A New Season with the Minnesota Orchestra!

Earlier today, the Minnesota Orchestra announced the lineup for its 2015-2016 season. In truth, “announced” seems far too prosaic a word for such an incredible, bursting-at-the-seams extravaganza.

Perhaps “unleashed” is a better description.

Well, I’m falling all over myself with excitement, but let me take a few minutes to share my highlights, and explain why you will simply have to see each and every concert. (For reference, the season calendar is here.)

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First, let’s talk about the choral/vocal music going on this season. And I’ll be blunt… the choral music alone is worth buying a season subscription. Yes, I’m about to use a hackneyed phrase, but I can’t avoid it: these programs really do offer something for everyone, with meat-and-potatoes classics, off-the-beaten-track wonders, classical music sing-alongs, and fresh new music.

Let’s start with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the famous “Ode to Joy.” Yes, the Ninth is performed often… but that is because it is one of the greatest works of art ever devised by a human mind. There is nothing else quite like it. And what performers! The concert will bring together the Minnesota Orchestra at the top of its game, a fantastic line-up of soloists, and the Minnesota Chorale, which has embraced the work as one of its signatures. And all under the direction of Osmo Vänskä! But if that wasn’t enough, the Orchestra has found the perfect way to present the piece—a celebratory concert on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. I can’t imagine a better way to ring in the New Year! If you were lucky enough to attend the Orchestra’s last New Year’s Eve concert, you know what a fantastic experience it was, with musicians playing in the lobby, a tidal wave of champagne, and enough good cheer to last the entire year. Do not miss this.

Or for that matter, any of the other choral offerings. My God… Helmuth Rilling is coming to conduct Brahms’s A German Requiem, April 22-24. Helmuth Rilling! He’s not just an absolute titan of choral music, but he’s the close personal friend and mentor of the Minnesota Chorale’s Kathy Romey. In a very real way, he’s one of our idols and a part of our family. Please, please do not miss the opportunity to hear one of the greatest choral masterworks conducted by one of the greatest choral conductors… it will be a personal, profound performance.

But there’s still more—the Orchestra is also performing Sibelius’s Kullervo… still somewhat of a rarity in the concert hall. You may recall that it was the 2010 performance of this work at Carnegie Hall that caused legendary critic Alex Ross to state that our Minnesota Orchestra sounded like “the greatest orchestra in the world.” While I missed the performance at Carnegie Hall, I certainly went to the preview concert at Orchestra Hall, and I fully agree with Alex Ross’s assessment. In fact, I still get goosebumps thinking about the concert. Some of it was the ferocious playing by the Orchestra, but some of it was the jaw-dropping singing of Finland’s YL (Ylioppilaskunnan Laulajat) Male Chorus. My God… it was like Thor (or more appropriately, Ukko the Thunderer) had blasted his hammer right through the walls of Orchestra Hall. “Epic” doesn’t do it justice. Of course, everyone outdid themselves moments later in an epochal performance of Finlandia. I mean, the audience wasn’t even necessarily Finnish, and yet at Finlandia’s conclusion we all rushed out the doors ready to take up arms against the Russians. I’m thrilled to hear these same forces perform these works again, February 4-6. Fight for tickets to this concert. Fight dirty, if you must.

If you are looking for less weighty choral fare, the Orchestra has you covered. The astonishing Finnish group Rajaton returns March 12-13, with orchestral arrangements of the Beatles’ hit songs. You may remember Rajaton’s first appearance at Orchestra Hall—their performances of ABBA songs caused a sensation that people are still talking about. These are not “gimmick” concerts; on the contrary, Rajaton presents sharply intelligent performances that shed new light on familiar songs while still retaining all the fun and fire of the originals. Don’t miss these concerts… they will a revelation.

Messiah is of course on the docket, but in two formats that provide listeners a choice: they can take in a traditional performance, or they can take part in the performance themselves. The “Messiah Sing-Along,” conducted by the Chorale’s own Kathy Romey, is a wonderful opportunity for Minnesota’s many talented singers to join with the Minnesota Orchestra and Minnesota Chorale and raise their voices in song. This December 13 concert will be a true celebration for our musical community.

And there’s one more must-see choral performance. As part of its ongoing film and music series, the Orchestra will show Tim Burton’s macabre masterpiece, The Nightmare Before Christmas, with Danny Elfman’s score performed live by the Orchestra and Minnesota Chorale under the direction of Sarah Hicks. This may be my favorite highlight of the entire season. Seriously.

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But obviously, there’s much more than choral music going on. Osmo and the Orchestra are internationally renowned for their performances of Beethoven, and it’s a thrill to see a Beethoven Festival on the docket. Particularly one this rich… good Heavens, they’re doing all the symphonies and all the piano concertos over the span of two weeks, from December 31 to January 15. Fasten your seat belt! And with the brilliant Yevgeny Subin at the keyboard, these will be fantastic performances.

Speaking of festivals, this year marks the 150th anniversary of Sibelius’s birth, and the Orchestra is providing a healthy dose of the Finnish master’s music. And I’m absolutely beside myself with excitement about the works lined up.

Take, for example, his tone poem Pohjola’s Daughter, which is featured on November 5-6. This piece stirs deep memories for me. Years back, I bought an album of Sibelius’s music, primarily to hear Finlandia and Valse Triste (I was working on a piano arrangement of the later at the time). Pohjola’s Daughter was included as filler… and the piece hit me like a thunderclap. Everything about it was a wonder to me, particularly its enigmatic ending that seems to melt away into nothing, and I think I listened to it straight through, three times in a row.   My affection for it has never flagged, and I would go so far to say that this was the piece that made me fall in love with Sibelius’s music. It’s a miniature masterpiece—an abstract retelling of an episode from the Finnish epic Kalevala that is rich in moods and orchestral color. It is simultaneously gripping, magical, and mysterious… and ultimately, unresolved. It is a perfect distillation of Sibelius’s unique musical voice.

Other incredible tone poems are featured at this same concert. The Oceanides is the polar opposite of Pohjola’s Daughter—a sunny, evocative depiction sea-nymphs playing in the sun-drenched waters of the Aegean. It is also a beautiful example of Nordic impressionism. Tapiola, long hailed as one of Sibeilus’s greatest masterpieces, is a depiction of a primeval forest… the mysterious, and at times frightening realm of the Finnish forest god, Tapio, which seems to be the inspiration for J.R.R. Tolkien’s Mirkwood. The concluding section of Tapiola contains one of the most viscerally terrifying storms ever composed.

But this concert is not just about drama… also on the program is Sibelius’s Six Humoresques for Violin and Orchestra. Why these joyful works aren’t in the repertoire of every violinist of note is beyond me. Please come out and hear them… they are playful, energetic, and dazzling. At one point, Sibelius has the solo violin essentially “whistle” a laughing tune. Magical.

And let us not forget about the Carnegie Hall preview concert February 18-20.  It features Sibelius’s First and Third Symphonies, plus the incredible Hilary Hahn playing the Violin Concerto. What more do I need to say? Do not be so foolish as to miss this concert.

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Okay, this preview is getting too long. But just a couple more things to highlight. First, I love the Orchestra’s commitment to exploring nationalism in music—what a rich set of possibilities! The above-mentioned tone poems by Sibelius are prime examples of musical nationalism, as is Brahms A German Requiem. But the season also includes Stravinsky’s Petrushka and de Falla’s The Three-Cornered Hat (with its portentous quotation of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the Three-Cornered Hat pairs nicely with the Beethoven festival!).

Contemporary compositions are also featured this season. In addition to presenting Higdon’s Viola Concerto, the world premiere of Kortekangas’s Migrations, and Kevin Puts’s Two Mountain Scenes (in a concert with our very own Erin Keefe performing Brahms’ Violin Concerto), the Orchestra is again offering the “Future Classics” concert on January 29, which features music so new the ink is still wet on the page.

And let me throw in a lightning round:

  • The “Inside the Classics” series is a fantastic way to get to know great music, with performances and conversations led by two of the Orchestra’s most charismatic speakers, Sarah Hicks and Sam Bergman. This season features a throw down between Haydn and Mozart on February 12, and explores the lasting influence of J. S. Bach on March 11. Plus, the dynamic duo gets us up close and personal with the world of opera on May 20 (and if Sam doesn’t wear a horned helmet, I will be disappointed).
  • After a successful launch this year, “Symphony in 60” is back again—giving patrons a shorter, in-and-out concert experience. There will be a good helping of Brahms’s concertos, with the Violin Concerto on May 26 and the Double Concerto July 14. Stravinsky’s Petrushka and Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 will be highlighted April 14.
  • Stan Skrowaczewski is coming back October 15-17!  God bless him!
  • Audra McDonald September 11-12!
  • And let us not forget the chamber music series held at Target Atrium. These performances are always labors of love for the Orchestra musicians… a chance to explore smaller-scaled repertoire with their colleagues in a much more intimate setting.

Throw in some jazz, big band, a cappella singing, a semi-staged version of South Pacific, and an incredible line-up of guest artists and conductors… well, it’s an embarrassment of riches. In fact, the season is sprinkled with some of my favorite works… but I’ve run out of space to cover them all.  All in all, it a bit overwhelming, but in a good way. Mercifully, there’s time to let everything sink in.

Start planning now… tickets will go on sale all too soon, and you do not want to miss these performances!

Xochipilli

Introducing the Apollo Master Chorale

Readers of my blog know my long-standing connections to the Minnesota Chorale and the Minnesota Orchestra—two incredible ensembles I both love and respect. Well, I’d like to introduce you to another outstanding ensemble here in the Twin Cities… the Apollo Master Chorale.

I met them somewhat unexpectedly, but it was… well, love at first hear.

Let me tell you about it. Continue reading

Singing Verdi’s Requiem: a Quasi-Review

Over the past weekend, I had the very good fortune of performing Verdi’s Requiem with my friends and colleagues of the Minnesota Chorale and Minnesota Orchestra, under the baton of Roberto Abaddo. And without further ado, let me say that I absolutely loved it.

It was one of those wonderful experiences where a great piece of music, a great conductor, a great group of performers, and a great audience come together to create a wonderfully satisfying whole. Together, we went on a amazing journey that touched us all deeply.

Let me tell you about it.  Continue reading

Verdi’s Requiem: A Preview

Allow me to share a story.

Some years ago, while I was still teaching at the University of Kansas, a colleague stopped by my office to chat. I was kicking back with some music on my headphones at the time; curious, she asked what I was listening to.

I explained I was listening to Verdi’s Requiem, because it had been “that kind of day.” Continue reading