March 2012

Some reasons to support new composers, inspired by Judd Greenstein's premiere at the Minnesota Orchestra

March 26, 2012 12:33

Not long ago I was able to pen an event into my schedule that for months had been merely penciled: the premiere of Judd Greenstein’s new orchestral work Acadia with the Minnesota Orchestra this Friday. I’m pretty excited about it, and I wrote a big long sprawling article about the project here.

Someone at the Minneapolis Star Tribune wrote about it, too. You can read that article here. If you read my long sprawl you’ll see why I find this project so interesting – it was paid for by many small donations; the team behind it has integrated a lot of audience-enrichment activities into the commission; it will not only be performed but also discussed and dissected in the first half of the show in what will no doubt be a fun and clever fashion. However, I’m not sure if the Star Tribune writer shares my enthusiasm because (and I am not making this up) this is how he chose to finish his article about this one-of-a-kind groundbreaking project.

"What’s the worst that can happen, though?

Greenstein, a supremely affable and articulate fellow, laughed at that thought, admitting that the stakes are low. If it all falls apart, no one is going to lose their life.

'On the high side, you can change someone’s life,' he said. 'The worst that can happen is they don’t like it.'

If so, he can walk away, learn something about himself and his work, and write again."

It was a pretty nice article up until that point. But wow, that bummer ending made me feel like it might be more worth my while to go catch a Friday night showing of John Carter.

So let me talk for a quick second to anyone who wasn’t excited by that article. Let me try to convince you that this is a show worth buying a ticket to. My thoughts are organized, as all serious thoughts are, in a flippant irreverent tongue-in-cheek top-ten late-night fashion.

10) I’ll be there Friday night. You do want to meet me, right? Seriously, at intermission we’ll discuss female Victorian violinists and gender in music, or debate the value of shoulder rests, or fangirl/fanboy over the Minnesota Orchestra. We will probably have to do this while waiting in line for the bathroom because there aren’t enough restrooms in Orchestra Hall, but we’ll do it.

9) Much more interestingly, the composer will be there. An actual living breathing composer. Who composes. Who composes cool smart stuff that’s been praised by a lot of cool smart people. And he’ll be part of the show; he won’t be in a balcony with a monocle. Depending on how things go down, you might even get to say hi to him.

8) Who knows the next time you’ll get to see a premiere of a major 30-minute orchestral work by a world-class orchestra? I doubt I’m the only one who has noticed that the vanilla 2012-13 Minneapolis season features only one subscription concert that includes the work of a living composer. And that one living composer is John Adams. And he’s performed so often I almost kind of wonder if he even counts.

7) There’s an outside possibility that Stravinsky-esque premiere riots could be involved. (Probably not; we’re in Minnesota, after all, but let’s dream big! We’ll have excellent riot weather – 60 degrees and mostly sunny.)

6) Speaking of which, what if this piece becomes the next Rite of Spring? It might not, but what if there’s a one percent chance it will? If your grandkids become music fans, and they hear you were in Minneapolis in March 2012, and they ask you, “Grandpa, Grandma, what was the premiere of Acadia like?” you don’t want to have to say, “well, actually, honey…………I wasn’t there.” That would very possibly make you the lamest grandparents ever. Don’t risk being a lame grandparent.

5) Drinks! Drinks in the lobby! And you’re in downtown Minneapolis, so if drinks in the lobby aren’t your thing, just step outside. Bars and restaurants galore. If the concert goes badly, oblivion is calling.

4) No one has crowdsourced the funding for a major orchestral commission like this. Ever. Ev-er. In all the years of orchestral commissions. Can you imagine this form of fundraising not being a major part of the music scene in the future? Wouldn’t it be awesome to be at the performance of the first major orchestral work paid for in this way? That’s totally apart from the question of whether the piece is any good or not.

3) You can trace the eighteen-month history of the project on the Minnesota Orchestra blog, from Greenstein mulling over whether he should call the piece a symphony, to orchestra musicians raising their eyebrows when they see their monstrously difficult parts, to the viola section trying to figure out how exactly they’re supposed to play this with a spiccato bowstroke.

2) The compositional language won’t be totally alien to you because Greenstein has a website full of some pretty kick-butt free recordings. I really love a lot of his work, but At the end of a really great day is my current favorite. What’s yours?

But of course the number one reason…

1) If it goes badly, no one will die. Tired of the high stakes of the Hunger Games? Come to this concert!

Look, I’m not a shill for the Minnesota Orchestra. Fangirl with a taste for snark, yeah; shill, no. I criticize them and their guest artists whenever I feel they deserve to be criticized. But I also recognize their greatness, and I appreciate when they go out on a ledge to do something unique. And I feel sad when Twin Cities arts journalists cover that unique thing by basically saying “meh.” Because this project clearly has the potential to be a really big deal, whether because of the piece itself, the composer’s future career, the method of the commission, the use of technology, or the slim (but always present!) possibility of an exciting Rite of Spring style riot. So leave those John Carter plans at the door. I really think this weekend is going to be a blast.

2 replies

Jumping off a cliff

March 15, 2012 12:26

A couple weeks ago I got an email from a string-playing friend. There was a second violin emergency in her orchestra. Violinist needed. Stat. Please. Help. Beethoven 7 – third piano concerto – here are the rehearsal times – here’s what you’ll be paid – will you do it? Can you do it?


My first instinct was no. No, I can’t do it. When I agree to play a concert, I like to be prepared to the max, to have my parts half-memorized, to know who I need to listen to when…to know everything I possibly can, and then to guilt myself for not knowing more. This job, however, would consist of me getting a symphony and a concerto I’d never played into run-through shape for the first rehearsal in a few days. It would be my first chance to make a positive or negative impression on the members of a semi-professional orchestra I’ve watched since my teens, which I’ve toyed with joining for years, in some hypothetical far-flung future where I’ll be much better than I ever am. So far I’d spent the majority of 2012 alternating between lying on the couch sick with the flu and playing slow scales in alto clef. I can’t imagine a worse preparation.
Can you do it?, she asked.

*Can* you do it?, I asked.


When I was 14 and went to my first orchestra rehearsal, I had no idea what to expect, so I sought advice from an older violinist friend. She said, “When you don’t know what’s going on, fake it.” I faked it the entire rehearsal. But gradually, with work, I stopped having to fake. A few semesters later, I was in the first chair of the second violins, and the conductor shook my hand at the final performance.

When I was accepted into the summer camp I knew I wouldn’t be accepted into, I was struck with a heady mix of terror and excitement. I was the least advanced, worst-trained player there; graduate students and competition winners abounded. One of the faculty members there was a fantastic player and person who had played second violin in my favorite recording of the Bach double concerto. During one of our last concerts, she played in our chamber orchestra, and I was her stand-partner in Brandenburg 3.

When I was asked by a professional musician if I’d like to try some duets sometime, I blanched. It felt like a waste of his time, like a gesture of sympathy, but I couldn’t bear to say no. Nonetheless when we got together I stalled. And stalled some more.

“I’m scared,” I finally said. For some reason, no reason, no reason at all, I was scared.

“You don’t need to be scared,” he said. “It’s just playing.”

He was right.


There have been times when I fell on my face. I’ve bombed auditions. I’ve lost orchestra seats. I’ve mis-read a scale…that was one octave…in C-major…in front of an important teacher…numerous times. Once when I was recording my recital for summer camp auditions, I wasn’t told until a few minutes before I set up the mic that the pianist was actually a trombonist and only played simple Suzuki accompaniments on the side…and I’d brought her a piano transcription of a Wieniawski concerto. So there have been disasters.

But the thing is…now that I think about it, I don’t remember the disasters nearly as clearly as I remember the exultation of the unexpected successes.


One semester my youth orchestra took on three movements of Beethoven 5. It was the biggest musical project I’d been a part of up until that point. At the concert, before we began, the conductor asked us, “Before this concert, how many of you had played a Beethoven symphony?”

A few kids who had been lucky (and let’s face it, wealthy) enough to go to summer camp raised their hands.

He smiled. “Now how many of you have played a Beethoven symphony?”

We all raised our hands.

Is it strange that I don’t really remember anything about how the performance went? But I do remember finishing it and being backstage, waiting for a ride home. The heavy door to outside was open. Kids were leaving and shouting. Everyone was giddy. I sat in front of a bank of lockers and tried very hard not to cry. All that work, and the moment in the hot spotlight, the exultation, all come to this…sitting backstage, the music turned in, the folder empty, everything over. Not knowing when it would happen again. If it would happen again. If it could happen again.


Can you do it?


After deliberating, I hit reply.

The cursor blinked.

“Yes,” I typed. “I’ll do it,” and I clicked send.

Sometimes I guess you just have to jump off the cliff, and have faith you’ll land on your feet, fiddle in hand.

9 replies

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