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 it became clear that 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. At the work’s premiere, the crowd was so taken aback by the symphony that they didn’t applaud at all.  And yet here, 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

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14 thoughts on “One Hell of a Concert

  1. I forgot to bring my little Finnish flag to the morning concerts. There were a few flag-wavers and thje blue-and-white-clothed there.

    Does anyone else think it’s good that some of the “Hensonites” have left the board? The thought certainly has occurred to me. Regarding the Haskell CEO, I wish I had been boycotting his store all along. (The downtown store is very cluttered and disorganized anyway.)

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  2. HI, Scott,

    Beautiful post. The resignations last week are a good thing. Those 8 members who resigned needed to go if they didn’t agree with the direction the organization is moving in.

    What disappointed me terribly, far more than the media jumping on the resignations, is that the MOA really did nothing to celebrate WITH the orchestra and Osmo. There was no one there to speak at the beginning or at intermission. Nothing from the MOA either, like flowers or celebratory banners hanging on the walls. They missed an opportunity to begin mending relationships.

    Gina

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  3. Your account is elegant…………. and moving.

    The board’s behavior is beyond baffling. Could the resignations have come because the rest of the board want to rehire Osmo?

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    • It’s possible … the board’s vote of confidence in Henson’s leadership (back in February) was 40-8, which means that about 30 board members either abstained or failed to show up. Maybe the vote was actually 40-38, much closer than they were letting on?

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  4. Beautiful account of the weekend concerts, Scott! Only Sibelius could do justice to this incredible emotional roller coaster we’ve been riding for, —I don’t know–I forget how long—You do the impossible in describing the joy and excitement and glorious music making that I feared I would not hear again. Please MOA, Finnish the job, get Osmo back, and harness this incredible energy to move things forward in a good direction.

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  5. I experienced the awesome power of our Grammy Award winning conductor and orchestra on Friday and Saturday nights, first from the back of the house and then from Row 2. You captured the excitement of the event and the emotion of the music so beautifully that it brought tears to my eyes as I read your latest post at my day job this morning. How can the Board not seize this moment and win back the audience by hiring Osmo? We are all waiting for a press release with good news…and praying they are listening to their customers and reading your blog for prescient insights on what is needed to heal the rifts caused by the lock out. I join the chorus of “Bring back Osmo!”.

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