Applause, please, for the Minnesota Orchestra as it releases its new season. The bedlam of putting this season together—while they’re simultaneously trying to but the organization back together—is difficult to comprehend. And yet, they’ve assembled a thoughtful, fascinating season with many highlights and a stable full of fantastic guest artists. Bravo!
Although it sounds like a marketing cliché, I think this season does offer something for everyone, and each and every concert looks interesting, and I have no doubt you’ll see many things to feed your musical passion.
I’d like to share a few personal highlights of the upcoming season, which might help you decide which concerts to attend.
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First, let me mention a concert that will be supremely meaningful to me, and one I hope you won’t miss. Let me explain why.
October of 2013 was for me the lowest point of the whole ugly labor dispute; I suspect many others feel the same way, too. Behind the scenes, we in the Minnesota Chorale had been asked by the Orchestra’s management to hold the first weekend in October open—the goal was to perform in the grand re-opening of Orchestra Hall on those dates, should the labor dispute be resolved in time.
Two weeks before the performance, we got official notification that the concert had been cancelled.
Seeing how the dispute had gone up to that point, we had anticipated that might be the case. Thus, we launched a “plan B”—to perform a concert of our own that same weekend. Two weeks was not enough time to prepare full-length concert of our own, however. But to my ever-lasting gratitude, the other major choruses in town rushed into the breach, and we collectively agreed to perform a “season preview” concert which each chorus presenting 15 to 20 minutes of music from their upcoming performances.
Well and good… but something else happened at the same time.
Osmo Vänskä told the Orchestra’s management that if the dispute was not resolved by October 1, and his upcoming concerts at Carnegie Hall were cancelled, he would be forced to resign. As we all know, the dispute was not resolved, the Carnegie concerts were cancelled, and Osmo was forced to resign. An emotional week followed, capped by a series of concerts on the Friday and Saturday of that week where Osmo conducted the locked-out musicians in a gut-wrenching, farewell concert (my description of that legendary concert can be found here).
The next day, we presented our impromptu choral concert. And that was… tough.
When it was our turn to perform, our Artistic Director Kathy Saltzman Romey stepped to the microphone and gave a few introductory remarks—thanking the wonderful choruses who had come together to make the concert possible, and thanking the community for its support of great music. She then broke down, and in tears introduced our performance piece: the choral finale of Mahler’s Second Symphony, Resurrection. She dedicated it to Osmo and our friends and colleagues of the Minnesota Orchestra, in the hope that they, too, could rise up from this tragedy, and that one day we all might be able to perform together again.
Well, this wish is coming true.
On September 26-28, the new season at Orchestra Hall begins with that very work, Mahler’s Second Symphony, Resurrection. And it features all of us, together again… Osmo, the Minnesota Orchestra, and we in the Minnesota Chorale. And judging how emotional I have gotten just typing that out, I’m fairly sure I’m going to be a wreck on stage.
Please don’t miss this event.
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But this is hardly the only highlight!
I’m fairly certain that my music-nerd credentials will zoom off the chart for saying this, but I am absolutely giddy for the December 14 concert, Navidad En Cuba: Christmas In Havana Cathedral. No really, when I learned of this… well, my reaction scared my dog.
Let me explain why.
I am sorry to report that most music lovers are woefully uninformed about the wonders of the Baroque music written in the New World between 1600 and 1800. This is most unfortunate, as there is nothing quite like it. While today we tend to think of Latin America as a series of “developing” or “third-world” countries, the reality is that during this time, cities like Mexico City, Havana, Puebla, and Lima were some of the wealthiest cities in the world. Flush with wealth brought in from the lucrative silver trade, the great churches of the region recruited a steady stream of musicians and composers from Europe. A Chapel Master in Mexico City could make a fortune relative to his peers in Italy or Germany, and many eagerly immigrated to the New World to enjoy a standard of living they could never attain in the Old.
It is also interesting to note that these musicians hailed from diverse backgrounds. The Spanish Empire of the time encompassed Milan, Naples, Belgium, and Portugal in addition to Spain itself, and ties between the Habsburgs of Spain and Austria meant that musicians from Central Europe made their way to the New World as well. As a result, the music of Baroque-Era Latin America is a fascinating fusion of these styles, cheerfully drawing from Spanish, Italian, German, and Flemish traditions to create music that is unexpectedly sophisticated and cosmopolitan.
But there’s more. Once set up in the New World, these musicians discovered the rich, vibrant musical traditions of the native peoples and Africans. These musical stylings hit composers like a thunderclap and led to a revolution in composition. Soon church composers were composing religious motets in native languages, such as the Aztecs’ Nahuatl and the Incas’ Quechua. Moreover, they drew heavily from native and African rhythms and instrumentation. European, Indigenous, and African elements came together in new and fascinating ways.
The result is a stunning musical tradition that crackles with rhythm, drive, and excitement. And better yet, it is so unexpected—for years these manuscripts have been gathering dust in the great churches of Latin America, and only in the last 20 years has this music been uncovered and performed.
And now it’s being performed here! Ignacio de Jerúsalem, a composer featured on this concert, is a wonderful example of this great musical tradition. Born in Lecce, Italy, around 1710, he made his name playing in the theaters of Cádiz before immigrating to Mexico City in 1742. He became Chapel Master of the great Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City in 1749, and held the post until his death in 1769. His contemporaries in Europe described him as a “musical miracle” and his influence on the music of the New World was immense. Esteban Salas y Castro was a hugely influential figure in his native Cuba, and a pioneer who fused the musical forms of the late 1700s with a distinctly Cuban sensibility.
If you have any interest in Baroque music, you must attend this concert. If you’ve never felt an affinity for Baroque music, you must attend this concert. You will be delighted.
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A few other thoughts, quickly.
● I am thrilled with the amount of choral music this year. We in Chorale are singing in a wide range of concerts, and our colleagues from the Rose Ensemble are joining the Orchestra for the Latin American Baroque concert I just mentioned. We’re doing everything from mighty warhorses to contemporary works, so come hear us sing. I’ll notice if you aren’t there.
● Renée Flemming. Just come. Fight for tickets if you must—just come.
● I’m particularly happy that the Orchestra is doing a Spirit and Spring series, including discussions with faith leaders from the community. I think this has the potential to be a profoundly moving series.
● The Composer Institute is back—thank Heavens! For me, it is important to have this on the schedule, as a way to expand the artform and mentor a new generation of composers. For those not familiar, it is a week-long residency where emerging composers get a crash course in the joys and challenges of being a professional composer. It includes intensive training in writing for specific instruments, working with publishers, copyright law, and more. And the week ends with a full performance of one of their works at the “Future Classics” concert. This program is unique and invaluable, and I am thrilled that it is returning. And a big welcome to Pulitzer-winning composer Kevin Puts, who is coming on to lead the program!
● Sibelius’s Sixth Symphony. It is not just one of my favorite works of music, but a calling card of Osmo’s. No one performs Sibelius like he does, and no one performs this symphony like he does. Fingers crossed that this will lead to another recording with the BIS label!
Speaking of Sibelius, I’m delighted to see that his music from The Tempest is on the program. One of his final compositions, Sibeilus’s The Tempest is his final statement in the realm of incidental music (music for a play—similar to movie music in our era), and has some of his most original music. I’m thrilled to hear it live… the eponymous storm in the beginning is terrifying!
● Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20. Back in the day, I was a bit of a music snob towards Mozart’s music. I am ashamed to admit that during this phase of my immaturity, I was convinced that anything written before the 20th century was hopelessly old-fashioned and unworthy of attention. In particular, I wrote off Mozart as some fop in a powdered wig who couldn’t possibly have anything important to say.
Thank God I grew up. Well… thank God and this piano concerto. Completely by accident, I heard a performance of this piece and was absolutely spell-bound. The turbulent opening grabbed my attention, and the gorgeous slow movement melted my heart. This work has remained one of my favorite pieces of music, and launched me into a Mozart obsession that hasn’t ever really subsided. I have heard it said that no one should deprive themselves of the boundless joy of hearing a Mozart piano concerto live at least once in his or her life. This is the one you absolutely cannot miss.
Well, I’m sure I could say more, but this should get you started. Look over the calendar and pick your dates. And most important—come hear your Minnesota Orchestra. This is a can’t-miss season.
[Edit: shortly after I posted this, fellow blogger Emily Hogstad posted her thoughts on Song of the Lark. You should read it….]