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Emily Hogstad

Review: Minnesota Orchestra in Bach and Beethoven, December 2012

December 24, 2012 at 5:58 PM

“It’s our fricking orchestra, and they can’t take it away from us,” she said, except she didn’t use the word fricking.

“She” was a new friend, a Minnesota Orchestra patron and Minnesota Chorale member. My suitcase was upstairs; she’d invited me to stay with her overnight. We were in her parlor in her house in St. Paul, her adorable dogs scurrying around our feet. Old and new friends dropped in and out over the course of the afternoon. I knew some; she knew others; some, we’d both only met the day before. Everyone hugged. Together we brainstormed wild ideas. Vented. Laughed. (Swore.) There was chamber music, and pie. The recipe had come from another new friend from Oregon. We befriended her after she took an interest in the musicians’ plight. She sent three identical necklaces to Minnesota with our Christmas cards; a special charm hangs from each chain. I wear mine proudly, a talisman honoring the power of unlikely musical friendships.

The flurry of musical activism could only mean one thing: the locked out musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra were putting on another lockout concert.

***

I won’t go into the details of what’s happened since the Minnesota Orchestra lockout began on October first. If you want those, my blog is full of them, and there’s no shortage of information online. However, suffice it to say, both patrons and musicians are living a dramatic, tumultuous chapter of American orchestral history. Draconian wage cuts of thirty to fifty percent are still on the table, as well as over two hundred proposed changes to working conditions. There have been rallies, house concerts, lockout shows – Christmas cards, invitations, thank-you notes – hypotheses, inside jokes, fruitless readings of unreadable tea leaves – even a Grammy nomination, for the Orchestra’s recording of Sibelius 2 and 5. Blog entries and editorials have been passed back and forth feverishly, discussed and debated behind closed doors. Dozens of late-night emails have been exchanged, some triumphant, some despairing, some triumphant and despairing. Musicians are auditioning left and right, and when they aren’t auditioning, or preparing for auditions, they’re subbing – in New York, in Cleveland, in Detroit, in Atlanta, in Chicago. A bombshell article appeared in the Star Tribune on November 26, in which reporter Graydon Royce revealed that the Minnesota Orchestra management had deliberately planned its current deficits back in 2009 so they could be better positioned to get money from the state and massive salary cuts for musicians in 2012. All the while, construction of the luxurious $50 million lobby at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis continues apace. I’ve contacted the Minnesota Orchestral Association again and again and again, asking dozens upon dozens of questions about what’s happening; nobody has ever answered me…or anyone else. Requests for interviews have been turned down flat – requests from me, from Matt Peiken, from Drew McManus. Thankfully, after countless pleas from patrons, the Minnesota State legislature is finally getting involved. No fewer than fourteen representatives have sent a pointed letter to Minnesota Orchestra CEO Michael Henson and Minnesota Orchestral Association board chair and Wells Fargo Vice President Jon Campbell, basically asking what the h*ll is going on. According to WCCO, representatives from the MOA have been asked to participate in a legislative hearing in the new year to discuss their finances and their treatment of musicians. Since the lockout began, my blog has evolved into one of the primary clearinghouses for information on the conflict, and it’s become semi-famous, to the point where when I go to Minnesota Orchestra concerts, audience members recognize me and stop me for hugs. I’ve written for Norman Lebrecht – appeared on the front page of the Pioneer Press – been cited by Alex Ross, the genius critic at the New Yorker, who has been my hero for years.

And in the hubbub, I’ve lost count of how often I’ve cried. The musicians of my beloved orchestra are slipping away. They’re leaving, one by one, to pursue brighter futures. The clock is ticking. Time is running out.

***

It was against this desperately frantic backdrop that we gathered at the Ted Mann Concert Hall in Minneapolis on December 15 and December 16 for two concerts put on by the Minnesota Orchestra musicians. The program was the Bach double violin concerto and Beethoven 9. Tickets were a hot commodity in the Twin Cities; the musicians sold out nearly 2400 seats within a few days. They could have sold out a third show, if they’d wanted.

Like the October lockout concert, the crowd consisted of all ages, all classes, all types. Our intentions were pure; our message clear: bring back our orchestra, dammit. We were there because we’re starved for great orchestral music, and we feel our souls shriveling without it. The silence makes us cranky. Every conversation I overheard had an undertone of grim resentment to it; we’re sick and tired of Michael Henson’s bull. A gentleman in front of me sighed, “I feel like an addict given a shot of crack.”

“Think of how they feel,” his row-mate answered, nodding toward the rows of empty chairs onstage.

“True.”

***

The musicians have begun a tradition of walking onstage together for their lockout performances, proud and unified. And the audience has begun a tradition of leaping to our feet and screaming ourselves hoarse. You’d be forgiven if you thought that Justin Bieber was in the house. We’re so desperately hungry for the spiritual and emotional and intellectual nourishment that these particular individuals give to us. So very, very hungry. It is such an overwhelming relief to see them in Minneapolis, where they belong.

It took a while for the giddy crowd to settle.

The first piece on the program was the Bach double concerto: a tasty appetizer before the meat of Beethoven nine. The soloists were former and present concertmasters, Jorja Fleezanis and Erin Keefe. When Ms. Fleezanis won her job in 1989, she was only the second woman to hold the title of concertmaster in a major American orchestra, and her friend and successor Ms. Keefe is proudly continuing our tradition of kick-*ss female leadership. I like to think that somewhere Minneapolis Symphony violinist Jenny Cullen, who in 1923 became one of the first women to work in a major American orchestra, is smiling.

The Bach was delightful. The two women traded phrases back and forth, each concertmaster’s unique personality shining bright and brilliant. The second movement, the passionate heart of the concerto, was especially stunning, as the two shaped and exchanged their long, luxurious lines.

As a poignant reminder of what we’ve already lost, violinist Peter McGuire was sitting concertmaster. He’s accepted a job in Switzerland, and will be leaving for his position in the new year.

***

After intermission, Erin and Jorja returned to the stage as stand partners. (Erin’s former stand-partner, Sarah Kwak, has left Minneapolis to become the concertmaster of the Oregon Symphony. She left last year, along with her husband, also a Minnesota Orchestra violinist.)

After the chairs were rearranged and the full orchestra settled in, violist Sam Bergman came to the front of the stage to speak on behalf of his colleagues. He began with thanks: for us, for the volunteers, for the soloists, for the choir, for former Minnesota Orchestra music director Edo de Waart, who was conducting the concert. One of his shout-outs went to 89-year-old music director, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, who had just arrived from Germany to show his support for the cause. He stood, and the crowd whooped its appreciation.

Then it was down to business. A lot has happened since the last lockout concert in October, Mr. Bergman acknowledged. “For instance, we were nominated for a Grammy!” Applause. “We’re not actually a hundred percent clear on who’s scheduled to pick up the trophy if we win, but…” Murmurs of laughter. Black humor kills during lockouts.

He then continued to lay out a brief summary of the situation from the musicians’ point of view: clear, concise, and with conviction. “Our CEO and board leaders,” he said, “have been going around and telling anyone who will listen, that once these cuts are implemented, the Minnesota Orchestra will be exactly as it has always been – it will just be less expensive.”

And at those innocent words, the auditorium instantly transformed into a den of agitated pissed-off vipers. I’ve never heard anything like it. Entirely without provocation, an entire audience spontaneously, simultaneously, hissed. And not over a performance or a composer, like you read about in the history books, but an orchestra CEO. Don’t get me wrong – I agree with the sentiment – entirely – but I have to admit, a chill of fear shivered down my spine as I heard the sound. The rage of a crowd is a powerful thing, and Minnesotans are angry: very, very angry. I doubt Michael Henson realizes it yet, but the damage to his reputation is real, and it is lasting. His position is an extremely problematic one.

Mr. Bergman wrapped up his speech speaking of the Orchestra’s proud 110-year-old legacy. “We will continue to fight for it,” he said, voice rising, “and we will continue to sacrifice for it, for one day longer than our management continues to – ” He kept speaking, words ringing with authority, but he was rendered inaudible by the boisterous audience.

So. The lines in this battle are drawn. It appears that we are either going to have a world-class Minnesota Orchestra, or no Minnesota Orchestra at all.

***

From the very first notes, it was obvious the afternoon’s performance would be an overwhelming one. The sadness, rage, and fury, all held so politely in check over the months, came pouring out of strings and reeds and horns. The desperation sizzled. None of us will ever hear Beethoven like this again. Heck, we may not hear an orchestra like this again. We know it, too, and we ate it up. After all, we’re dealing with a rage and fury of our own. So performers and audience united, seeking meaning and catharsis in Beethoven: some kind of message to bring home, back to the senseless reality that lay outside the auditorium doors.

The scherzo bit and sassed and whirled, the intensity slowly rising and subsiding within phrases, like sea waves. The sense of movement that this Orchestra possesses is nothing short of extraordinary, and miraculously, the months of playing apart from one another have done absolutely nothing to blunt the musicians’ chemistry. Repeated chords beat against the walls of the hall like massive sonic hammers.

The fury of the first two movements drained away for the third. Instead, long-breathed phrases drifted past, glowing warm with sincerity and serenity. A blissful contentment blossomed within me. What is more beautiful than a well-played line of Beethoven, delicately, perfectly judged and shaped? Nothing. Nothing at all. If you take this perfection away from us, I swear: you will have h*ll to pay.

Then came that miraculous fourth movement, with its snippets of stolen moments from the preceding movements, finally materializing into the theme of the Ode. As various sections passed the tune around the stage, each treated it carefully, reverently. One by one, they endowed the melody with the nobility of their souls. And when they finally united to play it together, their conviction – and yes, joy – burst forth, and we all discovered the message of the music anew. Music is a miracle. Suddenly it was possible to remember nothing but beauty. To remember nothing but our strength in the face of adversity. To remember that no matter what the suits might say, we know it takes hard work to sustain a world-class orchestra, and we’re more than willing to put that hard work in. We are a community united by our love and appreciation of great music, and we deserve a world-class orchestra. And if the management of the Minnesota Orchestra insists on taking actions that every single reputable expert has said will decimate the quality of the ensemble and turn it into a second- or third-tier band…well, then we patrons are going to band together and make their work a living h*ll. Simple as that.

Because it’s our fricking orchestra, and they can’t take it away from us.

Within the context of Beethoven 9, everything good, no matter how unlikely, seems possible. The Ode to Joy was exactly what we needed in this moment: a reminder, an invitation, to hope. Even in our darkest hours, there are moments of brightness. As the music played, I clasped my necklace.

***

After the final chord, we all jumped to our feet. We would not let the musicians go; we could not let them go. But despite our never-ending applause, the musicians eventually left the stage, waving and beaming at us. I think they felt the love. Co-principal violist Richard Marshall gave us the thumbs up as he headed up the rear. We screamed our approval at him.

It is obvious: as long as these musicians want to fight, this city is behind them, a hundred percent.

It might seem strange, but I feel more confident now than I ever have about this city’s ability to preserve world-class culture. Don’t get me wrong: the Minnesota Orchestra is not out of the woods, not by any means. But we have proven our devotion to the cause. We have shown our willingness to take on a long-term full-time fight. We’ve garnered the attention of the entire music world. We are forging new friendships in the heat of battle, and they will not be broken. All who care are coming together in a rather spectacular way, and our passionate wholehearted activism is obviously getting things done.

So. Game on, Michael Henson and Jon Campbell. Answer our questions. Or else. In the meantime, we’ll see you at the State Capital.

***

After the show, old and new friends alike gathered to celebrate the communion of the concert in the Ted Mann lobby. It might not have cost $50 million, but it served our purposes just fine.

***

You can like the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra on Facebook.


From Terry Hsu
Posted on December 25, 2012 at 12:53 PM
Thanks again for your inspiring words in this grievous time for the Minnesota Orchestra.
From Royce Faina
Posted on December 26, 2012 at 3:40 PM
Very well written and I am saddened to hear of this. Back a few years ago when the economic down turn took the lower 48 into a tail spin we posted here on v.com our concerns & fears especially for the Arts. If a city or state loses their Arts programs it has lost a huge chunk of it’s' soul! If anything human history has shown is that regardless of how bad things can get people of intellect, determination, and vision will build and rebuild. But the loss that preceded still is loss... and it sucks.

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