Something amazing happened lat night at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. Was it a kick-off to a new season? The start of a new era? A fundraiser? Party?
The Minnesota Orchestra’s “Starry, Starry Night” with Renée Fleming and Osmo Vänskä was all of these things… but most important, it was a concert. One hell of a concert.
Allow me to share the highlights of a memorable concert that showed the wonder and power of music.
* * *
Of course, like everyone else covering the event, I feel I have to comment on one of the most important highlights of the evening: the star’s outfits.
Osmo chose to forgo a tuxedo with tails, wearing instead a dramatic, all-black ensemble that focused attention on his masculine lines. The close fit showed his powerful form at its best advantage, heightening the rugged athleticism of his dynamic conducting…
Oh… you wanted me to comment on Renée’s outfits? Sorry, I just assumed that enough reviewers chimed in on that front already.
Maybe we should just skip ahead to the music.
* * *
The program opened with a firecracker reading of the overture to Carl Nielsen’s opera, Maskarade. I was thrilled with the choice—the 20th century Danish composer is still widely unknown to American audiences, and I welcome any chance to hear his music live. Maskarade is a joyous opera… a riotous comedy of mistaken identities, pledges of undying love, and screwball plots. And the music, particularly in the madcap first act, is absolutely brilliant. It is no wonder Maskarade is regarded as a cultural treasure in Denmark.
And as an opener for the Orchestra’s gala, it was a sensational… the pop of a champagne cork to get things started. What fun!
From the moment Osmo and the musicians took the stage, smiles and collective joy were dancing between the audience and the performers—everyone was obviously thrilled to be together in that hall. And all this boisterous energy carried over to performance. The musicians weren’t just playing their part… it was like they were laughing their parts.
But a truly great joke requires great timing, and that is exactly what the Orchestra gave us. Every gesture was perfectly placed. The lines were crisp without ever feeling overdetermined. The singing lines had exquisitely timed swell, and all the quicksilver temperament of the work was captured with panache. It was such a relief for me as an audience member to see that the fabled ensemble of the group has emerged from the last two years wonderfully intact.
This orchestra has greatness ahead.
And as an aside, can we get some more Nielsen into upcoming seasons? Beyond his remarkable symphonies and concertos, he has written some absolutely brilliant choral-orchestral works, such as the shockingly beautiful Hynmus Amoris, Sleep with its terrifying nightmare vision, and the most perfect musical embodiment of spring I’m aware of: Springtime in Funen.
* * *
It was at this point that Renée made her entrance, performing the brand-new work The Strand Settings by Anders Hillborg. And everything about that performance was absolutely magnificent.
Let me begin by saying how excited I was to see that Renée chose as her “big” piece of the night a work that has only been performed once before. I mean, that alone was a wonderful testament to her as an artist, and a show of respect for us as an audience. How easy it would have been to give us instead of giving us some watered down, bleeding-chunks-of-opera medley or some lightweight tribute to Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Instead, she went in a wonderful new direction. She gave us a work new to all of us—one that required as much from the performers as it did from the audience. And that was a good thing, and one that rewarded us amply.
Hillborg created a unique, fascinating sound world unlike any other. He called for a huge orchestra, but used it lightly and sparingly. Percussion was used in innovative ways… my God, that otherworldly siren call made simply by running a finger across a perfectly tuned wine glass…! And under Osmo’s direction, the Orchestra threw themselves into these uncharted, otherworldly waters with confidence and conviction.
Renée herself was in wonderful voice, and captured the shifting moods of the piece brilliantly; at one moment she was almost conversational in tone, and a moment later she was soaring with passionate intensity. Emotion and words were fused as to be indistinguishable. Even though the work is almost as new to her as it was to us, she excelled. She took hold of us and boldly led us on a journey together.
And that text! Mark Strand’s poetry was a marvel of complex feelings that said much… but paradoxically left much unsaid. In “The Black Sea” there is a palpable sense of anticipation, of looking out on the vast sea with desperate expectation… but we never fully know what the singer is waiting for. Over the gliding, shimmering orchestration those haunting words created a vast sense of loneliness. It was breathtaking. And that same uneasy serenity pervaded the other three poems, which asked as many questions as they answered.
But the final poem was particularly memorable, given the events of the last two years. With bewitching intensity, Renée sang out:
A long time has passed and yet is seems
Like yesterday, in the midmost moment of summer,
When we felt the disappearance of sorrow,
And saw beyond the rough stone walls
The flesh of clouds, heavy with the scent
Of the desert, rise in a prodigal
Overflowing of mildness. It seems like yesterday
When we stood by the iron gate in the center
Of town while the pollen-filled breath
Of the wind drew the shadow of the clouds
Around us so that we could feel the force
Of our freedom while still captives of dark.
And later when the rain fell and flooded the streets
And we heard the dripping on the porch and the wind
Rustling the leaves like paper, how to explain
Our happiness then, the particular way our voices
Erased all signs of the sorrow that had been,
Its violence, its terrible omens of the end?
I don’t know exactly how the musicians responded to this, but I can think of no better description of the feelings I’ve gone through over the last few months, as the lockout ended and we collectively worked our way back towards healing… culminating in last night’s concert. Renée captured this emotions perfectly.
In a way, the piece vaguely reminded me of Maurice Ravel’s song cycle for soprano, Shéhérazade. This work, too, sets evocative poems that walk a fine line between illusion and reality, melding together images of life, love, and death. That piece, too, delights in ambiguity and hidden meanings. Both Ravel and Hillborg adopted a conversational, arioso-style approach to the vocal line, and made use of unique orchestration to create a sound world unlike any other. In light of this work, I’m going to have to re-listen to Renée’s rendition of the Ravel.
I understand The Strand Settings was an enormous hit at its premiere, and it certainly was again last night. And trust me, it more than earned the enthusiastic reception it received. I’m curious about its future, and would love to hear it again. Soon.
* * *
The middle works on the program were wonderful. They showed off the talents of singer, conductor and ensemble alike, and contrasted with each other brilliantly. The famous Intermezzo from Cavalleria rusticana perfectly captured the conflicting sense of the serene countryside and the violent passions of the main characters. The overture to La forza del destino was darkly dramatic and bristling with menace.
Renée’s rendition of the glorious “O mio babbino caro” gave us a perfect opportunity to not only revel in her glorious tone, but to see her as the gifted dramatic actress she is. She nailed it… as many times as we’ve heard that familiar song, she had us in the palm of her hand.
Her West Side Story songs were a brilliant addition to the evening. “I Feel Pretty” gave her a chance to ham it up to the point of self-parody (“see that pretty dress!” indeed), but “Somewhere” again captured all the raw feelings lingering from the lockout, and pointed to a moment of healing ahead.
She was an incomparable artist at the height of her powers.
And her encore was remarkable.
Of all the pieces she could have possibly performed, she did a song from Leonard Bernstein’s 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, “Take Care of this House,” to honor all those who “took care of this orchestra.” The text:
Take care of this house,
keep it from harm.
If bandits break in sound the alarm.
Care for this house.
Shine it by hand
and keep it so clean
the glow can be seen all over the land.
Be careful at night,
check all the doors.
If someone makes off with a dream
the dream will be yours.
Take care of this house.
Be always on call
for this house is the home of us all.
I can’t imagine any better words for all of us who treasure this Orchestra—one we almost lost.
* * *
For the finale, Osmo chose a showstopper that never fails to engage audiences… but also gave a chance for the orchestra to show its stuff: The Pines of Rome by Ottorinio Respighi. Respighi is not considered a particularly subtle composer; he does, however, have the distinction of being Italy’s most brilliant orchestrator. And he pulls out all the stops in The Pines of Rome. Wow. The piece depicts four places around Rome where pine trees famously grow: the great Villa Borghese gardens, a chapel near ancient catacombs, the Janiculum hill in moonlight, and along the Appian Way. The various places and times of day give Respighi endless possibilities for moods and sonic effects, and he makes the most of his opportunities.
For example, the stark Catacombs movement calls for a trumpet to play a solemn religious chant from off in the distance. Osmo worked with Manny Laureno to create just the ethereal, spooky effect that Respighi was after—by sending Manny into the upper rafters above the acoustical cubes in the ceiling. The resulting disembodied sound was altogether magical. (And left Manny panting for breath—he had to climb something like four flights of stairs and navigate his way across a catwalk to reach his perch, then set and play. Good God, that’s devotion to your art!)
Another fascinating effect was the use of actual an actual birdsong in the third movement. Respighi took the opportunity to have the sound of a nightingale recorded onto a phonograph and indicated that that recording be played at the movement’s ending (a digital version of this recording is used today). This novel effect created much discussion at the time, and led to other composers adding real natural sounds into their scores—contemporary composer Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus is a direct descendant of this approach.
But there was much more to the performance than sonic effects—there was wonderful music-making, too. In the third movement, Respighi evokes the nocturnal serenity of the Janiculum, Rome’s beautiful hilltop park, with a haunting clarinet solo that was breathtakingly performed by Greg Williams. Absolutely perfect.
And kudos to the horn section, which also played with such delicate softness that I thought they, too, had run up to play from Manny’s perch above the cubes.
And the percussionists. My God, that had to have been a great concert for them—there was something of everything going on. Delicate effects, raw bouts of military power, and all kinds of sheer physicality. I have to believe that Brian Mount sweat off 20 lbs. pounding on the bass drum for the finale!
And that finale was over the top glorious. It was a cathartic thunderclap of everyone collectively letting loose, and we loved it.
* * *
Let me close with the thought that last night reminded me of how wonderful these concerts are to experience live. Altogether, the night was pervaded with wonderful touches and tiny moments that helped frame everything and add to the fun.
Before the concert began, the Orchestra had brought in resident artists from the Minnesota Opera to serenade us in the lobby. It was so much fun, and added immeasurably to the evening. I don’t know whose idea it was to have strolling musicians… but my hat is off to you.
And the concert itself was filled with those moments, too. When Hillborg’s The Strand Settings was done, Osmo and Renée turned to each other with absolute joy. They knew they had given us an incredible performance of a challenging piece… and nailed it to wall. It was not just the glow of success, but the glow of having taken a risk and seen it pay off.
And there was the palpable warmth of the audience reaction. This wasn’t polite or correct applause; there was real love and gratitude being expressed. I think we were all honored to be there… and as odd as it may sound, I think that emotion carried through the clapping. I felt it, anyway, and hope the performers did as well.
Most notably, afterwards we dissolved a single, shared community. In the lobby there were glasses of champagne, toasts and a formal display of the new Grammy Award statue. But more important, there was shared laughter between the audience, musicians, staff, and board members. Conversations. Sharing. Hugs. Selfies. Joy. It was so thrillingly alive, and I am beyond happy I was there to savor it.
Who would have thought any of this was possible six months ago?
Come out yourself and see what I mean. This is an experience like no other.