Earlier this month, we invited guest blogger Mandy Meisner to observe a Minnesota Orchestra rehearsal led by Associate Conductor Roderick Cox. What happens to get the music ready for an audience? Read on to find out.
When I write, I can spend ridiculous amounts of time laboring over decisions like using an and or a the. I can be writing during any hour of the day or night, usually dressed in leggings and a sweater, with a cup of coffee keeping me company, or sometimes a glass of wine. I may have a story I want to tell, but the words will have their fun with me first; coming out in poor sequence, having the emotional attraction of a rock, or eluding me altogether. Writing requires solitude. There is no one to collaborate with until after you finish the work. All this can be unnerving, frustrating and hard. But this is the process I accept and embrace—every time—simply for the chance to create, out of nothing.
But what is the process like for the Minnesota Orchestra? I share my extraordinary Wednesday morning at Orchestra Hall.
I’ve never seen Roderick in person but I feel as many Minnesotans do—I am completely smitten with him. I’ve been following the well-earned media coverage he’s been receiving lately and am ecstatic to see him and the Orchestra in this intimate setting.
I am brought up to perch on an upper balcony where I gaze at Minnesota Orchestra musicians as they enter a fully-lit stage, their usual finery replaced with plaid shirts and sweater vests, sneakers and yoga pants, and the occasional hoodie. Roderick’s tall frame walks to the podium in long, smooth strides. He looks comfortable in jeans and a button up, and exudes an easy air.
When Roderick starts with the third movement of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, I am mesmerized by the way his arms sway and arc as if performing in a ballet. This dance-like quality colors his whole body as the music becomes more complicated; the nod of head, the slight bounce of heel, and the quick urgent slices through air—they all have a definitive grace that is captivating to watch. When I see his face, it opens up like a bloom.
In the throes of the music, the sound stops. The abruptness is shocking. Verbal direction is given with care and gentleness. Musicians listen quietly and pick up pencils to scribble their notes. Their communication is good. They talk with ease back and forth, and the conductor doesn’t hesitate to go over anything that is requested. Roderick has a technical focus; dynamics and articulation are clarified with clear language, and he does not use poetic analogy or frivolous words. He rarely comments on the tempo. Did he communicate tempo in an earlier rehearsal? Or settle it with the mere motion of his baton? It will remain a mystery for a layman like me.
They work together on just this one piece for hours, dissecting the music, putting it back together. Roderick appears more conjurer than conductor, pulling and stretching the music from musician and instrument, from the composers themselves, long silenced from human life. I try and experience it as a professional would, with intellect and discrimination, but all I experience is the sheer beauty of the music. It overwhelms me in the empty Hall.
When rehearsal ends, the Orchestra members again become mere mortals. Cell phones and lunch are waiting, next appointments and other projects beckon. Bits of conversation and laughter rise up as they exit stage left, through the side door and back to their regular lives. I stay among the charcoal velvet chairs, which gape open in their vacancy. I try and absorb this moment, the privilege of witnessing world-class musicians in plaid shirts and sweater vests, sneakers and yoga pants, work through a process of that is accepted and embraced—by the entire Minnesota Orchestra—simply for the chance to create, out of nothing.