November 2013

Review: Minnesota Orchestra Musicians in Wagner, Mozart, Brahms

November 21, 2013 15:09

The thing that strikes me: by all rights, we should be despondent. And yet – I don’t think I’ve ever been to a more joyful concert.

The Minnesota Orchestra should be playing in its newly renovated hall in downtown Minneapolis. And yet – thanks to a fifteen-month-long musician lockout, they aren’t. Ted Mann Concert Hall on the University of Minnesota campus has been rented for musician-produced concerts instead, and it works just fine.

Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, the former music director of the Minnesota Orchestra, is ninety. Most men his age are crippled or dead. He shouldn’t be physically able to lead magisterial performances of Brahms and Wagner. And yet – here he is tonight, graciously accepting our wild applause, magically drawing forth music, gladly flouting his former employer in the classiest possible way.

The musicians should be performing on a newly renovated stage, fresh from triumph at Carnegie Hall. And yet – their Carnegie concerts are canceled and their music director is gone. Instead, they’re learning the fine art of PR, renting halls, serving on fundraising committees, debating repertoire, coordinating educational activities, and selling out concerts.

My volunteer audience activist friends should be occasional concertgoers and amateur musicians who go to concerts, enjoy them, and then go home to their families. And yet – now they’re devoting endless hours to poring over various orchestras’ financial records, while befriending influential politicians and studying the principles of non-profit management.

I should be curled up at home, a woman in her mid-twenties happy in her anonymity, writing essays about Victorian violinists that nobody reads. And yet – thanks to the lockout, I recently went on a WQXR podcast talking about the impact of social media on the arts with the former head of social media with the Dean campaign.

The last fifteen months have been one long story of “x should be, but y is.” Unintended consequences abound. People have tried to control them, but those who try, inevitably fail.

“It would be easy to be bitter, but I am thankful,” horn player Ellen Dinwiddie Smith tells us before the Brahms symphony. She is thankful for the audience, she says. For her colleagues. But most importantly, she is thankful for music.

Yes, I think. Yes.

We’ll soon announce a star-studded self-produced season to begin in the New Year, Ellen then says, very coyly, and the audience murmurs with excitement.


I keep fighting the instinct that a quiet sea change is underway. That the long game of high stakes tug-of-war is trending slowly but surely in our direction. I fight the feeling because there is no rational reason for it. But after the body blow of Osmo Vänskä’s resignation on October first, there have been some developments that might – eventually – turn promising. A firmly pro-musician mayor was just elected in Minneapolis. The realization has suddenly dawned in the press that Orchestra Hall is not actually owned by the Minnesota Orchestral Association; it’s owned by the city of Minneapolis and merely leased out to the MOA…and as you can imagine, this might have some interesting implications. Any claims the management ever had to fiscal responsibility were shattered a few weeks ago when it was revealed that CEO Michael Henson took home over $619k, including $200k in bonuses, the year before laying off sixteen employees to “save” $450k. In December, a new board chair will be ascending to power. He or she will be taking stock of an organization whose credibility with the government and broader community is shot. Will the new chair be more sympathetic to the shrill public outcry? Likely not – stubbornness, thy name is MOA – but the thought is tempting. Meanwhile, listeners keep gleefully guessing what conductors and soloists will come perform with our musicians at their self-produced concerts this spring. Big names, we’re assured. Big names.

And there’s a titillating whisper on every patron’s lips: might Osmo return…to work for the musicians?

There is a feeling that a new stage of the fight is imminent. We just have no clue what that is, or what it means.

But – “No matter what happens, the music will go on,” a cellist tells me in the lobby, after giving me a hug. I am comforted.


The Wagner on the program is from Tristan, the Prelude and Liebestod. The story? Ecstasy in death.

What I notice first: the silence is just as affecting as the sound. World-class orchestras can make silence tremble, and the Minnesota Orchestra is a world-class orchestra, still. The players intensify Wagner’s lurching chromaticism layer by layer by layer. I’ve never heard Wagner played by a great orchestra, have never heard those massive swells of decadent sound before…and I’ve never realized from recordings how unabashedly sexual this music is.

Beauty of an entirely different kind ensues when pianist Lydia Artymiw takes the stage for the refinement of Mozart K488 in A. Lydia reminds me of descriptions I’ve read of Clara Schumann, a soul I’ve spent a great deal of time pondering lately. She is classical, elegant, poised, fiery, in complete submission to the music, a perfect vessel. The second movement is all wistful soft-edged melancholy; from there, she launches determined into the third movement, fierce clarity sparking from her fingers.

Intermission is a time to meet and greet, to exchange snippets of compliments and gossip. The stage is porous. Over the last year the metaphorical wall that had once been there has been demolished, no doubt once and for all. Performers kneel down at the edge to chat and laugh with the crowd. Without exception, every face I see onstage was bright and shining. What magic well of strength are they drawing from?

They should not be joyful. But in this moment, they are.

In turn, the thought: I should not be joyful. But in this moment, I am.


I respect Wagner. I like Mozart. But I love Brahms.

Brahms 2 is a feast. It feels like a long heartfelt conversation with a beloved friend – over the course of a cold fall afternoon, maybe, tucked safe and warm and together inside, rain reflecting yellow lights in the street. The sound of the orchestra is so inviting, and loving, and familiar, with all those long-spun phrases that stretch out clear to next Tuesday. Stan plumbs the depth of every luscious phrase. Intellectually, I know I should want something a little brisker, with more direction, a tauter narrative…but emotionally? I’m ready for luxury. My soul soars; I want to cry – but I can’t, because that same beauty makes me so happy.

I shouldn’t be happy, but I am.

The gentle opening half-steps rocks to and fro. The rhythm crackles with offbeats. The cellos shine and yearn. The fourth movement starts quiet, distant, then pops triumphantly in our faces at the fortes.

The applause and hoorahs afterward are electric.

When the lights rise and my head clears, I notice all the young people scattered throughout the hall, some of them clearly at their very first orchestral concert. What an introduction. What a time and place to come of age. I tuck the thought of their dear excited faces away for the tough days, just in case my love of symphonic activism ever starts to wane.


Those who say they know exactly how the lockout is going to end are lying to others, or lying to themselves, or both. I’ve been writing about the lockout since day one. I know what I’m talking about.

Over the course of the dispute, I’ve come to expect one thing: the unexpected. Because that’s all this lockout has been, from the very very beginning. Unexpected.

X should be – but Y is.

During an orchestral lockout, there should be silence. Instead, there’s music. There should be paralyzing sadness. Instead, there’s gratitude and joy. In our hardship, we have also – somehow! – found happiness.

Orchestra musicians performing an educational concert last week.

(This piece was originally published at my blog, Song of the Lark.)

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