Best Way to Start A New Year

One of these mornin’s you gonna rise up singin’
You gonna spread your little wings and you’ll take to the sky — “Summertime”

I’m not gonna lie. 2014 was a pretty crap year in our household. A series of crap jobs and unemployment (while at the same time working temp jobs for 50-60 hours a week on top of applying to jobs on a computer literally held together with packaging tape) marked this as a doozy in a series of doozies. In all, we had about 6 weeks of good this year where we weren’t worried about things. A run of luck that seemed so out of character I felt compelled to warn readers of this blog about the over abundance of optimism we were going to start putting out. Becky’s been fighting flu and pretty much everything else in the past month and a half – lots of it due to weakened immune system that comes from constant crippling stress of unemployment and 6 job interviews a week.

On top of that, Becky’s mom caught a nasty turn of illness that landed her in the hospital for the past two weeks, sometimes improving and then slipping into infection again. And we couldn’t go visit due to finances/not wanting to bring Becky’s illnesses to layer on top of the grossness that is Grand Forks.

All this is to say we went to the New Years Eve event held by the Minnesota Orchestra with the sort of longing for nourishment otherwise seen in the gasping, parched need of a lost person looking for an oasis in the desert. We went with gusto to close the doors on a horrible year in hopes that the next would be better.

This was our third Minnesota Orchestra event in 2014. We wrote about the first here. Our second event was the sneak peak held at the beginning of the season, which was a great way to know which concerts we wanted to see and which ones we would not miss no matter what. Also Becky got a new hero with Principal Conductor Sarah Hicks.

For New Year’s Eve, the Orchestra had Gershwin on tap for most of the concert, bookended by some Leonard Bernstein with a chaser of Strauss/Finnish polka. Joining the orchestra for a half dozen songs was Sylvia McNair, a two-time Grammy winning vocalist.

From the first notes of Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to Candide, I was mentally zoomed in to the stage, even from our seats near the very back of the hall. This was our first event with conductor Osmo Vänskä, who lived up to all that is written of him. He was playful, engaging, even conducted the audience to clap along (and stop clapping) for one piece.

Quick side journey. I took appreciation of jazz in undergrad as a general elective. The professor said, and I can’t remember if it was his thing or something he was passing on, that a musician is either classical or jazz. They can play the other one, but you can always tell if they are out of their natural element. I imagine it’s like listening to an opera signer take on Doris Day.

I don’t know if I wholly agree with this. It seems to me, like most everything, there’s a spectrum of music that can bridge the gap between classical and jazz. I imagine at the middle of that spectrum, George Gershwin and Duke Ellington are shaking hands. If there’s an afterlife, I’d bet they give each other notes. Becky’s a scholar of African American literature, and loved the way the music brought themes to life, the call and response. The section that made Becky cry was a song entitled “But Not For Me.” She was hit by this verse:

They’re writing songs of love, but not for me,
A lucky star’s above, but not for me,
With love to lead the way,
I found more clouds of gray,
Than any Russian play could guarantee.

While this song is about finding/not finding a perfect mate. Becky was brought to tears because after so many months of unemployment and looking for that perfect mate in a job, it felt as though the gloomy lyrics were stalking her life from the 1930s. She wants to find that lucky star. So frickin bad. And every day it brings her to tears.

The Minnesota Orchestra also bridged the divide between classical and jazz admirably – sliding into big band, jazz, dixieland and all the deep, American tradition of music. They were professional, they were artists, they bared the beating heart of the music and threw it to the stars.

The highlight of the evening for me was the extended take of Porgy and Bess, Catfish Row Suite. It swooned, it swooped. The orchestra hall is cavernous, yet I swear I could see the music filling it up, or maybe I was filling up with the first real, soul-deep hope for the future I’ve had in a while. That such hope comes from such a dark opera only reinforces my gut feelings about the music. The melody of “Summertime” filled the air above us – as we are told later, it’s one of the most covered songs ever written (33,000 times) and has been named as the best lyrics in music theater by Stephen Sondheim.

I found myself in tears several times during this section of the evening. Relief that 2014 would soon be over. Optimistic about what 2015 would bring. The song became a prayer for the future, a dirge for the past.

After the concert, Becky and I exited to the lobby, where sparkling wine, hors-d’oeuvres and noise makers were handed out with abandon. A small band played us home to midnight.

We’re a week into 2015, and not off to a great start – mother still in hospital, death of a great aunt, a car died, and a job rejection – but we are still being buoyed up by magical music we got from the Minnesota Orchestra that night, still hoping to spread our little wings, to rise up signing.

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