Long-time readers know my penchant for writing about Minnesota Orchestra concerts—not exactly reviews, but commentaries that discuss on the entire concert experience, along with a few larger points about what the concerts mean. I had planned to do so again for the Eric Whitacre concerts, but my plans were almost derailed this week by a news story that broke just a few hours before concert time on Friday night… this year’s Symphony Ball was going to be cancelled.
For those not familiar with it, the Symphony Ball is the Orchestra’s largest fundraiser, which usually grosses around a million dollars. Plus, it is one the Twin Cities’ biggest social events, one that everyone wants to be seen at.
But this year, it’s defunct. Why? Because, in the words of the co-chairs, as related by the Orchestra’s Board Chair, “the current climate at the orchestra did not lend itself to celebration.”
I’m sorry… what?
Now, there are all sorts of perfectly understandable, perfectly rational reasons for calling off Symphony Ball, particularly in the wake of the ugly labor dispute that nearly ripped the organization apart. But because there’s nothing to celebrate?
I’ll take a deeper look into this turn of events in an upcoming blog entry; but before I do that, I want to unequivocally state that there is so much to celebrate right now. The lockout that lasted for more than a year is over. The Orchestra just won a Grammy Award for its CD of Sibelius’s First and Fourth Symphonies. The Orchestra’s divisive President and CEO has agreed to step down. Music Director Osmo Vänskä returned a couple of weeks ago to huge acclaim… and a riotous welcome from the community. There is still a chance he could return permanently (something I couldn’t imagine in November) and help rebuild ties with ticket buyers and donors. All of these things are wonderful, and celebration-worthy.
And so was this week’s concert… it was most definitely worth celebrating. Let me point out a few of the highlights.
I should say that I’m not going to review this concert per se—indeed, as a performer myself, it would be completely inappropriate for me to do so. I mean, of course it was perfection. Of course when the music started the moon stopped in its orbit, and choirs of angels descended from Heaven to join in the song. But that’s hardly for me to say. Instead, I want to give a broader sense of what it was like to be involved in this project, and why I consider it one of the high points of my performance career.
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First let me say kudos to the planners for putting together a great, and well-thought out program. As I alluded to in my preview of the concert, this was a beautifully constructed concert that had many linkages between works. By bringing together vocal music of Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber and Eric Whitacre himself, the audience was treated to a veritable masterclass on the history of American song. But the concert looked forward, too… presenting a new arrangement of Water Night for Strings, Equus for orchestra and chorus, and the brand-new Songs of Immortality. Plus, Eric linked his own work Equus with one of the works that inspired it, Wojciech Kilar’s Orawa. All in all, it helped create a rich, multi-layered concert—one where the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. Great job, all around.
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There is always a bit of apprehension meeting and working with a big name in music for the first time. Will the person’s ego be the same size as his or her talent? Or bigger? Will this person roll into town barely aware of where he or she is, and simply be there to collect a paycheck? Will you discover that the hype is a façade and this person simply isn’t all that talented?
I was relieved to find that none of these were true of Eric Whitacre… and I had a blast working with him. There was never a hint that he was blowing into town to lead some formulaic Eric Whitacre Experience ™. He wasn’t phoning it in at all—the Chorale worked with him prior to our first Orchestra rehearsal, and he was wonderfully specific about what he was looking for and very attentive to the details, including the shaping of consonants (for example, he has very clear views on the letter “f”), phrasing, and more. I greatly appreciated that he was committed to work with us so that we got things right.
Moreover, in both the rehearsals and performances, he was clearly, visibly engaged in the music. There were several moments where you could see how deeply the performances were affecting him—you could see it in his eyes as we sang the final pages of Five Hebrew Love Songs, or when Tony Ross began his emotion-filled solo in The River Cam. These works weren’t rote compositions written to order, but deeply personal utterances that still stirred deep feelings inside him. And he stood behind every note.
I’d also like to point out that he could not possibly have been more collaborative. He constantly was checking with others to gauge balance, and how effects would play in the Hall. And he had no problem changing things if they weren’t working.
And I have to say, it was great to work with someone who clearly was thrilled to be working here, and working with us. He repeatedly talked about his many ties to Minnesota, openly acknowledging his debt of gratitude to Dale Warland and calling for the legendary conductor to stand and be recognized during Friday’s performance. Moreover, he proudly proclaimed his view that Minnesota was “the center of the choral universe.” Throughout the week he thanked us for taking this project on, and expressed hope for further collaborations in the future. This wasn’t just an obligatory, from-the-podium pep talk; he repeatedly came around and chatted with us, engaged with us—heck, he greeted us with hugs backstage when we survived the fiendishly difficult Equus. And again and again he remarked on what a thrill it was to work with such a great orchestra, and stated that doing so had been a revelation, giving him all kinds of ideas about orchestration, conducting, and composition generally. I like to think that this project will help shape his music for some time to come.
And… well, you have to appreciate a conductor who shows up at rehearsal wearing a T-shirt featuring a T-Rex fighting a rock-‘em-sock-’em robot.
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Let me say a few words about the performance. Beyond the fact that, as we know, the moon stopped in its orbit and angels came down from Heaven….
A few random tidbits. One thing in particular I noticed was the string basses. I know not all our regulars were here this week—in the wake of the lockout, there are still musicians who had to take temporary gigs and substitute positions elsewhere. But the crew really outdid themselves. The section laid down a beautiful foundation for the sound, particularly in the strings-only rendition of Water Night and The River Cam. The upper strings usually get more attention and credit, and even the cellos get their due, but, damn! You should have been listening to the basses. And in truth, I remember thinking that same thing a couple of weeks ago in the Sibelius concert, too. This is one of those aspects of a concert that you really need to experience live… you so rarely hear proper bass balance when listening at home. So often folks jack up the bass on their systems or otherwise distort the sound. Live, a good bass sound is a presence that is felt almost as much as it is heard, and it provides dimension and depth to the music. Listening to that sound live was wonderful… thank you, all.
And I have to take a moment to call out the woodwinds. Again and again, I realize how lucky we are to have such strength and unity in the section. The woodwinds’ sound is always a particular interest of mine; long before I became a singer, I was an oboist, and I still have very strong feelings about how an oboe should sound in performance. John Snow added great pathos and richness to Knoxville, Summer of 1915, and kudos to everyone on team woodwind, too.
And a particular shout-out to Marni Hougham on English Horn. There are times in orchestra writing when what you are trying to say can only be expressed by an English Horn—its unique voice carries incredible depths of thought and emotion. In Barber’s Knoxville there were several moments where a theme or wisp of a melody was carried by the English Horn, and although these moments were small little threads in the overall tapestry of sound, they are crucial to setting the right mood of nostalgia and lost time. Let me be clear, Knoxville isn’t a virtuosic, show-stopping piece—it’s not supposed to be. Heck, these instances don’t even qualify as virtuosic moments. But I have to say that as a collaborator with the Orchestra, it is inspiring to know that details like these will be attended to, and that even the smallest moments will sing. It makes me want to bring my A-game to the mix.
Kudos, too, to Erin Keefe. It was fun watching her from the back of the stage, and essentially seeing her from a completely different perspective. And my God did she ever play. She launched into Wojciech Kilar’s Orawa as if the fate of all humanity was riding on the outcome. And yet she never once made it look like work.
And what can I say about Tony Ross’s rendition of The River Cam? This was a profound performance that touched us all—the composer included—more deeply than I can describe. As with the Sibelius concert from two weeks ago, it is hard not to hear Tony’s playing without also hearing all the sorrow and turmoil of the recently-ended labor dispute, as well as his own complex emotions as he considers taking an appointment with a different ensemble. He brings so much to his performances… it was glorious.
And of course, our guest soprano for the evening, Hila Plitmann. She sang beautifully. Plus, she was a great fit for Knoxville. It is a piece of nostalgia, reflecting with childlike innocence on a summer’s eve long since passed… exactly not the kind of work where you want a heavy voice with all the usual operatic clichés. You need an intelligent performer who gets it, and can sell that simple story to the audience.
And she did… she was selling, and the audience was buying. Her voice was soaring, but could be subtle and dreamy when needed. One advantage from being perched where I was, I could take in the audience reaction, and they were clearly engrossed. I will never forget the expression of one woman, directly in my line of sight as I watched Hila perform. Her face was filled with a serenity that is hard to describe, with a smile that could have been nostalgia, regret, remembered joy… or all at once. My impression during the rehearsals and the performances was this piece was on the program not because it was this year’s repertoire piece, but because she deeply loved it and had something to say about it as an artist. That passion and commitment came through, in addition to her artistry. And trust me, those are the best performances to experience.
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I think the buzz after the concert was a testament to its success. The post-concert lobby was ablaze with excited conversations about the music—and I loved it. Both with this concert and Osmo’s Sibelius concerts from a couple of weeks ago, there was a profound sense of a real musical community here, that we collectively have a ravenous appetite for this art form. With all the dour stories about the so-called demise of “unsustainable” classical music floating around out there, this was a breath of fresh air. As the discussions bubbled over, distinctions fell away—there weren’t singers, orchestra musicians, and audience members, but a single community that was passionate about the music.
In many ways, this shared sense of community was every bit as wonderful as the music itself. And I think that this coming together as a community was exactly what Eric was hoping would happen.
As I milled around the lobby, I met a number of people who came to “classical” music via Eric and were excited to expand their horizons for more. I talked to young singers who were inspired to perfect their art. And there were composers here as well looking for ways to find their own voice, too. All here, and all engaged in a wonderful discussion of music and what it meant to us. There was passion, and there was vitality.
Experiencing this, I am more confident than ever that great music has a great future… both here and across our country.
So to come back to my original point—yes, there is plenty to celebrate right now.