Mendelssohn, Wagner, and the Coming of Spring

What an enjoyable concert at Orchestra Hall this weekend! While the Orchestra is still recovering from the disastrous lockout, the process of healing is clearly well underway.  And a performance such as this makes me excited to see what happens next.

So let me tell you what you missed, if you were weren’t there in person.

* * *

As I explained in my preview of the concert, the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto is somewhat of a blind spot for me. I mentioned that have no direct experience with the violin, but I have another confession to make. I say with some embarrassment that Mendelssohn is a composer I often forget about.

Don’t get me wrong—I greatly admire many of his works. His tone poems are fantastic, and I love his Third and Fourth symphonies. (And let me say this. The fact that Mendelssohn hated his Fourth Symphony, Italian, puts him in a minority of one, and shows that composers’ opinions about their works can’t always be trusted.) I’ve performed his mighty Elijah, and in an earlier blog post pointed out that I’d love a chance to perform his Die erste Walpurgisnacht.

But my go-to music, so to speak, is from the turn of the 20th century forward; and in my love for composers like Sibelius, Vaughan Williams and such, I can glide right past Mendelssohn on my playlist.

That is a mistake. The man could compose. And this performance was “Exhibit A” in showing just how great his music is.

To begin, Erin Keefe was the perfect advocate for the Violin Concerto. There was absolute magic on her strings… and a wonderful sense of personality. She knew exactly what she wanted to say about the piece and had the technical finesse to make her points. She beautifully captured the work’s many moods, from the drama of the opening to the soaring lyricism of the slow movement (as Manny Laureano pointed out, a direct forerunner of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from Jesus Christ Superstar).

But in the finale, she really outdid herself. There was the quick opening statement that seemed to say, “c’mon guys, are you ready?” And then she launched in to an absolutely exuberant dance that pulled out all the stops. Again, there was so much character to her performance—it wasn’t just empty pyrotechnics, but a real dance.

The best way to sum it up is to say that for those fleeting minutes, she embodied springtime… her performance in that final movement perfectly captured the gorgeous spring weather that finally broke out here in Minneapolis this weekend after a long, interminable winter. Erin confidently told us: Spring is coming.

This was helped along by Maestro Mark Wigglesworth, who highlighted the work’s classical heritage instead of its Romantic sensibility. His interpretation was a marvel of understatement that allowed the orchestra to support Erin without ever pulling focus away from her. And in a way, this felt perfectly in line with Mendelssohn’s intentions—later in the century, composers writing concertos tended to treat the soloist and orchestra as being roughly co-equal, either pitting one against the other or having them work in tandem. Mendelssohn followed a different track, casting the orchestra as an accompanist. This does not mean it (forgive me) plays second fiddle to the soloist, but creates the overall structure to support the soloist as he or she spins off those gorgeous musical lines.   The Orchestra delivered exactly what Wigglesworth asked for, taking on the character of a chamber orchestra that was a perfect counter-balance to Erin’s passionate playing. They gave her the support she needed so that she could deliver a sensational performance.

But this leads to another critical point about this performance—it was so wonderfully collaborative.

An ongoing problem with hiring out Big Name Performers as soloists is that sometimes you can miss a sense of occasion in their playing—a stop at Orchestra Hall might be one of many this month.

But Erin’s performance was deeply rooted in the here and now, showing a rare bond not just with the audience but with everyone on stage.

She was playing with a group of colleagues—a group of friends—who had just gone through Hell together and made it out alive. She wasn’t just musically in synch with everyone else on stage, she was personally in synch with them, and the performance had a cohesion that was wonderful witness. This was evident at every stage of the performance. From the smiles they all collectively shared as Erin took the stage and the alertness of their body language as they played, to the collective thank-yous at the end, it was clear that everyone was giving their collective all for this performance.

And the thing is, that conviction translated to us in the audience. Watching all this take place on stage, we knew this was going to be an amazing performance without anyone having to say a word; and we, too, gave the performance an extra level of attention. I tell you, I was stunned at how silent the audience was at key moments—to the degree that at several points you could clearly hear the quiet murmur of the HVAC system.

We were all of us there together, exactly as it should be.

* * *

The classical stylings of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto provided another benefit too—they made a wonderful contrast with the extravagant performance of music from Wagner’s Ring. The concert provided a perfect opportunity to compare these two giants of Romantic music.

But I want to point out that Wigglesworth’s interpretation of Wagner’s music wasn’t simply loud, bombastic and obvious; on the contrary, he was brilliant at teasing out the dynamic and emotional range of the music. This was crucially important, as this was an abridgement of four operas, collectively spanning 15-some hours (the arrangement was done by Henk de Vlieger). There is a real danger of getting the pacing wrong and peaking too soon.

For my ears, that wasn’t an issue at this concert. Earlier “high points” such as the “Entrance to Valhalla” or the “Ride of the Valkyries” were kept within a larger overall framework. It made a case for de Vlieger’s arrangement to be a coherent, single piece of its own.

Altogether, it was a very impressive interpretation that has me wanting to see Wigglesworth conduct a fully staged opera.

And the playing was spectacular.   Wagner’s inspired opening of Das Rheingold was sensational, helped out by an augmented brass section that was riveting to hear. Record producer John Culshaw wrote a fascinating account of the immense difficulties recording that section for George Solti’s legendary Ring Cycle, and with those words still in my head, I have to admit I was holding my breath. I need not have worried, as the crew was magnificent.

Similarly, an augmented percussion section helped with the hammering anvils as Wotan and Loge descend into the dwarves’ subterranean kingdom, in one of the most viscerally exciting elements of concert (I admit that this motif, which signifies the endless toiling of the dwarves, has been playing endlessly in my mind as I type this entry).   The famous “Ride of the Valkyries” was rousing, although it was wonderfully overshadowed by a blistering account of “Siegfried’s Funeral March.” Man… that was some white-hot fury!

At the end of the day, Wagner is a difficult composer to bring to the concert hall, for all kinds of reasons. What I appreciated about the Orchestra programming this particular work is that it allowed us to fully experience Wagner’s skill at orchestral writing, a skill that can sometimes be overlooked in the opera house. The internal logic of Wagner’s motifs, the dramatic intensity of his music, and the pure emotion he was able to express are amazing, and it was wonderful to experience these things live, and without distractions.

Plus, it revealed again what a talented, versatile orchestra we have here.

* * *

And one last thing. I’ve been amazed that some observers (including recent letter writers in the Star Tribune) have continued to bemoan how “old” the audiences are.

I don’t get it.

Yes, there are obviously lots of people who have lived long, full lives attending concerts at Orchestra Hall. Is that a problem? They have the time and resources to attend concerts, and that’s a good thing.

More to the point, I’ve consistently, consistently seen all kinds of young people as well. This weekend was no different—for the couple next to me, I’d estimate both were in their 30s, and the couple directly in front of us were both in their 20s. They guy at the end of our row was young, and in shorts.

Plus, there were many students and young couples walking around in the lobby… were they somehow invisible to these nay-sayers?

To me this gets into an ongoing problem—that of being blinded by conventional wisdom. The “Graying of Audiences” is a meme that is constantly trotted out; it is so established that people accept it as gospel without ever thinking about it.

Yes, there’s some truth there, but the reality is far more complex… and far more interesting. If we’re going to have real discussions about the Orchestra’s community relevance, audience base, and hope for the future, we need to base those discussions on real-world truths, not assumptions.

I mean, if the Orchestra’s labor dispute and rebirth has taught us anything, it’s taught us that uncritical assumptions are dangerous. And that conventional wisdom can be unwise.



9 thoughts on “Mendelssohn, Wagner, and the Coming of Spring

  1. Scott, I’d like to add a comment about discussion of age in the audience. Something that has troubled me all along, including throughout the lockout, is the absence of conversation about the many, many concerts the orchestra puts on for children and their families. I’ve recently joined the Friends of the Minnesota Orchestra, and the Young People’s Symphony Concert Association (a part of the MOA organization), and as a member, have begun volunteering at the Friends and Family concerts, and the concerts where schoolchildren are bused from their schools in very large numbers. The awe and delight in the faces of these children are wonderful to experience, as they take in concerts by our great orchestra. I’d like to know the number of these concerts that are typically held, and the number of children introduced to classical music in this way now, as well as in past years. Last week, prior to one of these concerts, I was a participant at one of the “learning stations” and spent about an hour showing very, very young children how to hold and play a cello. I can’t describe the delight in their faces. This is a significant part of the Minnesota Orchestra story which has been overlooked for way too long.


  2. I, too, have noticed the many “younger” people at orchestra concerts. They even come to the Thursday morning concerts that definitely trend older to elderly.


  3. Thank you for this review Scott. I am glad that you enjoyed the Mendelssohn Concerto. I echo what you say about the importance of seeing a soloist who is well-connected to the rest of the orchestra. I would like to see other individuals from the orchestra perform as soloists rather than “big-name” soloists. I believe that the Star Tribune review is for the Thursday Coffee Concert, which would skew the age demographic greatly. I attended that concert, and I was definitely one of the youngest people there. Younger people have been attending the evening concerts in increasing #’s, despite what reviewers continue to say.


  4. Wonderful review, Scott. I was so incredibly sorry to miss Erin. I’m glad I made it in time for most of the Wagner. I, along with two other patrons and two people just visiting from out of town spent the better part of 2 hours trapped in an elevator at the Hilton. I came into the hall pretty shaky from the experience but left 50 minutes later feeling a whole lot better. As I left the concert hall, I saw Bonnie and Phil, who were on the elevator with me and said “This is why I need great music” The glorious sound of the orchestra filled me with joy and reminded me to enjoy every moment of life that I can, including meeting 4 total strangers on an elevator and telling stories. I’m sure you know the story I told!


  5. Hi, Scott,

    What a wonderful review of last weekend’s concert! I plan to link to it at my blog to share it. I know what you mean about Mendelssohn — it’s taken me years to learn to truly appreciate his music. Now I think his Italian Symphony is pure genius. Wagner’s orchestral writing is too often overlooked which is a shame. I played the French horn as a kid so I was exposed to Wagner very early. He wrote amazing music for brass sections.

    I agree with your comment about the current audience. I’ve seen more and more younger people in the audience since the lockout ended. Perhaps that is part of the silver lining to the lockout — if I can say such a thing exists — it captured the attention of younger people. I love seeing them, too!

    The MO has already begun its recovery from the lockout, but I fear that the Association has a very long way to go. I’ve been deeply disturbed by what they’ve done since the lockout ended, and what has NOT been done, especially regarding the 2014-15 season. HR 1930 is now in the Government Operations committee at the Legislature so I doubt there’ll be any action on it this year, which is a shame. It could have served as constructive pressure. Watch for more at Eyes on Life…..



  6. Pingback: A Concert Ascending | Mask of the Flower Prince

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