Rest in Peace, Maestro Skrowaczewski

I think that most people would agree that the Minnesota Orchestra is in the midst of a golden age.  Under the artistic leadership of Music Director Osmo Vänskä, and the administrative leadership of President and CEO Kevin Smith, the ensemble has leapt from one success to another.  Rave reviews, award-winning recordings, enthusiastic audiences, historic cultural exchanges… the Orchestra is enjoying them all right now.

I don’t wish to take anything away from its current, well-earned successes. But in many ways, the foundations of today’s successes were laid by another man: former Music Director, and long-time Conductor Laureate Stanisław Skrowaczewski.

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Stan passed away yesterday at age 93 after a series of strokes… but his immense legacy will live on across the world through his dozens of recordings, his riveting biography Seeking the Infinite, and the memories of those he touched.

Over the length of his astonishing career, Stan worked with countless ensembles, in countless places.  Each has a rightful “claim” on him, but allow me to share a few thoughts about his impact here in Minnesota. Continue reading

Help Send Song of the Lark to Europe!

A year ago (good God, can it already be a year ago?) my readers and supporters made it possible for me to travel with the Minnesota Orchestra on their historic tour to Cuba, and write about my experiences there.  I remain profoundly grateful to my readers for their generosity, and hope everyone approved of the resulting coverage (which is compiled here, and continues to be read today).

Well, it is with profound happiness that I announce that Emily Hogstrad—a sister blogger at “Song of the Lark”—has a similar opportunity to travel with the Minnesota Orchestra on its tour to Europe.  Congratulations, Emily!

Am I a tad jealous?  Sure—my family hails from Finland, and a return trip there remains on my bucket list.  And I would love to see some of the other stops as well, including Amsterdam’s legendary Concertgebouw.  But Emily has more than earned this trip, and given her always fascinating insights into the world of classical music, I await her reports with excited excitement.

And you can help make this happen.

Emily has set up a GoFundMe page where supporters can provide support for her trip.  In the strongest possible terms, I urge you to go to the page and make a contribution if you can.  You will not just be supporting one of the most original, passionate writers in the musical world, you’ll be striking a blow for community-based writing, too.  At a time when so many major publications or news outlets are abandoning coverage of cultural events, voices like Emily’s are critically important. You can be a hero that makes her kind of audience- and community-focused writing possible.

So please join me in contributing to Emily’s fund.  You won’t regret it for a moment!

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Xochipilli

 

 

 

Brahms’ “A German Requiem”—A Visionary Masterpiece

The Requiem.  The ancient Mass for the Dead.

Few texts have had a more enduring, more profound impact on Western Culture.  Originally sung as part of the funeral rites performed in the Roman Catholic Church, the Requiem is now fused into our collective memory… quietly with us whether we’re Catholic or not.

The impact of the Requiem is particularly clear in Western Music, where settings of the Requiem Mass have formed an important part of choral music from the Middle Ages to today.  A vast number of composers from Palestrina to Andrew Lloyd Webber have penned a Requiem, even if they weren’t Catholic—or particularly religious at all.  It’s easy to see why; the Requiem text, like the ritual it is drawn from, is so broadly recognized that it provides as a easily-understood starting point to explore universal questions of life, death, and life after death.

In composing a Requiem, there are several approaches that composers have taken.  On the one hand, there those that emphasize the dramatic nature of the words, focusing on anger at our loss, the fear of the unknown, or our terror of Final Judgment.  The Requiems of Hector Berlioz and Giuseppe Verdi are the best-known examples of this train of thought.  On the other hand, there are those that emphasize notions of comfort, solace, and a spiritual release as the deceased is gathered up by a merciful God—the Requiems of Gabriel Fauré and Maurice Duruflé represent this tradition.  Or, the composer could adopt an “interrupted” approach where outside texts are added in to provide additional reflections or to comment on the traditional liturgy. Benjamin Britten uses this approach in his War Requiem, inserting war poems by Wilfred Owens that provide deeper layers of meaning to the ritualized Latin text, and make a broader statement about the horrors of war.

Still, while these approaches seem very different, they still share a common base—they all focus attention on the deceased individual(s) and place them the center of the unfolding religious drama.  It is a ritual for and about the dead.

How different this is from Brahms’s approach in A German Requiem. Continue reading

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! Continue reading

Sibelius’s Kullervo

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Sibelius’s Kullervo is an undoubted masterpiece… but boy, is it a quirky one.  By all conventional rules of classical musicdom, it simply should not be.  Consider:

  • It was the first significant orchestral work Sibelius ever wrote.
  • It came from Finland, which at the time was distant corner of the Russian Empire that did not have a particularly strong or well-developed classical musical infrastructure.
  • It featured singers singing in Finnish—a language that was looked down upon as being low-brow at the time.
  • It chronicled the adventures of a decidedly unconventional hero from Finnish mythology.
  • It was only performed five times before Sibelius withdrew it and banned all future performances of the work; it was only after his death that his heirs authorized the work to be performed again.

In short, Kullervo is an oddity, an enigma… much like the legendary figure upon which it is based.

But make no mistake, it is a masterpiece that is as startling today as it was at its premiere in 1892. It is the work that created Sibelius’s reputation. And it is a work I love to distraction. Continue reading