This weekend, the locked out musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra gave another of their “wildcat” concerts—concert produced on their own initiative while the Minnesota Orchestral Association has them locked out of Orchestra Hall.
I saw the concert on Saturday, and I admit that I’ve had a hard time organizing my thoughts on it. Once again, it is clear that this wasn’t just a concert… it was an event. To get the whole impact, you really had to experience it firsthand and in real time. As such, it’s hard to summarize or review the proceedings in a simple straightforward manner (kudos to Larry Fuchsberg of the Star Tribune, and Ron Hubbard of the Pioneer Press for trying).
Let me try to put my thoughts into words… about the event itself and about the larger significance, too.
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Musically, this was an expertly-crafted concert, given at just the right time. It was an all-Tchaikovsky program, which was a perfect fit for a frosty mid-December weekend.
Not surprisingly, things kicked off with selections from The Nutcracker.
A word about this work. I suspect there are any number of folks out there that would rather ram knitting needles through their eardrums than listen to the Nutcracker yet again. The work gets played ad infinitum throughout the season, in a bewildering array of arrangements. For a good couple of months it is inescapable.
But I am one of those tasteless philistines who happens to believe Nutcracker is one of the most inventive, even brilliant scores of the nineteenth century. In part this was driven by necessity. Tchaikovsky loved E.T.A. Hoffmann’s fascinating, dark fairy tale and eagerly accepted a commission to compose a full-length ballet based on it. Alas, the libretto Tchaikovsky was given to work with removed nearly all the colorful, grotesque elements he found so interesting. Worse, the libretto jettisoned most of the story’s plot; in the version Tchaikovsky had to work with, the plot essentially ends half-way through the first act, and the “land of the sweets” episode—a minor fantastical element of the original—takes over the rest of the ballet. Although he was disappointed, Tchaikovsky decided to make up for the lack of dramatic detail by creating an astonishing world of musical color. Each of the dances is a tiny, self-contained masterpiece of vivid detail and breathtaking orchestration.
How thrilling to hear some of these tiny tone poems with a full orchestra! Too often we experience the Nutcracker as piped-in music or as a recording. Live productions of the ballet all too frequently substitute recorded music or arrangements for keyboard or small ensemble. It’s a great treat to hear this music being played by a world-class orchestra that danced through the score with grace, charm and panache.
One moment that illustrates the musicians’ attention to detail is in the “Arabian Dance.” Against the languid repeated rhythms murmuring through the ensemble, percussionist Brian Mount enters in with a tiny rhythmic detail—the slight jostle of a tambourine. Managing the volume at that moment is tricky—everyone is playing with delicate softness, and if the tambourine is too loud it becomes gauche and distracting, but if it is too soft it will sound like muddled buzzing. Moreover, the attack has to be crisp to make the rhythm pop out of the orchestral texture. Brian managed to not only find the perfect volume (in a difficult venue, no less) but also managed make the rhythm sound precise without feeling tense or controlled. Paradoxically, it was all handled so expertly that the moment almost passed unnoticed… remarkable simply because of its unremarkableness.
Jon Kimura Parker took the stage for Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1… a warhorse if there ever was one. As a composer, Tchaikovsky is famous for wearing his heart on his sleeve, so to speak; this tendency is never more obvious than in his famous piano concerto. Parker took an open, honest approach that kept all the rich, mercurial emotions of the work very much at the forefront, but never devolved into some of the hysterics of recent interpretations. The man has fantastic technique and played with wonderful gusto that was all the more impressive in that he knew when to slightly hold back—there were times when it looked like he was going to pound his fingers right through the keyboard, but still managed slight gradations in volume between ff and fff.
The concert ended with a rousing version of the Fourth Symphony, a lovable romp that builds to a powerful conclusion. Expertly played all around—but again there were a few telling details that showed what this orchestra can do. That piccolo part, for example. It’s insane… absolutely insane. And Roma Duncan tossed it off as effortlessly as Julie Andrews singing in the Alps.
Because of the lockout, the ensemble doesn’t perform together frequently, a situation that can fast erode an ensemble’s cohesion. Imprecision can particularly stand out when the cohesion has been so laser-tight over the last few years. But if that kind of cohesion might have declined, it was replaced by cohesion of a different form—solidarity born from a shared struggle. These musicians know what they’re fighting for, and why they are making music. They’ve savoring each moment together, and their playing reflects that sense of closeness and shared purpose. That cohesion, that level of ensemble comes through brilliantly and is a joy to watch. Thank you, all.
* * *
“That nut is a genius.”
–George Szell after rehearsing with pianist Glenn Gould
To this point I have deliberately sidestepped a major element of the concert, because I wanted a chance to comment on the music. But there was another component to the concert that helped elevate it from a mere concert to a major event—the return of the Orchestra’s immediate past music director, Eiji Oue.
On the one hand this was a major political statement. Now each and every one of the Minnesota Orchestra’s former music directors still alive has spoken out publicly against the MOA’s actions in general, and the lockout of the musicians in particular. All of them. Not only that, but with the exception of Neville Marriner, all of them have come back to conduct the locked out musicians, in direct defiance to the MOA. That’s a powerful message of solidarity, and unity.
But Eiji didn’t just speak out against the MOA. For the encore, he threw open his jacket to reveal a hand-made sign reading “Minnesota Orchestra Forever!” And then he jumped off the podium—while the musicians replayed the final moments of the Fourth Symphony—and ran through the crowd exulting them to cheer for the Orchestra and stand up to the MOA. It was like Mel Gibson’s William Wallace urging the Scottish army to take on the English… only considerably more playful.
This was the other critical part of Eiji’s performance: his…well, performance. During his tenure with the Orchestra, Eiji became famous (and for some people, infamous) for his theatrical conducting style, and it should surprise no one that his trademark flourishes were a huge part of the concert experience this weekend, too. At times, he wasn’t conducting as much as he was doing an interpretive dance. He was hugely expressive, with florid gestures and wide range of facial expressions. For the final encore—Tchaikovsky’s instrumental adaptation of Mozart’s “Ave Verum Corpus”—he took a single rose from the bouquet handed to him moments before, and began conducting the work with it, before caressing it to his heart.
It was all very much over the top. And I can see how someone would conclude that Eiji was, to use the term George Szell called Glenn Gould, a nut.
But at the same time, writing him off that way misses the entire point of the performance. It was so thoroughly over the top that many in the audience loved it—as did most of the local music critics. If it wasn’t “genius” it certainly seemed to work. Paired with inherently theatrical works, Eiji’s presentation added a playful, festive quality to the concert, which crackled with excitement. Days later, people are still talking about the performance, and more than one has said that the concert was a perfect antidote to a week of dour news and bone-crushing cold. Many further remarked that they loved watching the musicians, who didn’t know any of this was coming and looked like they were ready to burst out laughing—a welcome change from the heavy emotions of the last few concerts.
So what to make of all that enthusiasm? Was it a good thing? I’m personally not ready for all that on a day to day basis, but I can’t argue the fact that for many, it was exactly what was called for.
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“I said I admired the symphony’s style and severity of form, as well as the profound logic creating an inner connection among all of the motives, whereas Mahler said: ‘No, no, no. The symphony is like the world; it must embrace everything.’ ”
–Jean Sibelius recounting a discussion with Gustav Mahler on the nature of the symphony
Which brings up another point. One of the other main points of the concert was that it gave us an excellent opportunity to contrast Osmo and Eiji’s respective styles, and reflect on how different the Orchestra is 10 years after Eiji stepped down.
As I mulled all this over in my mind, I couldn’t shake the famous conversation Sibelius and Mahler had regarding the fundamental nature of a symphony. Sibelius loved the tight structure, the inherent logic of how things came together… and Mahler essentially countered that he preferred to throw everything including the kitchen sink into his works.
I can see a similar distinction here. Osmo, like his countryman, digs deeply into a work to find the essential argument, to find the interlocking details and to clarify them. Delighting in the details. His is a probing mind that constantly seeks to further understand a work, so that he can further elucidate its message for the audience.
Eiji Oue is the polar opposite. My understanding is that he is specific about the details while rehearsing a piece. But his performances are not about profundity, not about details, not about clarity—they are about being expressive and going where the moment takes you. Like Mahler, the important thing is the overall mood, of presenting a kaleidoscope of emotions and thoughts, and tossing them out for the listener to assemble and make sense of.
Eiji doesn’t sweat the small stuff. Osmo does.
I personally gravitate toward Osmo’s approach, but I can’t dismiss Eiji’s achievements out of hand. He’s hardly the first person to develop an over-the-top style as part of his persona—Franz Liszt comes to mind as someone else who was also a larger than life showman. I recognize that this approach can sweep people up and dazzle their ears. Does this approach distract and detract from the music? Perhaps, but at the same time it is impossible to deny that there was real music-making going on, too.
Maybe it was that Eiji and the Orchestra musicians have a long history of performing that repertoire, and there is already a sense of trust and knowing what he’s looking for.
Maybe this approach is particularly suited for the music of Tchaikovsky—a composer who is famous for being emotional rather than cerebral. Tchaikovsky isn’t renowned for his sense of musical structure or the clarity of his musical arguments—it’s too easy to hear the musical “seams” in his works. Instead, he is beloved for his uncanny ability to capture emotion in sound, and for his unrivaled skill at fusing powerful feelings with soaring melodies until they become inseparable.
Maybe this approach is also particularly suited for this time and place. This concert was a mirror-opposite bookend for the overwhelming emotions tied to Osmo’s farewell concert. In effect, it was a release, offered at the height of the holiday season. If this same concert was performed a month earlier, would it have felt like someone cracked a joke too soon after a funeral? Now with a bit more time, did it feel like a necessary catharsis? And perhaps more importantly, a dynamic kick-off that built excitement for the rest of the musicians’ locked out concert season?
Regardless of the reason, the audience certainly responded. As I said, it was certainly an event, and one that people are still talking about.
* * *
Which leads to a final thought—and a thought that lines up with something my esteemed fellow blogger Emily Hogstad wrote about recently. I’m curious that the concerts involving the locked out musicians have all, in effect, become events. There was a time, not so terribly long ago, when I think all us treated concerts as routine. And, as Emily noted, they still do in other places like Chicago.
Well… not here. Not anymore.
We’re long past the days when we the audience members were blasé about concerts, picking and choosing which ones we went to, and having a more casual, transactional relationship with the Orchestra. I think I speak for many in saying we are much, much more engaged in the art and the deeper meanings about the music. We go to these concerts to experience primal emotions of loss, hope, determination, and cathartic release. We’re way beyond seeing classical music as being conventionally “pretty” or “beautiful.”
We’re also coming together as a community—arriving early to socialize and staying later to decompress about the music. And in the concert itself, we’re much more engaged and… quieter. During soft passages it’s the rare exception to hear people rustle their program or shift their weight in their seats. We’re far, far more involved in the concert experience now. Many people I know are buying tickets not just because they like the sounds of the program, but as an active act of support for the musicians. And, let it be noted we’re fighting for each and every one of the tickets, as the concerts sell out fast—sometimes in less than an hour.
And from my vantage point, the musicians have gone through a similar change. I think it’s safe to say that they no longer have the luxury of thinking about music selection, audience engagement, and even ticket sales in an abstract way. This lockout, and the musicians’ push to create their own independent season, has brought out the best of them, and similarly made them more deeply aware of and engaged in the entire concert experience. They are creating concert lineups themselves, and nervously watching if people buy tickets. They are making their own calls to find guest artists. They also are thinking about the deeper messages about the works and directly communicating those thoughts to their audience. And it is clear that they have a deeper sense of connection with each other. They are, in real terms, a family.
It’s possible that this transformation might feel fatiguing in the future. It’s possible that this sense of concerts being events might fade after the whole labor dispute is resolved. But I have to say… in this instance at least, I’m not at all sure I want things go back to the way they were. I love how this wonderful music feels so vital, so important again. It’s like we’ve collectively had a near-death experience, and are remembering how important it is to live life to the fullest.
Or, at least to listen to music to the fullest.