Living Music: Impressions of the Locked-Out Musicians’ May Concert

Before memory fades and things get too busy for me, I wanted to take a few minutes and revisit the Orchestra musicians’ most recent concert that took place at The O’Shaughnessy in St. Paul, featuring Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto and Bruckner’s 4th Symphony. It’s hard now to look back on the concert without feelings of loss; a few days later, the Orchestra’s beloved Principal Clarinet Burt Hara announced he had accepted a new job in Los Angeles. But it was more than just a swan song for one player—it was a powerful event that touched us all in a variety of ways. With that in mind, I didn’t want to write a traditional review, such as the one that appeared in the Star Tribune (listed here: http://www.startribune.com/entertainment/music/204876571.html). I’ll cover the music, of course, but I wanted to provide a set of impressions to give a better sense of what it was like to be there, because a truly great music concert should include all those rich, personal and living moments of human interaction to be complete.  Whether they be between audience-artist, artist-artist, audience-audience, crew-artist, or any other combination, these connections are a vital part of the experience. Without them, you might as well just throw in a CD.

* * *

Burt Hara is a rockstar. Or better, a classicalstar. There are great performances and great performances… but then there are some like this one where a brilliant artist not only brings to life the artistic vision of a composer from centuries past, but also infuses his playing with all the complex emotions of the here and now. Burt, standing alone before his peers, perfectly captured all the musicians’ aspirations, deep sadness, hope, and profound love for their artform. And he did it with joy. It was astonishing that with all the craziness the guy is going through, he found such a bright, exuberant tone. My God, in the midst of an endless Minnesota winter the man just gave us spring.

Stan Skrowaczewski’s conducting. The Mozart was great, but the Bruckner was astonishing. And I’m a guy who usually is only politely interested in Bruckner. All the more amazing for a conductor turning 90 this fall! But this wasn’t some clichéd “elder elegy” approach of music-making—an overly portentous interpretation by a conductor trying to wrench a few too many life lessons out of it. It wasn’t that contrived, artificial, or overly ripe. Or, for that matter, egotistical. It was profound, but spoke exactly to the moment. Right now, today. It effortlessly wove the musical lines into a compelling narrative of sadness, hope, defiance, acceptance, loss, and dare I say, triumph. It was an astonishingly generous interpretation. And all the more astonishing in the details—at one point he brought the brass in for a Grand Statement… that was apparently too grand for him, and so with the tiniest of waves (which strangely for me, felt somehow French in Stan’s delivery), he told them to pull back a bit… that it was bordering on being too gauche and obvious. And, at age 89 he conducted the whole score of the hour-long work by memory. Holy Juniper—I can’t even count on myself to remember to pick up cat food on the way home.

To gauge how deeply it affected the audience, after the work finished, there was like 5 – 8 seconds of absolute dead silence. That may not seem like much, but seriously, count it out. A room full of almost 2,000 people witnessing a powerful, grand piece of music in such an emotional setting… and sitting in silence while the echoing reverb completely dies and you can almost hear the gentle murmur of the ventilation.

1…2…3…4…5…

Then and only then did everyone leap to their feet in a roar of an ovation that lasted through the repeated—and repeated—bows until a clearly tired maestro had to begin physically ushering the musicians off the stage just to shut us up.

Other random things that stuck with me.

Before, after and especially during the performance, it was deeply moving to see the onstage interactions between the musicians. Sometimes it was a joy to watch, as you saw the shared smiles at what I can only assume were inside jokes, or maybe the joy of doing favorite sections one last time together. It was also haunting because for some… it was their last time doing a favorite section together. Even if these interactions were simply made in the joking acknowledgement that someone let a musical passage get away from them, they quietly reinforced the idea that this glorious music wasn’t coming from some lifeless CD—it was being made by people. People who at that particular moment were living that music.

Sam Bergman’s speech (posted in its entirety here: http://www.artsjournal.com/slippeddisc/2013/04/minnesota-orch-is-dwindling-away-musician-by-musician.html). The transcription doesn’t do justice to it, or to its effect on the audience. I don’t remember the last time I heard an audience un-ironically hiss at something or someone, the way they did at his description of the management’s actions. I think Sam putting the situation into those stark terms was a shock, even for people in the know. Whatever the result, and whatever your position on this dispute, I think we can agree that there’s going to need to be a lot of healing when it’s done. A lot.

Brian Mount’s cymbal playing. There are only like 3 cymbal crashes in the Bruckner, but Brian’s face, body position and overall playing can only be described as: “Musical climax, motherf—-r.” That had to be therapeutic.

During the intermission, my mom commented on how sad she was that Sarah Kwak was no longer with the Orchestra. “I loved watching her. Whenever I saw her, I thought that’s how an angel must look when playing.”

Thank you to the brass section. You were everything, and I mean everything, a Brucknerian brass section requires.

Chris Kluwe, punter for the Vikings was there. You’re great, and a true gentleman!

And finally, the collegiality of the whole thing. Again and again I was reminded that the people here feel profound connections to each other and everyone on stage (and although they are less visible, the support staff working behind the scenes). The gigantic flower arrangement sent along by a fan from Japan. The silent, attentive listening. Everything. The post-concert experience felt like social hour after a church service. The interactions with the musicians are so different from the formality of Orchestra Hall concerts and, for me, meltingly heartwarming. These are the connections that make it so rewarding to be a performer myself. I like to think this whole ugly nightmare has served to remind us why we love music, and has reinforced for us the idea of community.

Xochipilli

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