Romeo and Juliet at the Orchestra

It has been awhile, but I wanted to post a review of an astonishing Minnesota Orchestra concert I attended over the weekend, to help people understand the power of a live classical music concert. As it happens, I think it was my wife’s favorite concert of the season thus far… and it’s easy to see why. 

* * *

The concert was part of the Minnesota Orchestra’s ongoing Winter Shakespeare Festival, a brilliant multi-week festival featuring music inspired by the Bard’s masterworks. (Shakespeare and classical music? Two of my favorite things! I’m in heaven!) Last week’s concert was “Star-Crossed Lovers,” an exploration of music inspired by Romeo and Juliet. And based on this concert, you should stop reading any further, go to the Orchestra’s website and snap up tickets for the upcoming Winter Shakespeare programs. I’ll wait.

Back? Good. Let’s go on.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the evening was the sense of atmosphere. It was like a party—the Hall was crackling with energy, with a number of activities taking place throughout the lobby. Actors were giving readings of Romeo and Juliet’s most famous scenes. Over in the atrium, dancers were bringing the music from West Side Story to life. A gleaming-black Steinway was set up in the lobby, giving attendees a chance to show off their chops. Orchestra musicians were serving as greeters and talking up the concert. Similar activities are programmed for the remaining concerts in the festival, as listed at the Orchestra’s Shakespeare Winterfest page.

All in all, it was there was an incredible feel of camaraderie, bustle, excitement and… well, richness. Yes, I think that’s word here… it felt like a wonderfully rich experience. This wasn’t simply a concert, but a multi-layered event.

And what a crowd! Let me back up and say that one of the standard cliché’s of the classical musical world is that audiences are graying and ohfortheloveofGod we need young people coming in the door now! Now!!

But looking out on a crowd, I had to wonder what the fuss was. There were all sorts of young people at hand—some hanging out in groups, some accompanying their families. There were teenagers sitting next to me, and the 20s and 30s were well represented. Moreover, that has been my experience for nearly all the concerts I’ve attended. Yes, I realize this is anecdotal evidence based on my non-scientific observations. And I don’t know that the Minnesota Orchestra has somehow “solved” the demographic question, but we really have to stop relying on conventional wisdom to prove that classical music concerts are only attended by veterans of the Revolutionary War. There are younger people attending concerts, and they are engaged. Let’s build on that foundation instead of running around panicking, shall we?

And the performance itself. What a perfect introduction to the power, emotion, and personality of a classical music concert. The concert pieces offered something for everyone, and they were given exceptional performances that balanced brilliant technical playing with heart-felt emotions.

Take the famous Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture by Tchaikovsky—a great way to open the concert. No one listens to Tchaikovsky for his musical architecture, or the inventive intellectualism of his works. His musical “seams” are far too evident. No, the reason we love him so much is that no one has ever surpassed his gift of fusing melody and emotion to the point where they are inseparable. Yes, his Romeo and Juliet Overture has been played many times before, and yes that melting love theme has been used in so many movies, commercials, and sit-coms that it’s almost a cliché… but that’s because it still works. Even though I suspect that many of the musicians could toss this thing off in their collective sleep, but they gave a powerful performance that got to the emotional heart of the work. Bluntly, it sang.

Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story” followed—a very different take on this familiar tale of star-crossed lovers. As an aside, one of my favorite moments from the concert came when Osmo was delayed in taking the stage for some reason. As we waited, some quick-thinking (er… smartass) musician on stage gave the famous whistle-call that opens the movie. It was ever so perfectly timed that for a minute it seemed scripted…. Much laughter followed.

And the music that followed was breathtaking.

Let’s just consider the rhythmic vitality of the performance. Bernstein is famous for his brilliantly inventive rhythms, not just in his music from West Side Story but in all his works. But these can be a danger, too—it is possible to be so detailed, clinical and obsessive that you lose the heart of the performance. That’s not what Osmo and the musicians gave us, though; what we got was a series of crisp rhythms that, paradoxically, really let go. The dances had all the propulsive energy you could wish for, without being overdetermined and fussy.

And the emotion was overflowing. Both the “Prologue” and “Rumble” movements had sharp pacing and were masterfully timed, so that the undercurrent of coiled violence didn’t peak too soon. “Somewhere” perfectly straddled that fine line between hope and hopelessness, wrapped in a desperate lyricism that will stay with me for some time. It was an absolutely knock-out performance that showed the depth of Bernstein’s writing.

But Osmo and the band were just getting started.

After intermission, we were treated to a white-hot performance of selections from Prokofiev’s ballet, Romeo and Juliet. I’ve heard Osmo conduct this particular arrangement before (he arranged it himself from Prokofiev’s suites, in order to make the narrative arc more coherent), but this performance easily effaced all others. There was a passion to the piece—an absolute fire that grabbed hold of us and did not let go. Don’t get me wrong… there was wonderful precision in the playing, but again it was the emotion that was so memorable. The “Dance of the Four Knights” didn’t just have bravado, it had menace… you could feel the simmering tension that was ready to explode at any moment. “Tybalt’s Funeral Cortege” was a terrifying scream of vengeance. But the darkness of the music was balanced by the radiant love music written for the young lovers—the musicians created a gorgeous vision of love (and frankly, lust) that burned so intensely that there was no thought of any consequences. Which made the final tragedy all more tragic. It was a powerful, visceral performance.

And that was my take-away of this concert… the emotions were wonderfully vivid, tangible, and raw. There is a danger that performers and conductors can get caught up on achieving mechanical, academic perfection—as if they were striving to be more perfect than Jesus on Adderall—that they lose sight of the meaning of the music.

But not here. Instead, we got a performance where every gesture wasn’t just precise, but purposeful. They had meaning. That is the greatness of artists, in being able to shape a simple phrase so skillfully that the phrase vanishes and you are left with… joy. Or rage. Or beauty. That is what was so remarkable about this concert… as I mentioned before, we didn’t have a concert, we had a deeply moving experience.

If this concert is any indication, you simply cannot afford to miss any of the upcoming Shakespeare Winterfest concerts. Get thee to the boxoffice!



9 thoughts on “Romeo and Juliet at the Orchestra

  1. Thank you Scott for your review of last Saturday’s concert. Your review was absolutely on target, and there is not much I can add. I searched in vain for a Strib review of the concert, with no luck. We need a way to get your reviews to a wider audience. I felt a bit self-conscious jumping to my feet at the end of the Prokofiev; fortunately the rest of the audience joined me as Osmo returned to the stage.


  2. I was there on Friday. It was a perfect concert. I agree with your wife. Three composer takes on the same piece of literature and all unique. All had incredibly familiar parts to them that were a surprise to me. (I’m not all that knowledgable about music.) I think there was a high school English class there on Friday night. Bravo for the teacher. I agree that there are plenty of “younger” people at the performances — especially this year. Perhaps it’s because the concerts have themes instead of composer’s names as titles. The programs this year have been dynamite.


  3. It was a wonderful concert. FYI The reason for the delay: Kathy Kienzle was replacing a broken string on her harp. Osmo did not come out until she signaled that she had it fixed.


  4. Pingback: Genius: Shakespeare, Berlioz, and Sibelius | Mask of the Flower Prince

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