(Update, an earlier version did not accurately describe the nature of the dispute purely by accident and anxiousness to get to what I really cared about, the actual concert. I was kindly informed by several readers about this and have changed the copy. Thank you for your comments, though I did not post them as they would be confusing now that the correction has been made. I hope the rest of the post was not overshadowed by the error. I know that there’s a lot of emotion concerning what happened, and can relate through similar experiences in my past. I assure you any offense was entirely not intentional.)
One of my many kryptonites with writing reviews is music. I don’t understand how to write with words about something purely temporal, wordless and largely without narrative. I envy those who can write about music day in and out and still manage to come up with fresh insights. A lot of them resort to writing biography about the performer or the composer. I’m going to try to write about this incredible concert from just my own experience with a bit of history for scene setting. Here goes…
For the past year or so, the Minnesota Orchestra was locked out of their professional home, a lock out people across the country hoped would resolve soon. Becky and I were planning to attend one of the member’s fundraising concerts with Itzhak Perlman, who was pretty much my intro to classical music, as he probably was for most people my age.
Unfortunately the timing didn’t work out with that day, but you can go. But then, the lockout ended last month and the musicians were back in Orchestra Hall with a new season! Though there are still lingering issues behind the scenes about whether the conductor who raised their profile over 9 years to new heights would return, they would play. We’d already budgeted out our entertainment for the spring, but then I got a groupon email for $10 a floor seat for seats that usually go for $90. I forwarded it to Becky with a “I know we’re set for the spring and need to keep saving, but for criminy sake, these seat prices are ridiculous!” She agreed.
Last night was my first Minnesota Orchestra experience. Becky had been there twice before, but many years ago for school trips. She barely recognized the place. We took our seats, 8th row, in the huge auditorium, after having a gimlet for me and champagne for Becky and putting in our intermission drinks order.
I’d listened to the music once while at work, and between the distraction of writing while listening and just having it come through earbuds, it just isn’t the same. There’s a world of difference between listening to something through speakers and having the vibrations of nearly 100 instruments thrumming on your skin, and it’s incredibly affecting right from the first song. The lights, the space, the musicians taking their seats to applause from a community of people who missed them with everything they had.
And now I hit the point where I need to get poetic cause I just don’t know how to describe the music. I need to describe the experience, sitting with Becky, watching artistic director Andrew Litton take the conductor’s spot. The night’s song choices all revolved around the theme of The Sea, beginning with Maurice Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole. It took me this first 15 minutes to simply catch up with the surreal experience of the hall, with its fascinating cube design, and seeing the musicians take their places, including the flutist (Adam Kuenzel) who had come out to the lobby and approached Becky and I as we were sipping our drinks.
He said he was in the orchestra and asked what brought us tonight. We said it was our first time, and my first time ever listening to a professional orchestra. He seemed touched by this, and said he envied us our first ever experience. He then had to head in for the concert. Yes, this happened. And there he was, playing flute. Another reminder that these musicians missed connecting with audiences as much as music lovers missed them.
And this concert was just that. It was watching 100 people on stage connecting with the music, with each other, the conductor and with the audience. That’s an incredible feat to watch at this level, and I started thinking about how impossibly hard it is to reach this level, like beyond professional sports level hard. With all the musicians who train and practice, only a few make it here, and when they do, unlike sports athletes, they stick around for several decades. This is watching the olympics of music for the Midwest.
The stage partially cleared for a Steinway grand piano to be wheeled out to the center and surrounded by a smaller cohort (maybe 50) of musicians. Conductor Andrew Litton came out to simultaneously play piano and conduct and it was like watching Dustin Pedroia if he decided to take the plate and field at the same damn time. They played Ravel’s Concerto in G major for Piano and Orchestra. Litton’s piano soon became a ship in this sea of music and musicians, and he had to work in cooperation with the waves of sound about him to keep afloat, and he did so with flourish and with little trouble. His back was to us, but his heart was everywhere. This was my favorite section. When the orchestra joins the piano, it was just devastating.
Litton got up and talked about the family of the orchestra, through good and bad times, and his personal family, who was in the audience, and dedicated an extra song to both families before sitting down to play the jazzy Little Girl Blue by Oscar Peterson.
After intermission and so-so champagne (Always get the gimlets!), we re-entered the hall and took our seats for the second half, starting with Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Opus 33a. Hipster Joel came out for a bit.
Hipster Joel: What’s with every classical song about the sea having to include a “storm” section?
Joel: Shut up and enjoy this.
Hipster Joel: I mean, isn’t it a cliche even in the 20th century when this Britten guy was around?
Joel: Fine, OK, yes, they all seem to have a storm section, but that’s just how it is. You write a novel, you need to have characters and a plot, at least if you want it to be read by people who don’t have to for their lit classes. If you write about the sea, you have to have a storm. Some things just are because they work. They have been found to work through centuries of trial and error, so quit being such a douche and sit back and enjoy this.
Hipster Joel: sigh. Fine. (I am secretly loving this, but don’t tell anyone!)
Back to Britten. There’s a cinematic quality to all this music, but his especially (I later saw his music is in a bunch of movie scores, including Moonrise Kingdom). Close your eyes and you feel sunlight on your face. You feel the expanse of the Milky Way twinkling above you on a cloudless night. You hear phrases that you swear you’ve heard in a darkened theater with characters on the screen dealing with the worst and best of human nature. My favorite section of this and of the night was “Moonlight.”
The streaks of cello bring back memories of England countryside. I know this is supposed to be the sea, but give me a break, we’re about as far from the ocean as you can get here in the Twin Cities. I love the silences in this section, the hesitations getting into the piece, but the cellos just rhythmically building, not letting it die, as other instruments poke in for a note or two. Slowly, carefully, rising and building, a large blast, then everyone starting to join the cellos in unison. It’s that moment that gets me every time. Watching an orchestra is like watching 90 conversations all happening in harmony, but still rather separate. Then after all this controlled chaos, everyone jumps on the same notes and rhythm in unison for just a few bars, but the effect just sticks you to your seat as they move into the final storm section.
The concert ended with Claude Debussy’s La Mer. By this point I was rather emotionally drained and have little else to add about the music specifically.
The final note played, the audience got to their feet to applause. They kept on clapping. The conductor left and returned three times to take another bow. He had each section stand and take a moment. The love in the room threatened to bust the ceiling at this point. Although we weren’t ever part of their lives before, we could tell that everyone there, even us, missed them, and were glad to have them back.
The concert moved along much faster than I expected and we were back in the car and on our way home. If you get a chance to go, do so. Though our tickets were $10 a piece due to the Groupon, tickets in general start at $22. Drinks were either $7.50 or $9. Parking was $9. Altogether, we did the concert with four drinks and parking for $70 for an experience worth many times that.
Combine this with an inspiring trip to the Walker Art Center on the same day (which Becky wrote about here), and it was the culture filled day of the year.