The Concert

This weekend, the Twin Cities experienced an extraordinary musical event that will most certainly pass into local legend—Osmo Vänskä’s farewell performances with the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra.  Originally there were to be two performances at Ted Mann Concert Hall here in Minneapolis, but due to overwhelming demand a third concert was added… a special matinee performance on Saturday afternoon.  I personally had the good fortune to work the Friday concert as a volunteer, and attend the final Saturday evening concert as an attendee.

I’d like to take a few moments to share my feelings, thoughts and impressions of the concert weekend here in my blog.  As Abraham Lincoln said in a far loftier setting, it is altogether fitting and proper to do so; but at the same time, I want to make clear that my own embarrassingly inadequate words will not do justice to the event.  Let me say in advance that for this posting I make no attempt to present a unified essay or comprehensive review, but rather a series of reflections from both performances over the weekend.  I suppose in this regard I’m following the model of Jean Sibelius himself, who famously used tiny musical fragments to organically build vast musical structures. My hope is that I can present an account of this experience that is both vivid and personal.

One thing from the onset.  Let me be absolutely clear that whatever other meanings were attached to the proceedings, in the end Osmo and the musicians presented a concert.  This is important; this wasn’t a funeral, rally, retirement banquet or a community organizing meeting—it was a chance for exceptional artists and an exceptional conductor to make exceptional music one last time.  The emotion was carried in the performances, not by any other medium.  I can think of no better tribute to Osmo’s career, no more honest indicator of our deep love for him and the musicians than to say that given so many options to express himself, he gave us a true concert that reminded us of the power of music, as well as the communal nature of coming together to experience that music live.

* * *

As the concert time approached I was struck by the cliché-like suitability of the weather.  A small detail, but it was perfectly fitting.  Despite the recent drought, this weekend began with skies as gray as Finnish granite, with mists rising up from the Mississippi River that winds its way alongside the concert hall.  Later as the evening wore on, the rains hit, punctuated by blasts of lighting raining down from the murky sky.  Yes, I think to myself—the weather gods certainly know what’s about to happen.

* * *

Arriving an hour before the concert, there was already a line of about 20 or so people lined up and huddled outside the door, many dressed in their Sunday best.  I learn that they don’t have tickets, but are lining up in the hopes that there will be turnbacks.  One gentleman states that even if he can’t get into the auditorium, this is where he needed to be tonight.  He is (was) a long-time season ticket holder who remarked he never got a chance to say goodbye to Osmo, and “even if the maestro doesn’t know I’m here, I’m going to say goodbye tonight.”

 * * *

Inside in the lobby, I’m struck by how it feels like old home week.  Every time I turn my head, every time the crowd parts, I see someone I know.  I laugh at seeing people I knew from many stages of my life… there are friends from college, dozens of singers from the Minnesota Chorale and other choruses, former work friends and even one or two people who used to work for me when I was on staff at Orchestra Hall.

Two figures stand out—two women I used to work with at Orchestra Hall.  The reunions were bittersweet, similar to meeting old friends at a funeral and being both delighted to see them and despondent about the circumstances that bring you together again.  I ran into them separately, but in both cases, they told a similar story… they had long been frustrated by the lockout and had slowly lost confidence with the management’s handling of the situation.  When Osmo was forced out, they concluded they could no longer in good conscience work for the Orchestra, and promptly turned in their resignations.  One of them remarked, “This is my retirement party. Tonight.”  These two have been valued employees of the Orchestra for years, and the loss of their talents and institutional memory is a huge blow to the organization.

* * *

Standing in a place of honor in the lobby were the paper cranes given to the musicians by Eriko Matsukawa (the story behind these cranes is beautiful—if you have not read about, click here).  There was a touching moment when a young Japanese mother was trying to make her way through the crowd to give her young daughter a chance to see them up close. I smiled and stepped out of the way for them to get a better view.  The girl was entranced as her mother explained about them.  A small, but beautiful moment.

* * *

There was an unusual energy in the crowd as we waited for things to get underway.  It was if the seven stages of grief were taking part simultaneously—and collectively.  But on top of those emotions was another one: excitement.  Again, we all knew that whatever else this event was, it was a chance to see world-caliber performers doing their thing.  The roar greeting the musicians as they took the stage was only surpassed by the one greeting Osmo a few minutes later.  From experience, I can say definitively that the effect of participating in that roar was much like singing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy—and in particular that moment where we the singers blast out the auditorium with the restatement of the main theme.  Judging by the musicians’ faces, I think they got a taste of what that moment is like for the audience members to hear that vocal blast.  Freude indeed.

* * *

A minor point, entirely personal.  I was delighted and sad to see Sarah Kwak take the stage with her former colleagues.  She was my mom’s favorite player to watch (“She always plays just like an angel!”) My mom wasn’t able to attend, and I know she would have loved to see Sarah one last time.

* * *

As part of a long-standing Minnesota Orchestra tradition, the concert began with a rousing rendition of the Star Spangled Banner.  One thing that struck me was the musicians’ eyes—generally in a performance they concentrate on the music, with glances around to the conductor or their neighbors as needed.  This was different.  Knowing this music by heart, as I’m sure they must, they were free to look out at the audience, and make eye contact with us.  I locked eyes with several, and the power and intensity of those connections was immense.  It was as if they wanted to hold onto that moment and that audience and burn it into their memories, to sustain them through the turbulent days ahead.  Wow.

Another note, I think the audience was deeply gratified by hearing our national anthem.  It was not just a mark of respect and tradition… it provided a chance, however small, for us as audience members to join in the music ourselves.  Many sang along, even if the words were choked with tears.  It made all of us there a community.

* * *

The concert properly began with Beethoven’s Egmont Overture.  It’s a great piece, and appropriate for the day, as it tells a story about the heroic sacrifice of a man taking a stand against oppression.  Well, it began, and not ashamed to say I fell apart.  Well maybe a little ashamed—who falls apart listening to the Egmont Overture?

I’m also immediately reminded about why live music is so different, and richer, than tossing in a CD.  You got to see the musicians, who were baring their souls.  The expressions, the intensity of their gestures—the fact that some were slightly getting out of their chairs to dig into those strings dramatically and repeatedly demonstrated just how passionate they were about their music making.  It was unforgettable.

* * *

A tiny moment, but one that perfectly captured the camaraderie the hall felt that evening, came right after the Egmont Overture.  As the musicians waited, a stagehand and the librarian came on stage to set up for the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3.  The crowd had given thunderous ovations for literally everything that had happened up to that moment, and saw no reason to stop.  Another exuberant ovation broke out as the two positioned the piano and set the music.  The roar caused them both to stop, shake hands and bow to the audience before continuing their preparations.  We heartily approved.

* * *

Emanuel Ax is an astonishing artist with deep layers of musical wisdom and experience.  He is a titan.  But watching him bustle across the stage to humbly thank the audience and beam at the musicians… he was so wonderfully human.  It was like your beloved grandpa just bounded into the living room to give you a hug.  I wanted to invite him over for dinner.

* * *

I think one of the most deeply affecting moments of the concert for me was the start of the second movement in Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto.  It was early on in the concert, but there was already such high emotion, such a rawness to the evening… and Manny Ax responded in the most astonishing way.  Here at this moment, he was playing a gentle theme all alone at a piano.  It was like Beethoven didn’t exist at all—it felt like Manny was making it up as he went along, trying to think of some soothing words of comfort to express his sadness, concern, and care for all of the musicians.  As he played he didn’t watch his hands, he looked straight at Osmo, then surveyed the faces of the musicians around him.  He played that passage as a personal note of companionship and camaraderie given to each one of them.

* * *

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 was another inspired choice for the evening—one Manny offered to add to the performance for the delight in playing it, and as another gift to all those assembled.  Mozart has an astonishing ability to express deep emotions in a highly structured way.  The result captured the profound sense of loss permeating the evening without ever resorting to, say, Verdi’s thundering cries of grief and despair.  Again the slow middle movement of the concerto was a brilliant example of this.  The aching brilliance of Emanuel’s playing was so… humane.  The connection between him and the other musicians was so deep.

…I really don’t have the words.

* * *

In taking his curtain calls, Manny Ax was so self-effacing we collectively wanted to run up and hug him.  Osmo had to all but push him on the stage to get him to take a bow.  And when he did so it was with an embarrassed expression that suggested that he was mortified to be in the spotlight.  He repeatedly tried to deflect the applause toward the musicians and repeatedly applauded them.

I naturally went right home and downloaded his collected recordings of the Beethoven Piano Concertos.  He hardly needs my money, but such an artist must be supported.

* * *

There was an interlude at this point where Principal Trombone Doug Wright walked out and gave a speech.  He judged the audience perfectly, using light humor to break the somber mood while still laying out some important facts.  One key message—despite the gnashing of teeth that classical music is dead, he noted that the due to huge demand the musicians had agreed to perform a third concert (and again, Manny Ax agreed to perform a total of four hugely demanding concertos in one day?  I love him!) The 1,100 tickets sold out in under 30 minutes, and the concert’s box office webpage got 40,000 hits.  Doug was effusive in his thanks for all the support.  Doug, let me say personally that I wish we could do more.

Doug also gave a moving testimonial to Tim Eickholt, the Orchestra’s legendary stage manager who retired on September 1.  I can imagine how painful it must have been to retire at such a time, when the musicians to whom he had given everything for so many years were no longer even allowed in the building.  The audience responded with warm and heartfelt applause.  Among the many touching moments, this was a very special one.  I, for one, can’t imagine Orchestra Hall without him.  Tim will be greatly missed.

* * *

Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite was a different experience altogether, and offered us a rich banquet of musical color and excellence.  The full dynamic range of the Orchestra was on display—every group can play loud, but here we were treated to Osmo’s trademarked ppppppp.  When this happens, you have to hold your breath to hear if the musicians are still playing… and all the while the hair on the back of your neck is standing on edge.  I don’t know what it’s like exactly for the musicians, but he insisted on that same infinitesimal dynamic from us singers, too—and the work it took to achieve them was only equaled by the rewards of pulling them off.  The term “Osmo pianissimos” is used regularly by us in the Minnesota Chorale to indicate when we need to sing not just softly, but truly softly.

I will miss experiencing those nearly-silent moments on stage.

* * *

When we reached the Firebird’s “Princesses’ Round Dance,” it seemed that the reality of the situation was hitting the ensemble.  During this lyrical section, some musicians were in tears, and several more seemed on the brink.  There were a few moments where several musicians looked up and made eye contact with each other. A moment later they all stopped; it was clear they were digging into the deepest part of themselves just to finish the piece.

* * *

The Firebird’s “The Infernal Dance of King Kastcheï” was unbridled savagery.  I have to believe for the players on stage, the movement became “The Infernal Dance of King Henson.”  Violence uncoiled.  In light of everything else, it took our collective breath away.

* * *

The finale of The Firebird is richly heroic, and one would have expected to be lifted by the triumph of the moment.  It was strange to me, then, by what unfolded—Herb Winslow came in with the horn solo that signals the final section of the piece… and it was like nothing I’ve experienced in music before.  It was as if the whole catastrophe of the past year, and all the potentiality of the year ahead was contained in those few notes.  It was beyond devastating…

…and the memory is such that I had to take a moment to collect myself at my keyboard just to type that out.

…In fact, I don’t think I can really say anything else about it.

* * *

The applause at the end was beautiful and painful.  We were totally torn up inside but overwhelmed by the performance.  We were filled with joy and gratitude… and I hope that is the message that came through to those on stage:  joy and gratitude in being able to share that moment with them.

Tellingly, while the ovation roared around him, Osmo applauded the musicians, who were by now openly weeping.  He then stepped off the podium to embrace each member of the front row.  A deep, emotional embrace.

God bless him.

* * *

The encore was in some ways the most powerful statement of the evening.  An obvious candidate to play would have been Sibelius’s Finlandia—a piece that for the Finns served as a rallying cry for strength and unity in a country being crushed under the heel of Czarist Russia.  Finlandia is still revered by Finns on both sides of the Atlantic.  I’ve mentioned before that my mother’s side of the family comes entirely from Finland, and Finnish was the first language for many of my family members.  I remember going to visit family friends as a child and learning early on that Finlandia was considered by everyone to be “company music,” meaning that when company came over you quickly gathered up all the scattered music around the piano and put it way, and then set out a crisp, dress-white copy of Finlandia, reverently opened to the title page.  Music of such power and meaning would make a perfect ending for the evening.

Osmo went in a different direction, choosing instead Sibelius’ Valse Triste—“The Sad Waltz.”  It was an inspired choice.  Sibelius wrote the work for his brother-in-law’s play, Kuolema (“Death”), and when the play bombed sold off the rights for a pittance.  He had ample chance to regret this—Valse Triste became the hit tune of its day, and if Sibelius hadn’t sold the rights he would have died a very, very rich man.  Nowadays the work is somewhat neglected; so great was its popularity that the critics ultimately turned on it, dismissing it as a maudlin trifle.

The piece stirs deep personal memories for me.  It was the first piano work by Sibelius that I learned (the piano version is legit—Sibelius arranged it himself), and for years it was one of my standards.

Its effect as an encore was searing, for a variety of reasons.  To begin, Osmo took a microphone and thanked the audience and his partners on stage, and in a voice cracking with emotion told us that he would miss us so much, that he didn’t know what he would do.  Our collective anguish at that moment felt like a physical weight around our necks.  He then explained a bit about Valse Triste:  “It tells a story of a young woman who has a dream where she is welcomed to dance with a young man. As she dances, the tempo grows faster and faster. Soon she doesn’t want to dance anymore but can’t escape. Then there is this moment when she realizes that it is Death that she dances with and this is not a dream but her very end.”  Osmo then made a request of us: “Please do not applaud at the end. The situation the musicians face is terrible and the orchestra is in an almost hopeless situation right now. It is not a situation that deserves applause.”

After the piece’s end, he took the hand of Concertmaster Erin Keefe and left the stage in silence.

The starkness of this simple action can’t be described in words.

Bless you all.  Until we meet again.

Xochipilli

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19 thoughts on “The Concert

  1. I heard it all on the Internet stream (I’m writing from England), and it was just as you described it all above. For me it was incontrovertible proof that classical music is not merely “relevant” in this day and age wherever it is performed, it is as necessary as the air we all breathe. I had the great and good fortune to hear this orchestra live in London 3 years ago at the Proms, where Vänskä raised the roof of the Royal Albert Hall with a blazing Beethoven 9. At the end, as the audience went nuts, my then fiancée (now wife), who is assistant principal viola in the Memphis Symphony, said the following: “Elvis is back in the building, and his name is Ludwig!” Did you take part in that performance by any chance? Because I’ll tell you, speaking as a concertgoer of some 40 years’ standing, that was a privileged evening for me, and everyone else in that big barn of a hall! Again, thank you for voicing so eloquently and precisely what I heard over here some 5000 miles away.

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    • Paul, thank you for your kind words. In answer to your question, I did not sing in the Proms performance—Osmo used one of Britain’s many fine choruses for those performances, as was entirely appropriate. As a singer in the Minnesota Chorale, I’ve been fortunate to perform the Ninth with him on several other occasions, however. I wrote about taking part in the recording session a few years ago under the BIS label ( https://maskoftheflowerprince.wordpress.com/2013/08/19/a-joyous-recording-session/ ), but there was another performance that was especially memorable. Every year the small Minnesota town of Winona presents a Beethoven festival, and the Orchestra has long been part of it. The town is tucked along side the Mississippi River, and the drive from Minneapolis is one of the most scenic in the state. When the leaves fully turn in another couple of weeks, it becomes one of the most scenic in the country. I was thrilled to go out into the community to perform this great music with a group of such excellent musicians. I’d do it again tomorrow if they asked.

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      • Thank you for your words. Saturday at 2:00 was no different than the other two concerts. Something very special passed through our lives these last Osmo Vanska / Minnesota Orchestra years. At concert end I sat in my chair tier two and sobbed. In my seventies, I will not again see the likes of this magical music combination.

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  3. I was privileged to attend the concert on Sat. at 2 pm. I also listened to most of the Sat. evening concert on the radio. At 2 pm, Vanska asked the audience to withhold their applause after the encore, but at the evening concert he added the explanation. He also said the situation was “almost hopeless”. Thanks for your review.

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      • It was a great concert.
        The MPR website has a transcript of his farewell speech. Someone had posted the speech and Valse on youtube.com, taken from the broadcast, but it has been taken off because of copyright. On the broadcast, you can hear Vanska’s footsteps walking off the stage amidst silence. It doesn’t seem that his words are being widely reported in the news.

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  4. Scott. Thank you for your excellent blogs about this truly tragic situation. And this final piece definitively captured the performance!!!

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  5. Ellen!!!! Yes!!!! I am sure the orchestra had a magnificent performance. After several significant changes in 1st chair positions over the years, the Orchestra sky-rocket to great heights!!!!
    All remains in order here, as I trust with you, although I severely grieve over the satis of Minneapolis Orchestra. And to think that we give Billions of $$$$ to Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, Egypt, and numerous other countries, and causes, whereby; the money goes either, to corruption, or buying weapons that are used against us!!!! Yet, not one penny for help. or the survival, of any of the great cultural musical institutions that, where here at home, help is drastically needed!!!!!! I have spoken!!!! Abby

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  6. Having been in the audience Friday evening and listening to the web stream on Saturday evening, all I had to read was the title of your blog, “The Concert” and the tears started flowing again. This indeed was a simply priceless experience — one we all wish wouldn’t have had to happen, but certainly one we will tuck away as one of the most poignant musical experiences of a lifetime.

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  7. Thank you for this wonderful and heartfelt overview. I was at botht he Saturday afternoon and evening concerts – and cried like a baby at both. The beauty of the performances, the gut wrenching spoken words and the recognition of all that we are losing with Osmo’s departure and the demise of this wonderful orchestra was somuch to bear. Thank you for your recounting of this special event. It seems incredible to me that this Board is still running the show – can’t we get them booted out somehow????? What will it take?????

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  8. I was in the audience Friday night after spending most of the afternoon on the Ted Mann ticket site, hoping that a couple of seats might pop up — which they did, at about 5. I couldn’t believe my luck. And yes, as you describe so beautifully, it was a concert unlike any other I’ve ever been to (or will likely go to again). Equal parts celebration, equal parts wake, and hovering above it all a sense of profound regret and anger that it’s all slipped away now. Even as I was listening to the glorious music I was thinking the entire time, surely there has to be a way to fix this. There has to be. To know now that there probably isn’t is devastating. But I’ll always, always be grateful I was there.

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  9. Thank you, Scott, for your eloquent description. All of us who were fortunate to attend any of the concerts will never forget them Unreal – the beauty & power of the music juxtaposed with the deliberately & unnecessarily broken apart orchestra.

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