The Minnesota Orchestra Conquers Carnegie Hall

This week, the Minnesota Orchestra, along with superstar violinist Hilary Hahn, played at Carnegie Hall under the direction of Osmo Vänskä… and days later it’s still difficult to get my head around all that happened and what it all means.  As a teaser, let me free-associate a few words: brilliant, shattering, thrill-ride, fire, partnership, joy, pride, triumph.

And now, for a slightly longer account.

Please note that this is not exactly a review (for real reviews, please see those in the New York Times and New York Classical Review), but rather a sense of the occasion and some thoughts for what it all means.  Enjoy!

* * *

First of all, I knew folks in New York were excited to hear this concert, but I didn’t realize just how excited people were until I got to Carnegie Hall.  There, I was greeted by a scalper warning that the concert was sold out and trying to sell me a ticket.

Yes… there were scalpers outside the door for a Minnesota Orchestra concert.

Let me just hang onto that memory for a second and smile. Is it wrong for me to hope that scalpers were soon be lining up outside Orchestra Hall, too?

Once inside, I was immediately struck by something—how much of a Minnesotan event this was, despite the fact it was taking place in the middle of Manhattan.  Walking around Carnegie Hall before the concert I ran into several familiar faces, and of course we greeted each other with a huge display of good will.

the excited crowd storming the gates.

The excited crowd storming the gates.

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Related to that, my wife and I were wearing our bright blue “Minnesota Orchestra Booster” buttons provided by SOSMN, and as we were watching the crowd mob the doors, we caught the eye of one of the marketing leads at Carnegie Hall.  He called out, “Aha—great button! We are so happy to have all our Minnesotan guests with us!”  Jill and I laughed, and said we had just put the buttons on, as we thought it might be a bit odd at dinner.

“Oh good heavens, no!” he replied.  “The New Yorkers would have loved that—that’s part of the story now, isn’t it?  The community rose up and dragged their orchestra back from the brink, and now has taken ownership of it.  It’s such a marvelous story. We talk about that all the time.”

button 1

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He went on to talk about the intense curiosity this concert has generated.  “There was such disappointment when the earlier concerts were canceled.  Everyone knew they were going to be remarkable, the confluence of such wonderful currents coming together.  We are just beyond thrilled we were able to at least in some way able to bring Minnesota’s Sibelius to the stage.” We both expressed the hope that more concerts were in the making.

We also talked at some length about the Orchestra’s return to glory; he was most interested in things were working out, along with the challenges and successes we were facing.  Overall, it was a vivid example of how closely the classical world has been following the Minnesota Orchestra’s story… and is cheering for its success.

And that was both thrilling and deeply humbling.

* * *

I had to laugh at our seats. I ordered tickets as soon as I was able, but even so the choices were severely limited, with seats either very close or much further away.  Being further back would have been wonderful—it would give a chance to hear the overall quality of the sound better, hear how the sound blended, and take in the whole stage.

But ultimately I opted for closer in… the second row, about 10 feet away from our esteemed bass section.

View from my seat: a close-up of Principal Bass Kristen Bruya warming up.

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This put me literally right next to the action, with the ability to really feel the basses digging into their strings at moments of great intensity, and to fully hear the snap of the cello strings when they were plucked during pizzicato moments.  Plus, the way the stage curved, I was literally right in line of sight with Osmo—the angle of vision was such that every time he cued Tony Ross, I felt like I needed to come in as well.  It was fantastic to see his face and gestures as he conducted.

And what a concert to be so up-close-and-personal!

Sibelius’s Third Symphony is incontestably a great work, but in honesty I prefer several of his other symphonies more.  But one of the things I do appreciate about this work is its many delicious, concurrent paradoxes.  Classical restraint, overlaying deep-seated emotions.  Tunes of hymn-like simplicity against oddly placed syncopations. Finnish sensibility with an international outlook.

Osmo and the Orchestra made the most of these dualities of these performances.  Under Osmo’s guidance the themes and ideas retained a Finnish perspective; but with American performers in an American setting, the symphony became something larger.  Something more universal.  This wasn’t some provincial little ditty that we could admire with questioning curiosity, but a galvanizing work that spoke to all of us and took us on a journey that we could all relate to.

It helped that the Minnesota Orchestra played the hell out of it.

There was such great specificity to the playing… a determination to make nuance count.  Sometimes this can result in a “fussy” or overworked interpretation where if feels like the orchestra is missing the forest through the trees.  But that wasn’t the case here—the attention to detail in this interpretation made the work feel richer, giving it greater diversity and range.  Again and again it was clear that all those tiny details were strategically developed to strengthen the whole.  For example, the Orchestra didn’t just give us a forte, but a forte that was informed by everything that had happened, and what was still to come.  And so it went; the accents, the swells and fades… every detail was carefully calculated as if part of a master plan that provided direction as well as a musical and emotional destination.  The result was that this music was unfailingly alive.

I was particularly struck by this approach during the third movement, which begins almost in a swirl of chaos that is ultimately swept aside by a gorgeous, hymn-like theme (and one that bears a passing resemblance to the hymn-theme of Finlandia).  The whole process was fascinating to watch, as the apparently random sequences went in and out of focus until they finally resolved into that gorgeous theme.  But it was deeply emotional, too—that glorious resolution when chaos finally gives way to order and beauty was breathtaking.

The audience went wild.  And it wasn’t just the Minnesotans who were awestruck.  The couple next to me were talking during the applause, and the guy said to his partner, “Oh my God.  I thought that was going to be a throwaway piece.  Wow!”

* * *

What to say about the performance of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto?

Right from the opening moments, Hilary Hahn set the tone for what was an absolutely sensational performance.  But more than anything, it was a living, breathing collaboration involving everyone on that stage: Hilary, Osmo, and the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra.

That deliciously otherworldly opening—dreamlike and giving the effect that you’ve walked into a conversation already in progress—was riveting. Hilary’s tone was rich without being heavy, silky without being slack, and silvery without being overly bright. Just the sound alone was gorgeous.  But she married it with flawless technique, dispatching the Concerto’s formidable difficulties with ease and assurance.

Well, maybe “ease and assurance” isn’t quite the right choice of words, given her daredevil playing.  At key moments she played with blazing passion… as in the rush toward the first movement finale, which she tossed off with unbelievable flair and flawless intonation.

More than once it felt like Hilary was ready to launch right into the stratosphere… but here’s where the wonders of collaboration came in.  Osmo and the musicians matched her, danced with her so that everyone was in sync, both musically and emotionally.

But there was more than raw pyrotechnics.  The second movement, for example, was out and out gorgeous. Gently longing, but with a strong inner fire.  She made the lines truly sing, and I think the audience fell into a collective swoon.

All in all, it was an astonishing performance that again brought down the house.

In response to the roaring ovation she received, Hilary offered a stunning encore:  the Sarabande from Bach’s Partita No. 2 for solo violin.  After the white-hot fury of the Concerto, it was haunting, evocative and completely disarming… and I noticed with interest that at its conclusion, many folks dived for their smart phones to find out what that piece was and how the hell can I download it right this very minute?!

* * *

And so to the grand finale, Sibelius’s First Symphony.

As I’ve mentioned before, I really wasn’t a fan of this work until I heard Osmo’s recording of it with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra.  I realized a great deal of the problem was with the interpretations I had heard; too many conductors treat it as “Romantic Symphony #23,” providing renditions that are characterless, empty spectacles.

Not our orchestra. And not our conductor.  No, they gave us an interpretation that was, again, brilliantly specific.  They had something to say about this work… boy, did they ever!

At the beginning, Gregory T. Williams gave a heart-stopping account of that famous clarinet solo. It was powerfully emotional, and searching for… something.  Longing for… something. Often overlooked in that solo, however, is the underlying timpani roll that creates a sense of unspoken menace.  Again, not here.  Jason Arkis did a brilliant job of supporting the clarinet solo with the perfect level of tension and drama—elements that are deeply embedded in the symphony and critical to its overall success.  Together, they worked magic; right from the first moments, we knew exactly what we were in for.

Moments later, there was an explosion of orchestral sound that launched the main theme proper, and we knew we were in for a wild ride indeed.  It wasn’t so much that the tempo was particularly fast; rather, it was the intensity of the playing that made the difference, giving the illusion of hurricane-force winds whipping the sea into a maelstrom.  And again, every detail was in perfect sync with all the others.  Everything was beautifully, expertly judged so that even when things pulled back, the underlying tension kept building.   There was almost literally a snap as all that accumulated tension released in the first movement’s final chords… so much so that in the following silence, the couple next to me turned to each other and hissed, “Holy shit!

The second movement Andante was a perfect foil to the energy of the first movement—slower and meditative, while keeping the underlying tension.  This wasn’t a “holding pattern” movement, but one that was deeply connected to what had gone on before, and serving as a perfect introduction to…

…one of the most ferocious scherzos I’ve heard in a while.  My God, Osmo and the musicians took that third movement at a tempo that was somewhere between “insane” and “unholy.”

And it worked.

But we didn’t even have a chance to reflect on it before they ratcheted the intensity even further in the fourth movement finale.  The music was played with technical precision, but it went far, far beyond that. It was as if the Orchestra was saying, “You asked for Sibelius? BEHOLD SIBELIUS IN ALL OF HIS POWER AND GLORY! IN YOUR FACE, CARNEGIE!!”  I don’t think the Carnegie Hall crowd knew what hit them.

The crowd was ecstatic, allowing Osmo and the Orchestra to perform three encores.

And I have to say—watching the crowd experience that magical performance was one of my favorite things about the entire concert.  It was the little things throughout the evening that demonstrated just how engaged they were.  One man near me was watching Principal Bass Kristen Bruya’s hands intently, and mimicking them against his own chest while she was playing. Others were quietly conducting… and to my delight, one such armchair conductor nearly punched the seat in front of him during one dramatic entrance.  During the intermission, there was a flurry of comments and startled praise (the brass section was particularly well-regarded in my corner of the auditorium).  And of course, there were repeated instances of what for lack of a better term I’ll call the “Osmo Pianissimo Lean-in,” where audience members, unaccustomed to how soft the orchestra can truly play, reflexively leaned in to hear better.

And it wasn’t just the crowd that was blown away; the critics were lavish in their praise, and called for the Orchestra’s return as soon as humanly possible.  Musicians from other esteemed ensembles made their way to the concert to hear how things were going, and left amazed.

It was an unqualified success.

* * *

But another thought strikes me.  While it might be heresy to say it out loud, in a way the roaring cheer from the crowd was the sweetest music of all.  That thunderous ovation was earned… by Osmo and the musicians, of course, but also by the entire community, which has risen up and claimed this orchestra for our own.

I mean, we worked hard to get our Orchestra back.  As I said to MinnPost on the eve of the concert:

It’s the culmination of hard work from everyone, including the musicians, board, administration, and volunteers … but most importantly, the community. Here in Minnesota, we’ve redefined the relationship between an arts organization and the public, and the country has taken notice.

And the country has taken notice.  Other orchestras and opera companies have intently studied how the Minnesota Orchestra has come roaring back, especially those in New York. They all want to emulate our model and reconnect with their communities, too.

But at the end of the day, the Minnesota Orchestra isn’t just a community support project or a case study on arts management… it is a performing arts organization.  Its success has to be measured in how well it performs.  By how successful its concerts are. By how successfully it engages audiences and moves the art form forward.

Well, here is proof positive, from a sophisticated, yet neutral party that the Minnesota Orchestra is back, and its artistry is impeccable. We are world-class.

I’m beyond elated that Osmo and the Orchestra sounded so good and revived the recognition they so richly deserve.

* * *

I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea.  All in all, this concert represented the kind of heroic victory that most ensembles only dream about achieving, and I’m thrilled that we achieved it.

But based on how well things are going right now at Orchestra Hall, I can say with confidence that it won’t be the last such success. The future never looked brighter.

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Xochipilli

 

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6 thoughts on “The Minnesota Orchestra Conquers Carnegie Hall

  1. I love your description of the “Osmo Pianissimo Lean-in.” I streamed the concert through my computer, which did not exactly give me the best quality sound. At one point when I couldn’t hear anything I leaned closer to my computer while thinking, “This must be one of those really quiet pianissimo’s.” Where did you get the Groupie button?

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  2. Scott–
    Many thanks for your blow-by-blow account. I too had to listen through computer speakers, as the Bluetooth connection would not sync. But it was still obvious that they were playing at a remarkable level with what seemed to be even greater intensity than they had with the program in Minneapolis. I hope that WQXR will put it on their replay-on-demand list as they have with some other concerts in the live at Carnegie series.

    Osmo’s performances very often give the impression of great intensity, and so I would enjoy reading how “intensity” actually happens, if you care to tackle the subject. It must come from a particular mix of rhythm and dynamics rather than just speed, plus felt emotions, expectations about the music, and whatever else is happening in the listener’s nervous system.

    I was fortunate to hear Vladimir Horowitz perform a couple of times, and the intensity of much of his playing left those of us in the audience feeling like wet dish rags by the end of the concerts. He tempos were generally fast but not the fastest, but the rhythms were very clear and the tonal quality and dynamics–ranging from whispers to bombs–were quite unlike any other pianist.

    Thanks again–your blog is a great resource.

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  3. I see that the MO’s Carnegie concert now has been posted for on-demand listening at WQXR radio, which hosts the Live at Carnegie series.

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