to experience live… you so rarely hear proper bass balance when listening at home. So often folks jack up the bass on their systems or otherwise distort the sound. Live, a good bass sound is a presence that is felt almost as much as it is heard, and it provides dimension and depth to the music. Listening to that sound live was wonderful… thank you, all.

And I have to take a moment to call out the woodwinds. Again and again, I realize how lucky we are to have such strength and unity in the section. The woodwinds’ sound is always a particular interest of mine; long before I became a singer, I was an oboist, and I still have very strong feelings about how an oboe should sound in performance. John Snow added great pathos and richness to Knoxville, Summer of 1915, and kudos to everyone on team woodwind, too.

And a particular shout-out to Marni Hougham on English Horn. There are times in orchestra writing when what you are trying to say can only be expressed by an English Horn—its unique voice carries incredible depths of thought and emotion. In Barber’s Knoxville there were several moments where a theme or wisp of a melody was carried by the English Horn, and although these moments were small little threads in the overall tapestry of sound, they are crucial to setting the right mood of nostalgia and lost time. Let me be clear, Knoxville isn’t a virtuosic, show-stopping piece—it’s not supposed to be. Heck, these instances don’t even qualify as virtuosic moments. But I have to say that as a collaborator with the Orchestra, it is inspiring to know that details like these will be attended to, and that even the smallest moments will sing. It makes me want to bring my A-game to the mix.

Kudos, too, to Erin Keefe. It was fun watching her from the back of the stage, and essentially seeing her from a completely different perspective.   And my God did she ever play. She launched into Wojciech Kilar’s Orawa as if the fate of all humanity was riding on the outcome. And yet she never once made it look like work.

And what can I say about Tony Ross’s rendition of The River Cam? This was a profound performance that touched us all—the composer included—more deeply than I can describe. As with the Sibelius concert from two weeks ago, it is hard not to hear Tony’s playing without also hearing all the sorrow and turmoil of the recently-ended labor dispute, as well as his own complex emotions as he considers taking an appointment with a different ensemble. He brings so much to his performances… it was glorious.

And of course, our guest soprano for the evening, Hila Plitmann. She sang beautifully. Plus, she was a great fit for Knoxville. It is a piece of nostalgia, reflecting with childlike innocence on a summer’s eve long since passed… exactly not the kind of work where you want a heavy voice with all the usual operatic clichés. You need an intelligent performer who gets it, and can sell that simple story to the audience.

And she did… she was selling, and the audience was buying. Her voice was soaring, but could be subtle and dreamy when needed. One advantage from being perched where I was, I could take in the audience reaction, and they were clearly engrossed.   I will never forget the expression of one woman, directly in my line of sight as I watched Hila perform. Her face was filled with a serenity that is hard to describe, with a smile that could have been nostalgia, regret, remembered joy… or all at once. My impression during the rehearsals and the performances was this piece was on the program not because it was this year’s repertoire piece, but because she deeply loved it and had something to say about it as an artist. That passion and commitment came through, in addition to her artistry. And trust me, those are the best performances to experience.

* * *

I think the buzz after the concert was a testament to its success. The post-concert lobby was ablaze with excited conversations about the music—and I loved it. Both with this concert and Osmo’s Sibelius concerts from a couple of weeks ago, there was a profound sense of a real musical community here, that we collectively have a ravenous appetite for this art form. With all the dour stories about the so-called demise of “unsustainable” classical music floating around out there, this was a breath of fresh air. As the discussions bubbled over, distinctions fell away—there weren’t singers, orchestra musicians, and audience members, but a single community that was passionate about the music.

In many ways, this shared sense of community was every bit as wonderful as the music itself. And I think that this coming together as a community was exactly what Eric was hoping would happen.

As I milled around the lobby, I met a number of people who came to “classical” music via Eric and were excited to expand their horizons for more. I talked to young singers who were inspired to perfect their art. And there were composers here as well looking for ways to find their own voice, too. All here, and all engaged in a wonderful discussion of music and what it meant to us. There was passion, and there was vitality.

Experiencing this, I am more confident than ever that great music has a great future… both here and across our country.

So to come back to my original point—yes, there is plenty to celebrate right now.

 

Xochipilli

Performing Eric Whitacre

Over the last few weeks I’ve written my own version of program notes for the upcoming concerts at Orchestra Hall. I wanted to do so again, but with a special twist—as a singer in the Minnesota Chorale, I’ll be joining my colleagues of the Minnesota Orchestra onstage for the concert this week. Together, we’re performing music by contemporary composer Eric Whitacre, one of the most celebrated choral composers out there. As an added treat, Whitacre will be joining us himself to conduct his music, giving us a wonderful opportunity to work with a living composer.

I can’t wait.

So in the spirit of previous blog posts, I’d like to offer these following comments about the music, particularly from the perspective of what I feel when performing them. Enjoy!

 * * *

The concert begins with Aaron Copland’s Old American Songs. Now, the inclusion of these works might come as a surprise, but are a natural fit of the program.

The songs themselves aren’t particularly difficult to perform—we’re not talking Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis here. In fact, the last time I performed them was back in college. But as we’ve been singing through these songs I was struck by a similarity to Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, another deceptively simple work frequently performed by younger actors. Like Our Town, the language of Copland’s Old American Songs is simple, direct and straightforward—but that’s the challenge of performing them. A few years ago I saw a production of Our Town done by Girl Friday, an amazing local company. I was astonished by the depth of feeling the play contained, as well as the profound messages of family, love, loss… and in the end, community. What a powerful statement of American life.

In their quiet power, the Old American Songs pack a similar punch. These deceptively simple works convey deep emotions and speak to us in a direct, honest way. There are none of the clichés we frequently experience of lost love, and no raging against the heavens; instead we experience a freshness of expression that immediately draws the audience in.

The fact that the music itself is so straightforward poses a great challenge for us as performers—with no drama or glitz to dazzle the crowd, we have to focus on our interpretive skills to “sell” the works to the audience. It’s like the actors in Our Town making the townsfolk of Grover’s Corners come to life… or thinking about one of the Minnesota Orchestra’s recent concerts, like Andrew Litton performing the slow movement of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G. We singers have been hard at work to make this music sing—I hope you enjoy the results.

Another benefit to having the Old American Songs on the program. Eric Whitacre is, of course, a giant of 21st century choral music, but through the Old American Songs we hear the foundations of American songwriting that Whitacre’s whole oeuvre is based upon. Copland was a brilliant songwriter in his own right, and a giant of his time, the 20th century. His arrangements of old folk songs perfectly embody American compositional styles of the past century; for most people, this is the very embodiment of American music. But in these arrangements we hear Copland reflecting back to earlier traditions of the 19th century. In these anonymous folk songs, we hear America first discovering its own musical voice, and indeed its own national character. The result is these songs give a multi-layered look at American music over centuries, and serve as a perfect introduction to the glorious choral music of today.

* * *

Whitacre’s Five Hebrew Love Songs are incredibly beautiful, and should melt the hearts of everyone in the Hall.

But beneath that touching music is an equally touching story, which Whitacre has told in his own words:

In the spring of 1996, my great friend and brilliant violinist Friedemann Eichhorn invited me and my girlfriend-at-the-time Hila Plitmann (a soprano) to give a concert with him in his home city of Speyer, Germany. We had all met that year as students at the Juilliard School, and were inseparable.

Because we were appearing as a band of traveling musicians, ‘Friedy’ asked me to write a set of troubadour songs for piano, violin and soprano. I asked Hila (who was born and raised in Jerusalem) to write me a few ‘postcards’ in her native tongue, and a few days later she presented me with these exquisite and delicate Hebrew poems. I set them while we vacationed in a small skiing village in the Swiss Alps, and we performed them for the first time a week later in Speyer.

Each of the songs captures a moment that Hila and I shared together. Kala Kalla (which means ‘light bride’) was a pun I came up with while she was first teaching me Hebrew. The bells at the beginning of Eyze Sheleg are the exact pitches that awakened us each morning in Germany as they rang from a nearby cathedral.

These songs are profoundly personal for me, born entirely out of my new love for this soprano, poet, and now my beautiful wife, Hila Plitmann.

I can attest that these songs fully capture the unique experience of young love, with all its power, intimacy and delicacy. Indeed, that’s the greatest challenge of performing them—especially since… well, few of us are of that age any longer. But hey—we do remember….

Another point. It is our distinct privilege to have Hila Plitmann herself as the soloist for these songs, bringing together the man and woman who first created this gorgeous work as a celebration of their love for each other. As the chorus, we’ll be right there with them as they share memories of that budding love on stage… and I’m honored to be part of that moment.

* * *

Equus. Whoo-boy. Whitacre wanted to create a “moto perpetuo,” a piece that starts running and never stops (“equus” being the Latin word for “horse”). To friends I’ve described the piece as “dynamic minimalism,” where we sing a series of five or six short motives through a series of inventions and transformations, over an ever-changing, rapid-fire rhythmic structure.

Well, that sounds pretty esoteric. Let me put it this way… it is one hell of a wild ride.

That said, it is a white-knuckle ride for us in the chorus. Heck, I think Whitacre is on record saying it’s a white-knuckle ride for the conductor, too. Again, this isn’t technically difficult to sing, and instead of actual words we keep singing variations on “Ah!” The difficulty is that those wonderful rhythmic patterns are always changing. On the one hand, these shifts give the work its momentum and power; but since they are always changing, there is always a chance that singers will mistime a measure, resulting in what we delicately call an “unpaid solo.”

But when it works, it will leave everyone breathless—when we first got through the piece, the chorus spontaneously erupted into full-throated cheering.

Let me share a quick anecdote about this work—one I probably shouldn’t share, but I will anyway.

Last week the Chorale was on a community-building tour to northern Minnesota, performing Verdi’s Requiem with local music groups in Duluth. During some down time at the hotel, I was kicking back in my room, when I began hearing rhythmic sounds coming from somewhere:

“ah!…ah!…ah!…ah!…ah!….”

Inwardly I groaned, imagining someone nearby was having, shall we say, a romantic encounter. Just as I was about to turn up my TV, I heard a change in the pattern—the unmistakable sound of triplets being added to the mix:

“(Ah-ah-ah)… ah! (Ah-ah-ah)… ah!”

I was instantly relieved… this wasn’t someone getting it on… it was a fellow chorister practicing Equus! Whew!

* * *

Which brings us to the Songs of Immortality. These songs will undoubtedly be completely unfamiliar to the audience, as this is only the second or third time they have ever been performed.

Songs of Immortality is a difficult piece to write about. For one, this is an incredibly deep work… and I greatly appreciate the fact that it inspires me to dig deeply to be able to perform it.

But I suspect however hard it is for me to sing it, it was far more difficult for Whitacre to compose.

As a bit of background, Eric Whitacre is beloved as a choral god, but most of his works—and certainly most of his best-known works—are essentially miniatures. They are smaller-scale jewels written primarily for a cappella choir. I don’t mean this in a disparaging way; they are brilliant, convey powerful emotions, and are self-contained masterpieces that live up to their reputation for greatness. It is also in these songs where his technique of using blurred tone clusters to create shimmering soundscapes reaches its greatest expression.

But Songs of Immortality is altogether different, even if it makes use of the same techniques. From his comments about it, it is clear that Whitacre was experiencing a difficult time in his life when he composed it. He was in his mid-forties, and just as he started work on the piece his father underwent a risky medical procedure for a very serious condition.

In a sense, this sequence of events is reminiscent of the period in Jean Sibelius’ life that led to his Fourth Symphony. And like that famously bleak work (which received a memorable performance at Orchestra Hall just two weeks ago), the Songs of Immortality are much darker in theme, in tone, and in character to what the composer had written before.

And, just as Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony stands as one of the Finnish composer’s greatest masterpieces, the Songs of Immortality stands one Whitacre’s most profound, penetrating works yet written.

For the text of this work, Whitacre sets a series of haunting, powerful poems written by Dylan Thomas and Emily Dickinson that deal with dark moments in a person’s life, set against the real or imagined specter of death. Forced transitions, if you will, when it is not clear if you will survive. For this concert we are singing two of the three movements: “Lie still, sleep becalmed” and “After great pain.”

(I freely admit that I was so fascinated by the poems that I spent a several hours analyzing them. For me this is another hallmark of a work’s greatness.)

It is fascinating to see how Whitacre rethinks his tone clusters and uses them in this work. As I mentioned, in many of his works the blurred harmonies create an otherworldly, ethereal effect, almost as if you are listening to music in a dream. Here—and again showing a similarity to Sibelius’s Fourth—the harmonies are more stark and troubled. It is as if he was portraying all the powerful emotions of the moment at once… fear, a sense of abandonment, confusion, anger, and grief. But through it all, there is another constant: a steely determination to endure. To survive the crisis. This is a powerful undercurrent that gives the songs their immense power.

For me, one of the hardest moments to sing is in the first song, “Lie still, sleep becalmed.” Near the end there is an enormous climax where the unnamed narrator grapples with the terror-uncertainty of the moment… and then abruptly, there is a quiet return to the opening line, “lie still.” It is as if the narrator was taking in the dire situation, and quietly returning to himself in a moment of terrible wisdom, filled with emotions that are equal parts resignation and determination.

In truth I had a hard time articulating my thoughts about that moment, but it turns out that Whitacre has an answer right at hand. Shortly thereafter, he sets immortal words by Emily Dickinson that capture the sentiment perfectly: “After great pain, a formal feeling comes….” It is a perfect setup, a musical moment that both comments on the earlier music and amplifies it, crystallizing it. And I think it will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has suffered a loss in his or her own life.

One other thing.

As I hear it, the end of the work also provides a glimpse into the overall message Whitacre was trying to convey with this unusual composition. After the dark, multifaceted harmonies that have gone on before, the women’s voices land on a simple, two-note chord, held in unwavering unison for the remainder of the piece. All the complex emotions are stripped away, and this single chord persists… quiet but resolute, and determined to survive. This is the human spirit. Buffeted and battered, but surviving.

This is… life.

This profound work makes me very curious to hear where Eric Whitacre’s music goes in the future.

Hope to see you at the concert!

 

 

Xochipilli

 

 

 

One Hell of a Concert

In case you missed it, the Twin Cities were treated once again to a weekend of musical concerts featuring Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra that will most certainly pass into musical lore. This week featured the return of Osmo to Orchestra Hall.  It was, in fact, his first concert back since he was forced to step down as the Orchestra’s Music Director back in October. (For my review of his farewell concert, click here.)

As I have mentioned before, this was first and foremost a concert, and has to be remembered as such.

But it was so, so much more than that, too.

Once again, Osmo and the musicians gave us a many-layered Event that demonstrated the power of music, its unique ability to unite us, and the power of community. I think I speak for all of us in stating that it was amazing experience for everyone involved.

Let me take a few moments to try and convey some of the power of that amazing concert. A review of sorts, but one that also reflects on a few broader issues as well. Enjoy.

* * *

A concert review should by necessity focus on the music, but with your forgiveness I want to begin with a few words about the audience.

Sometimes it is easy to forget about the importance of the audience for the performing arts. This is odd, as they provide the reason of the event, and serve as an absolutely necessary, if sometimes silent partner. Without them, the performers may as well be rehearsing alone in a practice room. Yes, audiences can sometimes be unruly, tactless, or clueless; but they also provide sounding boards to absorb the ideas presented on stage, to take in the artistic message and give back feedback. An audience provides for two-way communication that brings out the best in performers.

I say from experience that having a good audience that responds to your message is unlike anything else. There are few things so rewarding as digging deeply into yourself to put yourself out there artistically… and to capture an audience and bring it along with you. Together, you set out on a journey that delves into powerful emotions and ideas, perhaps entering into unknown territory that you yourself have not fully explored. A great performance needs a great audience to truly take flight—one that is engaged, passionate, and ready to take that journey.

And it is obvious that this weekend, the Orchestra had just such an audience.

To capitalize on all the excitement of Osmo’s return and the recent Grammy win, the audience advocacy group Save our Symphony Minnesota (SOS MN) proposed a fun idea: the “Finnish It!” campaign. Interested patrons could show up wearing the colors of the Finnish flag to show support for Osmo, or even to bring Finnish Flags to wave for the occasion.

The public leapt on the idea, and with only a few words of encouragement, they made it happen. Boy… did they ever.

Let me describe the scene at Orchestra Hall.

As we pulled into the parking ramp, I was as prepared as I could be. I had my hand-held Finnish flag ready for action, and was dressed in a suitably blue Marimekko shirt. After loading into the parking ramp’s elevator, I met several couples dressed in extravagant blues and whites, including one middle-aged woman wearing a necklace made entirely of small Finnish flags. One was carrying a three-foot Finnish flag on a stick, provoking an envious question from another woman about where she got it—the woman asking the question had checked with Iverson’s Imports, FinnStyle, and Ingebretsen’s but everyone she called was sold out.

Wait… sold out?

This story was subsequently confirmed upon entering the Hall, where there was much buzz about how music-loving hordes had descended on local stores cleaning them out of buttons, scarves, flags, jackets… anything that had a connection to Finland. Not to be left out, enterprising folks made their own hand-stitched Finnish flags, signs, and banners… or simply dyed their hair bright Finnish blue. One young woman turned to white and blue face paint.

But their enthusiasm didn’t stop there. The entire building was electric with excitement, and the concert took on the trappings of a raucous festival. Enough cameras were going off that the lobby sparkled like a Christmas tree. People were reading each other’s signs and shouting encouragement. Musicians were running around taking selfies with some of the more outrageously-decked out patrons.

(For photos of the wonderful, Finnish-themed chaos, visit Facebook links here, here, or here.)

At the first announcement to take the seats, everyone rushed into the auditorium, so the party could really get started. Ten minutes before concert start time, with the stage still empty of performers, someone screamed out, “Welcome back, Osmo!” The crowd erupted with joy, launching into wild applause that slowly solidified into rhythmic clapping, cheering, and chanting. The sound built and intensified, getting louder and louder… and we were still had 10 minutes to go.

At concert start time, a rather prosaic announcement came over the loudspeakers urging patrons to turn off their cell phones. Realizing we were about to get underway, the rhythmic clapping gave way to a sustained outpouring of cheers and shouting.

At that moment, the doors opened, and the musicians took the stage—in European style, coming out altogether. And the jubilant roar that broke from the crowd nearly flattened them. When all the musicians were out, they collectively bowed to the audience, to absolute bedlam throughout the Hall.

But that was nothing compared to what happened next. After a few well-timed minutes that added to the sense of anticipation, Osmo opened the door and briskly walked to the podium.

What followed was a thunderous roar that probably came close to stripping the paint from Orchestra Hall’s famous acoustical cubes. There was a blizzard of Finnish flags waving madly, and scores of homemade signs greeting Osmo back to where he belonged.

It was as if a rabid throng of Finnish hockey fans had just witnessed their team beat Sweden in the gold medal game at the Olympics.

But this was a classical music concert for Heaven’s sake.

And the exuberance didn’t stop there. At the end of Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony, there was a momentary pause while the audience took in that enigmatic ending. Then the applause broke out again, and quickly reached the same earth-shattering level. Yes, people were screaming, and clapping, and wildly waving Finnish flags at the end of Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony.

Think about it. A famously bleak work, written by a famously brooding composer, who hails from a famously stoic culture. And the crowd went absolutely wild. I had to wonder what would have happened if Jean Sibelius himself had somehow been on hand to witness the bedlam that engulfed Orchestra Hall… I have to believe that after looking around in shocked silence for several minutes, he would have marched straight back to his hotel, poured the entire contents of his room’s minibar down the drain and sworn off the sauce for the rest of time.

So you can imagine the insanity that broke out at the end of the much more dramatic, and conventionally heroic First Symphony. Osmo was called out repeatedly for additional bows, amidst foot stamping, applause and full-throated cheering. We simply wouldn’t let him leave.

In retrospect, it is probably best that he didn’t perform Finlandia as an encore. Had he done so, I suspect the frenzied crowd would have mobbed the stage and ripped the acoustical cubes out of the walls with their bare hands.

But it wasn’t over yet. Osmo had let it be known that he would autograph CDs in the lobby, so naturally the entire hall left their seats and lined up in the lobby. Again the scene was nearly a carnival—a gentleman in front of me had Osmo sign his Finnish-flag necktie to commemorate the evening. And yes, I’m being serious here.

But one thing to point out. Despite all the ovations and flag-waving, the true extent of the audience’s involvement came across when they were at their quietest. Throughout the evening, they made it clear they were there for a concert. As I mentioned, there was a huge ovation when Osmo first entered to take the podium. He gave a grateful bow, and turned to get started… and it was like a switch went off. The audience immediately went silent and took their seats to get ready for the music. And during the quietest sections or moments of silence, there was not a murmur from the crowd—they were listening with rapt attention. Sure there were the occasional coughing fits, but by and large the audience was absolutely still. Rare—and respectful—silence.

Magical.

* * *

I am pleased to report that however memorable the mayhem was, the most memorable aspect of the evening was the music.

It is funny—as this was a celebration of the Orchestra’s recent Grammy Award, the program was pretty much set in advance. It consisted of Sibelius’ Fourth and First Symphonies, the two works featured on the award-winning CD. That said, I can’t think of a better concert program to encapsulate the pain the organization has gone through in the last year and a half, as well as the guarded hope for the future.

If the whole labor dispute were to be summarized in a single Sibelius symphony, the obvious candidate would be the Second. Its joyous first movement would stand in for the glorious music the ensemble was making prior to the lockout. The violent second movement would no doubt stand for the lockout itself, with the agitated, scurrying third movement representing the urgent preparations to end the dispute. Obviously, the triumphant final movement would represent what we’ve all been working towards—the return of our Orchestra to its rightful place in the sun.

But if we were to tell the story of the lockout with two symphonies, the troubled Fourth and the dramatic First would do so brilliantly. No other work by the Finnish master could so vividly portray the turmoil of the labor dispute than the Fourth. This was clear right from the beginning of the concert; watching Osmo lead cellist Tony Ross in the brooding, murky opening, the emotions of both men were made perfectly—and painfully—clear. But pairing this work with the powerful First Symphony was a stroke of genius, as the work brilliantly captured the struggle and the defiance of the last few months. But unlike the sunnier Second Symphony, it doesn’t end on a note of unabashed triumph, perhaps signifying that the Orchestra’s own struggle isn’t over yet.

But there was more to this pairing than simple narrative story-telling. These two very different works, written at very different times in the composer’s life, complement each other beautifully in terms of sheer artistry. In terms of music, they just plain fit. Especially in this performance—one of the things I most appreciated about this concert was that Osmo was able to manage the dynamic levels and other such details of the two works in relationship to each other. This small but telling detail allowed them to be seen as one macro-symphony of eight movements, where each moment worked in context with all the others. It was a unified interpretation that made for a hugely satisfying evening. Plus, this showed a musical understanding and intelligence that left me in awe.

The two symphonies were linked in other ways, too. Taken on its own, the First can seem like a run-of-the-mill heroic, romantic work. But hearing it in the wake of the Fourth, with the Fourth’s unsteadiness and unanswered questions, makes the First a more profound work. The pairing highlights the First’s inherent darkness, making it seem less confident and more turbulent, with final victory even less assured. Conversely, the First Symphony gives the Fourth something of a resolution it might not have if performed on its own—the First seems more of an extension of the Fourth’s restless questioning, and perhaps provides the glimmer of an answer.

In short, the programming may have been pre-determined, but was still a stroke of genius.

* * *

But most of all, this was a night of profound, and profoundly moving music-making. There have been great concerts since the lockout ended, but this one was a marvel of subtlety, precision, passion, and insight. A perfect blend of talented players at the top of their game, led by a conductor with rare vision.

Take the very opening of the Fourth Symphony. Immediately I was struck by the physical sound of the low strings—those basses created a liquid sound that was rich in tone… and wonderfully dark. It was like a rippling current of black water of the ocean’s bottom, in depths so profound that sunlight can never reach them. Against these slow murmurs of sound, Tony Ross began a cello solo that defies description—it was both yearning and reserved, searching and hiding at the same time. It was a mournful melody that contained all the pain of the last few months, but strived to overcome it. He gave voice to what so many inside that auditorium were feeling about this situation, and somehow set these feelings free. What an incomparable artist.

But he didn’t stand alone. Throughout the symphony, each section had a moment to shine… and to do so collectively as a section. Sibelius built the structure of the symphony in blocks of sound; as a result, he shines a spotlight light on an ensemble’s… well, ensemble. And the Orchestra more than rose to Sibelius’s demands. I was struck by how, for example, the blocks of violins would enter. There was precision to the entrances, but there was never a “bite” of an attack—the sound simply was. The brass fanfares added weight, presence, and sparkle to the sound, but no voices predominated—the sound simply was. With an ensemble that has been through so much, and with so many personnel changes, such unity of sound and purpose was electrifying, and truly made the music’s points.

And the precision of the ensemble playing was evident in those sections where instruments were in dialog with each other, too. A perfect example of this unified sound integration came in the Fourth’s magical, otherworldly third movement. Early on, the clarinet and oboe trade off fragments of an almost intangible melody. The unity of the sound between these fleeting phrases was remarkable—it was like a single player magically and instantaneously switched between instruments all on one breath, carrying forth one unbroken line. Amazing.

Or in the Fourth’s finale. In this final movement, Sibelius calls for “bells,” without indicating what type he wanted. This has sparked a small, but surprisingly lively musicological debate—was he calling for a glockenspiel? Tubular chimes? A Javanese gamelan? Some years after the work’s premiere, in answer to a conductor’s question, Sibelius seemed to express a preference for the glockenspiel, although that hardly settled the debate. And, it raises a separate point: the Fourth is such a dark-hued work that the glockenspiel’s tinkling, silvery sound can seem frivolous and completely out of place. But in Jason Arkis’s hands its light tone worked beautifully—it was fully integrated into the overall sound, adding clarity and point to the musical line without ever feeling as if the symphony was suddenly invaded by The Nutcracker’s Sugar-Plum Fairy.

The First Symphony brought its own series of challenges, and again and again the musicians rose to these challenges. They managed the nearly impossible task of making every note, every carefully-shaped accent seem purposeful—if not critical to the overall structure of the symphony—without seeming over-determined and fussy. This was especially true in the later movements, where Sibelius calls for huge changes in dynamics, tempo, and musical character, often forcing the ensemble to turn on a dime.
Moreover, balances were handled brilliantly—quite a feat considering that everyone is still learning about the Hall’s new acoustics. For example, Kathy Kienzle’s exquisite harp playing matched perfectly with the textures around her, adding an icy quality to the music, lightening it, and creating a sense of motion, but never once getting lost in the overall tapestry of sound.

But let me also take a moment to congratulate Gregory Williams on his astonishing clarinet solo that opened the work. Here, Osmo stepped back and let Greg create a powerful performance that ached with longing… a searching melody that set the tone for the entire work. It is also a testament to his performance that the solo brilliantly linked the First Symphony to the Fourth that preceded it in terms of tone, mood, and gesture. Altogether breathtaking.

And as I mentioned, the First ended in a blaze of music that perfectly captured this moment in the Orchestra’s history. It was dramatic and passionate; but the ellusive ending suggests that there is still much to do to secure the Orchestra’s future. It was a profoundly satisfying moment, and one that will stay with me for some time.

These and countless other flawless details showed just what a rare partnership the Orchestra has with Osmo, who managed all these moments effortlessly. What an incomparable conductor.

* * *

Which brings one last point (and I apologize for the length of this post). The celebratory nature of this weekend—which honored both the recently Grammy win and Osmo’s homecoming—was slightly marred by the announcement that eight board members had resigned in anger over the new direction the Orchestra seems to be heading in the wake of President Henson’s resignation.

This is…astonishing.

I mean… that concert was breathtaking, and earned rave reviews from the Star Tribune, Pioneer Press, and New York Times. Even a Swedish-born journalist living in Washington D.C. covered the performance with a sense of awe.  Plus, the concert was attended by thousands of screaming fans who were so engaged that they spontaneously showed up with Finnish flags… and Finnish facepaint. It opened with wild bouts of applause 10 minutes before the concert even started. Fans filled the new lobby taking selfies with the musicians who were milling about the lobby thanking patrons for coming to the concert. Hundreds of people lined up in a queue that snaked across the entire lobby to have Osmo sign the Grammy-winning CD.

…and certain board members see this as… a problem? A problem so dire they have to resign from the board in protest?

I can’t understand how they could be dissatisfied with this. I can maybe understand irritation at the governance issues going on behind the scenes; but even though the process has been messy, the board has arrived at the right conclusion to let Michael Henson go and to start negotiations with Osmo to bring him back.

More to the point, I want to scream, Look at Orchestra Hall!

Is there any other classical concert hall filled with flag-waving, face-painted fans screaming their lungs out in support of their (former) music director?

My God… if it were me, I would be thrilled beyond reason with all this. I’d be gleefully plotting how to ensure this happens at future concerts, and desperate to engage the public right now while they still are engaged. This is a moment to be seized.

The board has made it clear that they want and need audience members and donors to step forward and support the organization. Well, we’ve answered that call.

In return, will the board do the right thing and put Osmo back on the podium where he belongs?

 

Xochipilli

Sibelius Symphonies: A Preview

This weekend, Minneapolis is once again playing host to a Musical Event.

Osmo is coming home.

Yes… the Minnesota Orchestra’s former Music Director, who famously stepped down in the midst of the Orchestra’s ugly labor dispute, will be back at the newly-refurbished Orchestra Hall. But this isn’t just a regular concert—he’s conducting the music of Jean Sibelius, and Osmo’s interpretations of Sibelius are usually described by music critics with such words as “definitive” and “life-changing.” Plus, the music comes from their latest (and possibly, last) CD together, which just won a Grammy Award for Best Classical Performance. And Michael Henson, the Orchestra’s controversial CEO and President, just announced that he’s stepping down, leading to speculation that a Big Announcement will be made this weekend and Osmo will be back where he belongs. In anticipation of such an announcement, the community has rallied around a “Finnish It!” campaign to show support for Osmo by wearing Finnish colors and waving Finnish flags at the concert. Speculation is running wild about how the crowd will respond to seeing Osmo take the podium… and more important, how the crowd will respond to any announcement made about Osmo’s future.

That’s quite a lot for a concert to take on.

I’m looking forward to all the fuss as much as anyone else. And not for the first time, I wonder if someone is going to write an opera based on this whole sordid affair (of course, there are some noticeable parallels with Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos—although that was a comedy).

But at the end of the day, I want to keep in mind that this is a concert. And a concert of music I love, by musicians I love, led by a conductor I love. In fact, the whole reason many of us fought so hard over the last year and a half is so we could continue to experience concerts just like this one.

So before we get swept up with all the accompanying hoopla, I wanted to take a few minutes to reflect on the music itself—particularly since some of it will no doubt be unfamiliar.

* * *

Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony. Boy… what to say. When talking about this work, there are parallel dangers of saying too little and too much. And, in honesty, finding the right words.

Many people, myself included, think the Fourth is the greatest single work Sibelius ever wrote. And in fact, if he wrote nothing else, he would still be remembered as one of the 20th Century’s most important symphonic composers. And he would certainly be remembered as one of the century’s most relentlessly individual voices.

That said, the piece can be baffling, especially the first time through. At its premiere, the audience sat in stunned silence at its conclusion, unsure whether to applaud. Karl Muck, who led early performances with the Boston Symphony, remarked to the music librarian, “I’ve rehearsed this symphony nine times and given eight performances and I haven’t the faintest idea what the composer means.”

Frequently, the work has been written off as “dark.” Many would go further and call it “bleak” or “forbidding,” if marketers and editors didn’t strictly forbid those words in advertising copy or program notes.

I would disagree with this characterization, however. And not just because I want to rely on “happy talk” in program notes, but because I think bleakness misses the point of the symphony. After all, in one famous anecdote, Sibelius was walking with a friend through the woods when they came to a clearing, and a moment later the sun came from behind a cloud to set the morning mist ablaze with light. Sibelius grabbed the arm of his companion, and said “That, that… I have placed that moment in my new symphony.”

I think a better descriptor for the symphony would be “stark,” although I’m not convinced it’s much better. It is a prime example of Sibelius’s famous remark that “while other composers are serving up cocktails of every color, I’m serving pure cold water.” Upon hearing the work for the first time, one American writer wondered if the work had started out as a chamber work, so economical was it in terms of scoring and instrumentation. This is one Sibeilus’s greatest achievements—there is not a single superfluous note anywhere in the score. It is this economy of sound, texture, motion and gesture that give it its enormous power and impact. With no digressions or diversion, it is a marvel of quiet intensity that grabs your attention and refuses to let go. You are required to listen.

Many have noted that in 1910 when Sibelius wrote the work, he was at a particularly low point in his life. He had a cancer scare a short time before, bringing him face to face with his mortality. In the political realm, Russian oppression was increasing and there seemed to be little chance of Finland ever standing on its own feet. Also, financial and familial difficulties had led him to depression. Perhaps worse for an artist, Sibelius was feeling alienated; as he surveyed the musical landscape, he was realizing he was becoming more and more isolated from the currents happening in St. Petersburg, Berlin, Vienna, London and Paris. He looked at alarm at the new compositions coming from Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Bartók and wondered, “Am I obsolete? Am I… provincial?”

Too often, program annotators struggling with words to describe the symphony have gone the route of least resistance and said, “Sibelius was in a sad period of life and wrote a sad symphony as a result.” But again, this misses the point of the work entirely.

For all the reasons listed above, Sibelius was at a crossroads… and I’ve always seen the Fourth Symphony as a crossroads piece of art. It is a work that is not about strong statements or clear direction, but one that thrives on ambiguity in ways both clear and hidden. The Fourth is about questions… or more accurately, about questioning. And importantly, Sibelius doesn’t come to definitive answers over the span of the symphony. In truth, it’s not clear that he thinks the questions can be answered.

It begins with a rumination based on a tritone—an inherently unstable interval that for centuries was strictly avoided in composition (early music theorists termed it diabolus in musica—“the Devil in music”). While it’s hardly forbidden any more, the tritone still sounds odd to modern ears, and usually cries out for resolution—as in the first three notes in the song, “Maria,” from West Side Story. Sibelius begins the symphony rocking back and forth across this interval, setting up an instability that lasts for the rest of the work, obscuring tonality, and refusing to provide any solid ground for the listener. Over this rocking, a solo cello enters and plays a stark, reflective melody. And as it does so we realize something else… the rhythm is just as unstable as the harmony. The rest of the first movement continues in this vein, with music that is profoundly searching, but never stable. It isn’t disjointed so much that it’s unresolved, never definitively landing. It is clearly reaching for… something, and yet it isn’t entirely clear what it is reaching for. And then it… ends. It doesn’t conclude so much as it finds a balance point and steps aside. Its questions aren’t answered.

And so the second movement begins right where the previous one stopped. It is as if that pause created a new idea or suggested a new direction for exploration, and Sibelius immediately sets out to follow this lead. It is lighter, a someone bolder direction, but still clearly grappling with unanswerable questions. The tritone interval is again felt, suggesting ambiguity and a lack of resolve… perhaps this new direction is a dead end? As in the first movement, Sibelius simply closes off this new line of thinking without concluding it… as if brusquely closing a book.

And then, he presents a third movement that is absolutely astonishing.

Perhaps I can express the feeling I get while listening to this movement with an analogy that creeps into my own mind. My mental image here is that of a man sitting in relative silence, still consumed with questions, and surrounded by books and papers he has been fruitlessly examining for answers. It is late into the night, with the fire burning low in the fireplace, and even the streetlamps outside have flickered out. At this point he steps away from his materials, sits down hard in a favorite chair, rubs his hands over his face, and reflects. Not just on the questions he’s been worrying over, but on larger issues, such has his own approach to finding answers. And at that fine line between wakefulness and sleep, he dreams….

The third movement is the emotional heart of the work, and the music is haunting—as if Sibelius were hearing music from another realm. It is at this movement that it hits me… this symphony isn’t bleak, but rather introverted. And being an introvert myself, I get it at an instinctive level. The dark rumblings in the first movement and the strained merriment of the second are just a front that the composer was putting on in his public life; but here left alone with his own thoughts he is free to explore deeply and more honestly. The depth of his emotion here in this private moment is riveting. And, for me, nearly impossible to describe in mere words. Like the other movements, there is no final resolution here in the third—it too ends with a question mark.

The finale is a return to the public world, with music that is more externally focused… but with all the questions still unanswered. It’s curious—based on examples from other composers’ symphonies, and with a more hopeful start to the fourth movement, there is a sense that we are rising to some sort of resolution at last. Maybe even a triumphant conclusion like we have in Beethoven’s Fifth or Ninth Symphonies. But this is not the case. As the music winds toward that expected conclusion, it’s as if Sibelius has second thoughts, realizes the “resolutions” are not true, and steps back. The piece suddenly suffers a collapse of energy. In the final moments, there are a few attempts to rouse the music again, and each is ruthlessly cut short by the winds. Again with a gesture that surprises for its brusqueness, the symphony ends.

What to make of this ending, and by extension the work as a whole? Some more romantically-influenced conductors draw out the ending, heightening it so that it becomes apocalyptic (something akin to Mahler’s Sixth Symphony). There is an element of that to be sure, but I don’t know if that’s the message here. To me the gesture is more in line with a mid-life crisis, where you have a moment of doubt, fear, self-pity… and then realize, “Good God, no. Enough. I’m alive. I’m not going to find the meaning of life, or any metaphysical answers. But I can’t let his consume me.” At that point, so to speak, you close the book, turn off the light, and go to bed. You move on.

That’s the gesture here, too… at least for me.  As I said above, this symphony is simply about questioning. It is about the crisis itself, not the resolution. It makes no attempt to provide answers, or any sort of catharsis. Any “resolution” must by necessity happen offstage, in the minds of each listener individually. That is both the power and the challenge of this peculiar masterpiece.

It is worth noting that Sibelius did appear to work through his own crises that seem to hover over this work. Shortly after completing the symphony, he left behind this “dark” period on went on to create some of his most extroverted music, like the Fifth Symphony.

* * *

After taking up for my space than I intended to for the Fourth Symphony, it feels like I’ve overstayed my welcome to comment on the First Symphony. Perhaps this won’t be a problem, as the First is far more familiar to audience members. That in and of itself is somewhat peculiar—there are relatively few composers whose first symphony is beloved, popular, and critically acclaimed. Please raise your hand if you are a particular fan of the First Symphony of, for example, Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky or Dvořák. But even though the First Symphony is a relatively early work, it contains all the hallmarks of Sibelius’s genius. It was, in fact, one of the works that helped launch Sibelius’s career, and confirmed his as a hero in Russian-occupied Finland.

At the time Sibelius wrote the work, he was still enthralled with the idea of writing for the stage, and his symphony is nothing if not theatrical. This is clear from the magical opening. Almost imperceptibly, a drum roll begins, leading to an intensely lyrical, and wonderfully dramatic clarinet solo—this long dark melody sets the tone of the entire work (with apologies to the Orchestra’s wonderful clarinet section, I do wish I could hear Burt Hara perform this live). Many have heard in that solo the yearning of the Finnish people to be free of the Russian yoke, although Sibelius was ambivalent about applying specific descriptions to his symphonies. But whatever the story behind it, that clarinet’s song is breathtaking.

And just as it ends, the strings come diving in, signifying the new direction for the music. The gesture builds and builds, and erupts into an energetic wave of sound that sweeps everything before it. But as it the music unfolds you realize just what a genius Sibelius was—the material of this “new” section comes directly from that opening clarinet solo, but it so thoroughly transformed that it is almost unrecognizable. And so it continues throughout a development that crackles with energy, before ending in dramatic fashion.

The slower second movement takes all this in, and reflects on it. But as he did in the Fourth Symphony, Sibelius seems to favor asking questions rather than providing answers. The themes from the first movement tend to interrupt the second, creating an uncertain atmosphere. In a way, Sibelius seems to be wondering if he said too much in the first movement, and is gathering his thoughts about how to proceed.

In contrast, the third movement bolts out of the gate, brushing aside hesitation as it boldly makes its points. And yet for all the bravado, the third movement is enigmatic and somewhat disorientating. The tempos spin wildly from one to another, marked more by contrast than consistency. Dramatic gestures abound, but they are jagged and broken. Even the dynamics seem to shift at will, bouncing wildly from pianissimo to fortissimo and everything in between (as an aside, this is a perfect fit for Osmo, who is legendary for his ability to create distinctions between dynamic levels, making a mezzo-piano sound very different from a mezzo-forte).

But the wild ride isn’t over. The fourth movement starts with a dramatic re-statement of the clarinet solo from the first. But while the solo clarinet was lonely, this rendition is powerful and defiant. It seems like a call to arms… and indeed the rest of the movement bristles with conflict between agitated “battle music” and more lyrical sections. Many commentators have seen this as a metaphor for Finland’s hopes and aspirations as an independent nation, and the terrifying struggle it would undoubtedly take to make those dreams happen. Again, Sibelius wasn’t overly fond of these overly literal interpretations, but it is easy to see where such ideas come from. (As a note… perhaps for us in the audience, this is a perfect metaphor for the Orchestra itself, and a look at its struggles ahead.)

Once again, the symphony ends in astonishing fashion. Building to a powerful climax, it lands on an expected, suitably end-worthy E minor chord… but then, surprisingly, there are two more pizzicato E minor chords played in a hush. The effect is stunning, but seems to ask another unanswered question.

So many questions to answer. See you at the performances.

 

Xochipilli

Let’s Move Forward Together

Well, in case you hadn’t heard the news, Michael Henson is leaving the Minnesota Orchestra.

And since I think the Internet exploded when the news went public… I gather that you already have heard that.

I’ve held off on writing about this turn of events for a variety of reasons, including the fact that I wasn’t sure if additional information was forthcoming, along with the fact that it was a pretty crazy week generally.   Also, a great number of my fellow bloggers, columnists and arts writers have already weighed in—and done so brilliantly.

Perhaps the biggest reason for the delay is… well… in some ways it feels like I’ve already had my say.  When the lockout first ended I expressed my gratitude for the deal, which is undiminished today.  I wrote extensively about what I think needed to happen next, particularly in the areas of governance, board leadership, the Orchestra’s mission, and such; it’s interesting to read this post nearly two months later, but I still stand by what I wrote there.  And of course, I famously expressed my thoughts about Michael Henson, and my reasons for thinking he was not the right person to lead the Orchestra are the same.

But there are still a few points I’d like to make.

For one, I want to thank the board for making this decision.  I’m sure it was difficult, and I’m sure Henson had supporters in the boardroom.  The fact that it took this amount of time to reach the decision demonstrates just how difficult it was, and I want to acknowledge this.  Although it was hard, I think it was a necessary step, and again let me thank you for your leadership.

That said, the fact that this decision took so long does make me concerned.  I’ve mentioned before that the organization is still in a precarious position, and there is a lot of healing that has to happen.  But we don’t have the privilege of healing, and then coming together to move forward—we have to work together as we are learning to work together.  Right now.  This is a time for bold action, and the organization needs its board to lead the way.

Let me describe this in another way.

When the Orchestra finally returned for the first post-lockout concert at the newly-refurbished Orchestra Hall, there was an extraordinary, beautiful moment: when the musicians finally took the stage, the crowd went wild, not just with cheers and applause, but by waving green handkerchiefs.  What is remarkable about this moment is that while in a broad sense it was facilitated by the audience advocacy group SOS MN, it was essentially a spontaneous show of support.  In contrast to the upcoming “Finnish it!” campaign to have audience members arrive with Finnish flags and such, the green hankies idea was essentially a last-minute lark, and the organizers had no idea if anyone would participate.

Boy did they. The musicians were clearly touched, and there was a feeling of unity that swept up everyone in the building.

What made it remarkable was that it wasn’t just a spontaneous show of support, but also an authentic show of support—an honest reflection of the audience members’ passion and a strong statement that they were excited to have their orchestra back.  I’m sure you were deeply moved by this show of support, just like everyone else who witnessed it was.  Coming off the tension of the last few months, it must have been a relief to know that the audience was still there.

But more than that—most of you on the board are successful business leaders.  Beyond the powerful emotions of the moment, I’m sure you realized the deeper meanings of those waving green hankies.  This simple gesture showed a level of conviction and, without sounding too mercenary, brand loyalty that is priceless.  Most companies throw massive resources into campaigns designed to inspire just that kind of authentic moment.  Beyond anything else, this gesture must have shown you that there is a deep reservoir of trust and personal connection to your product.  And you didn’t need to spend a cent in advertising to build that, or spend a small fortune in focus group research to uncover it.

That opening night moment was both a celebration of unity, and a tangible demonstration that the ticket buying public was ready to support the organization.

But my fear is that moment is dissipating rapidly.  Now is the time to act decisively and capitalize on this support before apathy creeps in.

Fortunately, there is another moment fast approaching—Osmo’s return.  The same unity, support, and resolve that were on display opening night will erupt next weekend, and we can’t let this opportunity go by without grabbing it.  Fortune favors the bold, as they say.

So, in the spirit of helpful advice, let me suggest:

1) Bring back Osmo.  In truth, I’m sure the decision has already been made.  But bring him back, and publicly embrace him.  This will bring audiences and donors back—so be ready for them and capitalize on the moment.  What better lead-in to reach out to donors and ticket buyers?

2) Reach out to the other stakeholders of the organization… now Use this opportunity to reach out publicly to musicians.  You two groups have to work together, and this is a good way to break the ice launch an effective collaboration.  And reach out to audience advocacy groups like Orchestrate Excellence, SOS MN and Young Musicians of Minnesota.  They want to help, and you have the right and responsibility to ask them to help you.  There are innumerable ways they can assist your efforts, from magnifying marketing initiatives, helping you create focus groups, and so forth.  But most of all, you can have them become active ambassadors of the Orchestra—people who don’t just attend concerts but actively bring people and make them feel welcome once in the Hall.  Call on all these groups, and do so in a public manner.  They will respond.

3) Use all the stakeholders to create a new strategic plan.  One of my greatest concerns from the last five years is that it seemed in your own minds you felt were standing alone in trying to make the Orchestra succeed.  You aren’t alone; as the board you bear a great responsibility for the Orchestra’s success, but there are other constituents here and we all share the same goal.  And we have a variety of skills and experiences that can be helpful.  Consult with us.  Give us a share in the Orchestra’s success.  Gather us up and let’s have a conversation. If you think our ideas aren’t business-savvy enough, convince us why—but also listen to other points of view.  And let’s argue everything from evidence and data that is accurate and freely shared.  You have said before that you need the community to step forward.  Fair enough.  Here’s a way you can involve us.

So again, thank you for your bold action this week—I hope that was just the start to further such actions in the future.

 

Xochipilli

Hear This Music, Too

On the heels of my earlier post about the Minnesota Orchestra’s  Elgar/Shostakovitch concert last weekend, let me share a few personal reflections about the music that will be performed at Orchestra Hall this weekend, too.

Again, these concerts are very much worth hearing.

The headliner work is Debussy’s La Mer—what an unusual piece this is!  We’re often taught to believe that “modern” music began with Stravinsky, and particularly with the riots that broke out when The Rite of Spring first debuted.  But this way of thinking ignores the revolutionary impact of his older contemporary Claude Debussy, who in his uniquely French way took a sledgehammer to several centuries of musical tradition.  His shimmering chords, uncanny harmonies and highly individualized approach to established musical forms signaled a radical break with the past.

That said, it’s hard to think of someone as being an enfant terrible or shockingly avant garde when the resulting sounds are so bewitchingly beautiful.

La Mer is a perfect example of Debussy’s approach to music making—and a work that is revolutionary and absolutely gorgeous.  Many composers wrote sea-inspired music, but Debussy’s approach was new.  He set out not to literally depict the ocean in an obvious way, “like a studio-painted landscape,” as he later remarked; instead, he set out to capture a more primordial essence of the sea.  He brilliantly captured the notion of fluidity, of capturing large-scale motion, but at the same time imbedding smaller swirls and currents into that larger flow as well.  In doing so he presents liquid harmonies and complex rhythms that endlessly appear, evolve and disappear seemingly at a whim.  Debussy’s ocean dances with life.

The work also gave birth to one of my favorite musical quips.  La Mer’s opening movement is titled, “From Dawn to Mid-Day on the Sea.”  When Debussy’s friend Erik Satie first heard it, he remarked, “It is wonderful—I particularly liked the part between 10:30 and quarter to eleven.”

But although La Mer is an unqualified masterpiece, I’m actually looking forward to another piece on the program, for entirely personal reasons.

Some years back, Andrew Litton was closing out the Orchestra’s Sommerfest season with Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, and I was delighted to take part as one of the singers of the Minnesota Chorale.  As a curtain opener, he had programmed Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G, with himself as the featured soloist.

This is a somewhat rare occurrence—there are relatively few individuals who are both top-rank pianists and conductors, as each discipline requires a very different skill set.  Litton is an exception to this rule; he has degrees in both conducting and piano performance from Juilliard.

But even if one has the necessary skills to conduct from the keyboard, it can be difficult to make such a performance really work.  For one, it takes extraordinary trust and rapport with the ensemble to keep everyone together and to present a unified interpretation.  Even if everyone is together, there is a danger the performance can seem flat and mechanical.

That was not the case here.  By the time of the final rehearsal, word had filtered back to us singers that Litton’s performance was anything but mechanical—it was a wonder to behold.

This was a bit disappointing, in that as singers we wouldn’t have a chance to hear the performance—by necessity we would be backstage warming up and running through starts-and-stops while Litton was playing.  Even hearing it in rehearsal would be tricky, as again we were scheduled to be doing our own work in a different part of the building while rehearsal was going on.

But we were lucky.  Sensing this was too good an opportunity to miss, we were able to shift the timing around… and with the encouragement of our conductor, a few of us were able to slip in the back of the Hall for the final dress rehearsal.

And I am so glad we did.

Ravel is a paradoxical composer.  He was extraordinarily specific in his writing—so obsessively detailed that his detractors deride him as a “Swiss watchmaker.”  Indeed, his legendary precision can be maddening in a bad performance, making everything seem overdetermined and artificial.  But in a great performance, with performers who instinctively grasp Ravel’s intentions, all those details melt away to create a glorious sound-world that’s unlike anything else in music.  Music that can in lesser hands seem fussy, artificial and contrived becomes spontaneous, free… and most of all, wonderfully alive.  Ravel knew what he was doing, and his detailed instructions give performers the security they need to bring his compositions to life.

And that’s what happened when Andrew Litton began to play—the work came to exuberant life.  The jazz-infused outer movements are fantastic, but it was the second movement that melted my heart.  The piano part is deceptively simple, pared down to almost nothing.  But this is the glorious challenge of this music:  to make that delicate piano part really sing.  When Litton started playing, it was like Ravel didn’t exist—it was like Litton was alone with his thoughts, gently daydreaming in music.  The orchestra was a marvel, sounding like it was a jazz ensemble softly playing an improv in the background.  Altogether it was a magical experience, magnified by the fact that the Hall was nearly deserted.  It was like as if we were unobtrusively observing a beautiful, but private moment—as if we were watching a loved one relax into a chair, raise his or her head to glance out a sunny window, catch sight of something off in the distance, and smile.

Well, Andrew Litton is coming back this week and performing this piece again.  I, for one, can’t wait.  I believe tickets are still available….

 

Xochipilli

Hear This Music

Over the last few weeks I’ve devoted a fair amount of space here critiquing the Minnesota Orchestra.  I make no apologies for doing so.  But I want to shift gears and present an argument for why you definitely should see the concerts this weekend.

And trust me, you really should.

The marquee, “meat and potatoes” work is Shostakovitch’s Tenth Symphony.  The symphony is a marvel, one of the twentieth century’s most brilliant symphonies composed at a time when nearly everyone else had abandoned the form.  Written in the early 1950s in the wake of Stalin’s death, it explodes with emotion and ideas; it is clear the work was a massive catharsis for a composer who had continually run afoul of Soviet authorities.

If we are to believe the controversial book, Testimony, which purports to be a series of interviews the composer gave in secret, the work was specifically composed as a denunciation of the Stalin era—and the second movement was a savage portrait of the bloodthirsty dictator himself.

Whether or not this is literally true, Shostakovitch clearly let loose in a cry of righteous anger, not just for his own sufferings, but for his friends and colleagues that had been silenced by the Stalin regime.  More important, Shostakovitch gives himself the last laugh by ending in a note of triumph, as is to say, “I took everything you threw at me, and I survived!”

I certainly know what I’ll be thinking about while listening to this music.

But this isn’t the only work on the program.  More personally meaningful for me is the opening work, Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations.

This is one of those pieces that everyone loves, because it offers something for everyone.  Elgar breathed new life into the idea of “theme and variations” by presenting each variation as if it had been composed by one of his dear friends or family members (or in one case, a bulldog).  The work brims with inside jokes, clever aliases, puns and musical quotes, giving rise to endless speculation about deeper and hidden meanings.

But the work is more than an intellectual exercise.  Elgar vividly captures the essence of each person’s personality, and presents each with extraordinary flair, warmth, and good humor.  As the piece ends, you feel you’ve spent the evening at a hugely enjoyable cocktail party with all of them.

On a more personal note, the work stirs deep emotional memories for me—particularly the famous “Nimrod” variation.

My first day of working full-time with the Orchestra was September 10, 2001, and obviously the bombings occurred the next day.  Everyone who lived through that time can no doubt remember the horrible feelings of that week, an equal mixture of fear, bewilderment, and uncertainty.  These fused into a sort of emotional numbness for me, as I focused on just getting through each day simply by muscle memory.  That week also signaled the start of the Orchestra’s season, and like many people I think I attended the season opening dutifully and without much conviction.

And I had an extraordinary experience.

Music Director Eiji Oue opened the concert, as per tradition, with an emotional performance of the Star-Spangled Banner, which took on levels of meaning I can’t describe.  But then he addressed the audience. The “Enigma” Variations were scheduled for later on in the program, but Eiji explained that given the recent events, he wanted to perform “Nimrod” on its own to open the concert, and to dedicate it not just to the fallen, but to all of us as a moment of respect and healing.

“Nimrod” is often used at funerals, not because it wails in grief but because it soars with hope.  And that was the case that evening.  Through the rich rise and fall of that gorgeous music… we did heal.  Our uncertainty was lifted, if just for a few moments.  And we came together as a community.  At the piece’s end, Eiji lowered his arms, and we sat in absolute silence for several minutes, unwilling to let go of that powerful moment.  I don’t remember tears, so much as a profound feeling of calm and light.  Eiji and the Orchestra gave us something we sorely needed.

Please go, and hear this astonishing work for yourself.  Its wonderful healing power is still needed today.

 

Xochipilli