Classical Music to Welcome Summer

Summer is here!  Well, at least for those of us in the northern hemisphere….  Summer is almost always portrayed as a life-affirming season, if an occasionally lazy one, where life is to be savored to its fullest.

“Midsummer Eve,” c.1908 by Edward Robert Hughes

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I’m tempted to hang up a “Gone Fishin’” sign myself and run off to the lake… but instead, let me share a few classical works from a variety of genres that perfectly embody summer in all its hedonistic glory.

Cheers! Continue reading

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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

Amazons in Classical Music: A Wonder Woman-Inspired Playlist

The blockbuster film, Wonder Woman has hit the theaters… and audiences are flocking to this story of the Amazon princess who sets out to save the world. Not surprisingly, the movie has rekindled contemporary interest in the mythological Amazons and turned them into somewhat of a pop-culture sensation.

In ancient Greek myth, the Amazons were a nation of warrior women living at the fringe of civilization, either along the Black Sea, in Libya, or on the Scythian plain. They were both fascinating and terrifying to the ancients, and their hold on the West’s imagination has never really faded.  Wonder Woman will no doubt help create the “standard” depiction of Amazons in the modern mind, but it is hardly the only one—given the popularity of Amazons in Western culture, there are many other depictions to explore.

Battle of Greeks and Amazons

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So in this spirit, allow me to provide a classical music playlist of works that prominently feature Amazons—particularly the most famous Amazon queens: Hippolyta, Antiope, and Penthesilea. Continue reading

Classical Music’s Monster Mothers: An Anti-Mother’s Day Playlist

As Mother’s Day draws near, a number of music commentators have put forth lovely little playlists of appropriate music  for the holiday.  I myself have assembled one, found here.  These lists tend to abound in tender, gentle, loving pieces… perfect to celebrate the perfect mom.

But you know, as I was assembling my list I realized something was amiss…not everyone’s mom is perfect.  Where’s a list paying homage to those monster moms? A list for those who spend Mother’s Day cowering in therapy?

Not to worry—I’ve got you covered.

Here’s an irreverent classical playlist, full of moms who will make the your difficult mother look great by comparison.

Happy [sic] Mother’s Day! Continue reading

Classical Music for Cinco de Mayo

Happy Cinco de Mayo!

It’s a curious holiday with a curious history—it commemorates the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, between the Mexican army and invading French forces sent by Napoleon III, who hoped to conquer the country and bring it into France’s orbit.

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BattleofPuebla2

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The French troops landed at Veracruz and marched inland toward Mexico City. Mexican forces, who had been beaten badly in a series of skirmishes, retreated back to the heavily fortified city of Puebla.  The French commander, believing he could end the Mexicans’ resistance with a single stroke, chose to attack the city from the north.  It was a costly mistake.  The Mexican defenders held, and as the French pulled back Mexican cavalry flanked them and turned the retreat into a rout.

The world expected the French to easily conquer the country, and the Mexicans’ unexpected victory served as a huge morale boost for the beleaguered defenders.  That said, the success was only temporary; the French regrouped, and with the arrival of additional troops were able to win the Second Battle of Puebla in 1863.  The French moved on to capture Mexico City, where they installed Emperor Maximillian as a pro-French puppet.  This “Mexican Empire” survived until 1867, when Mexican forces under Benito Juárez defeated the last remnants of the French army and had Maximillian executed.

With this background, it’s easy to see why Cinco de Mayo remains more of a mid-level holiday in Mexico today—it was a plucky, momentary victory on the eve of a large-scale defeat.  In truth, within Mexico the holiday is mostly celebrated in and around Puebla itself.

That said, Cinco de Mayo has taken on a new life north of the border, where it remains a major holiday among Mexican-Americans.  Here, it is a festive expression of cultural pride and a time for the honoring of cultural symbols.  In this way, it shares strong similarities to St. Patrick’s Day, which is a much larger event in the US than it is in Ireland.

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Mexico is an intensely musical place; it is the home of a wonderful range of musical styles and forms, in both popular and “formal” styles.  In the spirit of today’s holiday, allow me to share some recommendations of works in a more classical vein. Continue reading