Getting Ready for Mahler

It’s here—opening night of the Minnesota Orchestra’s new season is tomorrow! I’ve already given my thoughts about performing Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, but as a bit of a preview I wanted to share some of the more memorable moments of this week’s rehearsals. Although we in the Minnesota Chorale have been lucky enough to perform several times with the Orchestra since the end of the lockout, this was the first time performing with Osmo Vänskä since he was reinstated as Music Director.

I wouldn’t miss these performances for the world. And trust me, neither should you (you can get your tickets here).

But in the meantime, let me provide some backstage chatter from the last few days.

* * *

The first thing I noticed when walking through the stage door was the new “photos” on the walls.

Before the renovations at Orchestra Hall, the interior brick wall was filled with signed, framed headshots of the various artists who had performed there. Some of the performers were famous, some were rising stars, and some have been nearly forgotten over the decades. Age had taken their toll on many of the photos, but their fades and discolorations added to their allure. Once the renovation began, all the photos were taken down, and we’ve been waiting to see what they were replaced with.

Well, the wait is over! Now instead of a mosaic of headshots, there are huge, oversized photo panels taken from some of the Orchestra’s most of memorable performances. It’s a very nice touch.

I noted that the one right inside the Stage Door is, curiously enough, from a concert I performed in a few years back—an incredible performance of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. This is a particularly apt photo for the Stage Door entrance, as this was a hugely collaborative concert that included many performers from across the community. It involved not just the Orchestra and the Minnesota Chorale, but also the vocal groups Kantorei, the Minnesota Boychoir, and Magnum Chorum. Plus, we were joined by our neighbors from the other side of the Mississippi River, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. The photo is a wonderful reminder of both the strength and breadth of our musical community, plus our commitment to collaboration.

Naturally, I spent a good few minutes finding myself among the mass of on-stage humanity. Because… that’s just what you do.

* * *

Monday was our piano rehearsal with Osmo—a chance to meet with him on our own so that he could hear us, give us specific instructions and make any modifications before we gathered everyone all together. We were pumped, and as I’ve mentioned before, there were a lot of emotions on that stage as we went through our warm up.

And then Osmo entered.

Now normally when we first meet the conductor, there are the formal introductions: he or she will say how happy they are to work with us, and we applaud in greeting.

This was different.

Before Osmo could be formally introduced, we rose to our feet and gave a very, very deeply-felt standing ovation. Osmo broke into an appreciative smile and waited until that standard moment where you expect the applause to die down, and started to thank us. But we didn’t stop applauding at that standard, expected moment. We cut him off, and our applause in fact got louder. We were saying: “No, really. This isn’t courtesy applause. We missed you. We love working with you and thought we lost you. We are now going to demonstrate how grateful we are to have this project with you. And we don’t care about your Nordic reserve… you are going to stand there and take our display of gratitude like a man.”

Our applause subsided when we were good and ready.

At that point, in a voice I think indicated he had indeed received our message in the spirit it was given, he gave us the quote of the evening: “Life has sometimes… extra drama. [pause]  Well.  It is over.  Let’s get to work.”

You got it, boss.

* * *

And right away we got back to the “Osmo pianissimos” we’ve come to love. The start of the Mahler is sung ridiculously softly—as if it was coming not just from off-stage, but from another building. On the other side of town. Ideally, it should be sung so softly that the audience doesn’t even realize that we are singing… and Osmo would prefer it to be even softer than that. One of my all-time favorite quotes from Kathy Saltzman Romey, our artistic director, came when we first worked with Osmo, some years back: “At that level, I’m not entirely sure the singers will be able to phonate.”

But I tell you, we love the challenge—and the stunning aural effect when we achieve it.

I don’t know how long Osmo will be with the Minnesota Orchestra, but I can assure everyone that the term “Osmo pianissimos” will be used by the Chorale as long as we exist as an organization. It’s a permanent part of our collective DNA.

* * *

Related to the above, there was a small detail in our rehearsal that reminded me of how much I enjoy working with Osmo, and appreciate his attention to detail. At one point of the piece, Mahler has provided a dynamic marking of ppp. For those who don’t read music, this is somewhat of a crazy marking to request of 120 singers—one p means soft, and two p’s mean really soft. Putting in a three-p marking means it should be ridiculously soft. At that point, we could stop even attempting to sing and just hum.

Many conductors would probably be content to say that this section is barely audible and leave it at that. But after our first pass at it, Osmo tilted his head and said, “Can you phrase more on this line, so that there’s more weight right before the landing note? Just for a bit more direction?”

Yes. We will find a way.

* * *

Something I am most pleased with regarding the concert is the fact that the soloists have rich local roots. Minnesota is a great center of vocal music; we take singing very seriously here. So I am happy that for this “reunion” concert, we were able to draw from our own incredibly deep pool of talent.

And both soloists are wonderful.

As part of the first orchestral rehearsal, we took the stage in time to hear mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala begin the symphony’s fourth movement.

It was so rich, so profound… as if the earth were gathering up, and reaching towards the heavens.  It was elemental and celestial all at once.  Wow.

I think it is going to be devastating in concert. It a wonderful way.

And she was perfectly matched in the final movement by soprano Linh Kauffman, who does the superhuman job of not just soaring over a 120-member chorus, but doing so in a gorgeous voice that conveys light and radiance instead of determined steel.

* * *

Although our entrance is supernaturally quiet in the beginning, we are thunderously loud in the finale. I mean loud. When we finished, Osmo looked at us with a grin from ear to ear and said “Woooooow!”   But even then, he was as precise as usual about our dynamics: “Make sure you keep the first three beats softer. Do not scream too early!”

Got it. Scream on beat four.

* * *

After the rehearsal let out, I met with a player from the now-locked out Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, who is joining us for these concerts. I am honored to have her with us, and I was most happy to make her acquaintance. She even brought a T-shirt from the Atlanta musicians, which brought a huge grin to my face. I will wear it with pride!

But this serves as a reminder of the many conflicting feelings I have right now. This concert is a joyous affirmation of what we do here, and a celebration that we have Osmo and the Minnesota Orchestra back. We fought hard for their return, and this is the payoff. It is enormously gratifying.

That said, it is impossible not to think about our friends in Atlanta, who are just beginning their own version of the nightmare we had here.

As I mentioned before, I want them to know that they are in our thoughts and we do stand with them. I hope that they too will have their own Resurrection concert coming up… with our esteemed colleagues of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus.

Atlanta deserves no less.

* * *

As a postlude, let me tell you about a tiny moment that made me ridiculously happy. The musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra have this small little thing they do when something drops, falls over or otherwise makes an unexpected sound in rehearsals. Well, when the inevitable sound happened yesterday, they still managed to do it, even as they continued playing.

This gave me all the proof I needed to know that the institutional memory is preserved, and that this is still very much the same ensemble I love. I rest secure.

Thank you, all… and make sure you have your tickets.  Plus, as part of the opening celebrations, there are all kinds of activities going on in the lobby that are free and open to the public.  See you there!





8 thoughts on “Getting Ready for Mahler

  1. I sang the “Resurrection” with Portland Symphonic Choir and the OSO several times. The most moving experience of my years with them. I have my ticket for Saturday, and my companion will probably have to nudge me so I don’t sing along. Oh, and there have been several times when (I believe) God has used this symphony to mark “Resurrections” in my own life. I’ll be the guy in tears of sorrow-turned-to-joy and confusion-turned-to-faith in the nose bleed seats.
    Thanks for these notes, which do bring your dedicated work into focus for us in the audience.


  2. Love this post! Toi-toi for the concerts this weekend. I’m still not quite ready to attend a concert after my surgery and rough ongoing recovery, but I’ll be listening tonight to the broadcast on Classical MPR!


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