Symphony Ball 2017—Celebrating Music, Celebrating Community

You know, there was a time not so long ago that I worried for the future of my very own Minnesota Orchestra.  Even after the contentious lockout ended, there was a lingering fear that the scars left by the 16-month ordeal wouldn’t heal, or that the various parts of the Orchestra family would continue to work at cross purposes.

Let me say definitively that these fears  have been completely put aside.  And this year’s Symphony Ball is a crystal clear example of how effectively—and joyfully—all parts of the Orchestra family are working together right now.

And by working together, they are creating what is setting up to be the Twin Cities’ most exciting party of the year: Symphony Ball 2017. And everyone is welcome.

The Ball is set for June 24 at Orchestra Hall. This year’s theme is A Night on the Silk Road, and I can’t think of a better starting point that captures the energy of where the Orchestra is now.  On the one hand, this theme references a journey, which certainly describes the last few years of the Orchestra’s history.  But more important, it honors the idea of exchange, of sharing of cultures, and a rich tapestry woven together from distinctive threads.  So it is no surprise that this year brings together classical elements, pop culture elements, and world culture elements

For me, the highlight is the musical concert portion (tickets are available here), which looks astonishing. As Kenneth Huber, Chair of the Symphony Ball’s Music/Entertainment Committee, explained in the Orchestra’s magazine, Showcase:

The Minnesota Orchestra and Osmo Vänskä will perform the world premiere of the Silk Road Symphonic Fantasy, a 22-minute “medley” of excerpts from great symphonic repertoire. The Fantasy, which I helped create during the past year, is a musical journey by composers who were inspired by the Silk Road aura and composed some of the most colorful, exciting, beloved and well-known works in the symphonic canon. Each excerpt has a Silk Road connection—though none are literal representations or examples of music from that era. We’re very excited to have Brian Newhouse, the “voice of the Minnesota Orchestra” on MPR, as our narrator and host.

But that’s hardly the only highlight.  In addition to the Fantasy, singer-rapper-essayist Dessa will perform with the Orchestra in two new pieces that she has created for the occasion followed by a 30-minute set with her own musicians. Dessa’s recent appearance with the Orchestra was a thing of wonder—bustling with sharp intellect, creative energy and musical passion.  I’m thrilled she’s making a return engagement, and hope that her fans will come out to see this inventive collaboration… and to see that they have a place at Orchestra Hall, too.

For those who missed it, Dessa’s first appearance was chronicled on Twin Cities PBS’s award winning program, MN Original:

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But as exciting as this event will be, perhaps the most exciting aspect of the Symphony Ball is how it has brought together the entire organization into a monumental work of love. There is no standing on ceremony, no us-and-them, no silos. This was clear from the very beginning, when Board Chair Marilyn Carlson Nelson and enthusiastically pushed  for audience advocates Paula DeCosse, MaryAnn Goldstein and Laurie Hodder Greeno—all associated with the groups Orchestrate Excellence and Save Our Symphony MN—to serve as the event’s co-chairs.

As Graydon Royce mentioned in his recent Star Tribune article, audience advocate activists are now running the Orchestra’s premiere fundraising gala.  What a sign of trust!

And the spirit of trust and cooperation has infused the entire operation; the co-chairs have been committed to building an inclusive model that draws on the talents of everyone in the organization.  As Co-Chair MaryAnn Goldstein explained:

There are about 90 people on the subcommittee, drawn from the musicians, Board members, staff from virtually all departments, and many additional community members. They’re all volunteering to make this Ball something that really reflects the New Minnesota Orchestra.

Their collective goal was to bring everyone together and to make everyone feel part of the Orchestra’s team. MaryAnn continues:

We envisioned and created the evening to be a manifestation of the “Minnesota Model” in both process and result—and hope we will be able to deliver on more than just a successful fundraiser—inspiring people to become even more engaged with the Orchestra whether they are new, former or current fans.

In effect, Symphony Ball is combing the traditional elements of a gala fundraiser with the idea of crowdfunding to build a stronger, more durable base of support… plus a sense of connection to the Orchestra.

The sense of collaboration is particularly evident in the music.  Kenneth Huber remarked that many of the musical ideas were generated by the musicians, particularly Michael Adams and Doug Wright.  Music Director Osmo Vänskä helped finalize the ideas and give them wings.  All involved raved about the spirit of cooperation and mutual support that infused the process.

All in all this is setting up to be fantastic evening embracing the idea of community, culture, sharing and growing. And, it will help support a wonderful community treasure. But best of all… this sounds like one incredible party!

I’m planning on going, and I hope you will do the same. Special price tickets are available through June 20 here.

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Life, Death and Resurrection: Mahler’s Second Symphony

Mahler is a curious composer—a bold visionary whose art is full of contradictions. His guiding philosophy was perhaps best summed up in a famous conversation he had with Finnish composer Jean Sibelius in 1907. As Sibelius recounted later,

“When our conversation touched on the essence of symphony, I said that I admired its severity and style and the profound logic that created an inner connection between all the motives. This was the experience I had come to in composing. Mahler’s opinion was just the reverse. “Nein, die Symphonie müss sein wie die Welt. Sie müss alles umfassen.” (No, the symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.)

That quote perfectly captures essence of Mahler’s music. It is a collision of thoughts, emotions, ideas and sensations that are constantly intersecting and interacting with each other. At times, it’s as if you were reading a story where each paragraph was written by a different author in a different style—such as Shakespeare followed by the Brothers Grimm, Emily Dickinson, William Faulkner, Herodotus and O. Henry.

In the end, the cumulative effect is stunning, touching on all parts of the human experience… and vividly recreating the totality of human experience.  It is no wonder why so many love his music.

Mahler’s music isn’t at all hard to listen to, but it is a wonderfully challenging to fully comprehend it. It rewards—if not requires—repeated listening and conversations to grasp its many layers.

The Second Symphony, Resurrection, is a magnificent example of Mahler’s achievement, and one of the easiest to get your arms around. It is a work about loss and a plunge into darkness… before finding inner strength and a renewed hope that allows you to rise to a new level of existence greater you had known before. It is about rebirth and new glory.

And it absolutely has to be experienced live.

Let me explain a bit about why you don’t want to miss Osmo Vänskä, the Minnesota Orchestra, and the Minnesota Chorale’s upcoming performance of it… along with the circumstances that will make this particular performance so meaningful for me. Continue reading

Elgar’s “The Dream of Gerontius” – Rising from the Ashes

Edward Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius is frequently regarded as his masterpiece—a towering oratorio noted for its complex score and profound religious message.  In the autograph score, Elgar wrote the work represented “the best of me,” and countless listeners have agreed with him.

It is, quite simply, one of the greatest spiritual dramas ever written.

Gerontius is based on Cardinal Henry John Newman’s epic poem of the same name, which traces the journey of the soul from death to its arrival before the Throne of God in a vivid dramatization of Catholic theology.  Along the way it explores some of the greatest questions of the human experience: what is our purpose? What is a good life? And what is the nature of God?  But the score is so vividly drawn, and filled with such fascinating incidents and memorable characterizations that it never feels like a religious lesson or a string of platitudes.

Unfortunately, the work is still something of a concert rarity in the US—quite a contrast to the situation in Britain, where it generally considered a national treasure, and performed almost with the same regularly as Handel’s Messiah is here.  For listeners coming to a performance on this side of the pond, this represent a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, they will be able to experience this lush, late-Romantic score completely fresh and without preconceptions.  The danger is that because it is such a dense, many-layered score that some of its complexities will be lost.

I have the pleasure of performing Gerontius this spring with the Minnesota Orchestra, Minnesota Chorale and a crack team of soloists under the direction of Edo De Waart, and it has been a thrill getting to know this sublime score.  Allow me to share some insights to help new listeners understand it better. Continue reading

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