Your presale validation code has been accepted.
Click the
button to order your tickets.

Osmo Vänskä /// Music Director

Recent Articles

Meet the Composer: Jennifer Higdon

The Minnesota Orchestra performs Jennifer Higdon's blue cathedral on June 1, as part of an Inside the Classics concert titled Love That Dare Not Speak. Read about the story behind the music and learn all about Jennifer in this Meet the Composer Q&A. 

blue cathedral is one of your most popular orchestral works. Why do you think it has been such a success? This is a hard question that I'm often asked. Because this work was written in part about my younger brother's death, it is by far my most personal composition. Much has been written about the work's symbolism through the use of the clarinet/flute duos, the chiming of Andy's birthdate, etc. I think that audiences recognize how much I've put of myself in the work and I think that they relate to issues of love, life and death.

List three words that you would use to describe your own music.
Rhythmic, melodic, heartfelt

List three words that your best friend would use to describe your music.
Passionate, driven, joyous (I asked)

What is one of the greatest challenges you’ve had to overcome during your career?
While being a woman as a classical composer was certainly a challenge, I also had to overcome the stigma of wanting to write works with melody and rhythm. I came up in the field when the atonal style was considered the future of classical music and I was harassed by some teachers and colleagues for not writing that type of music. Although it's gotten much easier over the years, reporters still ask me about writing "accessible" music as if it's an accusation. I'm very happy and proud if audience members, especially those who are new to classical music, respond. Bringing in new audience members is the only way that classical music will survive.  

What is one of your favorite career highlights thus far? It would probably be winning the Pulitzer Prize or hearing my name called as the winner of a Grammy. The Pulitzer committee doesn't inform winners ahead of time, so suddenly your phone and email begins to blow up when the announcement is made online. It's such a career milestone that stays with you forever. For the Grammys, I wasn't able to attend the ceremony when I won my first one so hearing "and the Grammy goes to" for my second one was certainly one of the most exciting moments of my career.

What excites you about music that is being composed today?
I love that composers feel free to express what it is they want to express in all sorts of musical languages. This was strongly discouraged when I was getting my Ph.D., and I think it makes for great variety in classical music.

What are you listening to lately?
The chamber operas of Britten (because I'm currently writing a chamber opera), the Hamilton soundtrack, as well as a new CD of string quartets by Caroline Shaw.

If you could have lunch with any other composer (past or present), who would you choose and why?
Igor Stravinsky! I would ask a million questions about his process of composing and his thoughts about creativity. I also think I'd be so awestruck that I doubt I could eat.

Do you have any special ties to Minnesota?
I have loved working with the Minnesota Orchestra and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, both of whom have commissioned me. I was honored to serve on the board of the American Composers Forum, which was founded in Minnesota. AND, I can't wait for my opera, Cold Mountain, to go up at Minnesota Opera!!!

Do you have any exciting upcoming projects you’d like to share with our audiences?
I'm currently writing my next opera, a chamber opera that's smaller and shorter than a typical grand opera, that will be premiered in 2020. Following that, I'm writing a mandolin concerto!

Details about Minnesota Orchestra's performance of blue cathedral.

More about composer Jennifer Higdon >>

Challenging Inequality by Sharing Voices of our Past and Present

By Sam Bergman, viola and host of Inside the Classics

Earlier this spring, conductor Sarah Hicks and I had the privilege of presenting an evening devoted to composer Amy Beach’s Gaelic Symphony, a major work of American orchestral music that deserves far wider exposure and acclaim than it has been given in the 123 years since it was premiered by the Boston Symphony. It’s a marvelous piece, and Beach’s story of essentially teaching herself to compose at the highest level at a time when women could not have been less encouraged to take on such a profession is an inspirational one by any measure.

But of course, when you’re researching a career like Beach’s, you run into a fair bit of disquieting information - not only her struggles for legitimacy and exposure as a woman working in a male-dominated field, but the callous and seemingly deliberate way in which her music was dropped completely out of view by the wider music world once she herself was no longer around to advocate for it. And that got Sarah and me thinking about the myriad challenges faced by women in music – not just the big headline-grabbing instances of abuse and harassment, but the small, insidious, everyday interactions which almost never seem to happen to men.

If you’ve ever been to what our audience has come to call a “Sam and Sarah” concert, you know that we take a lot of care in crafting the highly scripted narratives we present, and in this case, we wanted to find a visceral way to drive home this point about what women in music have faced across the centuries and in our own time. It’s one thing to say that sexism exists, but quite another to experience it yourself, and 50% of the population (my 50%) just doesn’t see or hear a large amount of what women are actually subjected to.

So we decided to take up a collection of sorts from the women of today’s classical music world. A few weeks before our Beach concert, I posted a simple question on Twitter asking for examples of low-level sexism that women in our industry have experienced. The responses flooded in from across the country and around the world, and within a few days, we had literally hundreds of comments to sort through. It was horrifying stuff to read, but also cathartic, and the women who responded were supporting and celebrating each other every way they could even as they shared some of their darkest moments.

The next step was to record the voices of some of the women of our orchestra reading three dozen or so of the responses we received and mix them together into a single piece of audio we could play at the concert to give our audience a sense of the weight of being on the receiving end of such things. Even the recording process was fraught with emotion – more than one of our volunteer readers found her voice catching in her throat at the callousness and cruelty of some of the comments.

But in the end, we wound up with a segment that I think captured some of the impact of sexism and inequality in our music world, whether we’re talking about Amy Beach’s time or our own. It took us about 8 minutes from start to finish, which was less than 20% of the overall length of the scripted portion of the evening. But it was a powerful centerpiece, and afterwards, we had multiple requests from those in attendance to hear it again, so we’ve pulled the audio together for you below. The segment begins as I’m speaking about the school of prominent New England composers that was emerging in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – we do a quick comic bit about Beach’s Massachusetts contemporary, Rebecca Clarke, and then turn serious…

That clip of women’s voices reading dozens of very real and damaging comments is difficult to listen to, and Sarah and I could see the effects of such denigration reflected back at us in the faces of our audience that evening. This concert series we host with the Minnesota Orchestra is quite often light-hearted, and our audience is used to plenty of jokes and gags from the stage as we go about our business. I even saw a few people in the audience laugh softly at a few of the more ridiculous sexist assertions early on in our montage. But as the barrage continued (and a barrage is exactly what we wanted it to be,) faces darkened and no one was smiling anymore. Which was, of course, the point. As Sarah says in her speech after the recording ends, no one’s career was ended by these comments, but every one of them made an impact, and every one made someone’s career in music just that much more difficult. And as we all grapple with the widespread traumas that the #MeToo movement has helped bring to the surface, we must also remember that the small-scale aggressions need stamping out as much as the large-scale traumas.

We ended the narrative portion of our Amy Beach concert that night on a hopeful note, because how could you not after hearing her extraordinary music? Here are the last few minutes before intermission…

We are so grateful to every woman who contributed to our call for these difficult experiences, and I’m sorry that we only had time to include a small percentage of them in the concert itself. (We aren’t naming the women whose selections we did use because some were submitted anonymously and we promised to protect everyone’s privacy.) Thanks as well to the women of the Minnesota Orchestra who volunteered to read for this project: Susie Park, Ellen Smith, Kathryn Nettleman, Sarah Grimes, Cecilia Belcher, Valerie Little, Pitnarry Shin, Rebecca Corruccini, Maureen Conroy, Marcia Peck, and Julie Gramolini Williams.

 Up next - Inside the Classics: Love That Dare Not Speak, June 1 >> 

Meet the Composer: Victoria Borisova-Ollas

Composer Victoria Borisova-Ollas' music has been performed all around the world but is brand new to the Minnesota Orchestra. Where does her inspiration come from, and what should we listen for as we experience The Kingdom of Silence at Orchestra Hall on May 30 and 31

How do you encourage listeners to approach a new piece of music?
Try to listen to it at least twice. We love the classics not only because they are all perfectly-written and beautiful music, but because we got used to them by listening to the same pieces over and over again.

Tell us briefly about The Kingdom of Silence and what to listen for in these concerts.
The program note for this composition follows:

The mysterious country where we all should go to after our lifetime has many different names; The Kingdom of Silence is one of them.

The composition starts as a lullaby where glockenspiel and celesta play a rather simple melody, wrapped in the "echo" of string instruments. Gradually we are sinking into a dream. Different scenes are appearing in a succession, sometimes linked to each other by the same tempi or divided by the sudden change of mood. With the return of the "lullaby," a long chain of events is finished. But the dream itself—does it ever end?

The Kingdom of Silence is written in memoriam of Nikolai Korndorf (1947-2001), an extraordinary personality among his generation of Russian composers.

I advise listeners to keep this in mind and listen to the story my music tells you.

Where do you find inspiration for your work?
I find inspiration in literature and art. Some of my compositions’ titles come from the Bible.

Who is your biggest supporter?
My husband Dan Erik Ollas.

What is your favorite type of ensemble to compose for?
Symphony orchestra.

If you could have lunch with any other living composer or performer, who would you choose?
Leonid Desyatnikov, an excellent Russian composer living in St. Petersburg. I am really looking forward to our lunch next year because he is the only person among my colleagues with whom I can discuss thousands of other things besides recent music matters.

Do you have any exciting upcoming or recent projects you’d like to share with our audiences?
My concerto for cello and orchestra, Oh Giselle, remember me..., which was written for Truls M ørk, is having its premiere this fall. I am also working on the score for a concerto for violin and orchestra for Baiba Skride. The preliminary title for that work is A Portrait of a Lady by Swan Lake. Both compositions are inspired by the two greatest ballet stories in the music history, Giselle and Swan Lake.

Do you have any connections to Minnesota?
Well, my husband is Swedish. Some members of his family on both mother’s and father’s side emigrated to the U.S. at some point when lots of Swedes moved abroad looking for new farming areas with better agricultural conditions than in Sweden. Many of them went to Minnesota and Canada. There might be some distant cousins in your state. Who knows? The world is a small place!

Details about Minnesota Orchestra's performances of The Kingdom of Silence >>

More about composer Victoria Borisova-Ollas >>

5 Things You Didn't Know About the MN Orch Library

Join Principal and Assistant Principal Librarians Maureen Conroy and Valerie Little for "5 Things You Didn't Know About the MN Orch Library!"

#1 - We have a library!

Meet the Composer: Geoffrey Gordon

Geoffrey Gordon's Prometheus had its world premiere performance in London just three months ago. Gordon tells us a little bit about himself, his music and what has happened since the premiere, as he prepares to visit Minneapolis to hear the piece performed by the Minnesota Orchestra on April 24, 25 and 26.

What has been going through your mind about Prometheus since its world premiere in London?

We’ve been editing the recordings we made of the performances with the London Philharmonia, so I feel like I am still immersed in the atmosphere of that premiere. Rarely does a composer get to indulge in this kind of experience, with multiple (sensational) orchestras and soloists playing a new work over such a brief time frame. So I’ve been enjoying that and anticipating the Minnesota Orchestra performances! Prometheus has been going through my head for more than a year now and I am finding it absolutely fascinating to hear different interpretations of this work.   

List three words that you would use to describe your own music.

Expressive. Intense. Rooted.

What are you listening to lately? 

I listen to all kinds of stuff. Mostly classical, lately lots of late 19th- to early 20th-century orchestral music: Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Prokofiev, Sibelius. Also, the Britten operas, which are uniformly extraordinary. And rarely does a day go by that I do not listen to the Beatles, because they are the best (non-classical) thing ever. I am also a fan of jazz (Charlie Mingus) and early music (lately, Guillaume de Machaut). 

What is your favorite place to travel?

I really love London. I love England generally and always enjoy my time there. In my job, I get to go to lots of pretty cool places, so sometimes it’s hard to choose. I am looking forward to being in Sweden later this month and Quebec next season. In terms of the Midwest, I have a deep connection to the American Club in Kohler, Wisconsin, where I have been going with my family since I was a kid. 

What are some of your favorite career highlights thus far?

I have been lucky—there have been many. The Carnegie Hall premiere of my cello sonata, FATHOMS (after Shakespeare’s Tempest) a few seasons ago was pretty cool. I grew up in New York, so that meant a lot. A recent commission from the Curie Institute in Paris, to write a chamber work inspired by the Big Bang, was also really good. And hearing Prometheus at Royal Festival Hall...hard to beat that. 

For those in our audience who are unfamiliar with your work, which of your pieces would you suggest they seek out to learn more about your music?

I think there are about 70 of my works available online in one form or another. I might suggest Saint Blue, a double concerto for trumpet, piano and strings, commissioned by the English String Orchestra and recorded on the Signum label last year. Also, my Cello Concerto after Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus, commissioned by the Copenhagen Philharmonic. We just recorded this with cellist Toke Moldrup and conductor Lan Shui—it should be out next year (there is a live recording on my Soundcloud, from Danish Radio), along with a choral setting of John Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale, with the Mogens Dahl Chamber Choir. In terms of clarinet writing, maybe my Clarinet Quintet, written for the JACK Quartet and New York Philharmonic principal clarinet Anthony McGill. The New York premiere of that work is available on my Soundcloud as well. 

When you aren’t composing, what do you do for fun?

I can’t remember the last time I wasn’t composing, so this is a hard one to answer! But I really like movies, restaurants, literally any kind of sport, and the odd nap. It’s a very full life. 

Details about Minnesota Orchestra's performances of Prometheus >>

More about composer Geoffrey Gordon >>

A Brief Guide to Musical Eras

Are you curious about how the Baroque era differs from the Romantic one? And which composers wrote during the Classical time period? Writer Matthew Philion offers this brief history of how classical music has evolved through the agesalongside some Minnesota Orchestra recording suggestions to bring these soundscapes to life.

By Matthew Philion

Classical music is a language. And like any language, it develops over time. We can partition these developments into different eras, but more important than dates is recognizing how the music has continued to evolve and inspire, to speak to new generations of listeners.

The Baroque era, from the 17th and 18th centuries, is a good starting point. The music is characterized by smaller ensembles, light and bright textures, innovations in the interlocking of melodies knowns as counterpoint, instrumental virtuosity, and a mix of secular and religious works. The industrious Vivaldi and Bach are noted composers of the era, as is George Frederick Handel. In 1976, the Minnesota Orchestra, led by the late Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, recorded Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks and the Suite from Water Music—both considered Baroque masterworks, and perfect examples of the soundscape of the era.

Enter Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven

The “Classical” era marks a point of maturity for instrumental music—and its name sometimes leads to confusion, since the generic term “classical music” has come to encompass Western so-called “art” music from all periods. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, classical composers such as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven more or less standardized many of the musical forms we recognize today, among them the four-movement symphony, the three-movement concerto and the string quartet. Composers often stuck closely to these forms, but innovation was in abundance, too. Music Director Osmo Vänskä’s highly-praised recordings with the Minnesota Orchestra of the Beethoven symphonies are great entries to the era. In particular, their account of the composer’s Fifth Symphony highlights Beethoven’s mastery of form and ability to create inspiring melodies and themes.

The Romantics: Expanding the Language

All through the 19th century, composers of the Romantic era worked to expand the musical language of the Classical masters. Frenchman Hector Berlioz wrote for huge orchestras, making the music as loud as a rock concert. Richard Strauss threw away the symphony form, turning to literature as inspiration for his tone poems. Tchaikovsky inherited Mozart’s great gift of melody. And with the massive works of Richard Wagner, harmonic innovation reached a high point. Skrowaczewski and the Orchestra recorded an album of excerpts from Wagner’s operas; the selections from Tristan and Isolde are inescapably romantic, full of drama and passion.

The Modernists: Creating New Rules

The “modern” era of classical music is, counterintuitively, stated as beginning over 100 years ago. Unlike the Romantics, who sought to build upon the works of Beethoven, Mozart and Bach, modern composers, in many cases, wanted to tear down the old and create a new language.

Frenchman Claude Debussy’s orchestral piece Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is a harmonically audacious touchstone of the modern era. Once described by a critic as “profoundly decadent,” the work begins with a beguiling flute solo in the low end of its melodic range, a sound unlike anything that had come before. Adam Kuenzel, the Minnesota Orchestra’s principal flute player, says that he first performed Afternoon of a Faun 40 years ago, and he sees the work as “helping to untie the knot of functional harmony on emerging music.” Kuenzel has recorded the piece on a wonderful album called Reveries, and he’ll perform it in concert with the Minnesota Orchestra May 30 and 31.

Other modernists were busy, too. In Russia, Igor Stravinsky led a revolution of rhythm, while in Vienna Arnold Schoenberg challenged the conventions of tonality—the basic rules of harmony, major and minor scales, and the relationship between keys that had rooted music for centuries. Hungarian composers Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály looked to folk music for inspiration. And in America, Aaron Copland, George Gershwin and Charles Ives found the cowboy song, the jazz ensemble and the marching band to be musical influences. Former Minnesota Orchestra Music Director Sir Neville Marriner’s recording of Copland’s Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo displays the composer’s mix of simple and complex.

What Next?

What comes after the modern era? Post-modern? More-modern? Contemporary composers such as Libby Larsen, Mason Bates, Jennifer Higdon, Mark-Anthony Turnage and Eric Whitacre are as likely to be influenced by hip-hop, the Beatles, classic movies and Indian ragas as they are Brahms, Bach and Beethoven. The works of the beloved, greatly missed Dominick Argento exemplify the freedom of today’s composers. His Valentino Dances, recorded by the Minnesota Orchestra in 1999 for an album featuring his compositions, mixes pop music, popular culture, opera and even an accordion in an irresistible package. It’s the kind of work that honors the musical language of the past while using techniques and approaches free from expectation, inspiring new generations of composers and listeners alike in today’s era of classical music.

Matthew Philion is an attorney, writer, teacher, former classical music DJ, and amateur trombone and euphonium player. He has been a fan of the Minnesota Orchestra since attending his first concert in 1978—a laser light show at the St. Paul Auditorium featuring music from Star Wars and The Planets.

Announcing the first-ever tour by a U.S. orchestra to Antarctica

Minnesota Orchestra to embark on first-ever tour by a U.S. orchestra to Antarctica

The Minnesota Orchestra announced today that Music Director Osmo Vänskä and the Orchestra will embark on a two-week tour to Antarctica in January 2020—the first-ever visit by a professional American orchestra to the frigid continent—in connection with the 200th anniversary of the first human sighting of Antarctica in January 1820 by the Russian explorers Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev.

Minnesota audiences will be the first to experience the “AntOrchestra Winterfest” during the first two weeks of January 2020 in a series of concerts at Orchestra Hall celebrating the geography, climate, wildlife and human exploration of Antarctica. Vänskä and the Orchestra will subsequently depart for a tour of Antarctica (January 17-31, 2020), featuring performances at such venues as the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, Vernadsky Research Base and McMurdo Station at Ross Island, culminating in the tour’s figurative and literal high point: a 90-minute outdoor performance at the summit of Mount Vinson at which the Orchestra will play composer Alex Wurman’s soundtrack to the 2005 documentary March of the Penguins as the complete film is projected on the nearby Ronne Ice Shelf.

“The Minnesota Orchestra’s tours to Cuba and South Africa have been some of the great moments in our entire 116-year history,” said Vänskä. “We were all thinking what should come next, and a tour to Antarctica seemed like a very good challenge, not to mention an opportunity to go somewhere with a little less snow than Minneapolis—or even Finland, for that matter.”

Several special guest performers will join the Orchestra on the Antarctica tour, including violinist Joshua Bell, who will play the Summer concerto from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons—reflecting the seasonal difference in the Southern Hemisphere—and singer-actress Idina Menzel, who is scheduled to sing selections from the Frozen sequel that is being released in November 2019. The tour will also include the world premiere of A Time to Krill, a new composition by St. Paul composer Steve Heitzeg that features spoken narration by Minnesota native and polar explorer Ann Bancroft, as well as live amplified barking by four Antarctic fur seals on loan from the Como Zoo.

A special pre-sale for “AntOrchestra Winterfest” tickets takes place for one day only—April 1, 2019—at

Meet the Composer: Sean Shepherd

Complete silence. A couch to nap on. A window with a view. What are other key elements for crafting a new piece of music? And what is it like to hear your music performed by the Minnesota Orchestra for the first time?

We asked composer Sean Shepherd these questions and more, as the Orchestra prepares to perform Silvery Rills on April 3 and 4. 

Tell us briefly about Silvery Rills and what to listen for in these concerts?
Speaking briefly should be easy—at four minutes, Silvery Rills is the shortest piece I’ve ever written. There are still several changes of character and some real contrasts of loud and soft, but it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kind of piece. Brevity being the soul of wit, this kind of piece, and REALLY getting to the point, is harder to write than one might think.

List three words that you would use to describe your own music.
Crafted. Extroverted. Direct.

The Minnesota Orchestra gave a reading of your music in 2006 at the Composer Institute. What do you remember from that experience?
I said it at the time—and I feel it even more today—that the week I spent at Orchestra Hall was fundamentally important for my understanding of writing for and working with orchestras. I needed to hear the piece I had written (while still a graduate student) exactly as I had written it, which is what the Orchestra does so beautifully at the Institute readings and concerts. I didn’t write a new piece for orchestra until years later, but the difference in those two pieces was vast. Understanding the “instrument” of the orchestra is a lifelong process, but I took a huge leap in 2006. It’s a special honor to be back and on a Minnesota Orchestra subscription program, for certain. 

What advice do you have for audience members in terms of approaching unfamiliar music?
When I met my boyfriend (now my husband) in New York, he had come from an acting background and was very knowledgeable about theater of all kinds, and he would take me to a huge variety of performances (some incredible and some awful), from traditional to experimental, that I would have never sought out myself. I reciprocated with the contemporary and classical music scene and for a few years we were each able to experience our own worlds through the fresh eyes of a newcomer. It felt invigorating to interact and come to terms with ways these fields get pushed and prodded with new work and new productions. When I would sit down for a two-hour show about which I knew nothing, I would take a deep breath. I knew my time was valuable and it might feel wasted in the end, but the closer I paid attention, the more richly I tended to be rewarded. 

What excites you about new music that is being composed today?
Just looking at my fellow Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute alumni over the years is exciting. We’ve all gone in such different directions. Missy Mazzoli is writing deeply passionate and colorful operas. Andrew Norman’s canvas has become sprawlingly huge, with a new 50-minute piece, Sustain. Nina C. Young is continuing her beautiful work with both acoustic and electronic music, which seem to inform each other. Anthony Cheung and Wang Lu, the Brangelina-esque glamour couple of new music, both have glorious new discs out. 

What are you listening to lately?
Thanks to streaming services, it’s easier to have access to collected recordings by one composer or ensemble than it used to be. I’ve been doing some deep dives on composers I always felt I could know better. Basically, one composer for weeks at a time—Takemitsu, Boulez, Hans Abrahamsen, Roger Sessions and Unsuk Chin have been in rotation recently.

What is your ideal environment for working on a composition?
Complete silence. A piano or keyboard at hand. A couch to nap on nearby. Maybe a window with a view. No emails to respond to. Several months of time and space. A huge piece to write and sink one’s teeth into. No deadline to worry about quite yet. (This is rare.)

Who is your biggest supporter?
Outside of my family, my two closest supporters, composer Steven Stucky and composer-conductor Oliver Knussen, have both sadly died in recent years. I treasure the time I spent with them, and their supportive words of advice from years ago are things I try to remember. Perhaps it’s a realization of one’s age; I don’t expect to replicate those relationships, but they stick with me.

What is one of your favorite career highlights thus far?
A piece I wrote for the Gewandhaus Orchestra’s opening concert of this season was the first piece on a program featuring Yo-Yo Ma playing Shostakovich. As I was getting changed for the concert a few minutes before, I realized with horror that my suit pants didn’t make it to Germany with me. So along with my beautiful new suit coat, I wore khakis onstage! Mr. Ma was delighted and very amused; he called them my lucky pants.

Do you have any upcoming projects you’d like to share with our audiences?
I’m writing some chamber music which includes saxophone for Music Academy of the West and it feels fun to revisit an instrument for which I haven’t written in 25 years. 

When you aren’t composing, what do you do for fun?
Get outdoors in beautiful places, all year long. I skied a lot when I was young. I’ve been able to get back to it in recent years, and it’s always amazing how refreshing it is to feel the speed and the cold air.


Considering Amy Beach

By Emily Hogstad

This season the Minnesota Orchestra has programmed a rich variety of American composers, encouraging musicians and audiences alike to grapple with the question: what is American music, anyway?

Our forerunners have been here before. In 1917 the Minneapolis Symphony, as the Orchestra was then called, programmed an all-American concert featuring works by George Whitefield Chadwick and Amy Beach, who was billed as “Mrs. H. H. A. Beach.” Even back then we wondered, what is American music? And what can our institutions do to support American work? 

That December, the Minneapolis Symphony performed two works by Beach: her Gaelic Symphony and her Piano Concerto, with the composer herself soloing in the latter. It was the first time that the 14-year-old ensemble had ever played work by a woman.

How did this symphony end up on the music stands of this great orchestra? And should it find its way back?

Composer Prodigy

Amy Cheney Beach was one of the more remarkable prodigies of the 19th century. She was born in September 1867 in New Hampshire. Within a year of her birth, she could sing 40 songs from memory. At age four she began composing in her head, writing waltzes at her grandparents’ farm and then playing them on the piano at home. At 14 she took a year’s worth of lessons in harmony and counterpoint. (This would be her only formal training in composition.) At 16 she made her debut as piano soloist with the Boston Symphony.

The trajectory of her life changed when she married at 18. Dr. Henry Beach was a wealthy, well-respected and well-connected surgeon, and the marriage appears to have been a happy one. He discouraged her from performing for profit, fearing that her doing so would send the wrong message about his ability to provide, but he did encourage her to compose. Therefore the young Mrs. H. H. A. Beach found herself blessed with talent, time, money, and social connections. In 1894, she began writing the Gaelic Symphony. A couple of years later, when she was 29, the Boston Symphony premiered it.

The Gaelic Symphony appeared just as the country was engaging in an intense conversation about what American music should be. In a promotional video for this past January’s American Expressions festival, Minnesota Orchestra music director Osmo Vänskä mused, “There is not only one kind of American music. It’s a huge variation.” Composers of the late 19th century were coming to the same conclusion, and their doing so raised a lot of questions. Was distinctly American music even possible when the country was so racially and culturally diverse?

Searching for an American Sound

Some theorized that African American folksong should serve as the necessary building blocks for a new American sound. Antonín Dvořák inserted himself into the discussion when he praised the musical value of spirituals. He’d later cite the “spirit” of African American and Native American music as inspiration for his New World Symphony, which was first played in Boston in December 1893, mere months before Beach started writing the Gaelic. Beach’s reaction to the Dvořák is fascinating:

“It is interesting throughout, the machinery of it admirably managed, the orchestral and harmonic coloring done by a master. It seems to me light in calibre, however, and to represent only the peaceful, sunny side of the [African American] character and life. Not for a moment does it suggest their suffering, heartbreaks, slavery.”

Others shared Beach’s hesitancy to employ African American folksong, and for a variety of complex reasons. (Some of those reasons would be labeled problematic today.) Philip Hale, critic at the Boston Herald, wrote, “The great majority of Americans are neither Indian, nor are they descendants of negroes or Indians. How then can folk songs attributed to the negro or Indians be distinctively, peculiarly American?” Beach added her own careful caveats: “It seems to me that, in order to make the best use of folk-songs of any nation as material for musical composition, the writer should be one of the people whose music he chooses, or at least brought up among them.” (That said, more than once she failed to follow her own advice.)

From Celebration to Obscurity

It was against this background that Beach chose to highlight Anglo-Celtic folk tunes in her symphony. However, strikingly, her so-called “Gaelic Symphony” begins and ends with her own original melodic ideas. “The finale,” she wrote, “contains only themes of my own devising… [It] tries to express the rough, primitive character of the Celtic people, their sturdy daily life, their passions and battles and the elemental nature of their processes of thought and its resulting action.” Clearly, she considered folksong to be a means to an expressive end, not the end itself.

Beach’s colleagues were impressed with this ambitious new work. At the time, she was part of a group of Boston-based composers known as the Second New England School. Save for Beach, all were well-trained men (like Chadwick) who held prominent positions in academia. Arguably, the biggest impact these colleagues made was pedagogic; they taught students like Florence Price and Charles Ives, who helped to carry American music into the 20th century. Also, their high-quality compositional output granted valuable credibility to American schools, which in turn helped to set the stage for America becoming a music education powerhouse. No longer would ambitious young composers have to go overseas for top-notch training.

However, Beach, being a largely self-taught woman, never took a position in academia. This doesn’t mean that she didn’t influence the ensuing generation (indeed, she was widely applauded for helping to legitimize women composers in particular, and she loved supporting young artists). But when the sentimental style of the Second New England School fell out of vogue, and members’ works largely vanished from concert platforms, Beach’s legacy was perhaps at a comparative disadvantage, since she’d never enjoyed an institutional affiliation or formal students who might later advocate for her work. Her unique career arc is one of many potential reasons why the Gaelic Symphony, after such an enthusiastic early reception, fell into relative obscurity.

A Moment of Reappraisal

Today we’ve arrived at a moment of reappraisal of Beach’s life and legacy. There is a dawning realization that sexism—as well as racial prejudice—has smothered the voices of composers whose works might prove enriching. So it’s time to learn to hear genius in unexpected places. Again and again we must keep asking, what is American music? And how should orchestras advocate for it and bring audiences closer to it?

An ensemble willing to program someone like Amy Beach, and to talk about this complicated history, will help to advance these vital discussions. As Beach herself told the Star Tribune before her 1917 triumph here, “You in Minneapolis know what an orchestra does, outside of its direct work, in creating listeners and all sorts of by-products leading to more intimate association with music.”

Emily Hogstad is a freelance arts writer who blogs at Song of the Lark. She writes regularly for Classical Minnesota Public Radio’s website and contributes program notes to the Minnesota Orchestra and the Lakes Area Music Festival. A violinist and violist, she has also appeared as pre-concert talker with the Hill House Chamber Players, the Musical Offering and the Lakes Area Music Festival.

Marching Band

By Kevin Kling

Musically, I pretty much plateaued in junior high school. I always thought it was because a week after I got my trumpet, my brother threw a pencil down the bell, which, it seemed to me, gave it a nice smoky jazz sound. But the band director saw it differently, and had to have a heart-to-heart talk with me.

“Kevin,” he said. “You know, there are many other avenues of artistic expression that you might explore.”


“Kevin, you can’t stay in the band.”

“But sir, I can’t join choir. I’m tone deaf.”

“Yes,” he said. “I know.”

And art was so messy, and home economics scared me. And I knew there was a song in my heart, somewhere, though I was tone deaf and had no rhythm. And I cried and he softened up and he gave me the last chair in the worst band: the Cadet Band, all seventh-graders, and me by then a ninth-grader.

Now, Mark Twain said, “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.” Everybody’s music was better than it sounded when we played it. Listening to our band, you always felt like there was a bee trapped in your head somewhere that couldn’t get out. At the Wall of Jericho, we could have been the band that prevented structural damage, because I’m sure the Philistines would have just said, “Stop it. We’re coming out.”

I have to admit I was part of the problem. Whenever the band finished playing a song, I always had more music left to play. Or I would finish and put down my horn and the band would keep going, and quick, I would have to pick up my horn and pretend I had more to do. One time I was playing the “Hogan’s Heroes” march, and low and behold, I finished at the same time as the band. A miracle! Then the band director said, “Very good, and now we’ll play the ‘Hogan’s Heroes’ march.” I still don’t know what they were playing.

The best time of year to be in band was the summer. I loved marching band. For one thing, everybody got to play, and I was right there next to Kim Feller, first chair trumpet, the state champ. The drummers, all hockey players, were tough and cocky and sinewy. And the music, not regular band music, oh no: in marching band we played bona fi de pop hits.

Everything could be a marching band song: “Hello, darkness, my old friend”: ba-da-bada-badapa; BUM, BUM (snares, then bass drums). “Silence is golden, golden”: ratatatattata (high hat cymbals). “See the tree, how big it’s grown”: BOOM (timpani), dagadaga (high tom-toms), daga-daga (low toms), BOOM (timpani). “Purple Haze”: brrrrump perrididdle (snares). “Dog, dog, dog eat dog”: taka-diddle-poppop-chee (whole hockey team: center, wings, offense and defense). “Tequila” (vocals)!

Best of all were the uniforms. School colors black and orange, ancient and wool, for both seasons. High beefeater-style fur hats that had to be cinched in so tight your eyebrows sat just above your upper lip. I remember bringing my uniform home. I was so excited. I was also kind of small, so they’d given me a girl’s uniform...with darts sewn into the chest. Even worse, when I put it on, the darts went in, hugging my concave, sunken chest, making me look like the mold for a 1957 Cadillac bumper. My mom, bless her, stayed up late taking out the darts. I was set.

That summer, Mr. Sand, the director, announced we’d been invited to a real parade: the Old Milwaukee Days parade in Wisconsin, three miles long, and we would be judged against other bands.

Mr. Sand also announced he was going to turn us into something. (We thought we already were something: wrong!) We drilled for a month. “Come on, you lazy good for nothin’s. You call that an embouchure? Put that horn to your lips and give me twenty!”

We marched into the night, up and down, under the streetlights of Osseo. Kids were sitting on the corners, taunting us. Corner after corner, lines tight, eyes forward, and Mr. Sand turned us into a well-oiled machine.

We made the drive to Milwaukee and spent the night in a motel. In the morning the entire drum section was in the motel office promising they’d “never do” something again, and they’d “pay for it.” They seemed a little foggy and their uniforms a bit off, like they were in the Italian Army.

We made our way to the parade site. There were busloads of bands from all over the country, eyeballing each other, a real once-over. As we lined up, I almost laughed. We had this whipped. Mr. Sand’s plan was flawless. A block away we’d start with “Hogan’s Heroes,” an old basic. Then, as we approached the judging area, feint back with “MacArthur Park” as a palate cleanser. Then hit ’em hard with “25 or 6 to 4.” It was brilliant.

I looked up front at our drum major, Mike Marachek, size 15 boot, all-white uniform and hat. An imposing figure, he was haughty, powdered, pampered, rouged and ready for action. (Actually, he looked like a giant Q-Tip.)

We had just lined up when all of a sudden, a parade official jumped in front of our drum major. “Hold it, hold it,” he said, “Bring ’em in.”

We watched as they positioned the 40-horse Clydesdale team in front of our band, amazing, majestic, imposing beasts pulling a large wagon of beer and barrels. And no clean-up crew. Which meant we’d be marching down the middle of Milwaukee in 98-degree heat, with the

40-horse fun factory mining every step of our way.

Those wool uniforms were heating up. My beefeater hat felt like a solar collector. “Keep your heads high,” directed Mr. Sand. “Don’t panic, we’ve trained for this.” He also handed out salt pills to take “only in case of an emergency.”

I’ll never forget it. Just before the judging table, our front-row flute section hit something on the pavement. Watching those beefeater hats drop was like a scene from The Patriot. Horrible. I decided to not look down no matter how or what I felt. The drummers were unfazed. Mr. Sands kept shouting words of encouragement. We hit the judging area and kept our heads high.

“…25 or 6 to 4…”

After the parade, Mr. Sands came around to everyone individually, and told us he was proud. I looked down at what was once a spotless spat.

“Mr. Sand, look.”

“Throw ’em away son, just throw ’em away. You did good boy, real good.”

And right there the song in my heart took off. I was still a little tone deaf, still without rhythm, but the song was no longer trapped inside me. I marched. I did my job. Music was mine.

Kevin Kling’s plays have been produced in the Twin Cities and around the world, and he is the writer of the Minnesota Orchestra’s annual Home for the Holidays program. His collaborations with composer Victor Zupanc include For the Birds for Zeitgeist, The Burning Wisdom of Finn McCool with the Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra and, most recently, The Best Summer Ever for the Children’s Theatre Company. A frequent commentator for TPT’s Almanac, NPR and MPR’s All Things Considered, Kling was named the Minneapolis Story Laureate by then-Mayor R.T. Rybak in 2014. He grew up in Osseo, Minnesota, and graduated from Gustavus Adolphus College. More:

Kling wrote this essay for the Sommerfest 2006 issue of the Minnesota Orchestra’s Showcase magazine.

Meet Volunteer Usher Mark Carlson

If you’re lucky enough to know Mark Carlson, you know he’s a great volunteer lead usher: personable, dependable, thoughtful and kind.

If an incident occurs on his dime—he’s the one who coolly and calmly finds a solution and then gets everyone involved moving forward with grace and aplomb. That makes him a perfect person for our inaugural volunteer profile.

Now if you’re a classical music aficionado seated next to Mark at a concert, then it’s your lucky day. You see, Mark has a music degree from Gustavus Adolphus College. He plays a mean euphonium and trombone in a brass sextet and a wind ensemble. (No wonder his favorite Minnesota Orchestra section is the low brass.) 

Wondering about a piece the orchestra is playing? Mark can tell you. While he doesn’t have a favorite composition the Orchestra has performed, Mark is “amazed at how often the orchestra presents a new composition that could become a favorite.” Wondering how the low brass are sounding? Mark can tell you how—and why—they’re sounding so magnificent.

Mark also has a business degree from MSU-Mankato and worked for Musicland Group. These days, Mark is also your guide to better eating. He works in the produce department of the Knollwood Super Target near where he lives. He loves meeting people there and the exercise he gets. Wonder about which organic produce is the most critical to consume? Mark knows. Why shouldn’t you store your potatoes in the fridge? Mark says it causes unprocessed potatoes to darken when cooked.

And Mark’s lucky, too. We volunteer ushers dream of the day we’ll encounter a music celebrity. Mark had such an encounter his first year at Orchestra Hall. “I was assigned to balcony A and a man asked if I could find a seat for him and his dad during a performance. I looked at his father: it was Doc Severinsen.” Mark added that they were pleasant—not demanding at all.

According to Mark, ushering at Orchestra Hall has taught him to be open and flexible. He also knows how important ushers are to the experience of concertgoers: “We represent the integrity of the Minnesota Orchestra,” Mark says.

How about the most amazing concert ever attended anywhere? For Mark, it was the Count Basie Band at Prom Center in St. Paul during college. “The precision and control they brought were most amazing.”

Beyond music and Orchestra Hall, Mark also volunteers at his church and the Ridgedale Library. “I am exposed to a lot of music, books and movies. I always find things to learn from.”

Lately Mark has switched from biking to walking. “I gave up bicycle riding for walking after realizing how much more we can observe when moving at a slower pace…There is an internal rhythm you build when walking that I find is meditative and energizing.”

No doubt Mark transfers that positive energy to ushering, and all of Orchestra Hall is the lucky beneficiary.

Are you interesting in joining our volunteer program? Find out more >> 

Martland Memorial for Percussion and Orchestra

At orchestra concerts, percussionists can usually be found in the back of the ensemble. But on March 14, 15 and 16, guest percussionist Colin Currie will be front and center on the Orchestra Hall stage for the U.S. premiere of Martland Memorial by English composer Mark-Anthony Turnage. You may have a few questions about this work, so let’s dive in.

Who or what is Martland?
Martland Memorial is named after Steve Martland, another English composer and longtime friend of Mark-Anthony Turnage who passed away in 2013. Turnage was motivated to write a new work in memory of his friend and chose to spotlight the talents of Colin Currie, a friend of both Turnage and Martland who played percussion in Steve Martland’s band. If you’re not familiar with Martland or Turnage, don’t worry—no advance knowledge is required to enjoy the piece!

How did the Minnesota Orchestra come to perform the U.S. premiere?
Colin Currie has worked with Music Director Osmo Vänskä several times, and fans of the Minnesota Orchestra and percussion music might recall that he was featured in the Orchestra’s “Crash! Boom! Bang!” percussion festival in May 2008, when he performed percussion concertos by Jennifer Higdon and James MacMillan. Currie approached Vänskä about the new piece that his friend Mark-Anthony Turnage was writing, and then Vänskä got the Minnesota Orchestra involved as a co-commissioning ensemble.

Is Martland Memorial a percussion concerto?
“Concerto” isn’t officially part of the piece’s title, but the composer calls it a “concerto-style” work, and Colin Currie will be up in front of the ensemble, along with 13 percussion instruments. These include some you might expect in a percussion concerto (vibraphone, marimba, congas, two bass drums and a gong) and others that you might not, such as duck call, motor horn and sleigh bells. A traditional classical concerto typically has three movements, but Martland Memorial is a sequence of six shorter movements, each named after a traditional musical form or genre such as “Rumba,” “Pavane” and “Courante.”

The word “memorial” is in the title, so is this a sad piece?
There’s a lot of emotion in the 20-minute piece, but also some humor, jazz-style harmonies and virtuosic solo passages that spotlight Colin Currie’s talent, particularly on vibraphone. Turnage explained that to make a fitting tribute to his friend, “a grand concerto in the traditional three movements wasn’t quite right here, as Steve was quirky and volatile, with strong beliefs offset by Liverpudlian humor....It’s a long way from the Mahlerian elegy you might have expected from a memorial.”

What else is on the program?
The program starts with These Worlds In Us by Missy Mazzoli, one of today’s most prominent younger American composers, and a 2006 participant in the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute. The second half of the concert features Aaron Copland’s Third Symphony, a heroic American symphony that includes themes from his famous Fanfare for the Common Man.

Tickets to the March 14-16 performances are available here >>

Meet a Musician: Erich Rieppel

Minnesota Orchestra member since: December 2018
Position: Principal Timpani
Hometown: born in Minneapolis; raised in Marshall, Minnesota
Education: Indiana University

How did you first become involved in music?

My parents are both musicians. My dad attempted to teach me piano when I was very young, but I wasn’t very interested at first. I started drums when I was 10 but also didn’t get passionate about it until high school.

Growing up as a native Minnesotan, what were your first connections and experiences with the Minnesota Orchestra?

I heard them off and on growing up, but a stand-out memory was when they toured around the state, stopping in Marshall. I was 15 years old. There was a contemporary bass concerto by John Harbison on the program that knocked my socks off. It was my first memory of being moved by an orchestral performance.

How did you decide to focus on timpani?

In my junior year of high school, my father had a sabbatical and took me with him to Vienna, Austria, for three months. It was there that my curiosity for this art exploded. I wanted to contribute as much as I could, but noticed the very particular role the timpani played in the orchestra. I was 16 at the time, and just knew that I had to pursue this path.

What’s the most challenging thing about being a timpanist?

Knowing your role and how to communicate it when playing with the orchestra. It is, acoustically, vastly different from all other instruments, including even other percussion instruments. To communicate clearly, appropriately, and beautifully is a particular challenge with this instrument. It is not enough to just know what you want to say, but how it must be communicated in the band. The mere execution is not the difficult part.

Can you talk a bit about your career path so far?

It’s been a very bumpy path for me, but nothing out of the ordinary in this career. I have gotten close to winning many gigs, but it’s really wild that I was able to get the one in my home state! I feel very lucky, but I’ll also say that I’ve truly respected this particular orchestra, aside from it being in my home state (I attempt to be unbiased here). Some of my favorite memories are hearing Minnesota Orchestra concerts and recordings!

Some people may be surprised to learn that orchestras have a musician who plays only timpani, as opposed to the percussion section that plays a wide variety of instruments. How do you explain why it’s important for orchestras to have a musician focusing solely on timpani?

As you could imagine, it is very specialized. A timpanist requires different techniques, maintenance, tools (or mallets), and knowledge of a whole sector of repertoire that percussionists don't need to worry about. Knowing the repertoire and soundscape needed for it is a unique specialization. I can functionally play percussion and my percussion colleagues can play timpani, but I do not specialize in percussion and vice-versa.

Does a timpanist own their own timpani? And do you use different sets of timpani depending on the repertoire in each concert?

I own a set and the Minnesota Orchestra owns timpani as well. We are actually in the process of purchasing multiple sets, though. I certainly rotate different sets based on the repertoire, size of the orchestra, time period of the composition, etc.

Are there are pieces or upcoming concerts on the Minnesota Orchestra’s calendar that you’re most excited about?

All of the concerts are exciting, but pieces I am particularly looking forward to include Copland’s Third, Beethoven’s Third, Verdi’s Requiem and Mahler’s Tenth Symphony.

What sorts of music do you enjoy listening to on your own?

Classical, jazz, rock, metal, latin, electronic, hiphop. Not pop or country as much.

What are some of your interests and hobbies outside of music?

Pursuing other styles of music is a hobby! But being a Minnesotan, playing and watching hockey is a major part of my existence. 

Do you have any advice for aspiring musicians?

Let truth guide you. Set short and long term goals that are lofty but attainable.

Anything else you’d like to say to Minnesota Orchestra audiences?

Performance requires an audience and we are lucky to have such a respectable and passionate audience. Take pride in supporting the arts; it is a noble endeavor. Thank you for your support.

Meet the Composer: Missy Mazzoli

Missy Mazzoli's first big break as an orchestral composer took place right here with the Minnesota Orchestra with the same piece that the Orchestra plays in concerts on March 14 to 16. We asked Missy to tell us about that moment, what she is working on now and her thoughts on being a female composer in the classical music industry today.

Tell us about These Worlds In Us. What should we listen for in these performances?
I composed These Worlds In Us in 2006. The work is dedicated to my father and inspired by the poem The Lost Pilot by James Tate. Audience members can listen for the melodicas in the percussion section, and the way that a very simple repeated melody takes on new emotional weight as it appears in new contexts throughout the nine minutes of the work. 

What do you remember from that piece’s first performance?
These Worlds In Us had its professional premiere at the 2006 Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute. This performance was my first experience with a professional orchestra and my first experience with an esteemed conductor, Osmo Vänskä. I remember being so nervous the night before the concert that I was up late obsessively going over the parts and generally worrying about every little thing. I felt like my entire career was riding on this nine-minute performance, and in a way it was! The success of that premiere, and the Orchestra’s incredible performance, led to so many opportunities in the orchestral world.

List three words that you would use to describe your own music.
Ecstatic, Dark, Fearless 

What is one of your favorite career highlights thus far?
The Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute is way up there! It was also an absolute thrill to premiere my second opera, Breaking the Waves (created in collaboration with librettist Royce Vavrek) at Opera Philadelphia. That is the biggest, most ambitious work I have created to date. 

What have you been listening to lately?
I’m on a big Iceland kick, loving the music of Anna Thorvaldsdottir and Daníel Bjarnason. I also recently saw the premiere of an excellent opera, Prism, by my friend Ellen Reid (produced by Beth Morrison Projects).

What are some of the joys or challenges that women composers experience today in the classical music industry?
All one has to do is look at the statistics around representation of female composers in classical music to see that this is not and has never been a welcoming field for us. In even the most forward-thinking orchestras usually a maximum of about 3% of their programming is by women, and generally there is a complete lack of racial diversity. I see change happening fastest when female administrators, music directors and artistic directors are in charge; women like Deborah Borda at the New York Philharmonic, Beth Morrison at Beth Morrison Projects, Melissa Smey at New York’s Miller Theatre and Francesca Zambello at Washington National Opera and Glimmerglass have an excellent track record of commissioning and supporting female composers. While there are many male allies who have supported me and my female peers, when the majority of decision-makers are male, the majority of composers are usually male as well. I also think that young women are discouraged from entering the field before they even start applying to college; I’m a professor at Mannes and I give masterclasses at universities around the country and I’ve only ever seen a freshman class of composers with a 50/50 gender split at Curtis, where Jennifer Higdon teaches. So, I think that in addition to hiring more women who can act as role models in positions of power, we need to really encourage very young women to enter the field by offering special support to them when they are 14, 15 and 16 years old.

Do you have any exciting upcoming or recent projects you’d like to share with us?
I’m currently working on a new opera for the Met, a ballet for the National Ballet of Canada, and also preparing for the European premiere of Breaking the Waves at the Edinburgh International Festival. Another project that’s near and dear to my heart is Luna Composition Lab, an organization I founded in 2016 with Ellen Reid in partnership with the Kaufman Music Center in New York. We provide mentorship, performances and networking opportunities to female composers ages 13 through 19.

When you aren’t composing, what do you do for fun?
I surf when the weather’s warm, and I try to see as much art in New York City as possible. But I also find composing itself to be very fun! Except when it’s torture. It’s usually one or the other.

More about Missy Mazzoli >>

Hear These Worlds In Us on March 14, 15, 16 >>

Meet the Annotator: Robert Markow

Who writes the Minnesota Orchestra’s program notes in our monthly Showcase magazine—and what goes into writing them? One of our favorite collaborators is Montreal-based writer Robert Markow, who answered a few questions for our “Meet the Annotator” Q&A series.

How did you first get into the music field?

I actually started out as a performer, playing second horn in the Montreal Symphony. I stayed only a few years, then jumped the stage and found life much easier on the other side. I wasn’t sure what to do next, but music was in my blood, so I got a degree in musicology at Montreal’s McGill University to see where that might lead. Since my professional training on the horn was at the highest level, that meant critical listening was at the heart of my work, and I eventually found my way into music criticism.

How did you get into writing program notes?

Alongside my work as a music critic and journalist, I began writing program notes for the Montreal Symphony. One thing led to another, and I eventually became the only person living in Canada who makes a decent income just from writing program notes for orchestras, festivals and concert organizations across North America.

What is required to be a successful program note writer?

Good question. There’s no such thing as a college degree in writing program notes. You need good writing skills, of course, and a solid background in music history for starters. Ideally you also know something about world history, art, theater, dance, film, literature, architecture and religions. Passing familiarity with German, French and Italian is also highly useful.

Meticulous attention to detail is another essential. Names of composers and performers are so easily misspelled. I myself misspelled the famous Juilliard School for years until someone corrected me. Keeping up with the latest research is important too. For example, when was Prokofiev born? The composer himself claimed April 23, so why not believe him? Well, he was wrong! Going by his birth certificate, only recently discovered, the true date is April 27. One can’t be expected to know everything, but it helps!

What’s your process when writing program notes?

It’s fairly simple: assemble all the information I can find about a composer and the work being performed, mull it over for a time, decide what’s most important vis-à-vis the space I have been given to work with, then write. I always ask myself: “What does the listener most need to know about this composer and/or the piece in order to maximize his or her listening experience?”

I almost always include in my notes some kind of “road map”—how the piece is organized, what the main themes or ideas are, and how to recognize them. Otherwise the listener is left with the equivalent of just a “sonic bath”—a succession of sounds that wash over the ears but mean little. I also like to engage readers when possible—challenge them with a question, throw them a red herring, set up an obvious explanation and then prove it false, etc. For example, when I wrote about Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 6 in E-flat minor, I started by challenging readers to name any composers besides Prokofiev who have written a symphony in that rarely-used key. (There aren’t any!—not famous ones anyway.)

What are some challenges that a program note writer encounters?

The most difficult works to write about are obscure compositions by dead composers, especially those outside the main orbit of central European or North American music history—for example, the Croatian composer Dora Pejačevič or the Japanese Yashushi Akutagawa. If I’m lucky, a scholar has written an entire book on the composer. In some cases, the composer’s native country will have a good music information center that can help.

New music is usually fairly easy to cover, since today’s composers almost always submit a paragraph or two about their work to the performing organization, and can be contacted directly if a follow-up is needed. Granted, not every composer is as comfortable communicating in words as in music, and there have been rare cases when what the composer provides is not useful for general audiences, or when the composer prefers to let the music speak for itself.

Challenges of another sort arise when different sources claim different things. Which one to believe? Generally speaking, the newer the source, the more likely it is to be trustworthy.

How important is listening to the music and examining the score?

Both are essential. How can you describe the music, or even know what to say about it, without knowing how it sounds? I once read a program note claiming that Mahler’s Fifth Symphony opens with a solo for four trumpets in unison. Obviously this writer had not listened to the piece. It takes only one or two giant gaffes like that to lose your readers’ credibility for good.

Are there composers and time periods that you most enjoy writing about?

My favorite is the late Romantic period—Brahms, Mahler, Bruckner, Strauss, Wagner—and certain early 20th century figures like Shostakovich, Bartók and Rachmaninoff. Modern music is a sticking point with many concertgoers, but there is some excellent new music out there. A few of today’s composers I favor are the Finn Kalevi Aho, the American Richard Danielpour, and Qigang Chen in China.

What else besides music interests you?

I love color, so tending a large flower garden in the summer takes my mind off music for a while. I read a lot, watch a lot of movies, attend informal wine-tastings with friends, and travel often to Asian countries in pursuit of musical excellence. We hear so little in the U.S. about what’s happening in Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Taiwan, Singapore, etc., but both the quantity and quality of all the performing arts there are absolutely amazing. I read somewhere that some 200 new theaters have opened in Asia just during the past 30 years.

How has the business changed since you began writing 40 years ago?

The internet has made the program annotator’s work vastly easier when dealing with obscure material and new music. Previously I spent a lot of time sending faxes and calling publishers in search of information that is now all online, or available via email correspondence.

After writing for over 40 years, do you ever think of retiring?

Why? I love what I’m doing. I might as well continue getting paid for it!

Adventurous Voices, American Music

"American classical music is not an old-growth forest," says University of Minnesota Musicology Professor Peter Mercer-Taylor, who shares his thoughts on the many voices that comprise our country's unique classical music tradition.

In Europe to this day, the foundations of classical music seem to lie exposed here and there. The house in which Mozart composed The Marriage of Figaro and some of his best-loved concertos; the hall that hosted Beethoven’s first rehearsal of the Eroica Symphony; the study in which Schumann labored through his dazzlingly productive early 30s, to name a few. Rooms that once were homes for the living are now museums to the long-dead. But we can stand in them still, calculating the elapsed years, struggling to imagine the moments the music created there was vibrantly, vitally new. In a sense, it’s not unlike facing the most ancient Sequoias in an American old-growth forest and struggling to imagine the world before they took root. Somehow sacralized by the very passage of years, they have come to stand motionless, outside of time—things that somehow must always have been.

American classical music is not an old-growth forest. There are no ancient Sequoias. The dense musical wood we now roam with joy was a prairie a handful of generations ago, only sparsely dotted by saplings. A sense of vibrant, vital newness still clings to nearly all that has grown there.

To be sure, some of the small-scale musical creations that sprang up in abundance in pre-Civil War America are still with us. But only toward the end of the 19th century did pioneering figures like John Knowles Paine, Amy Beach and Horatio Parker establish a firm footing for Americans working in the large-scale forms of Europe’s most celebrated composers. And only in the early decades of the 20th century—the era of Charles Ives, George Gershwin, Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber—did it become unequivocally clear the classical music of the United States had found its voice.

Or, rather, its voices.

Haydn and Mozart differed in the stories they had to tell us, but spoke a common tongue; no one who adores the music of one will be mystified by the other. American composition came of age at a moment when any such notion of consensus was a distant memory. A spirit of discovery, a celebration of brave individualism, an understanding that inherited rule books are never more than optional reading—these have marked the world of American classical music from its first maturity. And the kinds of gulfs that early separated, say, Ives’ cacophonous musical collisions from Gershwin’s Tin Pan Alley-infused openhandedness yawned ever wider in the decades after World War II. Placing side-by-side the most extreme reaches of John Cage’s “chance” music, the fastidiously plotted “integral serialism” of Milton Babbitt, and the pulse-pattern minimalism of Steve Reich, it makes little sense to speak of a “world” of American composition at all. It’s more like a solar system.

Being the young, adventurous enterprise that it is, American classical music has always been a hospitable home to young, adventurous composers. And never more so than now.

Today, some of these newer voices can be found joining in conversation with the robust, wide legacy of the concert music that has long sustained symphony orchestras, such as the Minnesota Orchestra, which is showcasing American music throughout its 2018-19 season. Missy Mazzoli’s These Worlds in Us deploys repetitive cells in ways that bring Reich’s minimalism to mind, but laid against a sonic landscape of Debussy-like lushness, the whole tracing its journey through time with a lucidity Mozartian in its sure-footedness (while sounding nothing like Mozart). Sean Shepherd’s Silvery Rills—a kind of love song to his native Nevada—eavesdrops on Dvořák and Copland in its reach toward the sound of America while glittering with an orchestral brilliance that would likely have impressed Rimsky-Korsakov.

But the rising generation also challenges us in ever more energetic ways to question whatever notions we might have of what music belongs in an “orchestra hall.” The walls that might seem to insulate such spaces from others in which American music lives its teeming, variegated lives—cineplexes, dance floors and car radios—grow increasingly porous.

Artistic voices that spoke first through popular song have charted brave inroads into the domain of the “classical.” New Wave icon Elvis Costello collaborated, to beautiful effect, with the Brodsky Quartet to create the 1993 album The Juliet Letters. The brass and string arrangements of guitarist Jonny Greenwood punctuate the albums of his alternative-rock band, Radiohead, but his compositions have also been performed by some of London’s leading contemporary orchestras. And today, Twin Cities rapper-singer-songwriter Dessa—who has brought to hip-hop a creative voice equally striking in its intellectual groundedness and its creative adventurousness—finds welcome on the stage at Orchestra Hall.

At the same time, hearing Michael Giacchino’s bracing score for Star Trek: Into Darkness performed live makes patently clear the artistic relevance of the film score as a dynamic modern orchestral genre, reminding us, too, that movie theater and concert hall have always been on friendly terms. At the middle of the last century, Americans like Copland and Bernard Herrmann passed freely between these domains (even rigorously “programmatic” 19th-century works like Berlioz’s 1830 Symphonie fantastique today sound consummately “cinematic,” if we’re inclined to let them).

When Walter Murphy laid a thumping dance beat behind Beethoven’s 5th Symphony to create the 1976 disco hit “A Fifth of Beethoven,” even fans might have struggled to hear more than a gimmicky novelty. But modern composers like sometime-DJ Mason Bates have abundantly demonstrated that the concert hall has nothing to fear from the throbbing, technologized world of modern Electronic Dance Music, nor from the open physicality of its expressive vocabulary.

Speaking with their vibrant, vital newness, the voices of such young adventurers serve as a constant reminder that the concert hall was never meant to become a museum to the long-dead, however exuberantly their rich legacy is sustained and celebrated there. It has always been, and joyously remains, a home for the living.

Peter Mercer-Taylor is a Professor of Musicology at the University of Minnesota, where he writes and teaches about 19th-century music and rock-era popular song. He has spoken at numerous conferences and symposia and has been interviewed on NPR and BBC Radio 2. He is the author of The Life of Mendelssohn (Cambridge University Press, 2000) and the editor of The Cambridge Companion to Mendelssohn (2004), and is completing a book on the role of tunes culled from European classical music in 19th-century American hymnody.

The Swingles at Orchestra Hall

On March 24, we welcome The Swingles to Orchestra Hall for one afternoon of incredible vocal music. Preview some of our favorite Swingles tunes, hear from two of the group's vocalists and then get your tickets!

Look Back (ForWard) - March 24 at Orchestra Hall

The Swingles present a musical retrospective in celebration of their late, great founder Ward Swingle.  The five-time Grammy® winning vocal group take a look back at Ward’s formative influences – in particular, Bach – and at the musical landscape as it has changed over the Swingles’ extraordinary five-decade history. Moving through the singer-songwriters of the 1960s and 70s right up to the current British favorites, the group brings the retro sound of the classic Swingle Singers alive as well as bringing a fresh approach on original songs from their newer releases. 

The program includes music from Bach, Simon and Garfunkel, The Beatles and more.  
What is ‘contemporary a cappella’ to you? How would you define it? 
Jo Goldsmith-Eteson (Soprano): I think what is so interesting about this genre is that it can mean so many different things to different people. For us, it has gone far beyond just 'singing a song with no instruments' but it has become a way to use the human voice as a vehicle to communicate the ideas and emotions that are important to us. We've always loved to push the boundaries of what the voice can do - not just in terms of the versatility and power of a singular voice, but what you can do with several voices all together, creating soundscapes and musical textures beyond the expected.  

What is your favorite Swingle arrangement?

Edward Randell (Bass): For me, it has to be Ward Swingle’s classic arrangement of Clair de Lune by Debussy. Every time we sing that, it’s a thrill. I never get tired of it.
Jo Goldsmith-Eteson: I love our version of Piazzolla’s Libertango arranged by former Swingle alto, Kineret Erez. We’ve performed it in almost every single show for over a decade and it’s just so exhilarating every time.

How do you cope with mistakes onstage (forgetting lyrics and such)? Can you share one of these moments?
Edward Randell: When mistakes happen, they can be pure gold for a performance. Especially on a long tour, suddenly everyone comes out of their routine and goes onto high alert. One of my favourites was when our former high soprano, Sara suddenly forgot the lyrics to The Diva Aria (which she had probably performed 200 times by that point) and improvised a lot of nonsense Italian. We were dying trying to control our laughter, but no-one in the audience noticed. Another time we were doing an open air concert and a loud siren went off, and kept going for about 5 minutes. We improvised a piece around the pitches of the siren, and the audience loved it. If you can ride out those moments of crisis, an audience will love you for it – you’ve given them a completely unique experience.

What can the audience expect from your show? 
Jo Goldsmith-Eteson: We love to take our audience on a journey and our show will always be a real mixture of styles and genres. We love the idea that we can perform familiar songs in a way that is really unexpected alongside music that an audience probably won’t have heard before but may feel like they’ve known it forever. It’s the fun juxtaposition of deconstructed 16th century renaissance early music with alternative/indie songs or singer/songwriter ballads and big anthems paired with unusual ancient folk tunes that I think keeps the audience on their toes and keeps them coming back.


Minnesota Orchestra thanks The Swingles for sharing their comments and videos.

For tickets and information about the March 24 concert at Orchestra Hall >>


Symphony Ball 2019, “Northern Lights”

Plans are coming together for a spectacular 2019 Symphony Ball, “Northern Lights,” to be held on Saturday, June 8, at Orchestra Hall and the Hilton Hotel—and you can be among the first to get your tickets when they go on sale at the end of this month! This gala evening of music, dining, dancing and good company is for a great cause: your Minnesota Orchestra. The Orchestra’s largest annual fundraiser is chaired this year by Betsy Frost and Charlie Anderson, who share their thoughts on the Ball, its theme and their longtime love of music.

How did you and the Symphony Ball committee pick the theme “Northern Lights”?

As we started planning, we wanted to pull a theme directly from our community in a way that represents Minnesota and resonates with our audience. The Northern Lights theme is a perfect way to celebrate the excellence of the Minnesota Orchestra and the impact it has on the Bold North.

If you have ever seen the Northern Lights, you know that it’s a spectacular show of Mother Nature’s brilliance—lighting up the sky in luminous blues, purples, greens and sometimes pink—leaving you speechless and moved. It’s the same brilliance that we experience every time the Minnesota Orchestra takes the stage, as the musicians transform the night and elevate the tremendous cultural and artistic heritage of our community.

How will this theme be reflected in the Ball’s activities?

The 2019 Symphony Ball will be a brilliant ball in name, design and décor and, of course, with world-class music from the Minnesota Orchestra. Attendees can expect light and sound to take center stage in adventurous new ways as the night moves from the ethereal to electric, transforming Orchestra Hall and the Hilton into the night sky. The lights will wow and the musician-curated program, including a special guest artist, will inspire and enliven the Hall.

Are newcomers welcome at Symphony Ball?

The Ball is open to one and all: whether you’re a first-timer or a Ball veteran, there is no better party in town! Symphony Ball is a premier event for many reasons. It combines multiple venues, an auction with musical experiences no one else can offer, creative collaborations between local musicians, dancing, an Orchestra performance—and the list goes on!

You can experience the Northern Lights for a complete evening that includes dinner with Orchestra musicians and a one-of-a-kind live auction at the Hilton—or you can join the party at Orchestra Hall with a champagne hour before the musician-curated concert, featuring an exciting guest artist. Orchestra Hall will then be transformed with light as the night continues with dancing, music, drinks and desserts. There’s no better way to celebrate with friends and the musicians, and experience the best that Minnesota has to offer!

What makes the Orchestra special enough to you to serve as Symphony Ball Chairs?

We are humbled and honored to be able to help with the Orchestra’s largest fundraising event of the year. The Minnesota Orchestra is so important to our community. It is not only a world-class organization that contributes a unique style and sound on the world orchestral stage, but it also elevates the Twin Cities as a thriving and culturally rich destination. The Minnesota Orchestra serves our community with music that uplifts, inspires, heals and unlocks creativity in a unique way that brings together the musicians, organization and community across the cities and the state.

The Minnesota Orchestra runs in Charlie’s family. His great-grandfather, Arthur Gaines, was the business manager in the 1920s and ’30s of what was then called the Minneapolis Symphony, taking the ensemble to Cuba for the first time. Charlie found the love of the cello after wearing out his grandfather’s cassette tapes of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto and introduced Betsy to the Minnesota Orchestra on one of their first dates. A lover of Ravel’s Bolero, Betsy was transfixed by the power of the Orchestra and joined the Board in 2017, inspired by the music and the role the Orchestra has in elevating the downtown experience and its reach throughout the community.

Tickets for Symphony Ball 2019 go on sale in late February. We’ll see you on Saturday, June 8!

Meet the Composer: Mason Bates

The Minnesota Orchestra performs Garages of the Valley by American composer Mason Bates in concerts on February 22 and 23. It is the first time the Orchestra has performed the piece. We asked the composer to tell us more about it and to share his thoughts on new music, his current projects and a little bit about himself.

Tell us briefly about Garages of the Valley:
This piece was a study for my opera The Revolution of Steve Jobs. I was searching for a way to conjure the quicksilver, mechanistic euphoria inside the garages of Silicon Valley. 

How do you suggest that listeners approach a new piece of music?
I encourage listeners to remember that a lot of new music uses texture and rhythm in place of melody. Those elements undergo transformations, like melodies. It's just a different kind of foreground. 

What are some of the challenges that today’s composers face in the classical music industry?
Classical music is evolving more than folks realize, and it's thanks to imaginative conductors, artistic administrators and symphonic musicians. These are the folks who give a chance to young composers. We still need more orchestras to program a higher percentage of American music. 

Where do you find inspiration for your work?
Music, literature, film, you name it—it’s all fair game!

What is your favorite type of ensemble to compose for?
Orchestra. It's the world's greatest synthesizer.

What are you listening to lately?
I'm fascinated by Janecek at the moment. He has such vivid symphonic music, and it always surprises. I'm also listening to a lot bluegrass (Jeremy Kittel's band Whorls) and the electronic releases of DJ Dan.

Do you have any exciting upcoming projects you’d like to share?
I'm in the early stages of a concerto for orchestra and animated film called World's Greatest Synth: The Making of the Orchestra. It's a kind of Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra from the perspective of instrument engineering. My collaborators are Gary Rydstrom of Lucasfilm and Jim Capobianco, formerly of Pixar and now running his own shop called Aerial Contrivance.

When you aren’t composing, what do you do for fun?
Trying to be a better surfer.

Do you have any special connections to Minnesota?
I know many Minnesotans! And I love their seriousness of purpose and funky way of talking.

Who is your biggest supporter?
There are so many people who have been good to me over the years, it's impossible to name one. At the basic level, there's no one who has been more supportive than my parents. I grew up in a Southern family with no musical emphasis, so it continues to amaze me that they never questioned my direction.  

Hear Mason Bates music in concert with the Minnesota Orchestra >>

More about Mason Bates  >>

Meet a Musician: Cecilia Belcher

Minnesota Orchestra member since: 2014
Position: Assistant Principal Second Violin
Hometown: St. Louis, Missouri
Education: University of Michigan; Cleveland Institute of Music; Rice University 

I knew I’d make a career in music when:
I think I became determined to be a professional musician when I was in high school. I feel very lucky that doors kept opening to give me opportunities to continue learning and developing as a musician through college and beyond. I’m grateful for my experiences at the New World Symphony and the St. Louis Symphony before I joined the Minnesota Orchestra. 

Are you part of a musical family?
My parents both play instruments, but not professionally. My dad plays the banjo and my mom plays the piano and guitar. 

What is most challenging about being an orchestral musician?
I think what is most challenging about our jobs is the nonstop nature of the schedule. It requires planning and diligence to stay on top of the programs. This is challenging, but also very rewarding.

Do you have any advice for aspiring musicians?
Try to always think about your practice, and always have a goal during a practice session, listen to and learn from your peers, and never give up!

Tell us about a proud moment during your career:
A recent proud moment was performing at the Regina Mundi church in Soweto during our tour in South Africa. To me, this was one of those special moments where we all could feel that we were a part of something that was greater than ourselves.

What is currently on your music stand?
I always have music for upcoming Minnesota Orchestra programs on my stand. I also make sure I’m working on another project outside of orchestra at the same time. 

What fun fact should Minnesota Orchestra audiences know about you?
My husband Richard and I have a one-and-a-half-year-old son named Finn, who is the joy of our lives. 

What are you listening to lately?
Besides listening to music I’m currently learning, I like the band Alt J, and I’ve been having fun discovering fun kids songs by They Might Be Giants with Finn.  

Are there any pieces on the Orchestra’s calendar that you are especially excited about?
I’m excited to continue our Mahler recording cycle, and I’m looking forward to playing Mahler 10 in our season finale concert.

More about Cecilia Belcher >>


Common Chords: North Minneapolis

From January 21 through 27, 2019, Minnesota Orchestra musicians participated in approximately 25 events throughout North Minneapolis in the Orchestra’s first-ever Twin Cities-area Common Chords residency week.

Monday, January 21

The week of collaboration started off at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday Breakfast at the Armory. Minnesota Orchestra musicians joined the MacPhail Northside Youth Orchestra bucket drummers for a special performance. 

Principal Cello Anthony Ross and Assistant Principal Cello Beth Rapier performed and connected with a group at the Cora McCorvey Health & Wellness Center.


18 dancers of all ages signed up to compete in a dance battle accompanied by a string quartet made up of Minnesota Orchestra musicians. The quartet performed 30- to 45-second selections of music by a variety of composers including Bach, Satie, Dvořák and more, while dancers went head to head in freestyle dance-offs. A panel of judges narrowed the field from 18 to eight to four and then the final two competed in a three-round final battle to determine the winner. Dancers found new challenges and inspirations in the live music selections, and the musicians took home exciting, new perspectives of pieces they've found familiar for their entire careers. For everyone in the room—dancers, musicians and spectators— there was something new, something creative, something emotional to experience.

"During the Bach Air in G, which is a piece we probably have played a million times — I don't know who it was, but the way he interpreted the piece... I looked up and I had a tear. You guys really moved us. Thank you." — Pitnarry Shin, cello

Tuesday, January 21

Orchestra musicians spent much of the day on Tuesday immersed in classrooms throughout the community, sharing their love of music with students of all ages.

A woodwind quintet performed for nearly 300 elementary school students at Bethune Community School. They shared unique stories about their instruments and their memories of first learning how to make music.

Clarinetist Gregory Williams answered many of the student's pressing questions, including several about the Squidward, who plays the clarinet in the TV show SpongeBob.

Violinist Aaron Janse, along with horn player Brian Jensen and tuba player Jason Tanksley, visited with students at Lucy Craft Laney Community School. The students in this class will soon be selecting their first instruments for band and orchestra, so the Orchestra musicians shared important tips about how the instruments are played and what sounds they produce, plus some insider tips—like how to make spooky sounds with multi-phonics, funny instrument mishaps and the value of practicing music no matter what you want to be when you grow up.

Students at the Harvest Network of Schools spent the morning with violinist Catherine Schubilske, playing music for each other and then joining together as a group for a few final pieces. Members of the Orchestra also performed at Cityview Community School of Innovation. 


An excellent day was topped off with an exciting evening when Music Director Osmo Vänskä and the full Minnesota Orchestra arrived at Sanctuary Covenant Church to join the community for a meal catered by Breaking Bread Café, followed by a sing-along concert. Music included Lift Every Voice and SingWhat a Wonderful WorldSomewhere Over the Rainbow and many others. Voices were soaring and no one in the building could keep from dancing along. 

Wednesday, January 23

After playing a Handel Bourree to a class full of elementary and middle school students at Ascension Catholic School in North Minneapolis on Wednesday, Minnesota Orchestra Violinist Pamela Arnstein posed a question: “Can anyone come up with a better title than Bourree?”

“The singing bird?” suggested one student. “French fries?” called out another. The students are budding string players who are learning their instruments through MacPhail Center for Music’s school partnerships program, which spans back to 1989 at this school.

Arnstein and Violist Richard Marshall are here to demonstrate, inspire and encourage students. “I think of practicing this way,” says Marshall with a smile, “you should do it every day that you brush your teeth.”  

Following a Q&A session, MacPhail teachers divide the students into smaller ensembles to work alongside Arnstein and Marshall with instruments in hand, focusing on intonation, rhythm and bowing technique. “You have to be aware of the group when you play together,” Arnstein advises. “Think to yourself, ‘am I fitting in beautifully or am I causing conflict?’”

The students seem to feel the progress as they move their bows together in unison. “Beautiful,” says Arnstein. “There is something just beautiful about playing music together.”

A trio of Orchestra musicians performed a concert at Homewood Studios on Wednesday evening, while surrounded by vivid photographs from 13 local artists who are members of the Homewood Photo Collective. A few of the featured and resident artists were in attendance at the performance, along with members of the local neighborhood and other musicians of the Orchestra.

The evening began with a delightful trio by Schubert before switching gears to a series of twentieth-century music that invited the audience members to sit up in their chairs and listen to a variety of new textures and soundscapes. Highlights included a spirited West Virginian bluegrass trio and American composer Marc Mellits’ eight-movement work entitled Tapas.

Thursday, January 26

At the very active Sumner Library, students were busy reading and playing on computers, but when Pamela Arnstein and Brian Jensen started their violin and horn Mozart duet, a crowd approached to hear what was going on.

With a new group of interested students gathered around, Arnstein and Jensen introduced themselves and their instruments. To demonstrate how to make a sound on the horn, Jensen buzzed his lips and then brought the instrument up to play a note.

“Does that tickle?”

“It does!”

Kristen Bruya and Kathryn Nettleman, Principal and Associate Principal Bass, stopped by the Ascension Catholic School after-school program at the North Commons Recreation Center on Thursday.  They were here to listen to and play with six young string players who participate in the MacPhail-led program.

After a performance from the students led by instructor Joe Kaiser, Bruya and Nettleman shared some of their favorite bass duets before demonstrating the role the bass plays in the Orchestra.

“The Orchestra needs that foundation. At least that’s what we tell ourselves,” joked Nettleman.

The event wrapped up with everyone rehearsing together and a discussion on how it feels to play with a group of musicians.

Marley, who plays the cello, said he enjoys watching his fellow musicians to stay in sync. “I know the people I’m playing with and it makes it easier to play,” he said.

Writers, musicians and fans gathered at the University of Minnesota Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center (UROC) for “Dispatches from the North: A Reading” on Thursday evening.

Writers from the Northside came together to share the stage with Violinist Natsuki Kumagai and Assistant Principal Viola Jenni Seo.

Before sharing his work, George Roberts, a retired teacher and 50-year Northside resident, shared that he was grateful the Orchestra was investing in North Minneapolis.

“You’re putting us on a map we haven’t been on before,” he said.

The works were as varied as the people who call the Northside home:  a look at what the community would be like in 20 years. A letter to a niece, an ode to a historic cafe, a love/hate relationship with the neighborhood. But in each reading, it was clear there is a deep love for the people, places and spirit of North Minneapolis.

Friday, January 26

Following a full Orchestra rehearsal at North High School on Friday afternoon to prepare for Saturday night’s concert, two small ensembles fanned out on the Northside for Friday night gigs. A string quartet headed by violinist Natsuki Kumagai and featuring Ben Odhner, Kenneth Freed and Katja Linfeld, headed to Patrick Henry High School to participate in the school’s annual winter choir concert. The quartet opened the concert with Dvořák and then accompanied the concert choir—led by Courtland Pickens—in songs including Whitney Houston’s “I Look to You,” and Josh Groban’s “You Raised Me Up.”

Simultaneously, just west of downtown in the Harrison neighborhood, a woodwind quintet assembled at La Doña Cervecería, where one degree temperatures didn’t deter a big weekend crowd from gathering. Roma Duncan, David Pharris, Kathryn Greenbank, J. Christopher Marshall and Bruce Hudson entertained with some Ibert, Beethoven, Vaughn Williams and Holst in this brightly-colored taproom.

Saturday, January 27

All the threads of this Common Chords week came together on Saturday night in a culminating concert at North High School. Led by Music Director Osmo Vänskä, the Orchestra performed alongside 40-some Northside artists, including poets, dancers, visual artists, bucket drummers and student instrumentalists in this two-hour Finale Concert that was a “marvelous testament to what can happen when a community comes together,” in the words of Bishop Richard D. Howell, Jr.

Howell was one of the individuals who laid the foundation for the Common Chords experience when he invited the Orchestra to perform at his church, Shiloh Temple International Ministries, in 2016. “Having the Minnesota Orchestra here at North High School is not only a rich experience, but it is the right thing to do,” he said.

It felt right when the MacPhail Northside Youth Orchestra, comprised of instrumentalists in grades 7 through 12 and led by Tamara Gonzalez, took the stage to showcase their emerging skills with Beethoven –-and when LA Buckner led 30 young bucket drummers in a high-spirited arrangement of We Shall Overcome that featured Orchestra brass and percussion players.

Poets Debra Stone and Sagirah Shahid shared their writings about the Northside. Dancers Malvin X and Cecil Virgo Neal participated in a freestyle dance improvisation to the Orchestra’s interpretation of Michael Abels’ Dance for Martin’s Dream. “It was unreal,” recounted Neal, who attended Minnesota Orchestra Young People’s concerts as an elementary student, “like I was creating something new onstage.”

The Steeles, the powerhouse sibling ensemble, joined the Orchestra and trumpeter Charles Lazarus for a soaring trio of songs to end the evening at full throttle: Heaven Help Us All, Lift Every Voice and Sing, and Our Love is Here to Stay.

For audiences who wanted just a little more, Orchestra Board member Yvonne Cheek promised that Orchestra musicians had more in store on Sunday at local churches and the Capri Theater.  “And we are already talking about what project will come next” in the neighborhood, she said.

Artwork created live during the concert by Juxtaposition Arts artist and designer Patricio DeLara.

Sunday, January 28


To conclude a jam-packed week with our North Minneapolis neighbors, three members of the Minnesota Orchestra shared the stage with more than thirty musicians of the Capri Big Band for a Sunday afternoon jazz concert at the Capri Theater. Music Director Osmo Vänskä and Principal Clarinet Gabriel Campos Zamora both joined in on their clarinets and Charles Lazarus on the trumpet.

The band, led by Director Faye Washington, filled the theater with music by jazz greats including Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn and Glenn Miller. In addition to exciting solos by Big Band musicians, Vänskä was featured in Moonlight Serenade and Lazarus in Tenderly.

Zamora also played the bass clarinet, an instrument not typically found in the big band setting. He gave a mini demonstration after host Donald Washington exclaimed to the crowd: “And check out this clarinet! You don’t always get to see this beautiful instrument!”

Thirsty Whale Bakery provided cookies and coffee for a post-concert reception, where musicians and guests greeted each other and recounted all of the wonderful events and music they experienced throughout the week!

 Photography: Joseph Scheller, Tony Nelson, Heidi Giacalone, Pat Carney and Minnesota Orchestra staff

Inside the Classics: The Puppet Master

By Sam Bergman, viola and host of Inside the Classics

When Sarah Hicks and I started the Inside the Classics series all the way back in 2007, we made two rules for ourselves. The first was that we would never feature a piece of music that we weren’t both utterly passionate about. The second was that we wanted to send our audiences out the door in a state of total euphoria; the educational component of the series was important, yes, but our main goal was to have a lot of fun and take everyone in the room along for the ride.

Given those rules, it’s no surprise that the composer we’ve turned to the most often over the years has been Igor Stravinsky, that master of dark humor, musical innovation and visceral connection to audiences. Stravinsky’s Firebird was the piece that launched Inside the Classics, and we tackled his Rite of Spring just three years later. This February, we finally complete Stravinsky’s early ballet trilogy with Petrushka, and we couldn’t be more excited to bring it to you. While Petrushka may not be as ubiquitous as Firebird, and didn’t cause fistfights at its premiere like the Rite, Sarah and I agree that, as a pure work of symphonic mastery, it might be the best thing Stravinsky ever wrote.

The story of Petrushka centers around puppets who come to life in a Russian town square, and it’s full of darkly disturbing imagery and, frankly, some character arcs that would be correctly called out as problematic today. We’ll be getting into that at the February 16 concert, but also discussing the absolute musical revolution that was going on across Europe during the decade when Stravinsky was churning out hit after hit for the Ballets Russes. This was the decade of World War I, and it marked the end of German/Austrian dominance in the realm of concert music, as musicians from France to Russia and beyond looked to “cast off the German influence,” in the words of The New Yorker’s Alex Ross.

Beyond its place in the historical timeline, though, Petrushka stands apart from all other music that was being written at the time. As German composers were still drawing on the legacies of Wagner and Brahms, and France’s homegrown favorites looked to musical impressionism to distinguish themselves, Stravinsky stood utterly apart, creating street scenes out of conflicting layers of music which should sound chaotic, yet somehow coalesce in our ears. Where other composers commissioned to write for the ballet would think first of the dancers themselves and the limitations of the human body, Stravinsky penned driving, earthbound themes and rhythms so complex that the ballet masters would have to stand in the wings shouting the beats at the dancers during the performance.

But in the end, what makes Stravinsky’s ballet scores, and Petrushka in particular, so remarkable isn’t that they were fiendishly difficult in their day. After all, any composer can write music too hard to play if they don’t care whether it ever is played. What separates Stravinsky is that he was utterly convinced that he was writing music for the next generation of musicians and listeners, rather than his own – and he was exactly right. What was once on the edge of the avant-garde is now a concert hall staple, and today’s composers still reckon with its legacy. We’ll reckon with it, too, on February 16. I hope you’ll join us.

Free Tickets for Federal Employees

Free ticket offer is good for two tickets to select Minnesota Orchestra Classical concerts through June 2019

The Minnesota Orchestra announced today that furloughed federal government employees are eligible for two complimentary tickets to attend a Minnesota Orchestra concert of their choice. Concerts included in the offer are all Classical, Symphony in 60 and Inside the Classics concerts through June 2019 (subject to availability).

“Minnesota Orchestra horn player Herb Winslow suggested this idea, and we all loved it,” said Minnesota Orchestra President and CEO Michelle Miller Burns. “Music has the power to ease burdens a little bit, and we invite federal employees to join us for an upcoming Orchestra concert.”

Tickets must be reserved before Thursday, February 28, 2019, online or by phone at 612-371-5656, using the promo code FEDERAL. A government issued ID is required when picking up tickets at the Box Office.

A Celebration of Heritage

As part of the American Expressions festival, we are celebrating how our Orchestra and community have been enriched by people with roots all over the world.

We asked the musicians to share more about their heritage and invite you to read on to discover more about their family histories. When you finish, don’t forget to find these musicians on our interactive map in the Orchestra Hall lobby before placing dots to show which places in the world you are connected to!

Susie Park | First Associate Concertmaster

Country of origin: Sydney, Australia; parents from Seoul, South Korea

When did you first start learning the violin? Age 3

When did you move to the U.S.? I moved here in 2015.

What made you decide to move to the U.S.? To join the Minnesota Orchestra.

How has your heritage influenced your artistry? My family instilled a hard work ethic and a deep love of music.

Fun heritage facts: I do not enjoy vegemite, but I do sometimes relish kimchi with my avocado toast.

Adam Kuenzel | Principal Flute

Countries of origin: Ancestors from Eastern Russia and Germany

When did you first start learning the flute? Age 9

When did your family move to the U.S.? To the best of my knowledge, all of my great-grandparents emigrated to the U.S. either as children or adults and were welcomed at Ellis Island. My mother’s side of the family stayed in New York City and my father’s side is from Cincinnati.

How has your heritage influenced your artistry? My maternal grandfather was an attorney who played the violin. I don’t think he practiced too often, so maybe it was a good thing that I only heard him play once or twice.

Fun heritage facts: A distant ancestor, Oscar Zerk, invented the “Zerk valve” used in lubrication devices. One of my maternal great-grandfathers, Jacob Katz, was an obstetrician who delivered Jacob Javits, who represented New York in both houses of Congress between 1947 and 1981.

Manny Laureano | Principal Trumpet

Country of origin: Parents from Puerto Rico

When did you first start learning the trumpet? Age 12

When did your family move to the US Mainland? 1981

Why did you move to Minnesota? To join the Minnesota Orchestra.

How has your heritage influenced your artistry? Latin music is full of subdivisions that help you learn rhythms. Having a Hispanic background lends a greater understanding to romance languages and the musical styles that originated in those countries.

Rebecca Corruccini | First Violin

Countries of origin: Ancestors from Italy, Germany and England

When did you first start learning the violin? Age 3

When did you move to Minnesota? In 2008, to join the Minnesota Orchestra.

How has your heritage influenced your artistry? My great-grandfather was an Italian opera singer, so I like to think that music runs in my blood, and I’ve always been proud of that connection to my heritage despite the fact that he died long before I was born.

Roma Duncan | Flute and Piccolo

Country of origin: Nova Scotia, Canada; parents from the Shetland Isles in Northern Scotland

When did you start learning the flute? Age 11

When did you move to the U.S.? To Minnesota? I immigrated to the states in 2000, moved to Minnesota in 2003, and became a citizen in 2004.

Sifei Cheng | Viola

Country of origin: Taipei, Taiwan

When did you first start learning the viola? Age 12

When did you and your family move to the U.S.? I was 8 years old.

What made your family decide to move to the U.S.? Why Minnesota specifically? My dad wanted a better life for our family. They still live in California along with both of my brothers. I moved to Minnesota when I won this job on my very first audition after studying at Juilliard and the Curtis Institute of Music.

How has your heritage influenced your artistry? Having moved here when I was eight, I feel I can draw from the best of both worlds…between a strict upbringing in Taiwan and the freedom of the Western culture. I have applied these cultures to the way I approach, practice and perform music.

Brian Jensen | Horn

Countries of origin: Ancestors from Denmark, Scotland and England

When did you first start learning the horn? Age 11

When did your family move to the U.S.? My ancestors immigrated here in the first half of the 1800s.

What made your family decide to move to the U.S.? My family came to the U.S. to follow their newfound faith to Utah.

What made you decide to move to Minnesota? To join the Minnesota Orchestra.

Has your heritage influenced your artistry? If so, how? Absolutely! I learned the skills of dedication, sacrifice and diligent work toward a worthy goal passed down through generations of ancestors. All of these skills were necessary in preparing myself to perform at the level required by this orchestra.

Fun heritage anecdote: I have a biography of one of my earliest ancestors to immigrate to the U.S. He came from Glasgow, Scotland. The great violinist Paganini was traveling through town when his carriage broke down. When the townspeople learned who he was, they wanted to hear him play. They refused to fix his carriage until he had played them a concert. My ancestor wrote a short review of this in the newspaper. What a neat experience it was for me to read that biography while the orchestra was on tour in Scotland several years ago. I even got to see a park where my ancestor, John Lyon, had played as a child.

A few years ago the orchestra toured also in Copenhagen, Denmark. For me the experience was profound. I knew I had lots of ancestors who had come from Denmark, but I was unprepared for the kinship I felt toward the people of that country. When I got off the plane, it was as if I had stepped right into a family reunion. So many young men looked like me. So many girls in the pastry shops resembled my sisters. I felt like I was one of them, like I was home. I wanted to take the feeling back to Minnesota. Knowing that was not possible, I did the best I could and brought home as much Danish pastry as I could carry. I look forward to returning someday to research and explore more.

Robert Anderson | Bass

Country of origin: Grandparents from Skåne, Sweden

When did you first start learning the bass? Age 14. I played the violin and tuba before that.

When did you move to Minnesota? In 1974, to join the Minnesota Orchestra.

How has your heritage influenced your artistry? My mother played and taught violin and piano.

Fun heritage fact: My paternal grandparents were from Sweden. They settled in Boston, where there was a large Swedish community.

R. Douglas Wright | Principal Trombone

Country of origin: Ancestors from England

When did you first start learning the trombone? I started playing the baritone horn, which is kind of like a baby tuba, in the 5th grade. I originally wanted to be a drummer, but there were already too many of them in the band. The band director had an extra baritone horn, so I decided to play that because more than anything, I just wanted to play in the band. In 7th grade, my band director had me switch over to trombone (probably because I had arms long enough to play it) and it has stuck with me ever since.

When did you move to Minnesota? My wife and I moved to Minnesota in the fall of 1995 when I joined the Minnesota Orchestra.

What made you decide to move to Minnesota? Like many of my colleagues, it was the Orchestra that brought me to Minnesota. I grew up down south and was rather afraid of the Minnesota winters when we first moved here. But once I learned how to cross-country ski and tried some of the other fun outdoor activities that we have here (both in the winter and in the summer), I fell in love with the place. It’s been a wonderful place to raise our two kids.

How has your heritage influenced your artistry? I found out about my Mayflower roots only this year. Since I just found out about it, I wouldn’t say that it had a profound effect on my playing. However, brass playing is HUGE in England, so perhaps it kind of snuck in unbeknownst to me anyway.

Fun heritage fact: My mother has traced our family tree back to William Mullins, who was the 10th signer of the Mayflower Compact, meaning that he actually came over from England on the Mayflower. He is my great (x14) grandfather. He was a boot maker and came here to make and sell shoes. He did not survive here for long, but his daughter Priscilla did and she had 20 children with her husband, John Alden. I came from this line. William Mullins’ adult son stayed back in England and kept the shoe shop going back home. Mullins’ shoe shop is still in existence to this day in Surrey!

New Website Functionality

A Generous Policy, Now Even Easier for You

The scene: Saturday morning. You sip your coffee, thinking about how much you’re looking forward to your Minnesota Orchestra concert tonight. Suddenly, your kid says “I don’t feel so good” and everything goes downhill from there. What to do with your tickets?

Thanks to a generous and simple policy, you have options! All you have to do is log in to your Minnesota Orchestra account, find your concert, and click “Manage Tickets.”

My upcoming events

From there, you can:

  • Return your tickets for an account credit. You can choose a new concert to attend some other time—although credits do expire at the end of August so don’t wait too long!
  • Exchange into another concert. Do you already know of another MN Orch concert you’d like to attend in the next few months? Click “Exchange tickets” and you can choose a concert, select your seats, and get your print-at-home tickets sent immediately.
  • Return your tickets as a donation. Just not feeling like you can commit to anything right now? That’s OK. You can return your tickets as a donation and give someone else the gift of the Orchestra. We'll even send you a receipt so you can write it off.

My upcoming events

Hate fees? We get it. Consider becoming a season subscriber and you'll get all kinds of benefits including waived ticket exchange/return fees.

Browse subscription options >>

We’re adding new functionality to your online account all the time, so sign in and check it out! You can even sign in with your Facebook account. Remember, signing in is the quickest and easiest way to find out if you already have a credit on your account.

Easy Passes: Now Easier

The scene: you bought an Easy Pass, but you don’t feel like calling to redeem your vouchers. We understand. Now you can easily redeem your Easy Passes online!

All you have to do is sign in to your account and browse our concert calendar. After you choose a concert, click the BUY button. On the seat selection screen, choose the “Pass” price type to redeem your vouchers. You’ll be able to see how many passes you have left on your account to redeem.

Redeem Easy Passes

After you select the pass type, you'll see the savings reflected in your cart. Simply check out and you're good to go.

Easy Pass checkout process

What’s an Easy Pass, you say? We thought you’d never ask: it’s a package of six vouchers that you can redeem for concerts at Orchestra Hall. Attend six concerts by yourself, attend three concerts with a friend, or redeem four of them and give away two as a gift. They’re flexible, they’re easy, and you save 10% or more off single ticket prices.

Browse Easy Pass options >>

Common Chords in North Minneapolis

From January 21 through 27, 2019, Minnesota Orchestra musicians will participate in approximately 25 events throughout North Minneapolis in the Orchestra’s first-ever Twin Cities-area Common Chords residency week.

The full Orchestra will perform two free concerts, led by Music Director Osmo Vänskä: a Community Meal and Sing-Along at Sanctuary Covenant Church on January 22, and a Finale Concert on January 26 at North High School, where the Orchestra will share the stage with individual artists and ensembles from the North Minneapolis community.

Many of the events and performances of this Common Chords week are free and open to the public. Concert details for the two full-Orchestra concerts as well as a complete schedule of events are below.

Full-Orchestra Concerts

Photo © Greg Helgeson

Community Meal and Sing-Along

Tuesday, January 22, 2019, 6 p.m. | Sanctuary Covenant Church

In this first-of-its-kind Common Chords event, Music Director Osmo Vänskä, the Minnesota Orchestra and Sanctuary Covenant Church invite members of the North Minneapolis community to join in a family-friendly sing-along with the Orchestra and local worship leaders, preceded by a community meal catered by Breaking Bread Café, a North Minneapolis based social enterprise run by Appetite for Change. Attendees will share a meal with community members and musicians, have the opportunity to try bucket drumming, and then join a sing-along featuring well-known songs and spirituals. 

Register now for the community meal »

Charles Lazarus and the Steeles | Photo © Tony Nelson

Music Together: Finale Concert

Saturday, January 26, 2019. 7 p.m. | North High School

Music Director Osmo Vänskä leads the Minnesota Orchestra in a performance at North High School—the culminating event of the Orchestra’s Common Chords residency week in the North Minneapolis community. Program highlights include Dance for Martin’s Dream by American composer Michael Abels and Danzóby Cuban composer Alejandro García Caturla, plus Leonard Bernstein’s showstopping Overture to Candide, Jean Sibelius’ Finlandia and Samuel Barber’s Symphony No. 1. The concert features musical collaborations with The Steeles, MacPhail Northside Youth Orchestra, Orchestra trumpeter Charles Lazarus and Patricio DeLara from Juxtaposition Arts, who will create new artwork live during the performance.

Tickets are FREE for North Minneapolis residents. Use promo code: NORTHMPLS to redeem »

Common Chords North Minneapolis Schedule

Items in bold are open to the public.
*This schedule is subject to change.

Monday, January 21, 2019

7:00-9:20 a.m.
Minneapolis Armory – 29th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday Breakfast 
(Tickets available only at
Brass Quintet and Percussion with MacPhail Northside Youth Orchestra Bucket Drummers

10:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m.
Ordway Center - 33rd Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Celebration
Brass Quintet and Percussion with MacPhail Northside Youth Orchestra Bucket Drummers   

1:30-2:30 p.m.
Cora McCorvey Health & Wellness Center
Cello Duo

6:00-8:00 p.m.
Freestyle Dance Battle – Thor Companies
String quartet with Asian Media Access Youth Dancers

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

MacPhail School Partnership, Harvest Network of Schools
String Scholars with Orchestra musicians

Cityview Community School of Innovation
Violin and bass duo

Bethune Community School
Woodwind quintet

Lucy Craft Laney Community School
Orchestra musicians

6:00-8:00 p.m.
Community Meal and Sing-Along, Sanctuary Covenant Church
Minnesota Orchestra, conducted by Osmo Vänskä 
Free meal with Orchestra musicians at 6 p.m.; Sing-Along at 7 p.m.        

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

NorthPoint Health & Wellness Center
Violin duo

MacPhail School Partnership, Ascension Catholic School
String scholars with Orchestra musicians

7:00-8:00 p.m.
Homewood Studios
2400 Plymouth Ave N.
String trio                              

Thursday, January 24, 2019

The Gathering Space at Sammy’s Avenue Eatery
1101 W. Broadway Ave.
String quartet and Patrick Henry High School Choir Students

John B. Davis Education & Service Center
1250 W. Broadway Ave.
Yoga with Live Music, arrive early and bring own mat

5:30-6:30 p.m.
Sumner Library
611 Van White Memorial Blvd
Family-friendly: Meet a musician and try out the violin.

North Commons Recreation Center Afterschool Program
Bass duo with MacPhail Center for Music School Partnership String Scholars

6:30-7:30 p.m.
Dispatches from the North: A Reading, University of Minnesota Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center 
2001 Plymouth Ave N.                                            
Original readings plus a string duo

Friday, January 25, 2019

7:00-9:00 p.m.
Patrick Henry High School Winter Choir Concert
4320 N. Newton Ave
String quartet with Patrick Henry High School Choir

7:30-9:00 p.m.
Pint of Music at La Doña Cervecería
241 Fremont Ave N
Woodwind quintet

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Wilson’s Image Barbers & Stylists
2201 W Broadway Ave
Tuba duo

Side-by-side Rehearsal with MacPhail Northside Youth Orchestra, Shiloh Temple International Ministries
Orchestra musicians and Osmo Vänskä, conductor

7:00 p.m.
Music Together: Finale Concert and Reception, North High School
1500 James Ave N
Minnesota Orchestra; Osmo Vänskä and Akiko Fujimoto, conductors; Charles Lazarus, trumpet; The Steeles; Juxtaposition Arts; MacPhail Northside Youth Orchestra, Tamara Gonzalez, conductor
Reception catered by Sammy’s Avenue Eatery and Cookie Cart

Sunday, January 27, 2019

9:00 and 11:00 a.m.
Sanctuary Covenant Church Services
710 W Broadway Ave
String quartet

10:00 a.m.
Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church Service
3355 N 4th Street
Tuba with piano

3:00-5:00 p.m.
Capri Theater – Jazz Concert and Reception
2027 W Broadway Ave
Orchestra musicians join the Capri Big Band

North Minneapolis Common Chords Sponsors:

Minnesota State Arts Board    Minnesota Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment   Target    US Bank

This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.

Meet a Musician: Kathryn Greenbank

Minnesota Orchestra member since: 2018
Position: Associate Principal Oboe
Hometown: Quincy, IL
Education: Curtis institute of Music 

When did you know you would make a career in music?
When I won my first job. It is a very competitive field, so if you’re lucky enough to win a job that pays for a living, it makes the decision easier. 

Why did you choose the oboe?
I chose the oboe because my older brother—who played sax in the band—said I could get in the band because they needed oboes. I really didn’t know what it was!

Tell us about your professional journey thus far.
I was very fortunate to get my first job here in Minnesota in the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra at age 22, and I played there for 36 years. Then I had a tremendous opportunity to move over to the Minnesota Orchestra. I love the great music-making and the positive culture that exists here. I feel support from everyone. 

What is one of your career highlights?
One of my favorite experiences was playing the Bach Double Concerto for Oboe and Violin with Pinchas Zukerman. Standing up there next to his energy and tremendous chamber music-making was a thrill I will never forget. It almost felt like he was playing my part, too, and encouraging me to go with him. It is hard to describe. 

Do you have any advice for aspiring musicians?
My advice for aspiring musicians is that you really have to love doing this in order to put in the amount of work and personal sacrifice it takes to play at a professional level. There are a lot of ups and downs in this profession, but if you love it you will always be successful, no matter how your career develops.

Kathryn Greenbank (center) playing principal oboe at the Season Opening concerts in September 2018, with oboist Julie Gramolini Williams 

What is your favorite oboe solo in the orchestral repertoire? There are so many beautiful oboe solos! It’s hard to focus on one, but the solo in the second movement of the Barber Violin Concerto is one of those solos for me that just feels like "I am so fortunate to be here doing this right now.”

What is most challenging about being an oboist?
Reeds, Reeds, Reeds!!!!! 

Do you have any advice for new audience members?
My advice for anyone is to not have any expectations about listening. Just let the music come to you and embrace you. Sometimes you like it, sometimes you don’t—and that’s okay. But the more you expose yourself to listening, the more you hear.

Do you have other performances coming up outside of Minnesota Orchestra?
No, I don’t have any other upcoming performances right now. I am just enjoying playing the new repertoire here with the Minnesota Orchestra. Many pieces I am playing now are for the first time. It is a challenge, but I am loving it. 

What are some of your hobbies?
Aside from the enforced hobby of reed making, I have 3 animals: one beagle/Bassett mix dog who loves to “sing" with me when I warm up, and two cats (one who thinks I am hurting the dog when he sings, and jumps in my lap to stop me from playing). It’s amazing I get any work done. I also love to hike both in the mountains and on walks with my dog in the woods. I love crossword puzzles and coffee. If the weather is good, I like to cross country ski. I am really terrible at it, but it feels so good when I make that turn right before the tree that is in front of me.

More about Kathryn Greenbank >>


An Auld Lang Syne

by Dan Chouinard

Showing up to play piano at someone else’s holiday party, you can’t really know what sort of night you’re in for. For starters, it’s good to show up in the proper attire.

Saturday, December 13, 1997, I’d written “black jacket” in my calendar, but stepping through the polished doors and into the Presidential Suite at the top of the Hilton Hotel, I got the sinking feeling the voice on the phone had probably said “black tie.”

“They’d like you for 90 minutes after dinner, but come an hour early and be prepared to stay late if they want you to.” Lucky I’d shown up on time: the grand piano required some fussing over with a stack of wadded bar napkins before it sounded good enough for the Pillsbury Board of Directors and Spouses, who were now drifting through the presidential doors. Regal in holiday finery, they glided past the doughboy ice sculpture, past the piano (vague nods in my direction), past the glittering skyline view, toward the bar and the culmination of the evening’s festivities: cordials, flambé desserts, fine cigars, tasteful live piano music.

“Be ready for anything,” I’d been told, but the warning was probably unnecessary. Another night of wallpaper piano, I sighed to myself, settling in with autopilot renditions of holiday favorites, a no-man’s land of leather furniture between me and the shimmering mirage at the bar. My mind wandered down to my rusting subcompact car parked at an expired meter, the festive red and white envelope surely flapping on the windshield by now.

I disliked these wallpaper gigs, squandered sing-along opportunities as far as I was concerned. Every so often I lobbed mild musical provocations in the direction of the bar and waited for a response. Jingle Bell Rock. Nothing. Merry Christmas (War Is Over). Continued distant merriment. Blue Christmas. Melekalikimaka

Eventually a plaid cummerbund and bow tie crossed over to the piano. “Paul over there’s wondering if you do any Buddy Holly.” Paul sauntered over and we got through Peggy Sue and Every Day with help from another tux or two. Then on to Wilson Pickett. And the Beatles. By the time we got to the Big Chill soundtrack, the entire shimmering mirage had coalesced around the piano, drinks in hand.

The next few hours are a blur. I remember someone asked my name. I remember someone swapped my club soda for something much smoother with a long, buttery finish. I remember we didn’t stop talking and singing till nearly midnight, mostly pop tunes from the 1960s and ’70s, plus the occasional holiday song at someone’s insistence, all with the same full-throated gusto.

I remember how tuxes and gowns gradually took on faces, faces acquired voices and names and stories. I remember a deep solidarity, as if we’d all been friends a long, long time.

Not much earlier I’d thought them such a remote bunch. But one by one they’d crossed over to the piano and proved me wrong. For two brief shining hours we were a single noisy clan, the Wailing Doughboys. Walking out to my car, smiling and looking up past the 25th floor and into the winter sky, I mused about our shared lot on this earth and about our craving for certain universal and utterly ordinary comforts. The company of loved ones at the end of the day. The songs you know by heart and aren’t afraid to sing in front of your friends. The old familiar stories with the old ridiculous embellishments.

Simple, timeless comforts. May we practice them often. And may they be as familiar as winter’s snow to our children’s children.

For three decades Dan Chouinard has been pianist and accordionist for a who’s who of Twin Cities performers, an enabler of community sing-alongs and a writer of hit shows for public radio, concert hall and theatrical stage. Every December finds him performing with Kevin Kling at the Guthrie Theater and hosting an annual community show in Lanesboro. Among his commitments early in 2018 are co-hosting St. Joan of Arc’s annual MLK Holiday event, hosting his variety show The Urban Farmer’s Almanac and performing with his classic country band Lush Country. For more information, visit

Meet Ever-Young Volunteer Usher Barb Holmes

We’ve all heard the term, “evergreen,” but Barb Holmes’ life inspires another term: “ever-young.” That’s because Barb, despite retiring in 2001 from a 35-year career in education, is always taking on new tasks and challenges to learn and grow.

Now in her third year as an Orchestra Hall usher, Barb’s largest exposure to classical music had been high school choir back in Pipestone, Minnesota, many years ago. But Barb’s close proximity to the Hall (she lives near Loring Park) inspired her to become a volunteer usher, a role she will continue for years to come, she says.

It’s the people, musicians and music that keep Barb volunteering. “I love listening to and watching our amazing Orchestra perform, getting to know other ushers, paid and volunteer, and watching the concerts. I especially enjoy watching the percussionists as they go from instrument to instrument.” Barb also says it’s great to work with positive and knowledgeable people.

And there’s definitely a soft spot in Barb’s heart for the seniors she assists. “I am impressed with those patrons who have been coming for years and are having a difficult time with a walker, or are in a wheelchair—but they still come. They really appreciate when ushers take those extra steps to help,” Barb says. “Ushering makes me appreciate seniors and helps me understand where they are and what their pasts have been that they continue making the effort to come.”

You won’t see Barb around Orchestra Hall right now, as she and her husband Tony winter near Phoenix, as do her three siblings. They meet frequently to walk, bike, eat or visit. Barb also enjoys reading—especially mysteries. But she also reads to bond with her nine-year-old granddaughter, who is reading the Keeper of the Lost Cities. So Barb is reading that, too, and appreciating the opportunities to share insights with her granddaughter. Barb has eight grandchildren in all. She became a teacher because she was fascinated with how children’s minds grew and developed. “I was inspired by their curiosity,” Barb says.

In the realm of jobs Barb has held, she vividly recalls her college summer job: cracking eggs for eight hours a day at a poultry company near Pipestone. “We’d crack eggs to fill up a five-gallon container. Four people stood around a big barrel for shells. We cracked the eggs on a sharp blade fastened to a tray. Eggs slid down a tray, shells went into the barrel,” Barb says. “We wore white uniforms. I’d come home with egg on, head to toe! I was not a neat egg cracker. Mom did a lot of laundry!” But Barb said “crackers” of all ages talked all day and got to know one another. “It made me appreciate what people did for a living. We all do what we can to put food on the table and pay the mortgage.”

Near Phoenix, Barb volunteers at a food shelf warehouse where she inspects and sorts canned foods. She’s considered ushering for the Phoenix Orchestra, but when she’s accustomed to walking to Orchestra Hall, the commute in Phoenix isn’t appealing. So she looks forward to her return to the Hall in the spring. Meanwhile, Orchestra Hall users, staff and patrons eagerly await Barb’s return as well. Have fun this winter, Barb, and thanks for all you do for all of us!

Are you interesting in joining our volunteer program? Find out more >> 

Happy Holidays!

From all of us at the Minnesota Orchestra, we wish you a wonderful, musical holiday season!



Musicians in the Spotlight

This season, six Minnesota Orchestra musicians take center stage as featured soloists! Take a moment to get to know each of them (including their favorite superheroes), then mark your calendar to hear their magnificent music at Orchestra Hall!

Upcoming Performances 


Vänskä Conducts Barber, Copland and Shaw

Featuring Gabriel Campos Zamora, clarinet

Jan 10-11 >>


Vänskä Conducts American Nomad

Featuring Charles Lazarus, trumpet

Jan 12-13 >>


Bizet, Mozart and Vivaldi

Featuring Roma Duncan, piccolo

Jan 31 - Feb 2 >>


Vänskä Conducts Beethoven and Sibelius

Featuring Tim Zavadil, bass clarinet

Apr 25-27 >>


Erin Keefe Plays Bernstein's Serenade

Featuring Erin Keefe, violin

May 3-4 >>

Osmo Vänskä Shares News

At the 2017-18 annual meeting, major news was shared on two fronts. We highlighted the artistic and financial milestones of the Orchestra’s 2017-18 season and Osmo Vänskä announced plans to conclude his tenure as Music Director of the Minnesota Orchestra in August 2022.


Osmo Vänskä Announces Plans to Conclude his Tenure 

Osmo Vänskä announced plans today at the Minnesota Orchestra’s annual meeting to conclude his tenure as Music Director of the Minnesota Orchestra in August 2022.

The 2021-22 season, his final as music director, will mark his 19th year at the helm of the Minnesota Orchestra, capping what is widely considered one of the great musical partnerships in Minnesota Orchestra history. Beyond 2022, Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra will maintain their musical relationship, with Vänskä returning for ongoing concert engagements.



Minnesota Orchestra Reports Fiscal 2018 Balanced Budget

The Minnesota Orchestra’s 2018 Annual Meeting celebrated the artistic and financial milestones of the Orchestra’s 2017-18 season, a year in which the Orchestra received a Grammy nomination and added to its Mahler symphony cycle; launched its first full-Orchestra Sensory-Friendly concert; toured to Mankato, Chicago, London and, in a first for a U.S. orchestra, South Africa—and achieved a balanced budget.

Read more >> 

Thank you to our audiences and donors for their wholehearted support which has made the achievements of the past season possible!

Three Memories

By Kevin Kling

One holiday Mary and I went to our niece's violin recital. Seven little girls in a row, ranging in ages from four to six, playing "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star". Almost immediately the bow of our niece got caught on one of the pigtails of the girl standing next to her. It would not pull free.

So she persevered, playing the entire piece with the head of the girl in pigtails whipping back and forth in time with the tune. Afterward, everyone agreed that our niece had a future in music.

As a collector of stories, I'm especially fond of the holidays. It's a heightened time when no matter the pre-planning or good intentions something always goes awry. As everyone knows these mishaps, mayhems and maladies make for the best stories.

We have one family story involving my grandparents. When they were newlyweds they asked the local preacher over for a holiday supper. This was during the time of Prohibition and my grandfather had recently made some homemade 'elixir' and it was in the basement in the process of 'getting good'. During the meal, some of the jars started to explode. Everyone, including the preacher, knew exactly what that sound meant. Without missing a beat my grandfather turned to my grandmother and said, "There going your peaches, Honey". "There go your peaches, Honey" is a catchphrase in my family ever since for when a situation has clearly gone off the rails.

One of my fondest memories falls in 1980. I was performing in England over the holidays and missing my family very much. To take my mind off of the homesickness I went to see a play called "The Dresser", starring Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney. It's about a friendship between two men and a ragtag group of performers in a London theater during World War II. The couple sitting next to me looked to be in their 80's and quite likely had served in the war or been subjected to the bombing raids that devastated London. As an air raid siren sounded in the play the man reached over and gripped my hand. When the bombs stopped he released, never looking over to me or acknowledging the gesture. Later on the entire audience sang together as the cast led us in "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square". Automatically everyone took hands and swayed back-and-forth. When the song ended, this time the man didn't let go of my hand and held it clear to the end of the play.

Hear more of Kevin's incredible stories at "Home for the Holidays" with the Minnesota Orchestra on Dec. 14, 16 & 20 >> 

Kevin Kling’s plays have been produced in the Twin Cities and around the world. His collaborations with composer Victor Zupanc include For the Birds for Zeitgeist, The Burning Wisdom of Finn McCool with the Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra and, most recently, The Best Summer Ever for the Children’s Theatre Company. A frequent commentator for TPT’s Almanac, NPR and MPR’s All Things Considered, Kling was named the Minneapolis Story Laureate by then-Mayor R.T. Rybak in 2014. He grew up in Osseo, Minnesota, and graduated from Gustavus Adolphus College. More:

Musical Perspectives

Students from the South African National Youth Orchestra reflect on their August 2018 Immersion Experience with the Minnesota Orchestra and what is next in their musical lives.

By Isha Ranchod

“When you go to these courses, you come back home with this fire, and you want to spread it – let everyone else catch onto it because it’s such a great feeling to have!”

Young French horn player Hayley Uithaler’s face lights up as she tries to describe her sentiments. Uithaler is a member of the South African National Youth Orchestra (SANYO), a nonprofit organization dedicated to the training and development of South Africa’s young musicians.

SANYO students felt a rush of adrenalin for two days straight when the Minnesota Orchestra joined the ensemble for what was called an Immersion Experience in August 2018, as part of the Minnesota Orchestra’s five-city tour of South Africa.

For the SANYO members, the impact of the Minnesota Orchestra's visit continues well after the Orchestra has left. Over two months later, the Orchestra is remembered and discussed with vivid excitement by all those who took part in this experience. The Minnesota Orchestra has since begun its new season. How has life moved on for the young orchestra members from South Africa?

Five of these young musicians shared their thoughts.

Small Things Matter Most

Kutloano Bookholane (viola, 15) and Refilwe ‘Fifi’ Moeketsane (bass, 16) were taking part in SANYO’s annual orchestra course for the first time. They started as participants of the Mangaung String Program in Free State, South Africa, which targets historically disadvantaged children by setting up string lessons in some of the province’s primary schools. Both Kutloano and Fifi began as violin pupils, but chose to change to their respective lower-registered instruments after about a year of playing the violin.

The top players in this string program, such as Kutloano and Fifi, get promoted to join the Bochabela String Orchestra, made up of strings, congas and shakers, all used together to play catchy African beats, traditional tunes and much more.

When I asked Kutloano what he thought of the Minnesota Orchestra’s performances he saw as part of the Immersion Experience, he says incredulously, “Didn’t you hear them play? Didn’t you hear a world class orchestra?” He added then that it also made him aware that the small things in the music are the things that truly matter the most.

What really made this an immersive experience is that it was so much more than just being given tickets to two performances. SANYO students participated in a side-by-side rehearsal with the Minnesota Orchestra, conducted by Music Director Osmo Vänskä himself, in which each young player sat next to his or her professional counterpart, making it very personal to each individual. This side-by-side rehearsal was supplemented by masterclasses for the various sections or instrument groups.

"I was so scared I couldn't talk."

I asked how Fifi felt when she woke up on the morning of the side-by-side rehearsal, when they would meet a major American orchestra for the first time. She had told herself to be calm and relax, playing it down in her mind during the build-up. But when she got there, she says she sort of broke down.

“I don’t know what happened. I was so scared that I couldn’t talk to anyone, and my voice was just non-existent. It was so overwhelming, but in a very exciting way.”

She soon recovered, thanks to Minnesota Orchestra bass player David Williamson, with whom Fifi was paired. Over and above giving her tips and intonation exercises, he encouraged her not to be afraid while playing. “I learnt to be confident, because he kept on telling me that I’m good, even though I wasn’t so sure about it at the time.”

For most of the SANYO members, this was the first time they witnessed, let alone interacted with, a professional orchestra of this caliber. One exception to this, however, is Gilah Kellner (violin, 15), who, just 14 years old at the time, was SANYO’s concertmaster for this orchestra course. Gilah was selected as one of three SANYO members to visit the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam in May this year. With this experience behind her and to compare to, she described the Minnesota Orchestra enthusiastically.

“They are a very good orchestra, and they move together. They really exaggerate dynamics, making the tiniest sound, and then beautiful large sounds, playing energetically and in such an expressive manner.” Of Osmo Vänskä she says, “He’s very passionate and I think that is brilliant. He also conducts in a way that shows he knows what everyone is doing—he is extremely knowledgeable.”

Gilah, who is based in Johannesburg, is home-schooled, but hopes to do her post-secondary studies in music performance in America or Germany. She also performed as a soloist in the National Youth Concerto Festival just a month ago. Kutloano, on the other hand, wants to first study something along the lines of mechanical engineering in South Africa, before pursuing a music career overseas in Europe. And Fifi, who was of two minds about it before the Immersion Experience, is now considering a career in music, having spoken to Minnesota Orchestra musicians and seen how much they enjoy what they do.

Musical Waves

This year, the ages of the SANYO members ranged from 12 to 26 years. Two zealous music students from Nelson Mandela University in the coastal city Port Elizabeth, Hayley Uithaler (horn, 22) and Chadley Johnson (trombone, 21), were part of the brass section, and have been since 2016.

Both Hayley and Chadley had been researching their Minnesota Orchestra counterparts and sections well before the Immersion Experience. Chadley joked that he didn’t even need to be introduced to his section or his mentor, Minnesota Orchestra Principal Trombone R. Douglas Wright, since he recognized them all immediately.

I asked Chadley what he felt the impact of the experience to have been. He explained that as a musician, you go through waves, and last year had been the most stagnant in his progress, not just in terms of technical ability on his instrument, but also in his motivation to practise and his outlook on the future. He explained that when SANYO brought in a few of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra members to their Summer course in December 2017, it sparked something in him. “With the waves that you go through, having the Minnesota Orchestra members here re-sparked it. So the great part of these courses is you get refueled, and until the next course, you’ve got what you need to carry on—it equips you to go forth alone.”

Play and Deliver

Hayley bonded very well with her counterpart, Minnesota Orchestra horn player Ellen Dinwiddie Smith, not only because she was generous, open and willing to share her knowledge and advice.

“Ellen expressed to me that there will be days when it will feel as if it’s not a good day for you, but even on those days, you still need to put your mind in the right place to be able to play and deliver. Now I’ve seen an entire orchestra that does that. So now you kind of crave that kind of environment from everyone around you, but it was just nice to know that they are human and relatable. Some of them still have performance anxiety! They gave me tips on how to deal with it.”

Hayley plans to do a Postgraduate Certificate in Education after she graduates, and although she wants to teach, she is emphatic that she won’t stop playing in ensembles and orchestras when she does.

Chadley was the concerto soloist in the Nelson Mandela University Orchestra’s concert in September, and he wants to take a Master’s degree in performance—ideally in another country—once he graduates. He says he will start preparing and researching universities, auditions and scholarships soon.

There were three recurring themes with all five of these young SANYO members. Firstly, they all  loved being able to have dinner with the Minnesota Orchestra members, being able to talk freely, get to know each other, and ask questions that didn’t necessarily relate to Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2, the music that was rehearsed in the side-by-side experience. Nevertheless, they did all take away new perspectives and techniques for their respective instruments. Finally, they all wished that they had even more time with the Minnesota musicians, be that in the form of masterclasses, lessons, or just another meal together.

After my interview with Hayley and Chadley, I gave them the opportunity to add their own questions. They asked in unison:

“When is the next Immersion Experience?”

Isha Ranchod is a freelance writer based in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. A SANYO alumna, she worked as an assistant project manager for SANYO during the Immersion Experience. Ranchod completed a degree in Music with Psychology as her second major with Cum Laude. She holds being a feminist and a member of the Indian diaspora as two major facets of her personality, and she is a passionate dog lover.

Photos by Travis Anderson and Sean Burke

Young People's Concerts: Teacher Reviews

The Young People’s concert season kicked off on October 23rd with Watch the Orchestra Grow. Over the course of two days, more than 6,000 students filled Orchestra Hall to enjoy the music of Mozart, Beethoven, and more. Check out what the teachers and parents had to say!


“This experience was amazing for my students. My school, in particular, is very high poverty and kids come from very diverse backgrounds. Providing them with this experience is, for a lot of the, a once in a lifetime opportunity. I'm hoping some of them were inspired to continue on with music into their middle school years!”



“My son has been writing "symphony movements" on the piano since our field trip.”



“Well, they wouldn't stop talking about the percussionist with the whip on the Percussion Mvt of the Britten piece, so he did a wonderful job! Overall, the kids were enamored with being inside the hall and how cool of an experience it was.”



“I would give your concert series an A+ for educational value. I'm deeply appreciative of the opportunity to expose my children to the beauty of music. Thank you!”



“I loved the concert. I love everything that you all do for our students in helping to educate them and promote classical music in a positive and super fun manner. I'm looking forward to next year!”



“Thank you for your time and effort in gifting this experience to the students in the Twin Cities! We love coming to the orchestra!”


Join us at an upcoming Young People's Concert >>

Welcoming Two New Orchestra Musicians

We are excited to welcome two new musicians to the Minnesota Orchestra this winter. Felicity James has been appointed associate concertmaster and Erich Rieppel has been appointed principal timpani. We look forward to seeing them onstage at Orchestra Hall soon!

Felicity James, violin

Felicity James joins the Minnesota Orchestra as associate concertmaster in December 2018, having previously served as concertmaster of the Verbier Festival Orchestra, the Colburn Orchestra, and the Aspen Philharmonic Orchestra, and as a substitute with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and the Seattle Symphony. In addition to competing in numerous international violin competitions, she has appeared as soloist with orchestras all over the United States, including the Seattle Symphony under the direction of music director Ludovic Morlot. An enthusiastic chamber musician, she has performed frequently in ensembles at the Verbier, Sarasota and Aspen Music Festivals as well as with the Colburn Chamber Music Society and the Los Angeles Da Camera Society, and has had the honor of collaborating with Gary Hoffman, Clive Greensmith, Ani Kavafian, Anthony Marwood and the Calidore String Quartet. James recently earned her Bachelor of Music degree from the Colburn Conservatory of Music, where she studied with Robert Lipsett and worked closely with Arnold Steinhardt and Clive Greensmith.

She starts her position with the Orchestra on December 10, and will serve as concertmaster for the Home for the Holidays and Beauty and the Beast concerts from December 14 to 22.

Erich Rieppel, timpani

Prior to his appointment as principal timpani of the Minnesota Orchestra, Erich Rieppel held the same title at New World Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas in Miami Beach, Florida. He has performed as principal timpanist with the Seattle Symphony, Detroit Symphony and New Jersey Symphony, among others. He has held the posts of associate timpanist of the Chicago Civic Orchestra, substitute timpanist with the Louisville Orchestra and Charleston Symphony, and principal timpanist of the Terre Haute Symphony and the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic. He has experience in arts administration, college teaching, music librarianship and conducting. A native of Minnesota, Rieppel grew up near Marshall, Minnesota, engaging in the many musical activities the area had to offer. He attended Indiana University for his bachelor’s and master’s degrees where he studied a variety of percussion with John Tafoya, Kevin Bobo, Steve Houghton and Michael Spiro. He has also studied with many other prominent musicians including Josef Gumpinger, David Herbert, Ed Stephan, Shannon Wood and Tom Freer. In his free time, Rieppel plays hockey. 

Earlier this month, Rieppel performed and recorded Mahler’s Seventh Symphony with the Minnesota Orchestra, and he will officially begin his new role with the ensemble on December 30.


First Timer's Guide to Orchestra Hall

We know what you're thinking. An orchestra concert. Audiences formally clad in tuxes and gowns. A light smattering of polite applause. An uncomfortable seat with lots of shushing. Not an ideal way to spend your Saturday night, right?

Forget about it.

We’re proud that Orchestra Hall is a welcoming environment for all. Here are a few frequently asked questions that will help make your first Orchestra concert experience more comfortable.

What do I wear?

We get this question a lot, but rest assured, there's no dress code at Orchestra Hall. You might see tuxes and gowns for special celebratory performances. You might see business casual or professional looks for folks on a special night out. You might also see regular street clothes. Be you. Be comfortable.

When should I arrive?

The earlier the better! Doors open two hours before your performance, and activities typically begin an hour before the first notes. Whether its a chat with a guest artist, an interactive exhibit or a performance, each pre-concert activity is designed to provide context to what is happening on stage and build connections with our community.

Do I need to know anything about the program?

Our musicians envy those who are experiencing this great music for the first time. There are surprises around every corner. Sit back or lean in.

Getting to know the program before the concert is a great way to get the most out of your concert experience. Your program magazine is a treasure trove of information about each piece of music and the musicians on stage. We'll also email you the week of the performance with your ticket details along with some extra info about your concert.

When should I clap?

Half-hearted applause has no place in Orchestra Hall. We love and are extremely grateful for an enthusiastic and energetic audience, no matter the piece. We do, however, ask that you hold your applause until the very end of each piece.

Take a quick peek at your program to see if there are multiple movements, or section of the larger work, listed next to each piece of music. If so, hold your applause to the last movement on that list. If you’re nervous, wait for cues from those around you. Our superfans will show you the way.

When can I take pictures or video?

Think movie theater etiquette. While we don't allow videos or photos while the musicians are performing, we highly encourage you to capture your time with the Orchestra before or after the performance, or during intermission. Use #MNorch so we can give them a like and share our favorites!

When can I use my phone?

Two hours device free? Sounds like paradise.

If device separation gives you a little anxiety, we get it. Please silence your phone when you enter the hall and try not to look at your phone while the musicians are performing. The light from your screen can be a little annoying for your seat neighbors.

How long is the intermission?

Most concerts include a 20-minute intermission. Plenty of time to use the restroom, stretch your legs, pick up a drink, or skim through your program to get hyped for the second half.

Where can I ask more questions?

At Orchestra Hall, we have incredible ushers and volunteers, always standing by to answer any questions that come up. If you have questions before your performance, reach out to our ticketing team at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or find us on social media.

About Orchestra Hall

Our bright, beautiful and expansive lobby provides plenty of space to roam around and explore before and after your concert. Stop by a bar to grab a drink or snack, check out the merchandise cart, or explore the pre-concert activities.

Orchestra Hall, home of the Minnesota Orchestra since 1974, is known as one of the best acoustic spaces in the world. In 2012, the hall was renovated to create long-awaited upgrades and additions throughout the building. There are 114 cubes on the ceilings and walls. They bounce the sound all over the place so everyone can hear our Orchestra play. But that also means that if you talk from your seats, the musicians can hear you too!

Enjoy your performance! We’re looking forward to welcoming you to Orchestra Hall.

Donors are the Heart of the Minnesota Orchestra

For over a century, enthusiastic Orchestra patrons have made generous contributions to guarantee our ability to present awe-inspiring performances for the community each season. We are grateful for this outpouring of generosity that helps to sustain our remarkable Orchestra. Equally heartening are the unique Minnesota Orchestra stories these donors have shared through the years. Read some of their unforgettable experiences that have inspired such generous support at every level.

“I started coming to the Orchestra over 40 years ago. I was a police officer who just needed an escape from all of the violence and issues that were impacting our residents and the music was a refreshing and uplifting experience.”


“The Minnesota Orchestra collaborated with my high school, gave in-class demonstrations, offered concert tickets, etc. That series of interactions was one of the highlights of being a student in an inner-city high school.”


“In turbulent times, music calms the soul and transfixes the listener; it transforms all who listen no matter what gender, race, or ethnic background.”


“I am a pianist. When I was in the middle of preparing for auditions to graduate school for piano performance, I had a serious accident that prevented me from playing for well over three years.  I knew I needed to find something to fill the emptiness left by not being able to play. The MN orchestra literally helped save my life.  It became my oxygen tank and has been filling my soul ever since.”


“As a retired secretary, I don’t have very much money but I give what I can. I wish it could be more, so I decided to become a volunteer. I am also an ambassador, encouraging friends and acquaintances, to attend concerts”


“I began regularly attending MN Orchestra concerts when my children were young. We were annual subscribers to the Family series concerts, and also went to the pre-concert educational presentations. My children developed a love for music, and a love for this organization that has continued into their adult years. Arts, particularly music, are so important to preserve and nourish!”


Thank you for your support!


Music for All

Guest blogger Mandy Meisner learns how the Minnesota Orchestra’s Sensory-Friendly Concerts are making Orchestra Hall inclusive for all audiences. Sensory-Friendly Concerts at Orchestra Hall are designed for patrons of all ages and abilities, including individuals on the autism spectrum and those with sensory sensitivities. The 2018-19 series includes five concerts featuring the full Orchestra and three featuring solo instruments or small ensembles, beginning with a performance by cellist Katja Linfield in the Target Atrium on November 20.

I was taught we have five senses. You can imagine my surprise when I learned today’s scientists have identified nine: sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch, thermoception (heat and cold), nociception (pain), equilibrioception (balance and gravity) and proprioception (body awareness). Our bodies are a constant symphony of input and output of the information around us in a much more expansive way than I thought.

A symphony orchestra performance may look, sound and feel very different to each of us. With this in mind, in recent years the Minnesota Orchestra has introduced a new series of Sensory-Friendly Concerts designed for everyone to enjoy, no matter how we process those nine senses. The idea originated five years ago with a handful of Orchestra musicians who wanted to create a welcoming environment for young people on the autism spectrum. They gave small-scale performances in the community, and eventually in Orchestra Hall’s Target Atrium, that were well-received. Now the Orchestra has expanded the Sensory-Friendly series to include three small ensemble performances and three full-Orchestra Family Concerts each season.

starting small

Back in February, this is how I experienced my first small-ensemble Sensory-Friendly concert:

We gather in the glass box of the Target Atrium, escaping from the winter cold, a smattering of different ages and ilk. Without the formal protocol of a standard classical concert, the energy spills out with heartfelt vocal responses, jitters and tapping. Minnesota Orchestra musicians Pamela Arnstein and Kathryn Nettleman talk in easy conversation about the works being performed, the instruments and bits of their lives. Even before the music starts, we feel as we are all friends.

And when it does start, the room is transformed. The music itself is reflected in the responses of the audience. Universally, we are calm. We are moved by the story the music tells, quiet and soothing in parts, humming and chortling in rhythmic delight in others.

A young man, looking dapper in a crisp white shirt, black suspenders and bow tie, comes on stage to perform on his cello. He is the first cellist with Down syndrome to play in the varsity orchestra at school. His sound is clean, confident and straightforward. He beams with joy.

There is a second youth performer. He sits stiffly at the piano, his face unemotional. But his music is filled with great expression and sweetness, and that is all we need to know him.

adding the full Orchestra

Six months later, I attend the first full-Orchestra Sensory-Friendly Family Concert, when the Hall is flooded with families. Whole families, many for the first time, are experiencing a Minnesota Orchestra concert, together. No one is left behind. In the lobby, a large table holds gobs of colorful clay that are shaped into trees and animals in the small, dimpled hands of children. There are stations throughout Orchestra Hall, creative welcoming islands.

Before the concert begins there is quiet chatter, the flutter of arms and swishing of pigtails. The host, Lyndie Walker of Toneworks Music Therapy Services, speaks in a clear, slow cadence about courage and triumph, bravery and perseverance.

No one is required to sit still, be silent, or clap only in the “right” places. Instead, everyone is welcome to express themselves and experience the music in their own way. We are human prisms; the music goes through and we become a spectrum of indescribable colors.

The music flows over us, each piece offering a different sensation: Aaron Copland pounds through my chest; Harry Potter is whimsical, hopeful and adventuresome; West Side Story’s plaintive lines tug somewhere deep. Cellist Nygel Witherspoon enters with his signature cloud of curly hair. His playing is tender and melancholy for one so young. Conductor Akiko Fujimoto finishes the concert with the blazing end of the Firebird.

When the music ends, sounds and motions of delight can be seen and heard throughout the Hall. Next to me, a family of four lingers. A young woman with impossibly thick hair held back in a barrette rocks back and forth, glowing. Her name is Carly. She is 20 years old, and this is the first time she has listened to the Minnesota Orchestra. She had been receiving music therapy for the last 15 years and was visibly enjoying the performance, vocalizing enthusiastically in parts, shaking in others.

I spoke with Carly’s mother, Lisa, who shared with me her appreciation in having this opportunity to bring not only Carly, but their whole family. This was in fact the first time they could all come together. Later, I tell her the Minnesota Orchestra will offer a Sensory-Friendly environment for all the family concerts in the 2018-2019 season.

News that feels good for all of our nine senses.

Photos by Greg Helgeson and Scott Streble.

The Minnesota Orchestra’s 2018-19 Sensory-Friendly Family Concerts include Carnival of the Animals; The Tin Forest; Joyful Rhythms, Joyful Sounds; and a three-concert solo and small ensemble series in Orchestra Hall’s Target Atrium.

Q&A with Kevin Puts

In Minnesota Orchestra concerts November 15, 16 and 17, the Orchestra performs Inspiring Beethoven by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Kevin Puts, who has also served as the director of Minnesota Orchestra's Composer Institute since 2014. This marks the Minnesota Orchestra premiere of this work. We asked Puts about how to approach new music, what inspired him to write Inspiring Beethoven and his role in the Minnesota music scene.

Osmo Vänskä with Puts at a Future Classics rehearsal.

This is a big month for your music here as Minnesota Opera performs your opera Silent Night at about the same time as the Minnesota Orchestra’s performances of Inspiring Beethoven. Do you have any stand-out memories of your music being performed in Minnesota?
The Twin Cities have become such a warm and welcoming musical home for me, and the performances of my music by Osmo Vänskä and the amazing Minnesota Orchestra have been some of the most electrifying I have ever heard. The fact that my music is being performed by both the Minnesota Orchestra and Minnesota Opera within a month of each other is kind of mind-boggling to me!

Tell us about your orchestral work Inspiring Beethoven.
It was commissioned by the Phoenix Symphony for a Beethoven festival way back in 2000, when I was just out of school. I had the idea of beginning the piece like the first movement Allegro of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7, but then taking a less optimistic turn! I was imagining Beethoven finding the inspiration to write that Allegro, which is one of the most uplifting and beautiful movements in all of music—for me anyway. 

What are you listening to lately?
I seem to be randomly dropping in on various Bach cantatas online. It's just unbelievable music, and he wrote so much of it and with such apparent ease.

How do you encourage listeners to approach a new piece of music?
With an open mind and with breathless anticipation! There is nothing in the world like hearing a piece which no one has heard before, and which reflects the time we live in.   

When you aren’t composing, what do you do for fun?
I play tennis, mostly with my eight-year-old son! I love the sport but never learned it well as a kid, so I get sort of crazy about it trying to improve my game, especially during the summer when the outdoor courts are open and my son is out of school. We live in the New York area, so it all leads up to the U.S. Open in early September. 

Attend the concert >> 

More about Kevin Puts >>

A Resounding Resurgence: The Music of Florence Price

Florence Beatrice Price was the first African American woman to have her work performed by a major American orchestra. During our American Expressions Festival this month, the Minnesota Orchestra performs her First Symphony, the piece that first put her on the map as a great American composer.

In a New York Times story, musicologist Douglas Shadle noted that “Our understanding of American modernism of the 1930s and 1940s is not complete without Price’s contribution.”

Price was born in on April 9, 1887, to a mixed-race family in Little Rock, Arkansas. The daughter of a music teacher and a dentist, she excelled early both academically and musically, attending the New England Conservatory by the age of 14 to study piano, organ and composition.

Becoming the First of a Kind

Premiered by the Chicago Symphony in 1933 as part of the Chicago World’s Fair, Price’s Symphony No. 1 in E minor inspired immediate praise and became the first symphony by an African American woman ever performed by a major American orchestra. The Chicago Daily News, Chicago Herald & Examiner, Chicago Defender and Music News all lauded Price’s symphony, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt highlighted the premiere in her national newspaper column, My Day.

Price’s musical language is often compared to that of Antonín Dvořák and is said to have influences of black British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s music. Indeed, all three explored various “folk” music as inspiration for their melodies, rhythms and musical forms. In Price’s First Symphony, the songful, simple and gently-syncopated themes of the opening movement clearly bear that character, as do the hopping, turning, hand-clapping, thigh-slapping and foot-stomping rhythms in the juba dance of the third movement.

Preview the work:

Click to learn more about Minnesota Orchestra's performances of Symphony No. 1


And Now A Resurgence

Despite enthusiastic reception, Price’s music slowly slipped from public consciousness, for reasons quite clear to the composer herself. In July 1943, Price wrote to Serge Koussevitzky, then-conductor of the Boston Symphony, confidently describing her own “two handicaps – those of sex and race."

Following her death in 1953, Price’s music fell into obscurity in the U.S., even as it gained recognition in Canada and Europe. Only at the beginning of the 21st century has public interest accelerated in the United States. American orchestras are programming and recording her works more frequently, critical editions of the first and third symphonies were created in 2008 by musicologists Rae Linda Brown and Wayne Shirley, and in 2009 a newly-discovered collection of Price’s manuscripts—including two of her violin concertos which have since seen been performed and recorded—caught the attention of musical media outlets across the nation.

“Florence Price is a representation in music of what it means to be a black artist living within a white canon and trying to work within the classical realm,”  says Marquese Carter, a doctoral student at Indiana University, as quoted in The New York Times

Price’s music will see a total of ten performances by the Minnesota Orchestra this year. In addition to the January 12 and 13 concerts, the complete First Symphony will be performed at Symphonic Adventures concerts in January and February, and selected movements will be played at Young People’s and Family Concerts in May 2019.

The Minnesota Orchestra thanks Brian Edward Dowdy for contributing to this story. Dowdy conducted the Minnesota Philharmonic Orchestra in a performance of Florence Price’s Symphony No. 1 on Saturday, November 3, 2018, at Ted Mann Concert Hall in Minneapolis. For more information, visit

“Sharing the Harvest” solo art exhibition

Minnesota Orchestra audiences were introduced to the artwork of Mary Pettis in June 2017, when the Orchestra hosted her Beyond the Surface solo exhibition through the OH+ program in conjunction with the Orchestra’s concert of French impressionistic music.

Audiences have clamored for more, and next month Pettis will present her third Orchestra Hall solo art exhibition, Sharing the Harvest, free and open to the public at the Orchestra’s November 15, 16 and 17 performances of music by Kevin Puts, Dmitri Shostakovich and Ludwig van Beethoven. Read on as writer A. Catherine Duthie (MA) describes the exhibit and a few of its paintings, and explains how they connect to the music on the concert program. Join us at Orchestra Hall next month for the full musical and visual experience!

Inspired by the works and themes in the November 15-17 concerts, Mary Pettis’ exhibition Sharing the Harvest complements the musical program by praising creative synthesis and culmination. Much like the pieces to be performed, this show is about the coming together of contrasts; of the inner and the outer worlds, of restraint and of expression; of honoring the past and of embracing the present.

The first work on the program is modern composer Kevin Puts’ Inspiring Beethoven, which pays tribute to Beethoven, imagines his unusual creative process and incorporates portions of his Seventh Symphony. In a similar manner, Pettis’ subject matter is imbued with familiarity and respect for works preceding it. A walking path bathed in dim evening light, water lilies draped across a gently moving stream, fields dotted with transient ponds; these are timeless motifs and have been employed by countless artists. And like Puts, Pettis has transformed and shaped these familiar elements to express the inner mind and sentiment of the creator. In fact, many paintings in this collection are not literal depictions of scenery, but an abstracted design to reflect their internalized spirit. While her painting Road to the Sea was inspired by the contemplative walk between the Scottish village of Stonehaven and its Dunnottar Castle, you would not be able to photograph its likeness in nature. And yet, it contains the experience of the path. Look long enough and you can feel the cool mist around your ankles, the air heavy with the smell of moss and sweet gorse. Road to the Sea expresses the internal experience of the artist, in the same way Puts’ Inspiring Beethoven expresses the internal experience of the composer.

Road to the Sea by Mary Pettis.

Beethoven differed from his predecessors in that he looked inward to express what was going on in the outer world. Most of his symphonies, including the Seventh Symphony heard in full at these concerts, broke the established musical boundaries and rules of the time to reflect his passion, his instability, his torture, and his triumph. Once he establishes the ideas and motives in his work, he explores them from every possible angle, employing every possible structure, voicing, and development. Pettis continues this dramatic tradition by infusing her paintings with tonal control and motivic development. The simplest motif of water is explored from multiple perspectives within the show. Her painting Molto Vivace is a compilation piece of about a dozen smaller studies that Pettis painted on location as notes to herself along the north shore of Lake Superior between Duluth and Grand Marais. It reminds us of the power that this precious, yet ever-present element holds. The many waterfalls have worn away at the heavy basalt as they continue to carve paths for themselves, and we as the viewer are placed in the middle of this continuing action. Minnehaha Falls in Autumn depicts this forward motion from afar, and we see the unity of direction and movement of the falls and rivers. Through this, we see a more orchestrated, purposeful portrayal of moving water and the constant push and pull it has with its environment. In contrast, the small pond in October Fields is a point of cool respite amidst the warm browns and reds of the long autumnal grass. And in Placido, the reflective stream serves as a living, breathing environment, nurturing lilies, reeds, and even a little frog (what a reward for looking deeper!). Pettis depicts her variations on the theme of water with environmental precision, evoking initial familiarity, awareness, and reverence.

Minnehaha Falls in Autumn by Mary Pettis.

Shostakovich’s mastery of orchestration and texture are the deliberate subjects of his Second Cello Concerto, which the Orchestra will perform with soloist Anthony Ross. At times, the sparse cello and percussive exchanges sound a simple line between the audience and silence. At others, the orchestration is so thick and lustrous that it is easy to get swept away in the wave of sound. Immediately when considering texture in visual art, we look for the physical tactile variation in the paint itself. In Pettis’ Edge of Twilight, we can nearly see the canvas itself through the shadows on the edge of the pond. This thinness further strengthens the heavy impasto highlights sparkling along the gentle windblown ripples of the roadside pond. However, just like in the Concerto, there is more to texture dynamics than simple physical layering of instruments. Shostakovich also uses rhythmic diversity and syncopation to create sharp, smooth, crisp layers and textures within his work. In similar ways, texture is also created in paint by layering different levels of chroma on top of one another. The contrast in chroma enhances the overall vibration and impression on the viewer’s eye. You can find an example of this in the lit warm violets and greens in Molto Vivace. In every form that comes forward, for example, the closest rock formation and the closest cascade of water, the vivid, purer colors were layered on top of a more quiet, subdued echo of the hue underneath.

Edge of Twilight by Mary Pettis.

In summary, Sharing the Harvest serves as a coalescence celebrating tradition, development, and integration. Pettis’ paintings play on the exploration of a theme, the reflections between the inner and outer worlds, and the balance between intellect, perspective, and expression. It is an invitation extended to us, encouraging us to experience paintings as one would experience music—through time, contemplation, and awareness of the long history and tradition that informs it.

Mary Pettis is the ninth American woman painter to be named an ARC Living Master™ by the Art Renewal Center. This distinguished honor is defined, in part, as: “an artist who has mastered all of the building blocks of great art...creating fully professional works of art, as well as some identifiable masterpieces...has successfully created a body of work which demonstrates accomplished facility in their craft that compares to the masters of prior centuries…”. She is also a Signature Member of the American Impressionist Society, American Society of Marine Artists, and Oil Painters of America. For a full biography and more information, visit

Pick Six: Minnesota Orchestra Recordings

For those looking to begin—or expand--a classical collection, audiophile Matthew Philion compiles this short list of Minnesota Orchestra recordings that should be in your music library.

Antal Dorati Conducts Music of Respighi, Mercury Records Olympian Series

A 1954 recording with the Minneapolis Symphony and Dorati, playing the Italian composer’s Church Windows and Roman Festivals. Though recorded in mono, the release has been praised for its performance and outstanding sonics. Now available in a high-definition digital download, this historic account sounds better than ever.  

Antal Dorati Conducts Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and Capriccio Italien, Mercury Living Presence

Actually the second time Dorati and the Orchestra recorded the audience-favorite 1812 Overture, and the first time in stereo. This 1958 account offers thrilling playing, with sonics that have not been equaled in the past sixty years.    

Stanislaw Skrowaczewski conducts Music of Ravel, Vox Records VoxBox Set

This set of Ravel’s orchestral works has been celebrated since its release over 40 years ago. Taped in Orchestra Hall in fall 1975, they were the first recordings in the then-new venue, and with a new label. The performances are idiomatic and engaging, with just the right amount of French lightness and Spanish precision. The sonics perfectly capture a world-class orchestra in a world-class concert hall.

Edo de Waart Conducts Richard Strauss’ Sinfonia Domestica and Suite for Winds, Virgin Classics

Maestro de Waart recorded three albums of Strauss’ music in the early 1990s. Along with the famous tone poems were several early chamber works for winds, including the Suite for 13 Instruments. The playing is delicate, tuneful, and light—a nice counter-balance to the composer’s large-scale works for orchestra. 

Eiji Oue Conducts Music of Copland, Reference Recordings

Recorded by the audiophile label Reference Recordings in 2000, the centennial of Copland’s birth, this album gives detailed and driving accounts of Appalachian Spring, Fanfare for the Common Man, and the Third Symphony. It’s also available on vinyl, for a true audiophile experience.   

Osmo Vänskä Conducts Sibelius’s First and Fourth Symphonies, BIS Records

This album, which won the 2014 Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance, offers listeners lesser-known Sibelius works. Maestro Vänskä balances the late-romanticism of the First Symphony with the austere sonic landscape of the Fourth, bringing out terrific playing from the ensemble.  Listeners will likely never hear better performances of these works, both recorded in glorious surround sound in Orchestra Hall.    

Matthew Philion is an attorney, writer, teacher, former classical music DJ, and amateur trombone and euphonium player. He has been a fan of the Minnesota Orchestra since attending his first concert in 1978—a laser light show at the St. Paul Auditorium featuring music from Star Wars and The Planets.


Peak of Perfection: Recording a Musical Legacy

By Matthew Philion 

This fall, the Minnesota Orchestra continues recording the symphonies of Gustav Mahler for the BIS Records label. In November, Maestro Vänskä and the ensemble will tackle—first in concerts and then in recording sessions—one of the composer’s most challenging works: the Seventh Symphony, a genuine orchestral showpiece. 

It’s a minor miracle that today’s orchestras record at all. Committing to tape a world-class ensemble like the Minnesota Orchestra is an expensive and complicated undertaking, especially with a work like the Mahler Seventh—it requires essentially the entire roster of orchestra musicians, as well as additional instruments like tenor horn, guitar, and mandolin.

So the question arises: why do symphony orchestras continue to record?

First, a professional-quality commercial recording is a sonic postcard that carries an orchestra’s sound and style to the rest of the world. For example, in the 1950s and 60s, the Mercury Records label frequently recorded the Minneapolis Symphony (now known as the Minnesota Orchestra, of course), as part of their Living Presence series. Through a combination of expert playing, effective marketing, and the label’s unequaled technical abilities, the Orchestra garnered worldwide attention almost overnight. Those recordings set standards of performance and sound quality that continue to this day.

Recordings also motivate an ensemble to play near the peak of perfection. Before a recording date arrives, each player has mastered a work’s challenging parts, they’ve rehearsed the piece together, they’ve presented it in concert two or three times. The recording sessions that follow allow them to demonstrate their very best musicianship. As the Minnesota Orchestra’s Principal Trombone R. Douglas Wright puts it, “Every time we record, we grow and improve as an orchestra. The recording process is somewhat like taking the orchestra’s playing and putting it under a microscope. During play-backs, we really get to hear what we sound like in a much more objective way than we do while sitting on stage. When you’re putting something out there that’s going to last forever, it really inspires you to be meticulous in your approach to playing and listening." 

Conductors have unique challenges in making that “perfect” recording. For the Minnesota Orchestra’s series of albums featuring the music of Jean Sibelius, Music Director Osmo Vänskä had daunting competition—his own highly regarded recordings of the same works made with a different ensemble earlier in his career. It’s a testament to Vänskä’s ability to learn new insights from the scores that classical listeners responded so well to his “new” Sibelius, leading to a Grammy award in 2014 for Best Orchestral Performance for the First and Fourth Symphonies. 

Finally, orchestral recordings are kinetic documents that preserve an ensemble’s legacy. A case in point: conductor Antal Dorati’s classic 1957 stereo recording with the Minneapolis Symphony of Aaron Copland’s Rodeo, which sounds as fresh and idiomatic now as the day it was put to tape. It’s a vibrant performance that caught a moment in time: the conductor’s skill with Copland’s music, the acoustics of the hall (Northrop Auditorium), the musical styles of the individual players, even the unique instruments they played. Listeners enjoying the Minnesota Orchestra’s recent performance of Saint-Saëns’s Third Symphony (performed in the newly updated Northrop) could marvel at the continuing perfection and relevance of their hometown orchestra, sitting in the same hall that Antal Dorati made famous with his recordings over a half century ago.

Maestro Vänskä and the Orchestra’s first releases in the Mahler series—the Second, Fifth, and Sixth Symphonies—reveal a true affinity for the Austrian composer’s sound world. Upcoming releases will undoubtedly add to the ensemble’s heritage of classic, timeless recordings—and offer future generations a musical snapshot of this singular moment in Minnesota Orchestra history. 

Matthew Philion is an attorney, writer, teacher, former classical music DJ, and amateur trombone and euphonium player. He has been a fan of the Minnesota Orchestra since attending his first concert in 1978—a laser light show at the St. Paul Auditorium featuring music from Star Wars and The Planets.

Celebrate the Holidays at Orchestra Hall

The spirit that fills the stage at Minnesota Orchestra’s holiday concerts spreads throughout the entire building with a variety of additional performances and activities, making Orchestra Hall the perfect place to celebrate the season with your loved ones.

As you make your holiday to-do lists, be sure to include time to enjoy these holiday extras and, of course, to experience the music!

  • We have partnered with Simpson Housing Services, a local nonprofit that helps thousands of people experiencing homelessness find the housing, support and shelter they need in times of personal crisis. At each performance throughout December, we will be collecting donations of specific items. Look for collection bins in the Orchestra Hall lobby.

Dec 1: New and gently-used hats and mittens
Dec 8-9: Coffee Grounds
Dec 14-20: New and gently-used pajamas
Dec 21-22: New and gently-used hats and mittens

  • Take your family photo in front of our holiday displays, brightly-lit trees and other decorations in the lobby throughout the season.

  • Decorate gingerbread houses at concerts from December 14 through 20

  • What better combination than puppies and holiday music? Visit with adoptable dogs and learn about adoptions through Secondhand Hounds before the Home for the Holidays concert on Sunday, December 16.

  • Listen to the Twin Cities Bronze handbell ensemble before the concert on Saturday, December 8. This ensemble is one of our annual favorites! 

  • If your holiday traditions involve a family movie night, then plan to join us on November 24 and 25 at the Jurassic Park concerts—which include a dinosaur display from the Science Museum of Minnesota—or at the Convention Center on December 22 for screenings of Disney’s animated classic Beauty and the Beast.

  • Relax and enjoy live jazz music in the lobby before concerts on December 1, 9 and 15.

All of these activities are free and open to the public, including many others such as holiday craft stations, storytelling and plenty of photo opportunities. In addition, holiday-inspired food and beverages will be available for purchase. We invite you to make Orchestra Hall your family’s home for the holidays!





Getting the Band Back Together: Orchestra Notes from Dessa

Fresh off a successful two-night collaboration, Dessa recaps her recent performances with the Minnesota Orchestra and tells us what it's like to collaborate with conductor Sarah Hicks and the Orchestra musicians. 

If you’ve spent your career touring the club circuit, performing with an orchestra isn’t just an aesthetic departure; it’s bodily disorienting. For starters, the music is coming from the wrong direction. On amplified stages all over the world, you hear the music from the monitor speakers at your feet. But in my first rehearsal with the Minnesota Orchestra in 2017, I realized that all the sound was behind me—meaning the little cups of my ears were facing away from all the action. It took a moment to just to get my sea legs.

As we worked through our charts, the players moved through the dynamic passages like a school of fish: enormous swells of strings and blasts of brass would bloom and then contract into small, patient moments, much more delicate than would be possible on most pop stages. The many parts and pieces fit together like a pocket watch—a pocket watch the size of a whaling ship. As we worked together, our timing also naturally flexed, an unfamiliar sensation for someone accustomed to performing with the unvarying tempos of produced music. The orchestra was an enormous, organic thing. The task at hand felt a little like surfing—learning to ride a wave as it curled overhead.

We played two back-to-back shows together in April 2017, both to sold-out rooms. I wrote a series of dramatic monologues to lace the songs together. The concerts were two of the proudest moments in my career.

When Grant Meachum, the Director of Live at Orchestra Hall, asked if I’d like to return to perform a pair of shows in early October of 2018, I jumped at the chance. After confirming with the orchestra, the first call I made was to Andy Thompson, the multi-talented musician whose arrangements consistently impress the orchestra’s librarians and members. Pop songs must be completely re-imagined to make full use of the orchestra’s skill and horsepower. An arranger must be profoundly musical; mindful of each instrument’s range and relative volume; and the charts must be meticulous—clean, crisp, and precise. Sometimes, as we select songs for our set, Andy will text me to ask if I would prefer to move a particular tune up or down in register to avoid unduly cumbersome fingering in the strings or woodwind sections. Last year, he turned in 999 pages of charts to the orchestra. Happily, Andy agreed to arrange another round of songs for the 2018 show.

The final, finishing touch of an orchestral arrangement is often the performance direction: a few words in the score and parts that indicate the general vibe or attitude of the piece. They are also, in my opinion, a lot of fun to write. Here are a few of the performance directions that Andy I worked up for this year’s shows:

The next collaborators to rope in were vocalists Aby Wolf, Cameron Kinghorn, Matthew Santos and Ashley DuBose, and drummer Joey Van Phillips. Aby again agreed to serve as Vocal Director, which meant she’d write and record vocal lines for each singer, which we’d memorize before meeting to rehearse.  Ashley DuBose graciously hosted a few of the early rehearsals—here’s a clip of us working through the treatment for “Jumprope” in her apartment.

Video by Dessa

And here’s a moment on stage at Orchestra Hall, singing along to a MIDI rehearsal audio file of “Sound the Bells.” Matthew, Cameron, Ashley and Aby are all seasoned musicians with their own solo careers; they’re not only great voices, but talented and seasoned performers. Rehearsing in the space allows us to fine-tine blocking, mic techniques, and plan where to train our eyes during particularly dramatic moments. (It also allowed Ashley to come up with that cool dance-circle thing during the last chorus of “Jumprope.” So damn fresh.)

Video by Keegan Burckhard

When it’s time to rehearse in earnest with the orchestra, conductor Sarah Hicks takes the wheel. If you haven’t yet seen her live, Sarah is very much a performer—she can do comedy, drama, and shtick, and does so with relish and an arched eyebrow. She’s at once commanding, funny, curious, and kind. On more than one occasion we’ve had the chance to trade notes about our respective careers—both somewhat unconventional. A minor parallel, but one that delighted me: we both make unusual demands of stagewear. While I’m jumping and stretching in the fitting room—stress-testing outfits for the rigor of a rap show—she’s taking special care to select shirts that are pleasing from the back; the view afforded to the house for most of the evening.

Video by Frank Merchlewitz

In the many months since our last shows, I’d had the chance to get to know many members of the orchestra personally; I’d accompanied their summer tour of South Africa, as a reporter for Minnesota Public Radio’s Classical station. (You can read through some of that coverage HERE.) And so walking out to center stage, I could see friendly faces that I knew by name—Kathy at her harp, Silver at the cello, Doug and Chuck back in brass. Orchestra Hall is an arresting room—striking and elegant—but walking out to center stage had the feeling of a reunion too. We were getting the band back together.  

I wanted to make it clear to attendees that this performance would not be a reprise of last year’s—we led with a new arrangement, new monologue material, and I entered in a sequined cloak designed by [the madly talented] Joynoelle.

Photo by Tony Nelson

As a general rule, my material runs pretty dark—a lot of melancholic harmonies, driving rhythms, some noir references. So in a live setting, humor keeps the evening balanced. To punctuate the end of the song “Shrimp” (which closes with the lyric always a bridesmaid, never an astronaut), my friend and teammate Becky created half a dozen astronaut bouquets to be thrown overhead by Aby, Ashley, and Sarah (who managed a one-handed toss without missing a beat with her baton).

Photo courtesy of Dessa

A couple of weeks after the fact, I’m still sleeping off the big tour that culminated in the orchestral shows. A serious “thank you” is due to everyone who put in some serious time and talent to pull off a couple of epic nights. In addition to those mentioned above, a quick shout out to Jay Perlman on the amplification, Vickie on the lights, and Ash on the killer projections. In the lobby, DJ Fundo, puppeteers Liz Schachterle and Kalen Keir; and dancers from DeadPool slayed. Thanks all.

And of course, to all those who attended, thank you for arriving willing to move and be moved.

To stay abreast of my upcoming shows, read some new writing, or just to say hello, swing by the new website: You can also find me on Instagram (@dessa), Twitter, or Facebook (@dessadarling). I’ll be touring the UK during the first half of November, but will return to deliver a speech and perform a few songs at Northrop Auditorium on Nov 16th. To check out the performance schedules of the vocalists who joined me onstage at Orchestra Hall, you can connect with them on Twitter at @abywolf, @AshleyDuBose @CDKinghorn, and @MatthewSantos.

See you at the next one,    


Proud to Serve: Military Veterans in the Minnesota Orchestra

In honor of Veterans Day, we salute current and former members of our country's Armed Forces. The Minnesota Orchestra is fortunate to have a number of military veterans among our current and retired musicians and staff. We asked some of them to tell us about their military experience and how it contributed to their roles in the Minnesota Orchestra.

Julie Gramolini Williams, oboe
As a member of the United States Air Force from 2002 through 2004, oboist Julie Gramolini Williams served as a Senior airman and Principal Oboe for the USAF Band of the West, also performing with the band’s woodwind quintet and working in both the music library and the auditions department. Williams comes from a long line of military veterans, including her father—a recipient of two purple hearts—who fought with the Army in Vietnam. In addition, both of her grandfathers served, one in the Merchant Marines and one who fought in World War II and the Korean War as a member of the Navy. Three of her uncles are veterans, one each having served in the Air National Guard, Marine Corps and the Army.   

The photo above was taken during a ceremony in which Williams (along with the other members in the band) was awarded The Air Force Achievement Medal.

“I was proud to serve my country in the way I best could (by playing the oboe) especially after 9/11 occurred; a time when this country needed healing,” Williams said of her military career. “Despite this, I knew that I ultimately wanted to perform in an orchestra. The work that I did in the military gave me the drive to practice hard and achieve my goal of winning an orchestra job.” Within a year of her departure from the Air Force, Williams won a position with the Omaha Symphony, and soon thereafter she earned her current position with the Minnesota Orchestra. 

Marcus Valerio, Vice President of Finance and Operations
Also a former member of the Air Force is the Orchestra’s Vice President of Finance and Operations Marcus Valerio, who served as Airman 1st Class and a military policeman from 1994 to 1998, in locations in both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. His brother, uncles and grandparents all had military careers, including service during World War II and in Vietnam.

This photo is from 1995 when Valerio was in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Valerio’s military work and current role in finance have something significant in common, as he explains: “The same passion that motivated me to serve in the military also drives my desire to serve the nonprofit community. Through military service, you learn that there is a mission that is greater than any one individual and that each job or skill plays an integral role in accomplishing whatever the mission may be. I have found the same to be true at the Minnesota Orchestra. Whether you are the great Osmo Vänskä, a violinist or an accountant like me, we all have the privilege and passion to live the Orchestra’s mission daily—enriching, inspiring, and serving our community as an enduring symphony orchestra.”

Paul Gunther, retired Minnesota Orchestra Principal Librarian
Paul Gunther retired from his role as Principal Librarian of the Minnesota Orchestra in 2017, after working with the Orchestra for more than 30 years. A skilled percussionist, Gunther was a Staff Sergeant in the U.S. Army from 1967 to 1969, stationed in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. His mother was a U.S. Navy Officer in the Women’s Reserve and his father a U.S. Army Master Sergeant; both served during World War II. Gunther’s military career was his first full-time job and thus started a professional trajectory that led to his long-term post with the Minnesota Orchestra.

Minnesota Orchestra musicians, from left to right: bass player Robert Anderson (Army), oboist Julie Gramolini Williams (Air Force), librarian Paul Gunther (Army), retired bass player Cliff Biggs (Army), retired stage manager Timothy Eickholt (Army), retired trumpet player Ron Hasselmann (Army), retired clarinetist Joseph Longo (Army), retired clarinetist Chester Milosovich (Army), and retired violinist Edward Stack (Air Force)

Robert Anderson, bass 
Robert Anderson, a current member of the bass section, joined the Minnesota Orchestra in 1974. For the three years prior to his appointment in Minnesota, he was a staff musician in the U.S. Army Band “Pershing’s Own.” It remains the premiere musical ensemble of the U.S. Army, with its headquarters adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery in Fort Myer, Virginia.

Anderson noted that the U.S. Army Band is an organization that comprises several bands, an excellent chorus, a jazz and rock band, and a string section. “We string players used to play for state dinners at the White House as well as other White House functions. We also played at the State Department from time to time,” he explained. “Of course, playing for the president could be a rather stressful experience, so this was good training for a long career in performing.”

“This image shows the string section from the current website of U.S. Army Band ‘Pershing's Own.’ When I was in the band there were no women, but now they have many. The band has distinctive blue uniforms that no other branch of the Army wears.” - Robert Anderson

In 1970, a performing career was the goal for Anderson, a recent college graduate—but he also felt that he had additional responsibilities:

“It was during the time of the Vietnam War. Although most of us were eager to move along with our professional careers in the civilian sector, we all knew we had an important job to do, so we took it seriously when it came to performing. I have kept this ethic throughout my career.” 

We are grateful to our U.S. military veterans for their dedication and service. Please join us for a special Veterans Day celebration at Orchestra Hall on Saturday, November 10, as the U.S. Naval Academy Glee Club performs with the Minnesota Orchestra.  Click here for ticket information, including military discounts >>



Celebrating YPSCA, young talent and the Minnesota Orchestra

The Young People’s Symphony Concert Association (YPSCA) is excited to start a new season of activities that encourage a love of great music in young people. One particularly thrilling project is the annual Young People’s Concerto Competition (formerly called School Music Auditions).

It draws talented young musicians from throughout the region and rewards the top contestants with a variety of prizes, some of which offer opportunities to perform before discerning audiences.

This coming season’s prizewinners are sure to be just as impressive as the superb musicians who took top awards in the 2018 Competition. Notable among last year’s winners is pianist Emma Taggart, 15, who will be featured at several Minnesota Orchestra Young People’s and Family Concerts this season.

Pianist Emma Taggart, top winner of the 2018 Concerto Competition, is pictured above performing at YPSCA’s annual luncheon last April.

Taggart, of Blaine, was showcased at YPSCA’s annual luncheon last April, when members and friends gathered at the Woman’s Club of Minneapolis for a program spotlighting student musicians who had won top prizes in YPSCA’s competition.

In the four photos above: 2018 Concerto Competition prizewinners Nita Qiu,15, of Woodbury; Kirill Nazarov, 17, of Faribault; Catherine Carson, 16, of Northfield; and Maria Chirinos, 18, of Faribault,  performing at YPSCA’s annual luncheon.

At the luncheon, Margee Bracken, Chair-elect of the Minnesota Orchestra’s Board of Directors and a longtime advocate for music education, shared her enthusiasm for the Orchestra’s upcoming ventures and YPSCA’s part in many of them.

Minnesota Orchestra Board Chair-elect Margee Bracken speaking at YPSCA’s annual luncheon.

Work on the 2019 Competition is already underway: the deadline for applications is December 3, and the Prelims and Finals will take place at Orchestra Hall next January 26 and February 3, respectively. Visit for more information. And join YPSCA to share in the excitement—perhaps as a 2019 volunteer!

Mahler, Bernstein and Me

By C. C. Yager

Music is a door to memory, and I will happily sail through that door the first weekend of November when the Minnesota Orchestra performs Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. That particular music reminds me of a time in my life when music offered a wonderful adventure if I kept my ears and heart open—my first concert in Vienna!

I was a college student, a music major, studying in Vienna, Austria, for my junior year. My first concert that fall was at the Musikverein with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein. Leonard Bernstein! We didn’t know what the program was when we arrived 75 minutes before the Musikverein opened its doors and found a line had already formed. As we waited more people arrived. When the doors finally opened, we sprinted with everyone else to find an usher who sold us the standing-room-only tickets. We had a fantastic view of the stage, the gold and red decor, and the golden Greek statues along the walls in the Golden Hall, but we had to stand for another hour before the concert began. I slipped out to buy programs while my friend held our spot. That’s when we learned what Bernstein would be conducting that evening.

Only one piece on the program: Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 in E minor. Mahler! I could hear my parents groaning that Mahler’s music was just noise, wasn’t music at all, not like Bach or Mozart or Beethoven or even Sibelius. My friend and I discussed leaving, but we’d already invested an awful lot of time and money into this little adventure so we decided to stay and see what happened.

The hall filled, every seat taken, and soon the crystal chandeliers dimmed. When Bernstein strode onstage, his short height shocked me. I’d expected him to tower over the orchestra, but there was no mistaking that profile or mane of graying hair. His downbeat came even as the applause died away.

The symphony’s first notes surprised me. They were quiet, a dirge-like rhythm played in the strings. Where was the loud bombast, the dissonance, the noise? A horn I’d never seen before played a melody of descending notes unlike any I’d ever heard. I doubt my parents would have called it a melody, but to me it sang, laying the dramatic musical groundwork for the symphony. This music defied night’s darkness with flashes of defiant light from the brass, and strings bursting out in a manic tempo, and the entire orchestra engaged in a struggle among its sections. A conversation had begun.

The second movement reminded me of a music hall march with a definite Austrian lilt, followed by a funny little hitch to the rhythm before the strings contributed some schmalz. Its title is “Nachtmusik,” German for “serenade.” This serenade was like watching a drunk romantic couple dancing a little off beat. A subdued Bernstein guided the musicians and us through the dance, at times bouncing on his feet to the rhythm, precise and clear in his stick technique, and thrilling to watch. Gone were the flamboyance and physicality of his youth.

The third movement, the scherzo, was my music. I fell madly in love with it as I listened. Restless and spooky, the sound reminded me of dead leaves rustled by a Halloween breeze. Its direction from the composer, “schattenhaft,” means “shadowy.” I thought this music must have represented the shadows of a neurotic mind. Not devilish or evil, just restless and dark, and by the end, I was imagining the couple from the second movement sidling in and out of the shadows along a Viennese street.

The fourth movement returned to the serenade with a solo violin followed by mandolin. Mandolin. In a symphony! Well, that was different. This movement was much slower than the first serenade, more lyrical in nature, sweeter in its harmonies, like a lullaby for that couple who finally made it home and were talking about their evening. I started thinking about what “night” meant to me, all the different activities that could occur at night, and realized Mahler had thought of night not in a sinister way but as another part of human experience.

The final movement burst out of the darkness with a blaze of timpani and brass. The music was triumphant, celebratory and joyous. Then Mahler tiptoed down the hall with the music so as not to disturb the slumbering drunken couple. But he didn’t remain quiet for long. This movement became a tug of war between the triumphant music and the quiet lilting music, but Triumph prevails in the symphony’s final notes.

Mahler: music or noise? Audience members were the only people making noise that night with loud clapping and foot-stomping, calling Bernstein back on stage five times until he stepped back onto the podium and conducted the entire final movement again. We stayed for every note.

The Vienna Philharmonic and Leonard Bernstein had introduced to me that night a new person with an interesting mind and way of expressing himself. Mahler had been dead for 63 years, but I felt as if he were very much alive and I’d listened to him speak all that evening. I felt full and was flying high from the new sounds, rhythms and orchestral colors I’d heard.

Wow, were my parents ever wrong.

C. C. Yager is a writer who has worked for the Minnesota Orchestra in the Marketing Department and in Ticketing Services. She has a BA in Music and often combines her knowledge of music with her writing as in her first novel, Perceval’s Secret. Her blog “Anatomy of Perceval” can be found at

Hear the Minnesota Orchestra and Music Director Osmo Vänskä perform Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 at Orchestra Hall on November 2 and 3.

Revisiting Old Friends

If you’re the type of person who seeks out unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, then this list is for you. Along with a series of new pieces this season, the Minnesota Orchestra will perform several works that are rarities here, having graced the Orchestra’s music stands only once or twice in its 115-year history. Here are a few of the highlights.

Let’s begin with a look back to a performance on March 29, 1935, at Northrop Memorial Auditorium, with Eugene Ormandy at the Orchestra’s helm. This concert opened with Jenö Hubay’s orchestration of Bach’s Chaconne from Partita No. 2, an arrangement which has not been performed by the Minnesota Orchestra since. It seems a perfect fit that Music Director Osmo Vänskä has programmed its return—after more than 80 years—for the ensemble’s upcoming performances at Northrop Auditorium in October 2018. Orchestra violinist Pamela Arnstein explains, “All of us violinists have played the great and challenging Chaconne by ourselves. I'm looking forward to hearing and playing this version.”

Another work by Bach that makes a Minnesota Orchestra return this season is his Christmas Oratorio. Last December the Orchestra and the Minnesota Chorale presented the first three cantatas of this large-scale work; this December they will perform the second half to complete the oratorio. The last time these final three cantatas made their mark on the Orchestra’s audience was in 1958, and only once before that—in December 1919.

The Minnesota Chorale

Principal Cello Anthony Ross’ solo performances with the Orchestra are fan favorite concerts in Minnesota, and so are the most-familiar and beloved cello concertos by composers such as Dvořák, Elgar and Schumann. But we’re in for another treat in November when Ross performs Shostakovich’s Second Cello Concerto for the first time ever at Orchestra Hall. It has seen one Orchestra performance, in 1970 before the Hall was built, with then-Principal Cello Robert Jamieson and conductor Gunther Schuller.

Anthony Ross performs in the Tchaikovsky Marathon with the Minnesota Orchestra, January 2018

The Minnesota Orchestra’s Featured Composer for the 2018-19 season is John Harbison, whose music we hear on classical and chamber programs throughout the season including a world premiere in October. On New Year’s Eve, the Orchestra performs his Remembering Gatsby: Foxtrot for Orchestra for the first time since 1991, under the direction of Edo de Waart. Though the work was composed in 1985, it will be new to many of us at the Minnesota Orchestra. “John Harbison was one of a handful of composers whose work made me fall in love with new music,” says violist Sam Bergman, who is excited about this concert and the others this season that feature Harbison’s music.

John Harbison

Sergei Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony was his last, completed not long before his death on March 5, 1953. The very next season (1953-54), the then-Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra led by then-Music Director Antal Dorati performed the nostalgic symphony at Northrop Memorial Auditorium, and then subsequently took the work on tour to school auditoriums and gymnasiums across the Midwest, Connecticut and New York. The Symphony has not been played by the Orchestra since that tour, but will be heard again in March this season. “I love Prokofiev,” says bass player Matthew Frischman. “His music is some of the most innovative, colorful and influential ever written. You can’t help but to be intrigued by the sounds he could produce from an orchestra!” 

Nathalie Stutzmann conducts Prokofiev's First Symphony, October 2017

Don’t miss your chance to hear these works—we hope you’ll join us!



From Orchestra Hall to Ethiopia

In her first concerts with the Minnesota Orchestra in April 2017, Minneapolist native rapper-vocalist-writer Dessa shared with us an EnviroRider developed by the Minneapolis-based Effect Partners. When she returns on October 5 and 6 to perform again with the Orchestra, Dessa’s EnviroRider does, too. We are thrilled to partner with her for both the music onstage and in ways that reach far beyond Orchestra Hall. 

An EnviroRider suggests a wide range of actions that we can undertake to give back to the environment before, during and following the performances. While Dessa is not alone in the music industry in making this extra effort, she has worked very closely with us to broaden the Orchestra’s environmental reach, planning unique activities at Orchestra Hall, and encouraging musicians, staff and audiences to continually be environmentally conscious.

One of these efforts involves the Orchestra’s participation in a CO2 Emissions Offset program. Vermont-based climate solutions company Native Energy has worked with our staff to calculate the total estimated cost of emissions for energy use at the October 2018 Minnesota Orchestra concerts with Dessa. In return, the Minnesota Orchestra will donate that amount to the Ethiopia Clean Water Project. This donation will help to provide upfront funding for the installation of Hydraid® water filters in homes across Ethiopia—reducing greenhouse gas pollution and bringing clean air and water to Ethiopian families.

The Minnesota Orchestra and its Environmental Sustainability Committee have remained committed to finding ways to give back to the environment including reducing CO2 emissions, decreasing food waste, supporting local sustainable agriculture and generally reducing the music industry’s environmental impact. Among the many efforts currently in place at Orchestra Hall are the Bike to Orchestra Hall program; composting and recycling options throughout our performance and administrative spaces; and a variety of partnerships with local organizations including Metro Transit, Move Minneapolis and Green Minneapolis.

If you are attending the concerts with Dessa on October 5 and 6, or any other Orchestra Hall event, you are part of this community effort!

Thank you!


Get to Know the OH+ Listening Station Composers

The Minnesota Orchestra’s upcoming season features the work of many great American composers, including Florence Price, Missy Mazzoli, Libby Larsen, and Amy Beach. Enjoy pieces by these four composers in our OH+ listening station, curated by Hymie’s Vintage Records, and read on to learn more about their lives and when you can hear the Orchestra perform their work during the 2018-2019 Season!

Florence Price

Florence Price


  • Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, Florence Price was the first African-American female composer to have a symphonic composition performed by a major American symphony orchestra.
  • She studied at the New England Conservatory of Music, where she received degrees as an organist and music teacher. After graduation she returned to the South, but worsening racial tensions convinced Price to move to Chicago in 1927.
  • In 1932 she won four Wanamaker prizes, including “top prize for a symphonic composition.”
  • Price composed more than 300 works, ranging from small teaching pieces for piano to large-scale compositions such as symphonies and concertos, as well as instrumental chamber music, vocal compositions, and music for radio.
  • During renovations of an abandoned house in Illinois in 2009, the new owners of the home discovered piles of musical manuscripts, books, and documents belonging to Price, who had used the house as a summer home. The materials contained many Price scores that had been presumed lost.
  • You can hear Price’s Symphony No. 3 during our American Expressions Festival in January.

Missy Mazzoli photo by Marylene Mey

Missy Mazzoli

(b. 1980)

  • Missy Mazzoli is one of the most successful and innovative contemporary American composers; Time Out New York called her “Brooklyn’s post-millennial Mozart.”
  • Mazzoli holds degrees from the Yale School of Music, the Royal Conservatory of the Hague, and Boston University. She has taught composition at Yale and currently is part of the composition faculty at the Mannes College of Music.
  • Her musical style is a blend of many genres and influenced by everything from classical music to indie-rock.
  • Alongside chamber and orchestral works, she is also a very successful operatic composer.
  • An alumnus of the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute, Mazzoli spent one week working with musicians of the Orchestra in 2006. The week culminated in a performance of her piece, These Worlds in Us.
  • You can hear These Worlds in Us at Orchestra Hall March 14-16.

Libby Larsen photo by Ann Marsden

Libby Larsen

(b. 1950)

  • Libby Larsen was born in Wilmington, Delaware but grew up in Minneapolis. She graduated from the University of Minnesota with a Bachelor of Arts in Theory in Composition, Master of Arts in Composition, and PhD in Theory and Composition.
  • A prolific composer, Larsen has a catalogue of over 500 works, and has been hailed as “the only English-speaking composer since Benjamin Britten who matches great verse with fine music so intelligently and expressively” by USA Today.
  • A passionate advocate for contemporary composers and their work, Larsen co-founded the Minnesota Composers Forum, now the American Composers Forum, in 1973 to assist composers in a transitional time for American arts.
  • The Minnesota Orchestra named Larsen a composer-in-residence in 1983. She was the first woman appointed resident conductor of a major American Symphony orchestra.
  • Larsen wrote Symphony: Water Music for the Minnesota Orchestra, which premiered the piece in 1985. The four movements evoke images of water in varying states of movement—from languid water on a sweltering summer day to water whipped up by a fierce gale.
  • You can hear Symphony: Water Music at Orchestra Hall March 21-23.

Amy Beach

Amy Beach


OH+: Connecting our community with the music

Q&A with Composer Kareem Roustom

Minnesota Orchestra's 2018-19 season includes many works new to the Orchestra's repertoire, and the first of these is a work titled Ramal by Syrian-American composer Kareem Roustom. Get to know the composer before his Minnesota Orchestra debut on September 27, 28 and 29.

What should we know about Ramal before the Orchestra performances this month?
Ramal was commissioned by the Daniel Barenboim Foundation, and it was premiered by Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in 2014. The work itself is inspired by the rhythm of classical Arabic poetry as much as it is by the writings of the late Edward Said who, along with Barenboim, founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. The work is very rhythmic in that it takes a set poetic meter, breaks it apart, develops it and then rejoins the broken parts again at the end of the work. On an emotional level, it is a work about seeing something break apart but hoping that it will come back together again. In this instance it is Syria, where I was born and raised.

How do you encourage listeners to approach a new piece of music?
An open mind, of course, is always welcome when confronting the unfamiliar. I recently read an interview with composer and conductor Pierre Boulez where he said that confronting a lack of variety at classical music concerts is a lot like going to a museum that only has 17 or so paintings, and all from roughly the same time period and place. So perhaps listeners might try to imagine that scenario when confronting some new pieces on a concert program.

Where do you find inspiration for your work?
Inspiration for me comes first and foremost from the people for whom I am composing the work and the occasion for which I am composing it. I love the challenge of variety. From there I am able to explore the many possibilities that arise from the occasion—sometimes it is poetry, sometimes it is humanistic or social justice advocacy, or sometimes it is an abstract musical exploration. The musical material itself is less important than what one crafts with it.

Who are your biggest supporters?
My wife, without a doubt. After that I’ve been very fortunate to have the support and encouragement of maestro Daniel Barenboim who has asked me to compose two works: Ramal and my recently completed Violin Concerto No. 1. I’ve also been very grateful to maestro Donald Runnicles for his continued championing of my work at the Grand Teton Music Festival, where I was composer-in-residence this past summer.

What are some of the challenges that today’s composers face in the classical music industry?
The challenges faced by composers are the same faced by performers, namely finding and sustaining audiences. I think we need to strive to belong to our communities and to find a place where are best serving them. This can take many forms but the intent must be there from the outset.

What have you been listening to lately?
I am currently going through a Stravinsky listening and reading period. Shortly before that, as I was writing my first violin concerto I was listening to quite a few concertos including some recent wonderful ones by Oliver Knussen, Thomas Adès and Kaija Saariaho. I’ve also been exploring some music by composers who blend cultures, like Cuban-American composer Tania León.

What projects are next for you?
I am very grateful to have quite a few projects coming up and these include the forthcoming release on CD of my Clarinet Concerto: Adrift on the Wine-dark Sea, which was recorded this past May in Berlin by clarinetist Kinan Azmeh and the Deutsches Symphonie-orchester.

At the end of the Clarinet Concerto recording session in Berlin with (left to right) clarinetist Kinan Azmeh, vocalist Dima Orsho, conductor Manuel Nawari, composer Kareem Roustom and engineer Florian Schmidt.

In March 2019, my Violin Concerto No. 1 will be premiered in Berlin at the Pierre Boulez Saal, by violinist Michael Barenboim and the Pierre Boulez Ensemble. The piece that I’m currently working on, which is for the Boston-based string orchestra A Far Cry and the Lorelei Ensemble women’s chorus, will have its premiere in Boston in May 2019 and is based on a new translation of Homer’s The Odyssey. After that there is a commission from the Grant Park Music Festival in Chicago for a work for choir and orchestra (June 2019 premiere) based on poems by Walt Whitman, a commission from the Dallas Symphony for what will be my second violin concerto for their principal second violinist Angela Fuller-Heyde, as well as two other projects for a festival orchestra in the U.S. and an orchestra in southern Germany.

What are you doing when you aren’t composing?
Spending time with my family, reading history and swimming as often as possible.

For tickets and more information >>

Meet President & CEO Michelle Miller Burns

As the Orchestra launches its season opening concerts, President and CEO Michelle Miller Burns welcomes audiences to the 2018-19 season.

"Hello, I’m Michelle Miller Burns, President and CEO of the Minnesota Orchestra, and it is my pleasure to welcome you to the Orchestra’s 2018-19 season.

Recently, I had the privilege of seeing Music Director Osmo Vänskä and the musicians in action on the Orchestra’s South Africa tour.

I was impressed by their commitment to excellence throughout the tour. Not only in performances, but also in their interaction with students and audiences in every community we visited. It was inspiring to see those musical and cultural connections being made.

I know that connectivity is part of the magic here at Orchestra Hall and I look forward to being a part of it this year.

Osmo and the musicians have prepared an outstanding season for you with a focus on vibrant, American music. Some of it new. Some of it tried and true. All of it performed masterfully.

Whether you are a long time subscriber or a first-time concertgoer, I hope you will introduce yourself to me and the musicians before or after your next performance.

Thank you and we look forward to seeing you at Orchestra Hall."

Welcome our Newest Musicians

The Minnesota Orchestra is excited to welcome three additional musicians to its roster this season. Violist Jenni Seo has been appointed Assistant Principal Viola, a position held since 2010 by recently-appointed Principal Viola Rebecca Albers; cellists Minji Choi and Erik Wheeler have been appointed to section positions.

Jenni Seo, viola

Korean violist Jenni Seo comes to Minnesota after performing in the viola section of the Baltimore Symphony during its 2017-18 season. She is a frequent substitute with the New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic and New York City Ballet orchestras, and makes reoccurring appearances at the Music at Menlo, Montecito, Bad Leonfelden, Keuka Lake and Perlman Music Program festivals. She has appeared on stage alongside Itzhak Perlman, Lynn Harrell, Donald Weilerstein and David Finckel, as well as members of the Cleveland, Takacs and Juilliard String Quartets. She has been presented by the WQXR Midday Masterpieces series, the Harvard Club of New York and at the Neue Gallery. The winner of the 2011 ASTA National Solo Competition, Seo received undergraduate and graduate degrees from The Juilliard School, where she was a student of Cynthia Phelps, Heidi Castleman and Steven Tenenbom, and served as principal viola of the Juilliard Orchestra.

Minji Choi, cello

Korean cellist Minji Choi joins the Minnesota Orchestra after playing with the Santa Barbara and Eugene Symphonies. She began studying cello at age six and gave her first solo performance at the age of twelve in Kumho Art Hall. She studied at the Korean National University of Arts under the tutelage of Myung-Wha Chung and Kangho Lee. She has also studied with Philippe Muller at the Paris Conservatory, where she received her master’s degree, and she recently earned an artist’s diploma from the Colburn Conservatory of Music, studying with Clive Greensmith. She has won numerous competitions including the Ehwa- Kyunghyang Competition, Ye-Jin Competition, Nan-Pa Competition, Eum-Yoen Competition and the Tea-Gu Broadcasting Competition, among many others. As a soloist, she has been featured with the Teagu Philharmonic Orchestra, Guri City Orchestra, Gunpo Prime Philharmonic Orchestra and Karol Szymanovski Philharmonic Orchestra. She has played as a substitute musician with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Alan Gilbert. She has also served as principal cello of the Paris Conservatory Orchestra, Pacific Music Festival Orchestra and Verbier Festival Orchestra. 

Erik Wheeler, cello

Houston-born cellist Erik Wheeler began his musical studies with Diane Bonds at the age of five. He has also studied with Steve Laven, Lynn Harrell and Brinton Smith, and with Desmond Hoebig at Rice University, where he earned his undergraduate degree, and at The Juilliard School with cellist Richard Aaron. While at Rice, he performed Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations with the Shepherd School Chamber Orchestra as the winner of the school’s concerto competition, and served as principal cellist for the Shepherd School Symphony Orchestra. He has performed chamber music alongside world-renowned artists including Jon Kimura Parker, Philip Setzer, Lawrence Dutton, Timothy Eddy, Kim Kashkashian, Susan Starr and Charles Wetherbee, and has appeared as a soloist with numerous orchestras including the Houston Symphony. Wheeler’s parents are both musicians, and his father Lawrence was Co-Principal Violist of the Minnesota Orchestra in the 1970s. 

 Seo and Choi join the Orchestra for Season Opening concerts on September 21 and 22; Wheeler begins his new position with the Orchestra in January 2019.

A Moment with Emanuel Ax

Seven-time Grammy-winning pianist Emanuel Ax joins us on September 21 and 22 to open the season with Brahms’ exquisite Second Piano Concerto. We spoke with him about the challenges and joys of this extremely difficult piece, and about his 44-year relationship with the Minnesota Orchestra.

When you see that your next concert venue is in Minnesota, what do you think about?
Minnesota was one of the first places I ever played with a major orchestra—at Northrop Auditorium and with Stanislaw Skrowaczewski (in 1974 and 1977). It was very exciting for me, a great thrill. I’ve always loved both Minneapolis and Saint Paul, and I’m just excited about coming back.

The program from one of Emanuel Ax's first performances with the Minnesota Orchestra

How have you grown as a musician since those early performances?
Well, I don’t have the slightest idea, to be honest. I keep practicing, hard. But I keep feeling that I have so much more to learn, and that hasn’t changed at all. I hope I’m playing more intelligently and communicating better than I did then. But I can’t really say; that’s more of a question for people who come to the concert. 

What are you looking forward to about the upcoming Minnesota Orchestra concerts?
I haven’t been to Minnesota since I played with the Orchestra’s musicians during the lockout. So, I’m glad that people are back and working and it’s all good news.  I’m very excited to see Osmo Vänskä again and I’m very excited to be with the Orchestra, so I’m anticipating it with a lot of pleasure. And of course I’ll be nervous. I hope I play well. 

How do you stay at the top of your game?
I think all pianists are working hard and working ahead because we have a lot of notes to play, so I’m always trying to do that and be ready when the concert comes. And with all of the traveling that I do, the first thing my management team does is line up practice time at each place when I arrive. I plan my days around that. It’s really the most well-planned part of my life! 

What is the greatest challenge about Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto?
The challenge is simply that it is very, very difficult. It’s hard physically. It’s hard mentally. It’s long. It’s very involved and like a piece of big chamber music. You have to be very connected to everything else that is going on onstage.

What is your greatest joy about the piece?
Brahms’ Second Concerto is so evocative and so wonderful and so deep that it’s always a pleasure and a thrill to work on it…but scary! I first performed this piece almost 40 years ago. The Brahms concertos have been part of my life for a very long time.

This season, the Minnesota Orchestra is highlighting American composers. How would you describe American orchestral music?  
Well I think that’s very hard to answer. I think there is an unmistakable flavor of American music that you hear in composers like Bernstein, Copland, Roy Harris and others from that era, a kind of American sound that is very open, very frank, very welcoming and very hopeful. But I think that now the world of composition is so international that it’s difficult to characterize by nationality. People from America go to Vienna to study. People from Vienna come to New York. People from the Far East go all over the world. There are teachers of all nationalities working everywhere. So, I think in that sense, the world of music has become very international.

What are some of your latest projects?
Recently, I’ve been performing the Brahms trios with Yo-Yo Ma and Leonidas Kavakos, and that’s been a wonderful, wonderful thing. Yo-Yo and I have been playing together in one thing or another for over 40 years now. Being onstage with him is one of the absolute greatest things that happened in my life. I’m grateful to whatever powers made it possible. And we both fell in love with Leonidas, so it’s been really fun over the last couple of years. 

And I’ve learned a couple of new pieces that I like a lot. One in particular that I performed last year is by a Viennese composer named HK Gruber.

Otherwise, one of the most important things in my life is that we have grandchildren. They are three-and-a-half year old twins, and we’re very blessed. I’ll see them this coming weekend. We haven’t gotten them much into music yet, but I’m hoping to learn more songs that they can sing along to, so I’m going to be working on that in the next bit.

Hear Emanuel Ax with the Minnesota Orchestra, September 21 and 22 >>

Experience New Music With Us

The modern symphony orchestra has been built on centuries of musical traditions. Orchestral musicians have each trained for thousands of hours in classical techniques which have stood the test of time. Listeners might find familiarity and comfort in works by the great pillars of orchestral composing, such as Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky and—especially here in Minnesota lately—Sibelius and Mahler. However, in this art form, there will always be room for new ideas, new voices and new sounds. 

Here at the Minnesota Orchestra, we've always found great value creating and performing new music. We've commissioned or premiered more than 300 compositions, and we even have a full "Future Classics" concert each year dedicated to new music during the annual Composer Institute. During our 2018-19 season, we have programmed more than a dozen works that the Orchestra has never performed before, each of them new to many of our musicians' repertoire and our audience’s ears.  

How will you decide which ones you want to experience for the first time with us? Here’s a quick look through our season to help you choose. Click on titles to learn about performance dates and details.

Below are three great opportunities to be among the very first in the U.S. or even the world to experience new works:

John Harbison: What Do We Make of Bach? for Orchestra and Obbligato Organ

This world premiere celebrates the newly-restored pipe organ at Northrop on the campus of the University of Minnesota, with organ virtuoso Paul Jacobs as the soloist in his Minnesota Orchestra debut. And if you love this piece, there are more opportunities this season to hear Harbison’s music, because he is our 2018-19 Featured Composer.

"The orchestra is given the task of establishing the premise, and the organ part introduces an idea of the voice of the old German master speaking in modern terms…The organ part consists of both the strangest, most bizarre elements of the piece as well as those that are most rooted in tradition.” – Paul Jacobs


Mark-Anthony Turnage: Martland Memorial for Percussion and Orchestra

Martland Memorial is a unique tribute to the late British composer Steve Martland. Its composer and soloist—Mark-Anthony Turnage and Grammy-winning percussionist Colin Currie, respectively—were both friends of Martland, who died in 2013. The Minnesota Orchestra’s performances will be the U.S. premiere.

Geoffrey Gordon: Prometheus

The U.S. premiere performance of Prometheus features the Minnesota Orchestra’s own bass clarinet player Timothy Zavadil as the work’s soloist in a rare opportunity to hear a solo bass clarinet with the Orchestra. Plus, there is another new piece on the same program: Tómasson’s Second Piano Concerto (see below for more).

Other works new to the Orchestra’s library this season include: 

John Adams: Gnarly Buttons

A frequently-appearing name in Minnesota Orchestra programs, composer John Adams’ features solo clarinet in Gnarly Buttons, spotlighting clarinet virtuoso Michael Collins in a lively work with small orchestra and a little bit of banjo. Preview the piece, with Collins as soloist >>

Kareem Roustom: Ramal

On the same program as Gnarly Buttons, but in a complete shift of style, Syrian-American composer Kareem Roustom’s Ramal is rhythmic and bustling, inspired by a pre-Islamic Arabic poetic meter. It will be the first time a piece by Roustom is performed by Minnesota Orchestra. 

Kevin Puts: Inspiring Beethoven

What was Beethoven thinking as he penned the joyful, vibrant, emotional notes of his Seventh Symphony? This is Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Kevin Puts’ imaginative response to that question.

Artie Shaw: Clarinet Concerto

Music from “The King of Clarinet,” Artie Shaw, has been heard on many a summer festival concert here in Minnesota, but this season Principal Clarinet Gabriel Campos Zamora brings Shaw’s Clarinet Concerto to the stage in January with Music Director Osmo Vänskä—who began his career as a clarinetist—on the conductor's podium.

Florence Price: Symphony No. 3

Composer Florence Price was the first African American woman to have her music performed by a major orchestra. Her southern roots and religious background run deep through her work, especially in this symphony that was commissioned at the height of the Great Depression.

Mason Bates: Garages of the Valley

Dedicated to former Minnesota Orchestra Music Director Edo de Waart, who conducts these concerts, Mason Bates Garages of the Valley was inspired by the masterminds who worked tirelessly behind the scenes on some of our greatest advances in technology (Apple, HP, Google, etc.) 

“We all have an image of zillions of lines of computer code whizzing down a screen, and I needed a way to bring that to life in a fresh and evocative way.” –Mason Bates


Sean Shepherd: Silvery Rills

Silvery Rills is a quick concert opener that gets its name from the words of “Home Means Nevada,” the composer’s home state song.

Haukur Tómasson: Piano Concerto No. 2

Honoring Minnesota’s many Nordic influences, this concert combines the talent of our Finnish Music Director Osmo Vänskä with Icelandic composer Haukur Tómasson and Icelandic pianist Vikingur Olafsson, who performed the premiere of Tómasson's Second Piano Concerto.

Victoria Borisova-Ollas: Kingdom of Silence

Another name new to the Orchestra’s library, Victoria Borisova-Ollas’ Kingdom of Silence is a dreamlike perspective of the afterlife, a kind of lullaby in memory of another composer, Nikolai Korndorf.

Browse the Minnesota Orchestra's complete season  >>

Northrop's Historic Pipe Organ

About the Northrop organ

The historic Northrop organ, Aeolian-Skinner’s Opus 892, was built between 1932 and 1936, and is one of the most notable concert-hall pipe organs in the United States. Its 6,982 pipes comprise 108 ranks and 81 speaking stops, ranging in size from 32 feet tall to the size of a pencil. The public face of the organ is the console, with four keyboards, a pedalboard and about 225 separate controls. The Northrop organ is the third-largest auditorium-based Aeolian-Skinner extant in the U.S. today. It was awarded the prestigious “Exceptional Historic Merit” citation by the Organ Historical Society in 1999.


Photo by Tim Rummelhoff

When the Minnesota Orchestra—then called the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra—made Northrop its home beginning in 1930, the organ was used often, but by the late 1960s, it began to fall into disrepair. When Northrop’s building renovation began in 2011, the organ was carefully cataloged, crated and moved to storage, where it sat for several years waiting for the funding needed to repair and re-install the instrument. A generous bequest by the late Dr. Roger E. Anderson provided funds for the reinstallation of the instrument in the chambers above the stage and behind the proscenium. The reinstallation has been painstakingly carried out by Foley-Baker and Associates and culminates in the October 12 and 13 grand inaugural concerts by the Minnesota Orchestra. For more information about Northrop, visit

Johannesburg | Aug 18

On Saturday morning, August 18, the Minnesota Orchestra crew completed their final load-in of the tour at Johannesburg’s City Hall and the musicians boarded the buses for a short trek to the venue. Even the chilly winter morning couldn’t erase the afterglow of Friday night’s concert in Soweto!

City Hall, like so many of the venues in South Africa, has been the home of many historical and political events throughout its more than 100-year history. The Edwardian building has seen many political events on its steps from protest meetings to a bomb blast in 1988.

The setting for the concert was stunning—and although there were a few minor hiccups with a late start and seating, the crowd was attentive from the moment Vänskä lifted his baton. South African composer Bongani Ndodana-Breen and Dr. Makaziwe “Maki” Mandela, Nelson Mandela’s eldest daughter, were in the capacity crowd of more than 1,100.

What’s happening is a true and glorious exchange.

Scott Chamberlain, MinnPost

During the concert, pigeons flew back and forth from the proscenium arch to the window ledge high above the auditorium. The sun seemed to shine through the windows at the most opportune moments during Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony: the horn solo of the third movement, the “Ode to Joy” theme and the triumphant ending of the piece.

Vänskä returned to the stage after a standing ovation, conducting the orchestra and choir in “Usilethela Uxolo,” then turned the podium over to Xolani Mootane, who brought down the house with “Bawo Thixo Somandla.” Vänskä then returned to lead the ensemble in a final performance of “Shosholoza.”

But the music didn’t stop there. The Gauteng Choristers continued the singing into the hallways as they left the stage; stragglers from the crowd looked on.

Minnesota Orchestra President and CEO Kevin Smith, who retires at the end of August, beamed at the post-concert farewell dinner. He thanked Classical Movements, the Orchestra’s tour partner, as well as the musicians, staff, patrons and donors who made the tour possible.

It is, “by all accounts, the biggest project the orchestra has ever done,” Smith said. “It’s hard to know where it goes from here, but … I think the orchestra will continue to be more adventurous and expansive in how it works and with whom it works and where it goes.”

President and CEO Kevin Smith
Story by Jenna Ross, Star Tribune

“There were so many dimensions to this tour,” said Smith. “The fact that it has gone so beautifully from beginning to end—it gives me goosebumps thinking about it.”


We are immensely grateful to the Music for Mandela corporate consortium sponsors for making this project possible: Ecolab, TCF, Medtronic Foundation, Land O’ Lakes, Inc., 3M, U.S. Bank, Thor Companies, Target and Pentair.

We recognize an anonymous couple for their generous contribution to fund the Minnesota Orchestra’s tour. We also recognize the Douglas and Louise Leatherdale Fund for Music supporting the work of Osmo Vänskä.

"It's bigger than ourselves and it’s bigger than our own perspectives. We have to share it with the world. And that’s what we did here.”

First Associate Concertmaster Susie Park
Story by Jenna Ross, Star Tribune

Photography by Travis Anderson. Follow along throughout the tour on our South Africa landing page.

Soweto | Aug 17

Four musicians jumped on a bus in Johannesburg on Friday morning, August 17, headed to Soweto to attend a special Books for Africa event. Their day began with solo and chamber music performances for hundreds of students at Missourilaan Secondary School and ended with a grand Orchestra concert at one of South Africa's most historic venues.  

“Oh, shoot I forgot my concert clothes,” said violinist Natsuki Kumagai as she settled onto the bus, jumping up to run back to her room. For the musicians, the day would be nonstop: school event, zipping straight to rehearsal, then a group dinner, evening concert in Soweto and a 60-minute bus ride back to Johannesburg. 

When the musicians arrived at the school, hundreds of students, ages 13 and up, were assembled in a windswept courtyard, wearing proper blue school uniforms. Missourilaan Secondary School has known difficult days its leaders have said but, led by Principal Julius Van Rensburg, they are intent on propelling the school to new heights and preparing its 1,260 students to face the world.

The Saint Paul-based nonprofit Books For Africa is donating 40,000 books to this community, some 12,000 of which will find their way here. “We want to partner with Missourilaan and make it a place of excellence,” said Judge LaJune Lange, Minnesota’s Honorary South African Consul, who also attended the event.

Gathered school choirs, comprised of students and teachers, sang songs of welcome and several students offered poems. Ashidy Adams, 17, read a poignant hand-written poem about Nelson Mandela from a small notebook.

“He was steadfast, unshakeable, rooted to stop oppression so that I can taste freedom, not just catch a glimpse of it.”

August is a windy and dusty month in Johannesburg, and Minnesota Orchestra musicians arrived without clothespins, which are often used to clip music to stands in blustery weather. When it was his turn to play, Principal Flute Adam Kuenzel instead asked for student volunteers for the job. Manny Laureano, principal trumpet, told the students, “You have changed me. I am going to play this piece differently from ever before because of your reception today.”  Violinists Natsuki Kumagai and Michael Sutton received a rock star ovation when they play a duet.

Afterwards, the musicians struggled to explain the experience. “It was literally indescribable because it was not about things that were palpable,” said Laureano. “There was absolutely no wall between [the students] and their emotions. And when it was time to listen, they were attentive and beautifully so.”

It's filled with history. This is a place where organizers, including Nelson Mandela, now-Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Oliver Tambo worked to overcome apartheid.

Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio

Regina Mundi Roman Catholic Church is a hallowed venue; it served as a center of organization for freedom fighters during the violent apartheid struggle and later it was the site for an early Truth and Reconciliation hearing when victims of apartheid faced their oppressors. Arriving at the simple A-Frame church, Orchestra musicians and staff felt the weight of that history.

“Nelson Mandela was a true world leader,” said clarinet player Tim Zavadil. “And this venue was the epicenter of the fight for equality.”

Outfitting the sanctuary to serve as a concert hall required months of planning, spearheaded by Classical Movements’ Johan Van Zyl and Minnesota Orchestra Technical Director Joel Mooney. Bollards had to be removed (and then replaced) from the front entrance to allow access for the trucks with equipment. A stage was carefully built out over the altar to accommodate the mass 200-person orchestra and choir, and rented lights were hung from the ceiling.

The concert was recorded by Minnesota Public Radio and a four-person MPR crew—Host Brian Newhouse, Producer Bradley Althoff, Technical Director Zachary Rose and Engineer Michael Osborne—buzzed around the space, testing sound levels and gear. They arrived with 1500 pounds of equipment, including back-up battery power in case of a power outage.

Following the concert, producer Althoff rushed a thumb drive containing the complete broadcast back to the Orchestra’s Johannesburg hotel to upload it in time for the 7 pm Central broadcast in Minnesota on Friday evening.

Minnesota Orchestra's concert in Soweto is an ode to joy in many languages

Jenna Ross, Star Tribune 

By concert time, it was already dark—late winter lighting—as the crowd filed in. Audience members mingled with musicians as there is no dedicated “backstage” space at the church. MPR’s Newhouse set up at a single microphone to the right of the stage, ready to relate the experience to radio listeners.

This is a nation of singers, but none of the audiences on the tour so far have come close to the full-throated vigor with which the Soweto crowd sang.

Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio

The U.S. Consul General for Johannesburg Michael McCarthy welcomed the capacity crowd: “I can’t wait to hear what happens when we throw together the Gauteng Choristers, the Minnesota Orchestra and the Minnesota Chorale!”

What happened was magic. When the first “Freude” of Beethoven’s Ninth rang out, the energy in the venue was electric. To hear the “Ode to Joy,” that blazing hymn celebrating the togetherness of humankind, sung in this revered space, where people fought and died to achieve equality, was overwhelming.

The audience crescendo grew over the second half of the concert, as the Orchestra and choirs transitioned into a series of African songs: Akhala Amaqhude Amabili, Bawo, Ruri and the infectious call-and-response song, Nelson Mandela. There was no ambiguity in the audience feedback; this crowd was singing, dancing, and waving arms overhead, exuding appreciation.

Afterwards, 17-year-old reporter Mpho, who was attending the concert as part of a Children’s Radio Foundation delegation, offered her assessment. “I liked that the Orchestra tried to cater to South Africans” with some of its musical choices, she said.

Two long-time Regina Mundi parish members, who lived the struggle here, reveled in the concert afterwards. “It took me far away,” said one. “But it was too short. It could have been five hours and we don’t mind.”

For our musician travelers, there is still a sense of the surreal about the whole experience. “Life changing,” is how Kumagai described it in an end-of-day Instagram report.

And for Osmo Vänskä: “It was a dream,” he said. “And now it is happening.”

Photography by Travis Anderson. Follow along throughout the tour on our South Africa landing page.

His Sacrifice

By Ashidy Adams, a student at Missourilaan Secondary School

He never showed his scars

He held the nation on his shoulders as if it were a coat, shining with diversity

He never revealed that he too

Bleeds on the inside

He remained hopeful

And that manifested into human form

He was steadfast


Rooted to stop oppression so

That I can taste freedom

Not just catch a glimpse of it

He defied every rule set for a people of color

His actions

Made me bolder

Than a den of lions

To be African

He wore his wounds

Like a crown

Bestowed only to royalty

We never saw the pain

He hid behind his smile

That made atmospheres change

He embraced the chaos

Because he saw the rainbow after the storm

Nelson Mandela

His name

Still resonates after 100 years

In the hearts of the nation

Who bled for

Their freedom

Long live his sacrifice!

Pretoria | Aug 16

On Thursday, August 16, the Orchestra performed their third concert of the South Africa tour, in the Aula Centre at the University of Pretoria. Before the performance, however, Minnesota Orchestra musicians fanned out around the campus, working with students from the University and from the South African National Youth Orchestra.

Conductor Gerben Grooten led Osmo Vänskä through the picturesque University of Pretoria campus to a small classroom in the fine arts building, where he would spend the afternoon leading a master class with seven of Gerben’s conducting students.

Gerben, who serves as resident conductor of the University of Pretoria Orchestras, has built a solid conducting studio on campus. His students range from first to fourth years and come from a variety of instrument backgrounds. At first, the room is quiet when he asks for questions.

“This is like in Finland,” Vänskä said. “No one wants to start.”

Soon the questions started rolling in. “How much does being Finnish influence your interpretation of Sibelius?” one asked.

“It doesn’t hurt to be Finnish and conduct Sibelius,” Vänskä said. “But there are many non-Finnish conductors who do it very well too. If we hear something again and again, that makes us think it is our music. When you repeat something, you can become a specialist.”

Students asked questions about stage fright, baton technique, rehearsal preparation and communication with musicians. Vänskä offered a general rule with good humor: “The more you speak, the more the players hate you. It is always better to go with body language.”

And some parting words that are the essence of the Vänskä philosophy:

“The composer is the highest order. We are performers and we must follow the composer.”

Resilience is an important quality for conductors, especially on tour. Following the student session, Vänskä zipped onto a bus with a small group of musicians and staff to attend a reception at the U.S. Ambassador’s residence in Pretoria. The U.S. Mission in South Africa has been a generous supporter of the Minnesota Orchestra South Africa tour.

Three string principals—Erin Keefe, Susie Park and Rebecca Albers—played a little Dvořák, and then conductor and musicians headed back to the Aula Centre to prepare for the evening’s concert.

Classical Movements CEO and Founder Neeta Helms welcomed the crowd. “We’ve been having a lekker time,” she exclaimed. “Lekker” is the Afrikaans word for superb or fantastic.

Then, Jessica Lapenn, Charge d’Affaires at the U.S. Mission in South Africa, spoke, praising the Orchestra and the audience for being part of the celebration around Mandela’s 100th. “All of you being here reaffirms our belief in arts and cultural affairs as a way to sustain relationships,” Lapenn said. “The musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra are citizen diplomats and represent the very best of the U.S.” 

Lapenn concluded her remarks, describing how music brings unity from diversity and that orchestras are the perfect example of this: a group of individuals with tremendous abilities who work together toward a common end goal. For an orchestra, that shared goal is to bring beauty and empathy to our shared humanity. “That’s the spirit of Nelson Mandela that we need to move his legacy forward.”

"It was these young musicians who inspired the Minnesota Orchestra's tour."

Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio

Many students from SANYO and the University of Pretoria were in the audience as well as students from LEAP Science & Math School and Field Band Foundation of South Africa. The crowd was electric—responding enthusiastically to the Orchestra’s performance. As Vänskä acknowledged each individual section of the orchestra, the students in the crowd cheered loudly for the musicians they had shared the stage with earlier that day.

Photography by Travis Anderson. Follow along throughout the tour on our South Africa landing page.

Pretoria | Aug 15

The Orchestra headed to the University of Pretoria on Wednesday, August 15, for an afternoon side-by-side rehearsal with the South African National Youth Orchestra (SANYO) and an evening rehearsal with the Minnesota Chorale and Gauteng Choristers.

Music Director Osmo Vänskä guest conducted SANYO in 2014 and his experience left a lasting impression an became an impetus for the Orchestra’s South Africa tour. Celebrating its 54th year, SANYO has become one of South Africa’s most successful institutions, nurturing the musical development of the country’s finest young musicians.

Gerben Grooten, principal conductor of the Pretoria Symphony Orchestra and a lecturer in conducting at the University of Pretoria, welcomed the Minnesota Orchestra and SANYO musicians at the top of the rehearsal. Grooten explained that the hallmarks of the American ethos—drive, energy, pioneering spirit—are much needed in South Africa, and that having the Minnesota Orchestra work side-by-side with SANYO was an incredible opportunity for the young musicians. 

"I literally have no words to describe this feeling. It is really cool, so I am really happy I am here."

Casey Jacobs, 18 (SANYO Violinist)
 Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio

He said not many orchestras come to visit South Africa, and he instructed the SANYO students to lean in and seize the moment, ask questions and learn from the experience.

“You also have a gift to share with the Minnesota Orchestra,” he told the students. Grooten then presented Vänskä and concertmaster Erin Keefe with South African gifts: Biltong (dried, cured meat) and drinking glasses featuring images of South Africa’s “Big 5.”

Vänskä spent the afternoon rehearsing Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 with the students, in preparation for their performance this weekend. Throughout the first movement of the piece, Vänskä encouraged the ensemble to “play as soft as possible.”


At one point in the second movement, Vänskä asked that only the Minnesota Orchestra musicians play a particularly lyrical, melodic passage. Casey Jacobs, a violinist in SANYO who hails from Gordon’s Bay, outside of Cape Town, later gushed to her Minnesota Orchestra stand partner Michael Sutton, “That was so beautiful!”

During the rehearsal, Sutton swapped bows with Jacobs. “Your bow is nicer than mine,” Jacobs quipped. “We can swap violins, too!” Sutton chuckled.

“You see, there are many, many different languages that we speak when we play. And depending on who the conductor is, they might want a different language.”

Manny Laureano, principal trumpet
Story by Jenna Ross, Star Tribune

Sophia Welz, managing director for SANYO, explained that the ensemble's membership mirrors the diversity in South Africa.

“We have 78 musicians from a wide range of places and backgrounds,” she said. “While there may be more than 1,000 km between us, everyone here is working toward a common, shared goal. It doesn’t matter where you are from or who you are.”

The ensemble hosts anonymous auditions each year and every student’s selection is based on merit. In addition to musical coaching and training, the organization also offers courses on instrument repair and arts administration, creating a very well-rounded educational program for the young musicians.

Welz emphasized the importance of the immersion project with the Orchestra.

“This type of experience is a real confidence builder for them. Side-by-side rehearsals are like a booster shot,” she said. “While this might be a small amount of time together, it’s extremely intense and it makes a lasting impression with these students.”

After the side-by-side rehearsal, the musicians and SANYO students enjoyed dinner together at Adler’s, a nearby eatery on campus.

Not every orchestra would be so enthusiastic about the community engagement programming. But most of the Minnesota players seem sporting, many seem enthusiastic and some seem deeply moved during the outreach events.

 Dessa,Classical MPR

Then, the Orchestra returned to Aula for their first rehearsal with the combined choir of Minnesota Chorale and the Gauteng Choristers, with SANYO students in the audience.

On Thursday, August 16, the students will spend the day working one-on-one with musicians in masterclasses and chamber music sessions. In addition, Vänskä will lead a conducting workshop and the Orchestra's administrative leaders will present an information session with SANYO students who are interested in arts administration.

Photography by Travis Anderson. Follow along throughout the tour on our South Africa landing page.

Durban and Johannesburg | Aug 13-14

Musicians enjoyed a free day on Monday. Some spent the time in sunny Durban, while others opted for a trek to Pilanesberg National Park, roughly three hours drive from Johannesburg, for a short and sweet safari experience at Bakubung Lodge, complete with lions, hippos and giraffes.

Back in Johannesburg, 50-some members of the Minnesota Chorale—who arrived in this capital city on Sunday—met their choral counterparts from South Africa’s Gauteng Choristers for the first time on Monday evening in a rehearsal conducted by their respective leaders, Kathy Saltzman Romey and Sidwell Mhlongo. Osmo Vänskä jumped into the mix on Tuesday night, leading a combined rehearsal at the National School for the Arts. “Whether you are coming from Johannesburg or Minneapolis,” he said. “It is great to see everyone!”

"The Gauteng Choristers are internationally acclaimed, and one of three South African choirs to perform at the funeral of President Nelson Mandela in 2013. The Minnesota Chorale will join the Minnesota Orchestra Friday as its first-of-its-kind tour of South Africa culminates in a concert at Regina Mundi, a Soweto church that played a significant role in the country's struggle during — and after — apartheid."

— Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio

Both choirs have been planning for this collaboration for over a year, expanding their repertoire to include new pieces in different languages and, in the case of the Minnesota Chorale, each singer has personally raised the funds to support a tour 10,000 miles from home. Osmo seemed pleased with the result. “I really like the sound you are producing right now,” he said, following a run-through of the African song Akhala, which is sung in Zulu.

"A choir from Minnesota and a choir from South Africa sang together Monday night for the first time. It felt, somehow, like the hundredth."

— Jenna Ross, Star Tribune

He was flanked by Saltzman Romey and Mhlongo, who called out their own bits of advice to bring the choirs together. “Singers, you must sing ‘held,’” said Saltzman Romey midway through Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. “If you sing ‘hell’ that means something else.”


On Wednesday night the choirs will come together for a final rehearsal, this one involving the Orchestra, and then it’s time to raise the curtain on this long-in-the-works collaboration, with a Friday night performance in Soweto and Saturday afternoon finale in Johannesburg. But tonight, the reality hasn’t quite sunk in yet. “It is still hard to believe we are here,” marveled Saltzman Romey.

Safari photography by Travis Anderson. Follow along throughout the tour on our South Africa landing page.

Durban | Aug 12

The Orchestra landed in Durban on Saturday night, immediately feeling the more temperate weather of this busy port city known for expansive Indian Ocean beaches and a subtropical climate in the “garden province” of KwaZulu-Natal. A cheerful band of Orchestra wind players headed out first thing on Sunday morning to join the young musicians of the KwaZulu-Natal Youth Wind Band in rehearsal.

The youth ensemble is led by conductor Russell Scott, who explained that the band is made-up of cream-of-the-crop wind musicians from the across the KZN province, with many students traveling long distances to attend the weekly Saturday rehearsals. “We push for high standards,” he said. “We are proud to break barriers and make music together.”

Scott led the band in the “Jupiter” movement from Holst’s The Planets, as well as an African piece called Patta, Patta (“Touch, Touch”) that he arranged for wind ensemble. Following a performance by a Minnesota Orchestra wind ensemble, professionals and students broke into small sectionals to get to the nitty-gritty of their instruments and parts.

Associate Principal Percussion Kevin Watkins met with student percussionists to discuss the art of timpani playing. “It’s good to practice singing the notes to learn the pitches,” he said. “If you get your ear really close to the timpani, you can hear the pitch perfectly.” 

In a separate practice room, tuba player Jason Tanksley—the Minnesota Orchestra’s Rosemary and David Good Fellow—met with six young tuba and euphonium players to drill into The Planets. “You don’t have to play it too loudly,” he said. “Try it pianissimo.” 

Upstairs, bass trombone player Andrew Chappell was offering a masterclass on breathing. “Try to hear and feel how the breath relates to the sound,” he advised. “The better the breath, the better the sound. And eventually, forget about the breathing and just think ‘I am taking in my sound and letting out my sound.’”

Trombone students started to hit their stride. “I love the satisfaction in that passage,” one said.

“Yes!” Chappell affirmed. “You should feel that you made your statement.”

The KZN Wind Ensemble students will have a chance to hear the Orchestra make its statement at Sunday afternoon’s concert at Durban’s stately City Hall.

“Let it fly, so it is a little more colorful. I think it is more important to hear the entrances than the exits.” — Principal Clarinet Gabriel Compos Zamora

On Sunday afternoon, the Orchestra headed to Durban City Hall for a quick touch-up rehearsal and early evening concert. A quintessential example of Edwardian Neo-baroque architecture, Durban City Hall was completed in 1910 and was considered very bold in its design at the time. As the buses pulled up to the venue, many musicians stopped to take notice of the gorgeous exterior of the building.

Upon entering City Hall, musicians dodged wardrobe cases on stage, backstage—and even out in the house. With very little space in the backstage area, double bass and cello cases stood at the back of the stage and percussion cases just down the steps from stage left.

Tarps were hung in the hallway around the corner from backstage to create a men’s dressing area. Accessing backstage required going on to the stage—which proved to be somewhat challenging as orchestra staffers transported cases of water bottles backstage when the touch-up rehearsal began.

The concert began a special performance from the Clermont Choir, conducted by Brian Msizi Mnyandu. Orchestra members looked on, standing at the back and sides of the house. An outgrowth of the Clermont Catholic Church Choir, Clermont Choir was founded in 1992 and specializes in many different genres of music with a focus on choral, classical and African indigenous music. Based in Durban, the group has 60 members, most of whom reside in the metropolitan area. The choir performed a captivating short three-song set that had the audience clapping and cheering along.

Neeta Helms, president of Classical Movements, then welcomed the crowd and introduced Sherry Zalika Sykes, U.S. Consul General in Durban. Sykes shared that one of the highlights of her job is to welcome American visitors to South Africa and to build bridges between our two countries. She added that the Minnesota Orchestra musicians are some of America’s best diplomats, sharing their music and touching the lives of so many South Africans.

Music Director Osmo Vänskä then came to the stage, leading the Orchestra in both the South African and American national anthems. Sibelius’ En Saga opened the program, followed by Bongani Ndodana-Breen’s Harmonia Ubuntu, featuring Goitsemang Lehoybe.

At intermission, the smell of samosas wafted through the hallway and the crowd made its way to the refreshment area outside of the auditorium. During the break, an Orchestra staffer spoke with a group of students from Inanda Seminary, one of South Africa’s oldest schools for girls. Founded in 1853, the school is based in Inanda, a township about 15 miles northwest of Durban. Twenty-four students from the school were able to attend the concert, thanks to the Medtronic Foundation. Students Philasande and Zamakhosi shared their excitement about the event—that this was the first orchestra concert they and their classmates had ever attended. Zamakhosi, a choir student, spoke about Goitsemang Lehoybe’s performance. “Her singing was beautiful,” she said. “Hearing that kind of singing was new to me—I’ve never heard someone sing like that!”

Minnesota Orchestra brings its music, outreach to Durban, South Africa

— Photos and audio from Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio

Although more restrained than the Cape Town audience, the crowd of nearly 1,000 came to life in the second half, with many cries of  “Bravo” at the end of Bernstein’s Overture to Candide. A young girl gasped loudly and squealed “Yes!” when the iconic opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony filled the cavernous space. The audience leaped to their feet at the end of the piece, giving the ensemble a standing ovation.

For the encore, the Orchestra once again performed “Shosholoza.” As was the case in Cape Town, the crowd didn’t recognize it at first. Once the musicians started singing, the crowd, including the students from Inanda Seminary, went crazy, singing along and dancing in the aisles.

Post-concert, as the crew began to prep for the load-out, the girls sang their own version of "Shosholoza" at the front of the stage, with many musicians filming the performance with their phone.

Concert photography by Travis Anderson. Follow along throughout the tour on our South Africa landing page.

Cape Town | Aug 10-11

The spirit of Nelson Mandela was alive as the Minnesota Orchestra kicked off its South Africa Tour with a performance at Cape Town City Hall on Friday evening, August 10.

The Orchestra’s performance marked the second orchestra concert in the newly refurbished hall, which recently reopened after a 9-month, 27 million Rand ($2 million USD) renovation. Part of the venue’s recent transformation included a statue honoring Nelson Mandela on the same balcony where he first addressed the nation as in 1990 as a free man.

Before the concert, the vibe in the foyer of the recently remodeled venue was electric. South Africans of all backgrounds and ages entered through the doors of the historic venue located on Darling Street across from the Grand Parade, the main public square of the city and home to a bustling marketplace. Once inside the auditorium, some of the younger audience members took selfies and classical music aficionados thumbed through the program book.

The energy of the crowd carried backstage to the musicians and crew, despite the tight quarters. 14,000 pounds of instrument and wardrobe trunks, coupled with many musicians resulted in traffic jams, all of which were taken in stride and good humor.

U.S. Consul General Virginia Blaser welcomed the sold-out crowd, praising the Minnesota Orchestra’s tour--the first by an American orchestra--and their musical diplomacy efforts. The concert was also attended by a contingent of officials from the U.S. Consulate.

Students from the Children’s Radio Foundation, some of whom had never been to a concert before, were in attendance, as well as students from Nelson Mandela University, ERUB Children’s Choir and other organizations.

The audience was instantly captivated by the opening piece, Sibelius’ En Saga, which demonstrated the Orchestra’s trademark broad dynamic range. During the whispering pianissimos at the end of the work, there wasn’t a sound in the hall and the audience erupted in applause once Vänskä lowered the baton.

"Thank you for bringing your years of practice and corporate rehearsal to the shores of Africa and enthralling us with your artistry."

— Audience member

Goitsemang Lehoybe, one of South Africa’s favorite sopranos and an alumna of the University of Cape Town, was the soloist for native son Bongani Ndonana-Breen’s Harmonia Ubuntu. Commissioned by Classical Movements in honor of the Orchestra’s South Africa tour, the piece received its premiere in Minneapolis in July, but this performance was the South African premiere. Mandela’s words and Xhosa-influenced rhythms and melodies are featured in the work, which was well-received by the hometown crowd. At the conclusion of the performance, there were multiple cries of “Bravo” from the audience and several curtain calls for Lehoybe.

"During a rousing, sold-out show Friday, the former president’s words, sung by a soaring soprano, once again hung in the air."

— Jenna Ross, Star Tribune

The second half of the concert featured two audience faves—Bernstein’s boisterous Overture to Candide, followed by Beethoven’s masterful Fifth Symphony.

Music Director Osmo Vänskä then returned to the stage with three encores—two pieces by Sibelius, Tanz-Intermezzo and Finlandia, with the beloved South African song “Shosholoza” in between. At first, when the Orchestra began playing “Shosholoza,” there wasn’t much reaction from the crowd. But once the musicians started to sing the words, the audience erupted in cheers, clapping and singing along.


"A couple of people said they'd never been to a classical concert before and were blown away. One woman said that she was seeing colors and recognizing nature in the music."

— Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio

Although the Orchestra’s time in Cape Town was brief, many meaningful connections with the community were made.

Saturday Engagements

The Orchestra divided on Saturday. About 30 musicians headed to the Artscape Theatre Centre in downtown Cape Town to rehearse and coach student members of the Cape Town Youth Philharmonic. Led by Osmo Vänskä, the ensemble worked—and then worked some more—on Shostakovich’s Festive Overture and Sibelius’ Finlandia. “Maybe you need to know the story of Finlandia,” Vänskä said and explained its importance in Finland’s quest for independence from Russia. “When you play, you need to say something,” he said.

The talented students in this Youth Philharmonic range in age from 16 to 24. “I really like what you are doing,” Vänskä told them. “You are fixing things so quickly.  Thank you for all you have given today to me and to us.”  

The other members of the Minnesota Orchestra bused to the Eurecon Primary School in Elsie’s River Township. Students, parents and small siblings congregated to greet and perform for their guests from Minnesota.

“Parents and students, thank you for coming to school on a Saturday,” said Brendon Adams, leader of the musical ensemble 29:11 and one of the forces behind this visit. “Minnesota Orchestra, we are happy you are here, joining us not just at Cape Town City Hall but in our community.”

The school’s Intermediate Choir, comprised of 10 to 13-year-old students, sang a plaintive welcome, “I am a Small Part of the World,” conducted by Donovan Meyer-Adams. Meyer-Adams is the school’s computer science and math teacher but he does double duty as its choir director. He said his students held a special rehearsal on last week’s national holiday to prepare for today’s performance, rehearsing songs in Afrikaans, English and Swahili.

Minnesota Orchestra string, woodwind and brass ensembles then took the stage, each explaining a little about their instruments and how they produced sound—demonstrating by squeaking reeds and buzzing lips—before playing short chamber pieces.

“Most of these kids aren’t regularly exposed to classical music or instruments,” said Meyer-Adams. “This gives them an idea of what the sounds that come from these instruments are like.”

Trombonist Doug Wright brought down the house with an ever-favorite demonstration. “One of the really cool things about the trombone is that it can make race car sounds,” he said. “This is why you all want to play trombone, right?“

“It’s an honor for us to be here,” he concluded. “Thank you for the invite.”

"The youngsters howled with laughter as the reed players demonstrated the quacking sound of their mouthpieces, but they really loved it when musician Steven Campbell demonstrated how low his tuba could go. The building seemed to shake as he pretended to collapse under the effort, and then it rang with laughter."

— Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio

The gathered audience—over 200 parents, students, musicians and Orchestra patrons—moved outside to a central courtyard for a mix-it-up series of performances featuring Praise Dancers, the ensemble 29:11 and some jamming Orchestra musicians, including trumpeter Charles Lazarus, who riffed with 29:11. Rapper-singer-essayist Dessa took the microphone to rap her gratitude. “I hope you see in our faces how happy we are to be here,” she said. 

Under a bright late-winter sun, Brendon Adams, 29:11, Orchestra brass players and the assembled audience wrapped it up with a rowdy version of “Welcome to Cape Town,” the Ghoema melody the brass ensemble learned from students earlier in the week.

“The feelings students felt today is something they will remember,” said Meyer-Adams. “It is nice to know you are appreciated . . . and that you count.”

Concert and Elsie's River photography by Travis Anderson. Follow along throughout the tour on our South Africa landing page.

Cape Town | Aug 8-9

Minnesota Orchestra musicians arrived in bright and breezy Cape Town on Wednesday morning, and if any spirits were lagging after the 11-hour night flight, a welcome-to-the-city performance by a traditional, brassy Kaapse Klopse band—this one called Happy Sounds Youth Development and comprising students from 12 to 18—helped to revive them.

Cape Town, perched between the Atlantic Ocean and Table Mountain, is the breathtakingly beautiful home to around 5 million people today; formerly it was home to one of the world’s most famous political prisoners, Nelson Mandela, who was incarcerated on Robben Island for nearly two decades. A group of 20-some musicians headed straight from the airport to the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront for a tour of this site, a fitting start to the “Music for Mandela” tour.

A rocky 40-minute ferry ride delivered the musician tour group to the Island, which officially became a museum site in 1997.  All visitors to Robben Island are greeted by a quote from freedom fighter Ahmed Kathrada: “While we will not forget the brutality of apartheid, we will not want Robben Island to be a monument of our hardship and suffering. We would want it to be a triumph of the human spirit against the forces of evil, a triumph of wisdom and largeness of spirit against small minds and pettiness, a triumph of courage and determination over human frailty and weakness.”

In South Africa, Minnesota Orchestra makes grim visit to Mandela's former prison cell

-Jenna Ross, Star Tribune

Former political prisoners on Robben Island now serve as its tour guides, speaking first-hand about the cause they fought for and the living conditions they endured. Every tour ends with a humbling walk to the small cell that Nelson Mandela occupied in his time on the Island. 

At the end of this sober visit, violist Sam Bergman posed a question to the tour guide, “When you were imprisoned here, did you have hope that the anti-apartheid struggle would eventually be won?”  Without pausing, the former-prisoner-now-guide answered, “We knew we would win. We were fighting for a just and noble cause and that saw us through.”

"For me it's not even that this puts music in perspective. This puts life in perspective."

From a story by Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio

This day that began in the Northern hemisphere ended with a flourish at Cape Town’s famed Gold Restaurant, which specializes in North African, sub-Saharan and Southern African foods, all accompanied by electrifying African drumming, dancing and singing. And so this music and cultural exchange has begun.

Board Chair Marilyn Carlson Nelson welcomed the assembled tour group by saying, “The world needs the music you make.”

"Put on your dancing shoes. Cape Town welcomes you!"

Thursday was a free day for Minnesota Orchestra musicians and a holiday—National Women’s Day—for the students of the Cape Music Institute but both Orchestra professionals and music students opted to forego a day-off for the chance to participate in a music exchange together.

"The students greeted the Brass Quintet with song, launching into "Welcome to Cape Town," a rollicking piece lauding the city, its people and its natural beauty."

-Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio

Faith Pretorius is an administrator at the Cape Music Institute, a professional school tucked into Athlone Stadium in Cape Town that offers both music and life training for super-talented 18 to 24-year-olds, many of whom come from challenging circumstances. “I tell the students that your gift cannot take you where your character cannot go,” Pretorius says.

In a crowded room—full of fellow students, administrators, and media—music students demonstrated that character, singing a joyful song, Ghoema-style.

Ghoema music, as one student explained, derives from a slave tradition, merging big band, jazz, calypso, reggae, San and Xhosa musical influences to create a totally unique, winsome sound. “Welcome to Cape Town,” the students sang. “Enjoy the party. Put on your dancing shoes. Cape Town welcomes you.”

The brass ensemble—Charles Lazarus, Douglas Carlson, R. Douglas Wright, Michael Gast and Steven Campbell—reciprocated with a little Bach, Piazzolla and Bernstein, which elicited raucous cheering from the students. “You are the best audience ever,” commented Doug Wright. “Does someone want to teach us this Ghoema piece?”

In a high point of the morning, the brass ensemble sight-read the swinging “Welcome to Cape Town” tune, flanked by student instrumentalists and vocalists who showed them the ropes. “There are no word to describe this,” said Pretorius. “We are a small school, a family, and students, you have made us proud today. Minnesota Orchestra musicians, thank you for empowering our students.”

The ensemble 29:11, which recently lit up the Twin Cities in a series of Minneapolis performances, includes many alumnae from the Cape Music Institute; this morning’s workshop concluded with a drop-in visit and performance from 29:11 of the moving Nkosi sikelel iAfrika. When asked about the impact of the day, Pretorius answered simply, “Music brings us together.”

These students and Orchestra musicians will come together again on Saturday in Elsie’s River township to perform their newfound shared song, “Welcome to Cape Town.”

Students and the Orchestra brass ensemble pose in front of Athlone Stadium, home of the Cape Music Institute, as well as two Cape Town Premier Soccer League teams.

Gusts of winter wind made performing a challenge at the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront but these hardy brass players were not easily deterred. Gathering armfuls of sheet music that almost blew into the harbor, the musicians re-clipped the music to their stands and carried on.

The V&A Waterfront is one of the city’s main tourist attractions, even on a brisk winter day.

Photography by Travis Anderson. Follow along throughout the tour on our South Africa landing page.

BBC Proms | Aug 6

On August 6, the Minnesota Orchestra made a triumphant return to the BBC Proms, the world’s largest classical music festival, with an all-American program. Music Director Osmo Vänskä led the Orchestra in a performance of Bernstein’s Overture to Candide, George Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F, featuring Inon Barnatan as soloist, and Charles Ives’ visionary Symphony No. 2.

"With the Minnesota players alert and precise from the get-go, it opened the programme with a burst of vitality that mellowed into warmth..."

-George Hall, Financial Times (London)

Keeping with tradition, the Prommers injected their humor into the concert experience—applauding Concertmaster Erin Keefe as she sounded the ‘A’ on the piano to tune the orchestra and shouting “Heave, Ho!” as the stage crew lifted the lid of the piano in anticipation of Barnatan’s performance. After his performance, the Prommers wanted more, stomping their feet as a request for an encore, and the soloist obliged, returning to the stage to perform a virtuosic, playful and improvisational rendition of Gershwin’s I’ve Got Rhythm.

"This was as fine a reading as I've heard in years, up there with the greats… Barnatan's encore, Earl Wild's Virtuoso Étude on 'I got Rhythm', was swish and light-fingered, classically cool with a dizzy suggestion of Domenico Scarlatti two-hundred years on, cigars and a bourbon for backcloth: superb."

-Ateş Orga, Classical Source

Although there were moments of informality and humor, the full house of eager fans was rapt by the Orchestra’s performance throughout the evening.

After a rousing conclusion of the Ives Symphony, the audience erupted into thunderous applause. As he returned to the stage for the encore, Vänskä spoke about the Orchestra’s South Africa tour in celebration of Nelson Mandela’s Centenary and dedicated the Orchestra’s encore, Shosholoza—a traditional South African song—to the people of South Africa.


Mary Miller, a resident of Brighton, Sussex, shared her enthusiasm after the concert with an Orchestra staffer. “The Orchestra played extremely well,” she said, “and it was a real treat for us to hear an all-American program.”

Belfast native Andrew Sloan said he enjoyed his first-ever Proms concert, adding that he’ll be back the next time the Minnesota Orchestra comes to town.


The concert, broadcast live across Minnesota on Classical MPR and throughout the U.K. on BBC Radio 3, was the prelude to the Orchestra’s five-city tour of South Africa, which begins this week in Cape Town with a series of engagement activities and a sold-out concert at Cape Town's City Hall on Friday evening.

Musicians and staff arrived yesterday afternoon at Royal Albert Hall for rehearsal in preparation for the evening’s concert. Photographer Travis Anderson captured a behind-the-scenes look during the rehearsal.

Minnesota Orchestra Music Director Osmo Vänskä and Concertmaster Erin Keefe enter Royal Albert Hall for the Orchestra’s afternoon rehearsal.

The low brass section rehearses the encore, Shosholoza, a traditional South African song. Sung by Mandela while he was imprisoned at Robben Island, the tune has unofficially become the country’s second anthem. 

"Finally, the concert’s knockout punch: the encore of the South African miners’ song Shosholoza, the country’s unofficial national anthem, delivered with bone-shaking panache by the orchestra’s singing musicians. South Africa, look out." 

-Geoff Brown, The Times 

Principal Trumpet Manny Laureano uses a Greek fisherman’s cap as a mute in the Gershwin piece. In the score, Gershwin called for the crown of a felt hat. Laureano, like other trumpeters, has experimented with different types of felt and felt hats, but found that his authentic Greek fisherman’s cap produces the purest sound and intonation.

Rehearsal and behind-the-scenes photography by Travis Anderson. Concert photography by Chris Christodoulou.

For complete media coverage, please visit our Press Room page.

The Piano Tuner Behind It All

As the Orchestra concludes its 2017-18 season at Orchestra Hall, it offers a big round of applause for someone who is not normally in the concert spotlight: retiring piano tuner Jerry Ouska, who served the Orchestra, its pianos and world-famous pianists for 34 years. By Dan Wascoe

If Jerry Ouska dreams about his former job after retiring this summer, he shouldn’t be surprised if those dreams have soundtracks.

Ouska, 70, has tuned the Minnesota Orchestra’s pianos since 1984, regularly tweaking three nine-foot Steinway concert grands, often to the particular preferences of guest soloists. During Sommerfest extravaganzas, he tuned up to five pianos.

He also learned to deal harmoniously with the guest soloists.

“There are so many personalities,” he said, and they know just how they want their instrument to sound.

A few soloists during Ouska’s tenure—Alfred Brendel, for example—brought their own pianos. Others brought their own tuners. Vladimir Horowitz brought both.

Usually, however, a guest artist samples each of the Orchestra’s three in-house grands, testing the touch, the brightness, the overall sound.

“They go back and forth trying them” before choosing one for the performance, Ouska said.

After that, “I’m always here for the first rehearsal,” when the chosen piano is played on stage at Orchestra Hall. Then he consults with the pianist about adjustments, perhaps changing the tone or touch on just a few keys, depending on the piece and the soloist’s performance style. Some artists “just beat on the piano,” he said. “They can be way stronger than most people understand.”

Besides preparing a piano for such power, a technician’s work must be delicately precise. Pressure on individual keys should be 50 grams when depressed and at least 24 or 25 grams coming back up, he said.

Ouska has personally rehabbed a couple of the Orchestra’s pianos, which are either owned outright or provided by Steinway through its Concerts and Artists Department.

He majored in music at Indiana University, where he met his wife, Nancy; she played piano and flute, he played trumpet. Later he sold pianos before becoming a technician. Steinway was pleased with his warranty repair work and sent him to a piano factory for further training. He worked twice with famed Steinway technical chief Franz Mohr.

After the Ouskas moved to Minnesota, Nancy worked in sales for Schmitt Music, Steinway’s dealer in Minnesota. That relationship came into play in 2006 when the Orchestra decided to trade in its “Old 300” grand, which had been in service for more than 30 years.

At the time, the Metropolitan Airports Foundation was seeking a concert grand to place in its main concourse at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport’s Terminal 1. Ouska said Foundation officials were “enthralled” by Old 300’s pedigree at Orchestra Hall, where it had been played by the likes of John Browning, Alicia de Laroccha, Garrick Ohlsson, Jeffrey Siegel and the duo of Ferrante and Teacher. The Foundation agreed to buy it after Schmitt touched up the casework.

Even though the mechanism was in good shape, he said, the piano by then “looked like an old beater.”

Old 300 remains in service at the airport, and although Ouska says, “it wouldn’t be a star piano today” in concert halls, “it was a really good piano back in its day.”

Ouska said he’ll feel “a good deal of sadness” about leaving the Orchestra but as he moves from tuning to gardening and boating, he also is bound to feel a sense of relief. His tuning schedule was rigorous and pressure was intense because “world-class pianists depend on your work. If they’re unhappy, it gets back to the conductor, and the musicians know it.” In addition, if a piano should break down during rehearsal or performance, those musicians’ time “is really expensive.”

That’s why much of his job has required preventive maintenance. In his 34 years with the Orchestra, he recalled only twice when a piano string broke during a concert.

What happened then?

“You keep going until the movement ends,” he said, when a technician can pull the broken string out of the way.” (Most notes are sounded on three strings.)

But if the break occurs in the last movement, nothing can be done and the pianist and orchestra must power through.

Dan Wascoe is a retired reporter and columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and performs with vocalist Baibi Vegners as Nuance/a duo.


Performing at the Proms: a Q&A with Inon Barnatan

“One of the most admired pianists of his generation," according to The New York Times, pianist Inon Barnatan recently played with the Minnesota Orchestra in January for the Tchaikovsky Marathon and the Midwest Tour. Last year, he debuted at the world's largest classical music festival, the BBC Proms; he returns to the prestigious venue next month with the Orchestra to perform Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F.

Hear the complete program live in Minneapolis a Tour Send-Off concert, August 1 at Orchestra Hall.

What is it like to walk out onto the stage as a soloist at the BBC Proms? It really is indescribable–one of the most thrilling experiences one can have as a performer. I made my debut there last year (playing Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major with the BBC Symphony Orchestra), and I have not been able to stop talking about how incredible it felt going out in front of so many enthusiastic and discerning people. It’s one of the best classical music audiences in the world, the space itself is beautiful, and just walking out on stage is intoxicating.

What was the highlight of your debut performance there last year? The wonderful thing about it, besides just being there, was how intimate it actually felt on stage. As soon as we started playing, it felt like we were in a living room. It’s surprisingly comfortable and intimate, in contrast with the epic scope of the place.

How do you think your performances with the Minnesota Orchestra earlier this year will contribute to the Proms concert on August 6? I think musical relationships are always helped by experience—the deeper the relationship with other musicians, the better the performances. The more comfortable you feel with an orchestra or conductor, the more you feel you can trust each other. I feel very close to the Minnesota Orchestra musicians; walking out on stage with them feels like we are performing as a united front, that we are on the same page from the beginning. 

Barnatan, with Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra, at Chicago's Symphony Center, January 2018. Photo: Greg Helgeson

What do you enjoy most about Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F? It’s a great piece that doesn’t always get the musical credit that it deserves. There is more to it than the fun, jazz aspect; it’s actually a complex and interesting piece and a great presentation of what Gershwin did best, which was combine classical and jazz into something new. I get to indulge my jazzy side, which I rarely get to do, while combining classical and jazz, two of my great loves. 

How do you manage such a busy schedule of concerts? I’m also always planning ahead, so it is important that I practice not only what I am playing now, but also what I will be playing next. Also, I just try to steal time at home as much as possible. As much as I really enjoy the travel and concerts, I try to balance my schedule to make sure I have time away from the piano and music. I find that this sense of balance is very important.

What are your favorite places to perform or visit as you travel?  The BBC Proms are high on my list—I lived in London for 10 years and it has always been one of my favorites.

Beat the road construction blues and enjoy the music!

We totally agree with you: road construction in the Twin Cities is making it tough to get around right now! The Minnesota Orchestra is still here and working hard to create world class performances for you at Orchestra Hall, and we don’t want traffic cones and detours to spoil your summer concert experience.

We recommend that you leave home early and spend some extra time in downtown Minneapolis and at Orchestra Hall, where you can experience a lot more than just the evening’s concert. Here are ten tips from us to help you ease the construction woes and fully enjoy your visit. 

  • Take the Light Rail Blue Line or Green Line to avoid the construction all together. It’s a 10 to 15 minute walk to Orchestra Hall from the Nicollet Mall station.

  • Speaking of Nicollet, have you visited downtown since this street re-opened last fall? New features include a “Light Walk,” an “Art Walk,” artist-designed lanterns and a restored clock sculpture on the corner outside Orchestra Hall.

  • Metro Transit is offering FREE RIDES to the International Day of Music events at Orchestra Hall on July 21. Click here to download your pass.

  • Go green and Bike to Orchestra Hall! Did you know that several of our Orchestra musicians bike to Orchestra Hall every day for rehearsal? If you bike to a concert, stop by the box office and let us know by showing your helmet or gear. We have a special discount coupon for you that is good for 50% tickets to select upcoming concerts. 

  • Come early and have dinner downtown. There are many great restaurants within a few blocks of Orchestra Hall. Check out our list of nearby dining options.

  • Throughout this summer, Orchestra Hall is home to an educational exhibit about Nelson Mandela, curated by our friends at the University of Minnesota; in addition, artists from Homewood Studios and Juxtaposition Art in North Minneapolis and Interact Center in Saint Paul have their artwork on display; and children from Way to Grow’s preschool classes created a community out of decorated boxes. Doors open two hours before each performance, and at noon for the International Day of Music on July 21.

  • Come early on specific dates and listen to our free pre-concert talks, where you can learn more about the programs and performers for the evening’s concert. Additional musical performances are often happening in the Target Atrium and Orchestra Hall lobby spaces before and after concerts, too. Check out the event page on our website calendar for your particular concert choice to find out more.

  • Increase your daily dose of classical music as you drive. The Minnesota Orchestra won a Grammy Award for its recording of Sibelius’ Symphonies No. 1 and 4, and was recently nominated for another Grammy for our recording of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. We have many recordings that you can listen to on your way to Orchestra Hall! Or check out our Spotify playlists to hear previews of upcoming concerts.

  • Not the driver? Scroll through the #MNOrch social media pages on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter as you make your way here. You’ll find plenty of great photos, details about upcoming events, links to interviews with our musicians and more.

  • And don’t forget to visit all of our Sommerfest food and merchandise vendors, and enjoy a pre-concert happy hour at the Orchestra Hall bars! 

For current information about road construction and traffic, please visit Move Minneapolis or Minnesota Department of Transportation.

Akiko Fujimoto Named Associate Conductor

The Minnesota Orchestra announced this month that Akiko Fujimoto, who joined the Orchestra’s artistic roster as assistant conductor in 2017, has been named associate conductor for the 2018-19 season.

In her first year in Minnesota, Fujimoto served as a cover conductor for Classical subscription and Live at Orchestra Hall concerts, conducted the Orchestra’s Common Chords performances in Mankato in April, led Young People’s concerts throughout the season and led educational sessions with high school students on the Orchestra’s January 2018 tour to Indiana and Illinois. This summer, she conducted the Orchestra’s annual Symphony for the Cities concerts (July 9 to 15)—which featured free outdoor performances in Minneapolis, Plymouth, Winona, and Hudson, Wisconsin—and led the ensemble’s first full-orchestra Sensory-Friendly Family concert on July 14 at Orchestra Hall.

“Working with the Minnesota Orchestra this season has been a dream come true,” said Fujimoto. “I am truly grateful for the opportunity to continue absorbing the sounds of this Orchestra and to continue learning from the mentorship of Music Director Osmo Vänskä.”

The Minnesota Orchestra’s assistant and associate conductor roles offer a wide variety of conducting opportunities within the organization. Additionally, these conductors serve as a link to the community, participating in engagement activities, school visits and collaborations with other Minnesota arts and cultural institutions.

“Akiko has been a welcome addition to our conducting staff,” said Director of Artistic Planning Kari Marshall. “She has shown great commitment to the Orchestra’s education initiatives at Orchestra Hall, on tour and through our high school Symphonic Adventures program, and she has developed a strong working relationship with musicians and staff throughout her first season with the Orchestra. We look forward to continuing these relationships as she steps into the associate conductor role.”

About Akiko Fujimoto

Akiko Fujimoto joined the Minnesota Orchestra in September 2017 as assistant conductor after serving five and a half seasons as the associate conductor of the San Antonio Symphony, where she conducted classical, pops, education and baroque concerts as well as ballet. As a guest conductor, she has performed with the Houston Symphony, Corpus Christi Symphony Orchestra, Round Rock Symphony Orchestra and Fort Wayne Philharmonic. Additionally, she has conducted Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra as a participant in the Young Conductors Program and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra at the St. Magnus Festival. Prior to arriving in Texas, she served as the conducting associate for the Virginia Symphony Orchestra.

Fujimoto has extensive experiences working with young musicians, starting at Harvard University where she directed the Mozart Society Orchestra and at Stanford University, with her leadership of the Stanford Symphony Orchestra. In Virginia, she held the positions of Director of Orchestras at the College of William & Mary and Music Director of the Williamsburg Youth Orchestras. Born in Japan, Fujimoto moved to the United States at age 14 and attended Stanford University where she studied music and psychology. She holds master’s degrees in choral and orchestral conducting from Boston University and the Eastman School of Music.


Harmonia Ubuntu

Bongani Ndodana-Breen

Born: August 1975, Queenstown, South Africa; now living in Cape Town, South Africa

Harmonia Ubuntu

Premiering: July 21, 2018

In geographic terms, Minnesota and South Africa are separated by some 9,000 miles. Musically speaking, though, they’ve rarely been closer than this summer, as the Minnesota Orchestra presents a Sommerfest celebration of South Africa’s most famous statesman, the late Nelson Mandela, on the centenary of his birth; collaborates with South African soloists, ensembles and composers; and tours Mandela’s home country in the first-ever visit there by a professional U.S. orchestra. Central to this “Music for Mandela” project is the world premiere of Harmonia Ubuntu by Bongani Ndodana-Breen, one of today’s leading South African composers. The new work honors Mandela and the ideals he stood for, such as peace, freedom, reconciliation and ubuntu—a Nguni Bantu term which Ndodana-Breen explains is “the knowledge that one’s humanity is tied to the humanity of others or humanity towards others.”

New orchestral works are often funded by ensembles or individuals, but Ndodana-Breen’s Harmonia Ubuntu was commissioned for the Minnesota Orchestra’s South Africa tour by a different sort of musical organization, the international touring company Classical Movements, through its Eric Daniel Helms New Music Program. After proposing the commission last year, Classical Movements—which is managing the South Africa tour—gave the Orchestra a list of recommended South African composers.

Ndodana-Breen’s music stood out to Music Director Osmo Vänskä, and collaborative discussions ensued over how the new piece could best connect with the Mandela celebration. The incorporation of Mandela’s own words appealed to all parties, but rather than following the model of a work such as Copland’s Lincoln Portrait that employs spoken narration, Ndodana-Breen elected to have Mandela’s words sung by a soprano—an artistic choice which allows the listener to hear those words in a wholly new way.

The premiere of Harmonia Ubuntu marks only the start of the work’s international journey. Next month the Orchestra will perform it during all five stops on the South Africa tour: Cape Town, Durban, Pretoria, Soweto and Johannesburg.

about the composer

Dr. Bongani Ndodana-Breen has written a number of works which relate to or are inspired by his country’s struggle against apartheid and for liberation. One of his most acclaimed is Winnie, The Opera, based on the life of Winnie Mandela, who was married to Nelson Mandela for more than three decades and was a fellow leading figure of the anti-apartheid movement. (Winnie Mandela herself attended the opera’s premiere in April 2011.) His other recent major operatic and orchestral works include Three Orchestral Songs on poems by Ingrid Jonker, the oratorio Credo, which is based on South Africa’s historic Freedom Charter with libretto by Brent Meersman; Mzilikazi: Emhlabeni, a sinfonia concertante for piano and orchestra; and the short opera Hani.

Ndodana-Breen’s orchestral works have been performed around the world by ensembles including the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra, Vancouver Opera Orchestra, Symphony Nova Scotia, Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra, Belgian National Orchestra, Kwa Zulu-Natal Philharmonic, Johannesburg Festival Orchestra, Johannesburg Philharmonic and Cape Town Philharmonic. In addition to his symphonic and opera writing, he has composed a wide range of choral, small ensemble, chamber and solo music.

Commissions have come from institutions such as London’s Wigmore Hall, the Vancouver Recital Society, Madame Walker Theatre in Indianapolis, the Hong Kong Arts Festival, Luminato Festival Toronto and the Haydn Festival in Eisenstadt. Among the many honors conferred on him are the Standard Bank Young Artist Award in 1998 and recognition as one of Mail & Guardian’s 200 Young South Africans in 2011. From 1999 to 2007 he directed the Canadian new music organization Ensemble Noir, which he led on tours to Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa.

The English text sung by soprano in Harmonia Ubuntu is a composite of phrases from writings and speeches of Nelson Mandela, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning leader, philanthropist and human rights advocate whose centenary (officially July 18, 2018) is being celebrated worldwide this year. Mandela’s extraordinary life experience—including 27 years as a political prisoner for his opposition to the apartheid regime, followed by his election to the presidency of a government that pursued a “truth and reconciliation” model of honest accountability and healing—lends great moral authority to his words. The particular lines Ndodana-Breen has chosen, the composer explains, “reinforce our common humanity and inspire courage over adversity....[Mandela’s] message is one of reconciliation, forgiveness, freedom and justice and love for our fellow man. More importantly, we are reminded that it takes courage to pursue these ideals.” Ndodana-Breen’s notes on Harmonia Ubuntu follow.

remarks from the composer

“Nelson Mandela was far more than a statesman, but an exemplar of the African values that underpin “ubuntu”—the knowledge that one’s humanity is tied to the humanity of others or humanity towards others. The harmony referenced in the title has the obvious musical connotations, and it can be argued that ‘ubuntu’ is a form of harmony in the context of how we relate with fellow human beings. Ubuntu is the Nguni Bantu philosophy that underpins Mandela’s writings and his beliefs (also made famous by Archbishop Desmond Tutu). Finally, ‘Harmonia,’ from Greco-Roman antiquity, is rationalized as closely allied to Aphrodite Pandemos, the love that unites all people, the personification of order and civic unity, corresponding to the Roman goddess Concordia. The music itself (in terms of the musical language emphasis tonality and African cyclic rhythms) reinforces this idea of ‘harmony.’

“The text of Harmonia Ubuntu is a composite of phrases from writings and speeches by Mandela that reinforce our common humanity and inspire courage over adversity. The sung text rises above the rancour we often witness in the world, a reminder of the great humanitarian ideals Mandela stood for and why he was an inspiration to us all. His message is one of reconciliation, forgiveness, freedom and justice and love for our fellow man. More importantly, we are reminded that it takes courage to pursue these ideals.

Harmonia Ubuntu begins with an introductory figure in the lower strings. In the culture of the Xhosa of the Eastern Cape of South Africa, this figure is often termed ‘ukuhlabela’—a short musical introduction by a lead singer before everyone else joins in. This is a common trait in music from various traditions in Africa where the leader starts with a teasing ‘short start’—the leader sings or plays his opening introduction upon which everyone respond with their answer. The answer in Harmonia Ubuntu is a fanfare figure that makes three appearances in the piece, heralding the beginning and roughly the middle and end sections. Given that this work focusses on Nelson Mandela (and his Centennial), it can also be said that the fanfare alludes to the ‘statesman’ side of Mandela, South Africa’s first black president, coupled with the fact that he is regarded as a traditional prince of the Thembu people (who are Xhosa speakers). His father was Chief Mphakanyiswa Gadla Mandela, principal counsellor to then Acting King of the Thembu, Jongintaba Dalindyebo.

“The musical ideas that frame this work are largely derived from the musical universe of Southern Africa. For example, the musical language is influenced by modes which are often associated with the Xhosa hexatonic scale. This is a six note scale that comes from the overtones created by musical bows (mrhube, uhadi) used over centuries by the Xhosa people. Aspects of the interlocking patterns in Harmonia Ubuntu looked beyond South Africa’s political borders, to the traditional mbira (African thumb piano) an instrument prevalent among the Shona people of what is now Zimbabwe. An aspect of mbira music alluded to here is not only in the constructing of a musical theme but the dynamic between a ‘kushaura’ (lead part) and ‘kutsinhira’ (following part)—a curious musical architecture where themes interact a note apart. This rhythmic counterpoint lends the music a trance-like and also a dance-like quality. The Shona mapira ceremonies are where the people ask ancestral spirits for guidance and intercession, in a trance-like state. There is a section in the music when the soprano alludes to this by singing words that do not have a lexicographical meaning but are certainly part of a deeply rooted (and felt) ancient Xhosa vocabulary. Music in African society is not an abstraction, it is informed by sophisticated aesthetic principles.

“The ‘Western’ compositional approach (see: Chernoff, J. M. The Rhythmic Medium in African Music. New Literary History, vol. 22, no. 4, 1991, p. 1096) ‘tends to rely on a single metric pulse unified on the downbeat: rhythmic movement is generally straightforward and is often articulated as an attribute.’

“In the context of traditional African music (not influenced by the hymnody of Christian missionaries) the stylistic preference is for responsive rhythmical interaction (heterophony is uninteresting to the ear in traditional African music). Also from a movement (dance) point of view this would lack flair. It is not uncommon in certain types of African music that the pulse of one performer (or group of performers) falls exactly in the middle of the pulse of another’s. Chernoff characterises these traits as tendencies ‘toward multiple rhythmic lines defined with reference to one another: frequently, the rhythms have different starting points and different timing.’

“Also, repetition forms a crucial aspect in the architecture of this piece. Repetition unveils dimensions of the music for the performer and listener that Gerhard Kubik (Kubik, G. Theory of African Music Vol. 1 University of Chicago Press 2010. p. 78) observed in his study of Kiganda and Kisoga xylophone music: ‘To make all the inner dimensions of these musical picture puzzles gradually visible to oneself the total pattern must be repeated again and again. Only then is it possible to follow the conflicting inherent lines. If there were no repetitions, if the Baganda musicians had tried the kind of horizontal development of their art found in European classical music, there would be no chance for listeners and performers to appreciate this music in its highly developed vertical dimension.’”

a note on instrumentation

Harmonia Ubuntu is scored primarily for standard orchestral instruments, but Ndodana-Breen adds two percussion instruments of African origin: the Wasembe rattle, which is played with quick downward motions, causing the gourd slices to move up and down the connector stick—and the djembe, a rope-tuned, skin-covered drum shaped like a goblet and played with the bare hands.

Program note by Carl Schroeder.

Harmonia Ubuntu: in the words of Nelson Mandela

I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.

For to be free is not to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that enhances the freedom of others.

If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with them. Then he becomes your partner.

In the end, reconciliation is a spiritual process. It requires more than just words. It has to happen in the hearts and minds of people.

I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.

We understand it still that there is no easy road to freedom. We know it well, that none of us acting alone can achieve success. We must therefore act together as a united people for reconciliation, the birth of a new world.

Let there be justice for all. Let there be peace for all. Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all.

There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways you yourself have changed.

After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.

The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.

I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.

From the writings and speeches of Nelson Mandela.

Q&A with Associate Concertmaster Roger Frisch

Associate Concertmaster Roger Frisch's retirement at the end of August 2018 marks the end of a memorable 44-year career. Congratulations, Roger!

Minnesota Orchestra musician since: 1974
Position: Associate Concertmaster
Hometown: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Education: Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, Indiana University School of Music

How did you come to spend 44 years with the Minnesota Orchestra?
I got this job through my first audition, as I was finishing up my master’s at Indiana University, and I’ve been here ever since. At the time I joined, I was—as I like to say—Principal Last Chair Violin. Everyone had permanent seats then; it’s a more recent development that our string section players rotate. I moved to Associate Concertmaster 35 years ago and during that time I have also served as guest concertmaster with a number of orchestras, but I’ve never wanted to leave this orchestra. Minnesota is a great place to raise a family. Considering all of the playing my wife Michele (Principal Flute with Minnesota Opera) and I have been able to do here, and—maybe most importantly—the close, supportive, family-like personality of this Orchestra, this was the ideal place to put down roots.

Roger, far right, with other Minnesota Orchestra musicians who are Indiana University alumni, onstage at Indiana University, January 2018

What were your first concerts like?
I started in the summer of 1974, right before Orchestra Hall first opened. The Orchestra was done performing regularly at Northrop and we did almost all of our summer concerts that year outside. I’d never been exposed to the Minnesota mosquito, but in my first few months I think I built up an immunity to them! My first regular season concert was the grand opening of Orchestra Hall in October 1974, with Stanislaw Skrowaczewski conducting.

What are your most memorable concerts with the Minnesota Orchestra?
There was a period when Klaus Tennstedt was our Principal Guest Conductor. I remember those performances as exciting, even dazzling. There was something about the collective personality of this orchestra at the time that matched his intensity so well. Early on during my time here, I was fortunate to work with Aaron Copland, Arthur Rubinstein and Nathan Milstein. I will never forget those concerts and what those great artists brought to their performances! Playing the violin solo from the movie Schindler’s List with the beloved composer John Williams on the conductor’s podium was also very meaningful to me.

Roger and Concertmaster Erin Keefe walking on the field for a Vikings halftime performance at U.S. Bank Stadium in September 2016.

Who in the Orchestra has been particularly inspiring to you?
The principal oboist when I joined in 1974 was Rhadames Angelucci, who also played with the Orchestra for 44 years. The guy just loved music. During my first few years in the Orchestra, I would just watch and listen to him; it was like a master class every rehearsal.

What do you predict for the Minnesota Orchestra’s future?
When I got this job, I was studying with the legendary violinist Josef Gingold, who told me that the overall level of orchestral playing after four decades of his career, in the NBC and Cleveland Orchestras, was so much higher than when he first started. I could say those exact words today. It’s hard to imagine that things can get any better than they are now, but I know they will.

Are you excited to end your Minnesota Orchestra career on tour?
Yes! We have been on some incredible tours during my tenure. It was so special that we were able to go to Cuba in 2015, and now we’re going to South Africa. Experiencing different cultures has been a passion for Michele and me, but we’ve never been to Africa and it has been on my bucket list for a very long time.

Roger, center, on the Minnesota Orchestra's historic tour to Cuba in 2015

What does retirement hold for you?
I’ll certainly continue to teach and play, but there are so many other things I want to explore that go beyond that. Michele and I love to travel and we have a two-month visit to Provence, France, planned for summer 2019, as well as ministry concerts in Kiev. Also, there is a reason my kids are all in business professions. I love dealing with the business angle of things and I want to explore that more. 

How would you sum up your long tenure?
It boils down to this: I feel remarkably fortunate to have lived out my dream of playing in a top orchestra. I have loved this career from beginning to end.

 Read more about Roger Frisch >>

A Sensory-Friendly Concert For All

The Minnesota Orchestra invites you to mark your calendar and spread the word about the Family Concert on the afternoon of Saturday, July 14. The concert, which features music by Leonard Bernstein, Igor Stravinsky, John Williams and other favorite composers, will be the Orchestra’s first full-ensemble Sensory-Friendly Concert.

If you’re wondering what a SensoryFriendly Concert is, the short answer is: it’s a concert where all are welcome, whether you’ve come to many concerts before, or are entering Orchestra Hall for the first time. Sensory-Friendly Concerts are designed for all audiences, including individuals on the autism spectrum and those with sensory sensitivities. Small-ensemble SensoryFriendly Concerts in the Target Atrium have been so well-received in recent seasons that the Orchestra is extending the experience to the July 14 full-Orchestra concert as well as Family Concerts throughout the 2018–19 season. The musical experience onstage at the July 14 concert follows the typical Family Concert format, but in a relaxed environment where audience members are welcome to be who they are and enjoy music with family and friends.

“One of the greatest things about music is that everyone responds to it in ways that are unique to who they are,” says Assistant Conductor Akiko Fujimoto. “I am thrilled to conduct our first full-Orchestra Sensory-Friendly program, and to welcome those who might not have yet had the opportunity to hear live orchestral music in a concert hall.”

Audiences are invited to come early on July 14 for pre-concert activities, including opportunities to try orchestral instruments, engage in creative movement, participate in collaborative art-making and meet Orchestra musicians. Accessibility features for this concert include ASL interpretation, assisted listening devices, open captioning, and large print and Braille programs. Accessible seating is available for all concerts. For full program and ticket details, as well as pre-visit stories, tip sheets, accessibility information and other specifics, visit

Sensory-Friendly concerts are sponsored by PNC Financial Services Group, Inc.

Celebrating Kevin Smith

When Kevin Smith joined the Minnesota Orchestra as interim President and CEO in July 2014, the Orchestra was emerging from a 16-month lockout, with questions lingering about its ability to raise donations, sell subscriptions and re-establish relationships.

“There was a significant lack of trust throughout the organization,” Smith recalls. “We focused on building back trusting relationships, and that was the foundation for everything that came next.”

What followed was a remarkable resurgence of the Orchestra, both at home and abroad. Under Smith’s leadership, the Orchestra has balanced its budget for the last three consecutive years; grown its concert attendance by 12% and its earned revenue by almost 25% over the last four years; increased its number of donors by 5% in the same time period; and established a collaborative “Minnesota Model” approach to governance that is noteworthy in the industry.

Perhaps no project has more exemplified Smith’s tenure than the Orchestra’s 2015 tour to Cuba. After conceiving the idea in December 2014—right after relations between the two countries began to thaw—Smith galvanized the Orchestra team to plan and pull off the historic visit in six short months, raising funds and managing daunting logistics to bring two cultures together through music. The Orchestra’s current Music for Mandela project, including an August tour to South Africa, bears the same audacious hallmarks.

After that tour, Smith re-enters retirement but his legacy will go down in Orchestra history—as a creative leader who spent four exceptional years with the Minnesota Orchestra, just when it needed him the most. The community is invited to attend a reception and complimentary champagne toast in the Orchestra Hall lobby following the August 1 performance to celebrate Smith and the achievements of his tenure.

A Tribute to President and CEO Kevin Smith

We can think of no better way to salute Kevin’s legacy than to dedicate support in his honor and assure that the Orchestra balances its budget for the fourth consecutive year under his leadership. Join the musicians and staff in honoring him today.

Give today >>

Happy Fourth! A Classical Music Playlist

Happy Fourth!

Are you looking to add a classical music spark to your 4th of July BBQ? We've pulled together some of our favorite pieces for you and your friends and family to enjoy!

A Life with Music

By Dr. David Hilden

“That’s a pretty heavy responsibility, Dad. I’m only 12.”

So said our son, Alex, when I informed him that when I am dying at some distant future time I want him to play a recording of the second movement from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. Even if I am only partially conscious, maybe especially if I am only partially conscious, I want that five-note rhythmic motive to carry me off to wherever one goes at that moment. I’m not joking around here.

A decade later, Alex called me from his Oberlin College dorm room to happily inform me that “They were singing your song!” Singing? What song? Apparently there was an a cappella group singing my favorite Beethoven movement. What a good kid for remembering my wishes. I never did hear that vocal arrangement and I’m not sure what old Ludwig would have thought of people singing the violin part, but there you go.

My fondness for Beethoven goes back a few more years…

While I was in high school in south Minneapolis, there was a hand-painted sign on the cafeteria wall that said “Go to Prom. If The Boss were here, he’d go.” Thus began my lifelong obsession with Bruce Springsteen. My friends and I thought we were oh-so-cool going around with our Boss T-shirts. We also thought our ability to quote lyrics from The Who was super retro and a bit subversive. It’s fair to say that the Minneapolis Public Schools were not exactly a bastion of orchestral music back in 1980.

So it was perhaps a bit strange that it was during high school when I also discovered Ludwig van Beethoven. Somehow there was a guy in our little friend group who had the complete Beethoven set with Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. These awesome performances undoubtedly lost a bit of their awesomeness after we had dubbed them from scratchy vinyl records to cassette tapes. I remember road trips listening to bad recordings of the Ninth Symphony on the car cassette and on our Walkman players―of course it had to be the Ninth―and I was blown away.

I marveled at the little tug-of-war between the sections in the opening of the fourth movement when Beethoven teased us with bits of each preceding movement. My heart raced as the strings frenetically played while the full chorus sang. I wondered who Elysium’s daughter was. I held my breath for the looooong “vor Gott” of the chorus. It was glorious.

Still listening on homemade cassettes, I expanded beyond the Ninth and soon came to treasure all of Beethoven’s symphonies. I now know that as perfect as the Ninth is, it is really the Seventh Symphony that is the best piece of music ever written. It’s a fact, look it up. (Although “Born to Run” by The Boss may lay claim to that title as well, but that’s a topic for another time.)

Some years later, I had a new revelation while listening to my hometown Minnesota Orchestra playing Beethoven’s Fifth in concert at Orchestra Hall. Did anybody know that there is music being played at the end of the third movement? I sure didn’t. I guess I always thought there was just a long pause there, since my cheapo cassette recordings didn’t seem to have any audible music in that section! But I leaned forward in my seat as Osmo Vänskä coaxed out of the musicians the most exquisite pianissimo I had ever heard…only to roar into the finale. Sometime later, I had the chance to speak to Maestro Vänskä in an airport baggage claim (a big thrill for me), and I told him that what most moves me is when the Orchestra plays quietly. He talked about how he works to make that crisp but ever-so-delicate pianissimo sound. Brilliant.

Now, some decades after I first heard the Ninth on that car cassette player, I’ve expanded beyond Beethoven. I’ve come to know the awe of Verdi’s Requiem. Dies irae—my oh my. I marvel at the precision of Tony Ross and the rest of the cellos. I just love it when the bass section—led by women!—draws out those sonorous low notes with huge bow strokes. I just about cry at the horn solo in Tchaikovsky’s Fifth. I have learned that Mahler could write a symphony―wow could he ever write a symphony! And most of all I have come to view a violin concerto as one of the greatest achievements of humanity, and to listen to James Ehnes, Joshua Bell, Hilary Hahn or Erin Keefe with the Minnesota Orchestra is an experience of pure beauty.

So now I have my seat in Orchestra Hall, middle section, just a bit to the left of center (better for soloists!), not too close but not too far back. I go a dozen times a year as a treat to myself. I go by myself not because I don’t have friends―I actually do have a couple friends―but because it is a retreat of sorts for me. I have my routines. Like my secret parking spot in the Hilton underground ramp. I tip the reliably-present accordion player in the skyway on the way into Orchestra Hall. I plant myself in my seat, I read every word of the program notes; I learn a bit about the composers. Sometimes I dress up a bit; often I’m in jeans. Sometimes I close my eyes and sometimes I just watch the left hand of one of the string players and wonder how such intricate movements are possible.

But ultimately the result is always the same, for it is the music that matters. Once again Maestro Vänskä and the incredible musicians remind me of just how grand life can be.

And I’m ever so thankful for that.

Dr. David Hilden, who traveled with the Minnesota Orchestra on its 2016 European Festivals Tour as tour physician, is the Director of Hospital Medicine at Hennepin Healthcare and serves as Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Minnesota Medical School. He can be heard on the weekly Healthy Matters radio program on WCCO Radio and he produces a blog at

Photos by Travis Anderson

“The Energy from the Orchestra was Palpable”

Roderick Cox remembers highlight moments of his Orchestra tenure (and we’ve got video!)

When Roderick Cox conducts two Symphony in 60 concerts on July 27 they will mark his final Orchestra Hall performances as the Minnesota Orchestra’s Associate Conductor.

In anticipation of that farewell, we asked him to reflect on his action-packed three-year tenure with the Minnesota Orchestra, during which he conducted dozens of student performances, an inaugural collaboration with Shiloh Temple on Minneapolis’ northside and a Tchaikovsky Fourth that went viral and was described by the Star Tribune as “a highly auspicious subscription concert debut.”

The recent recipient of the Sir George Solti Conducting Award—America’s most prestigious honor bestowed on young conductors—Cox will focus on high-profile guest conducting engagements during the 2018-19 season.  Following the Orchestra’s August tour to South Africa, where he’ll lead rehearsals and a performance with the South African National Youth Orchestra, he will embark on a year that features debuts with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Houston Grand Opera.

Please join the Orchestra on July 27 to cheer Roderick on to his next musical chapter and, for now, enjoy these video memories from Roderick on the past three seasons.

“I remember the children being so excited to participate in this performance with the Orchestra. It truly felt like a powerful moment in which we could all come together and share in the power and magic of great music.” 


"The climax of Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances is simply brilliant. I remember trying to cautiously push and prod the Orchestra to pump up the energy level one decimal at a time, leading to the final note. There is a great deal of rhythmic complexity in this part of the piece in which the conductor must stay centered and grounded to keep this massive train (the orchestra) firmly on its tracks. Conducting this piece with the Minnesota Orchestra will remain one of my favorite highlights from my time as associate conductor"


"It is sometimes scary doing a piece for the first time, and this definitely was one of those moments. It is a high energy piece with a great deal of tricky moments. I remember having to focus incredibly hard on navigating all the corners of this work while also delivering a high-energy performance."

"The energy from the Orchestra was palpable, you could feel it through the floor on stage. At the time, it was the biggest concert of my career, and here I was standing in front of this Orchestra leading the piece that inspired me to make the critical decision to become a professional conductor many years ago. I guess you can say that I had come full circle by this moment and was enjoying every bit of it. Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony will always hold a special place in my heart."

“It was a huge snow storm the day of the concert and I was afraid no one would show up to hear us perform. We had worked so hard planning this long overdue trip to North Minneapolis to play for a part of our community that is often neglected. The surprise came when I walked into the church and it was full of people, and I could sense a buzz in the air. I could see in the audience young black boys who were intentionally seated on the first couple rows there to see me in performance. The community embraced the Minnesota Orchestra that day. I was told by a critic that our collaboration on Handel's “Hallelujah Chorus” from Messiah was the most powerful performance of the work he had ever heard."

Inside the Classics: Speaking Truth to Power

By Sam Bergman, viola and host of Inside the Classics

When conductor Sarah Hicks and I set out to create an entire concert of protest music for the Minnesota Orchestra, the first challenge we ran into was that we would never be able to come close to including all the music that deserves inclusion on such a program. Most political music, of course, isn’t written for a full symphony orchestra – much of it is created by people struggling under the thumb of oppression, with little hope that their work will ever gain wider recognition. This is music born not of a desire for applause, but of a bone-deep need for amplification, recognition and hope.

What we are highlighting in our July 28 Inside the Classics concert, Speaking Truth to Power, is a strange corner of the universe of political music – fully realized symphonic works composed by people of relative privilege and comfort, as an effort to highlight the struggles of those less fortunate. They’re wonderful works of art, these pieces, and we’re immensely proud to be bringing them to the stage of Orchestra Hall. But there is so much more to listen to, and this playlist is intended as a small sampler to get you started down the road. Some of the music here is “Classical”; much of it is not. What these works all have in common, though, is a desire to promote justice; to throw light into the darkest corners of humanity’s all-too-regular inhumanity; and to lift the human spirit in such a way as to inspire us to do better.

Come Out by Steve Reich

“I had to, like, open the bruise up, and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them.” With these harrowing words, spoken on tape by a young black man beaten by New York police in 1964 and subsequently jailed for nine years, composer Steve Reich utilized then-new tape looping technology to create a work of art highlighting injustice and brutality in a way that felt like a gut punch to all who heard it. Reich was an avant-gardeist at the time; today, he is celebrated as one of the most influential composers of the last half-century. In 2016, Pitchfork published an outstanding essay celebrating the 50th anniversary of the premiere of Come Out. Read it here:

Paul Robeson: Here I Stand

Most of this playlist consists of individual songs and other musical works. This, however, is a full-scale documentary film released in 1999 about one of the greatest musicians and activists of the 20th century. Singer-actor Paul Robeson more or less gave up his career for his beliefs, which centered on the idea that black Americans were being systematically oppressed by a white majority that expected thanks for ending slavery while erecting new walls of oppression and brutality at every turn. He was also a dynamic labor activist in an era when the labor movement itself was rife with racism. Through it all, his rumbling, captivating bass voice was never silenced, and generations of young Americans (myself included) were raised on his songs, which became a gateway to his moral activism.

Manafiesto by Victor Jara

I first learned of Victor Jara through a song by the American folksinger Arlo Guthrie, and I vividly remember my eyes going wide when I heard the verse of that song in which Guthrie listed out the specific tortures that Augusto Pinochet’s government thugs subjected Jara to before shooting him dead in 1973 as an example to others who would dare stand up to the Chilean dictator’s brutal regime. Guthrie described Jara’s life as “like a shooting star… his hands were tender; his hands were strong.” Tenderness and strength are both audible in Manafiesto, Jara’s powerful tribute to musical activism. In the penultimate verse, he sings (in Spanish, of course) “A song has meaning when it beats in the veins of a man who will die singing, truthfully singing his songs.” Jara would die in just such a manner, but his legacy was beyond the reach of even the terrifying Pinochet.

Adrian by Mason Jennings

Inspired by Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, this song by Minneapolis singer-songwriter Mason Jennings is somehow both harrowing and sweet. It tells the tale of a black man who, about to be lynched, somehow still finds the internal strength of character and godly spirit of forgiveness to tell his son to not give in to rage, but instead to carry his memory like a torch for others to follow. “As they set my last breath free / Turn your eyes but don’t fail to see / The love you feel inside your skin / We don’t fear death, my Adrian.”

Strange Fruit by Billie Holiday

And here is another view of the American lynching story, told through the unmistakable voice of one of the country’s greatest ever singers, Billie Holiday. It can be easy to forget how brave it was for Holiday to begin performing this song in 1939, especially now that it’s been taken up by several subsequent generations of performers. The lyrics are stark and brutal and almost clinical in their description of the unspeakable violence committed against innocent African-Americans by white mobs that were allowed to overrule every shred of human decency on their way to establishing…what? Superiority? Fear? Hopelessness for the black underclass? Holiday lays the truth of the matter bare in this song that still shocks and silences us today, with its barest of instrumental accompaniment and its refusal to turn away from the truth of what we are capable of.

Survivor from Warsaw by Arnold Schönberg

We don’t think of Arnold Schönberg as a particularly emotional composer most of the time. The 12-tone system of composition that he pioneered is, if anything, often parodied as anti-emotional, a sort of mathematically obsessive black hole of music, from which no traditional tonality can escape. But Schönberg’s music was, in fact, an entirely understandable (and even restrained) response to the overwhelming darkness that descended across Europe in the first half of the 20th century, and he felt a great responsibility to guide the next generation of European musicians toward a new musical tradition that would overcome the sins of the past and (his) present. In Survivor from Warsaw, Schönberg sets to music the words of a Jewish survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, but the story is related entirely in spoken text, a profoundly unusual and attention-grabbing decision for the time. The harrowing piece ends with the choir singing the Shema Yisrael, as if to say that no amount of hate can truly erase our basic humanity.

Brooklyn Train by Lucy Kaplansky

This may seem like a strange choice for this playlist, as it isn’t really a protest song, or even nakedly political in any specific way. But those of us old enough to have watched the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 unfold will never forget the chaotic swirl of anger and fear that emerged in our country in the days and years that followed. The art that came out of 9/11 was similarly chaotic, even schizophrenic – country singer Toby Keith scored a major hit with a testosterone-fueled tirade, while composer John Adams was celebrated for his massive symphonic remembrance of the victims, On the Transmigration of Souls. Keith’s and Adams’ works will both be remembered as instructive historical documents of what America was like in that fraught and revenge-obsessed era, but for me, there will never be a more quietly perfect summation of what post-9/11 life in America was like for most of us than Lucy Kaplansky’s jewel box of a song describing a simple subway ride in the heart of the city that bore the brunt of the attacks on that sunny September morning. “Down below on iron veins / Rolling waves of subway trains / Rails of mercy cross the lives of men / Safe in the body of New York again.”

Just added for the 18-19 season

Live at Orchestra Hall

Hamilton Star Renée Elise Goldsberry

Sat Mar 9 | 8PM

Celebrate International Women’s Day with Renée Elise Goldsberry, Tony Award-winning vocalist from the original Broadway cast of Hamilton, as she performs original songs based on the poetry of Maya Angelou as well as a selection of Broadway standards.

Disney The Nutcracker and the Four Realms in Concert Live to Film

Sat Dec 22 | 2PM

All Clara (Mackenzie Foy) wants is a key – a one-of-a-kind key that will unlock a box that holds a priceless gift from her late mother. A golden thread, presented to her at godfather Drosselmeyer’s (Morgan Freeman) annual holiday party, leads her to the coveted key—which promptly disappears into a strange and mysterious parallel world. It’s there that Clara encounters a soldier named Phillip (Jayden Fowora-Knight), a gang of mice and the regents who preside over three Realms: Land of Snowflakes, Land of Flowers and Land of Sweets. Clara and Phillip must brave the ominous Fourth Realm, home to the tyrant Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), to retrieve Clara’s key and hopefully return harmony to the unstable world.

Starring Keira Knightley as the Sugar Plum Fairy and featuring a special performance by Misty Copeland, Disney’s new holiday feature film “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” is directed by Lasse Hallström and inspired by E.T.A. Hoffmann’s classic tale. 

Create your own series and secure your tickets today!

Create Your 2018-19 Series Now


Guest blogger Mandy Meisner waited more than 20 years to hear her teenage idol in person.

As an arts high school student in the 1990s, I had some unconventional idols. Others my age may have been swooning over Kirk Cameron and New Kids on the Block, but my music classmates and I had pictures of Joshua Bell on our walls. My best friend Katie and I would sigh over him in our dorm rooms, listen to him on the radio and obsess over his documentaries. We were his biggest fans.

It seems hard to believe that despite my devotion, it took another 25 years for me to finally hear him perform live last month with the Minnesota Orchestra. Here’s how the evening played out.

I arrive at Orchestra Hall for a rare Monday night concert, excited beyond belief. The energy is palpable, even in the lobby. After taking my seat, I think about Katie and the countless hours she spent practicing with her long fingers dancing over her viola, making etudes sound like a private concert.  I know how much she would have loved listening to tonight’s concert. I recognize a bit of our youthful exuberance in the young woman sitting next to me in the auditorium, fresh faced in glasses and a teal dress. Her name is Hannah, and this will be the first time she’s heard Joshua play. We bond over the exciting opportunity, and I later learn that she is a violin student of Minnesota Orchestra musician Aaron Janse who will be attending Vanderbilt in next fall on a full scholarship studying Political Science.

Mandy (center) with Hannah Bruns (right), a violin student of Minnesota Orchestra musician Aaron Janse, with Hannah’s mother Victoria at left.

When Joshua walks on stage to play Wieniawski’s Concerto No. 2, he exudes an approachability and pleasantness. There remains an element of boyishness to him. Perhaps it’s his hair that still sways across his forehead. He closes his eyes in preparation and when he begins it is everything I hope my idol will produce. It is perfection. Starting out with an incredibly lush sound that arcs throughout the Hall, his music clings to us in gooey phrases.

His technique is brilliant, nimble and sparkling. There is a wisdom and heaviness to his playing. His body sways to the music naturally, unsensational but heartfelt. During his rests, he is still with closed eyes and disheveled hair. There are long stretches of time that I forget to take notes because I am so enthralled in the moment.

Joshua’s second piece, Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen, starts out painfully beautiful, evolving into energetic motion. It is so full of passion, we think we will explode from the sheer emotion. His precision is remarkable and ends in a glorious statement. When he is done, we are all on our feet, exclaiming our love and appreciation.

There is more to the concert, but I take it in as a dreamy aftermath. I am completely spent from Joshua Bell and my teenage memories.

Days later, I see a comment on Facebook from my friend Katie, who now lives in New York. She asks how the concert was. I tell her how much I wish we could have listened to him together. And then I remember, it was live-streamed by the Orchestra!

I think I’ll send her the link.


An Insider’s Look at Your Orchestra at Work

Assistant Conductor Akiko Fujimoto shares insider tips on what to watch for while attending a Minnesota Orchestra open rehearsal.
When attending a Minnesota Orchestra Open Rehearsal you get a behind-the-scenes look at how conductors and musicians shape and refine the spectacular music you hear in concert. Unlike a performance, the conductor may choose to rehearse a specific movement or a shorter passage that needs fine-tuning to perfect every element of the breathtaking music. It’s a wonderful opportunity to see your Orchestra at work. In the video below, Assistant Conductor Akiko Fujimoto shares insider tips on what to watch for while attending a Minnesota Orchestra open rehearsal.
The next Open Rehearsal is scheduled for April 24, 2019, at 10 am – and Minnesota Orchestra donors are invited to attend. At this rehearsal you will hear some of the music featured on the concert: Vänskä Conducts Beethoven and Sibelius.
Renew your support or become a new donor today and joins us April 24! Your gift of $10/month or a one-time gift of $100 or more gives you access to these outstanding events.
Program Notes: Vänskä Conducts Mahler's Fourth

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance

One-minute notes:

Stephenson: Pillars

James Stephenson’s newly-composed Pillars, a concerto for low brass and orchestra, was built out of a unique combination of influences: the composer’s vivid memories of his friend, trombonist Bill Zehfuss; a particularly exciting Minnesota Orchestra performance of music by Ginastera; and Stephenson’s own experiences playing Mahler symphonies in professional orchestras.


Mahler: Symphony No. 4

Mahler’s sunny Fourth begins with a discourse on a simple violin tune and ends with a child’s view of heaven, delivered by soprano. A hint of darkness comes in the second movement, where death’s fiddle leads a beguiling waltz; the ensuing Adagio, a serene set of variations, is among the composer’s finest

Full program notes: 

James M. Stephenson

Born: February 4, 1969, Joliet, Illinois; currently residing in Chicago


Premiering: June 14, 2018

When nine people were massacred in June 2015 at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, James Stephenson was deeply affected. His artistic response was to compose a work for chamber orchestra titled there are no words. The piece has since been played in several countries, notably by young people, who have communicated to Stephenson how much the music moved them. “This is why I compose: to try to reach people where words can’t,” he says. “I’m gratified that victims of that awful shooting continue to be remembered through my music.”

memories of a close friend

Pillars is about a different kind of memory rooted in that same South Carolina city—that of a close friend: Bill Zehfuss, the longtime principal trombone of the Charleston Symphony, who died in 2014 at age 52. A group of Zehfuss’ friends pooled resources through a Kickstarter campaign and commissioned Stephenson to compose a low brass concerto in his memory.

Stephenson is well positioned to do so. A graduate of the New England Conservatory, he played trumpet in professional orchestras for 17 years before becoming a full-time composer, and has a deeply ingrained sense about what brass players do best. He has extensive experience writing for orchestra, wind ensemble, chorus, soloists and chamber ensembles. More to the point, he has composed some 30 instrumental concertos, one for nearly every standard orchestral instrument, and several that feature multiple brass instruments. He is sensitive to the challenges of writing multi-instrument concertos. “It’s a difficult task, because you want to feature each player individually, but also—in this case—highlight the low brass as a section,” he explains.

This commission was different from others he has received, not only because Bill Zehfuss was a personal friend, but also because Stephenson and Minnesota Orchestra principal trombone R. Douglas Wright (“Doug” to friends) go way back: they played in a brass quintet together at New England Conservatory. In part, Zehfuss and Wright gave the piece its title. “Bill was tall, and Doug is tall; that’s one reason for the name Pillars,” Stephenson explains. Another explanation for the title is its three-movement structure. “I knew that one movement of this piece would be solely dedicated to Bill,” says Stephenson. “That became the second movement, and I felt it needed surrounding ‘pillars.’ Those are the first and final movements.”

His most important reason for choosing the title, however, was the determination and commitment from so many individuals who wanted to honor Bill Zehfuss, enabling this piece to come to fruition. “The initiators of the project were Wilson Ochoa, horn player and now Boston Symphony librarian, tuba player Michael Grose and bass trombonist Dan Satterwhite—all friends of Bill Zehfuss, of course,” Stephenson explains. “The widespread funding support they spearheaded was truly inspirational. People from all backgrounds—ranging from non-musicians to the most distinguished professional players—contributed from all over the world so that this piece might get created. The respect and love they showed for Bill made me think of them as pillars of our community.”

the music: surprising and satisfying

andante. The concerto opens with a chorale-like passage that functions like a slow introduction. “Doug [Wright] really wanted to feature the low brass quartet sound in a chorale; that’s why it opens with that,” says Stephenson. “Then they all play in unison, which is another beautiful sonority—and something that might surprise an audience. For me, a piece is always about surprising and then satisfying an audience. Then repeat that!”

passacaglia. Stephenson’s central movement, the “Zehfuss” movement, is titled Passacaglia. On one level, it is a bow to tradition—the passacaglia is an ancient form—but Stephenson stresses that his is not a literal passacaglia; for example, the bass line is not always present. “It retained enough of the characteristics for me to feel that I could use the term. This movement is all about Bill, and it features orchestral ‘tears’ as the principal motive.” This second movement incorporates the low brass cadenza, accompanied by reduced strings.

spirito. Stephenson wrote the finale with a Latin groove. He explains his reasons: “The last time I saw Bill was when I conducted the Charleston Symphony in a program of all Latin music that featured the orchestra’s brass quintet as soloists. Bill was standing adjacent to the podium—next to me—virtually all night. We went out afterward to celebrate and had a great time. This finale seemed like a suitable tribute.

“The other reason was my last performance here in Orchestra Hall, when the Minnesota Orchestra premiered my Violin Concerto Tributes in 2012. They opened those concerts with some Ginastera, and knocked it out of the park! So that memory played a part in what I wrote as well.” He adds that the finale uses sleigh bells in its ‘blues-y’ part, a conscious nod to Mahler, whose Fourth Symphony—which follows Stephenson’s work on today’s program—also features sleigh bells. Stephenson’s walking bass and jazzy passages, which veer between “raunchy” (his description) and passionate, contribute to a rousing finale for this piece showcasing low brass.

learning from the masters

Stephenson acknowledges a debt to Mahler—and every other composer he’s ever heard, living or dead. “Playing in an orchestra for all those years, those composers whose music I performed on a weekly basis became my teachers,” he says. “I listened carefully to how my colleagues reacted as they rehearsed and performed—both liking and hating it—and how the audience responded and, most importantly, what I found most interesting about their harmony, orchestration, melodies, counterpoint—and the risks they took.” All these factors have pulled together in Stephenson’s world premiere this weekend, which showcases both the talented Minnesota Orchestra low brass section and Stephenson’s own unique understanding of these instruments and the orchestra. His personal connection to Bill Zehfuss, whose memory Pillars honors, is an added bonus.

Instrumentation: 2 solo trombones, solo bass trombone and solo tuba with orchestra comprising 2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo and alto flute), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, china cymbal, splash cymbal, 3 suspended cymbals, 2 bongo drums, cabasa, conga drum, hi-hat, kick drum, ratchet, sand blocks, shakers, slap stick, sleigh bells, tambourine, temple blocks, triangle, suspended triangle, wood block, crotales, glockenspiel, vibraphone, chimes, xylophone, marimba, harp and strings

Gustav Mahler

Born: July 7, 1860, Kalischt, Bohemia

Died: May 18, 1911, Vienna, Austria

Symphony No. 4 in G major

Premiered: November 25, 1901

If Mahler composed a Pastoral symphony analogous to Beethoven’s, then this is surely the one. Opening with sleigh bells and lyrical, warm melodies, Mahler’s Fourth is the most endearing of all his large orchestral works, successfully enveloping us in the sunlit world of children.

The Fourth Symphony is traditional in its overall layout: four movements arranged sonata-allegro, scherzo/trio, slow movement and finale (in this case a rondo). Thus the Fourth is, for most listeners, immediately more accessible than other Mahler symphonies. Its lighter scoring (with no low brass; the trombone and tuba soloists featured on this program’s previous work are done for the day), shorter duration, clarity of texture and predominantly sunny character have all contributed to make it one of Mahler’s most popular works. Musicologist Michael Kennedy calls it his “happiest, least spectre-ridden symphony.”

last of the Wunderhorn symphonies

Mahler began work on his Fourth Symphony during summer 1899 and completed it in August 1900. The piece thus conveniently spans the turn of the century, and in many ways it is a symbol of Mahler’s bi-directional stance: reflective of the traditions that preceded him, and looking forward to the changes that lay ahead.

After completing the Symphony No. 4, Mahler moved for several years to an exclusively instrumental idiom for his symphonies. But the Fourth is spiritually and textually linked to the world of the first three symphonies, particularly Nos. 2 and 3, both of which use voices. These earlier symphonies, including the Fourth, are generally grouped together as the Wunderhorn Symphonies, since they all in some way draw upon Mahler’s settings of texts from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn). This collection of anonymous German folk poetry was compiled by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano in the early years of the 19th century. Goethe valued it highly, and the collection remained influential in Germany’s romantic nationalist movement.

In the case of the Fourth Symphony, the most obvious Wunderhorn movement is the finale, which features a soprano soloist. Mahler originally planned to incorporate the song “Das himmlische Leben” (The Heavenly Life) into his Third Symphony. Listeners who know Mahler’s music will note a strong bond—sometimes even identical snatches of music—between the themes of the Third and Fourth Symphonies. He had worked on “Das himmlische Leben” as early as 1892; however, he took a while to find the appropriate musical forum for his ideas. In a letter to Natalie Bauer-Lechner, he wrote:

“What I had in mind was extremely hard to achieve; the uniform blue of the sky being much more difficult to render than all its changing and contrasting hues. Well, that’s the general atmosphere of the piece. Occasionally, however, it darkens and becomes phantasmagorical and terrifying: not that the sky becomes overcast, for the sun continues to shine eternally, but that one suddenly takes fright; just as on the most beautiful day in a sunlit forest, one can be seized with terror or panic. Mysterious, intricate and sinister, the Scherzo will make your hair stand on end, but it will be followed by the Adagio, which puts everything right again and shows that no harm was intended.”

The fourth movement song, delivered by soprano soloist, is an expression of joy, heaven perceived through a child’s eyes. After the journey of the three preceding movements, it is both our destination and our reward. For a composer who insisted he was the antithesis of Richard Strauss and a proponent of absolute music, this is a highly programmatic work.

tough love: a “persecuted step-child”

Ironically, the Fourth Symphony was not well-liked during Mahler’s lifetime, and it took a long while to work its way into public affection. When it received its New York premiere in 1902, one critic wrote: “Strauss’s Heldenleben and Thus Spake Zarathustra are clear as crystal waters in comparison with Gustav Mahler’s Fourth Symphony.” In a 1903 letter to the German conductor Julius Buths, Mahler refers to it as “this persecuted step-child that has so far known so little joy in the world.” Perhaps that is the reason Mahler continued to revise this and other works for almost ten years. More than a century after Mahler began to work with the Wunderhorn poetry, his music shows us a tender, joyous side to his personality, a childlike viewpoint that believes in a heaven where angels bake bread, fish swim happily into the net, and St. Peter looks benevolently on.

of special note: the scordatura scherzo

According to Paul Bekker’s 1921 study, Mahler described the first two movements of the Fourth Symphony thus: “A dream excursion into the heavenly fields of Paradise, starting in the first movement with lively sleigh bells and leading through alternatively smiling and melancholy landscapes to Freund Hein (Death), who is to be taken in a friendly, legendary sense, as gathering his flock and leading it with his fiddle from this world to the next.”

Mahler marked his second movement “In gemächlicher Bewegung. Ohne Hast” (Moving easily, without haste). His subtitle was “Freund Hein spielt auf” (Friend Hein strikes up). “Friend Hein” is a colloquial German reference to an ominous folk character who appears as a friendly fiddle-playing itinerant, gathering followers whom he leads to the great beyond. In short, he symbolizes Death.

The fiddle in question is intentionally mistuned, a technique called scordatura. It results in a peculiar, otherworldly sonority and also makes it possible to play pitches not available with conventional tuning. In this case, the concertmaster tunes his instrument up a whole tone. Most concertmasters use two violins for Mahler’s Fourth, one tuned normally (with the open strings G/D/A/E), and the other tuned up a whole step (A/E/B/F-sharp). The idea with the scordatura violin is to approximate the sound of a country village fiddler.

Mahler wanted an eerie quality, according to his friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner, who published her Recollections of Gustav Mahler in 1923. She reported that, when he revised the Fourth Symphony, he altered the violin solo, rewriting the part in D minor instead of E minor. “This makes it screeching and rough sounding,” she wrote, “as if Death were fiddling away.” The mysterious scherzo is a fleeting shadow in this otherwise sunny work.

Instrumentation: solo soprano with orchestra comprising 4 flutes (2 doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 3 clarinets (1 doubling E-flat clarinet and 1 doubling bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (1 doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, sleighbells, tamtam, triangle, glockenspiel, harp and strings.

Program notes by Laurie Shulman ©2018. First North American Serial Rights Only.

Program Notes: Beethoven and Berlioz

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance

One-minute notes:

Beethoven: Violin Concerto
Here is one of the most exalted concertos for any instrument, deeply lyrical, poetic and imaginative. The opening Allegro is built on deceptively simple ideas—a repeating five-beat pulse and scale patterns—while the Larghetto is sublime and hymn-like. The finale is rousing and rollicking, with a main theme that presages the “Ode to Joy.”


Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique

In what musicologist Michael Steinberg called “the most remarkable First Symphony ever written,” Berlioz breaks the rules and oversteps the boundaries, creating an exhilarating, one-of-a-kind journey: the story of an artist and his obsession with an ideal woman.

Full program notes: 

Ludwig van Beethoven

Born: December 16, 1770, Bonn, Germany

Died: March 26, 1827, Vienna, Austria

Concerto in D major for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 61

Premiered: December 23, 1806

In the spring of 1806 Beethoven finally found time for new projects. For the previous three years, his energies had been consumed by two huge works: the Eroica Symphony and the opera Fidelio. With the latter completed, the floodgates opened. Working at white heat over the rest of 1806, Beethoven composed the Fourth Piano Concerto, the Fourth Symphony, the Razumovsky Quartets and the Thirty-Two Variations in C minor for solo piano. He also accepted a commission from violinist Franz Clement for a concerto and, as was his habit with commissions, put off the work for as long as possible. One contemporary, unnamed, wrote that at the premiere, on December 23, 1806, Clement had to sight-read portions of the work from Beethoven’s manuscript.

regal and lyrical, not showy

The Violin Concerto is one of Beethoven’s most regal works, full of easy majesty and spacious in conception (the first movement, lasting 24 minutes, is about as long as the final movement of the Ninth Symphony). Several features give this music its majestic character. It unfolds with a relaxed nobility, due in part to its unusually lyrical nature. We do not normally think of Beethoven as a melodist, but in this concerto he makes full use of the violin’s lyric capabilities. Another reason lies in the concerto’s generally broad tempos: the first movement is marked Allegro, but Beethoven specifies ma non troppo, and even the finale is relaxed rather than brilliant. In fact, at no point in this concerto does Beethoven set out to dazzle his listeners: there are no passages here designed to leave an audience gasping, nor any that allow the soloist consciously to show off. This is an extremely difficult concerto, but a non-violinist might never know that, for the challenges of this noblest of violin concertos are at the service of the music itself.

the music: a surprising opening

allegro ma non troppo. The concerto has a remarkable beginning: Beethoven breaks the silence with five quiet timpani strokes. By itself, this is an extraordinary opening, but these five pulses also perform a variety of roles through the first movement—sometimes they function as accompaniment, sometimes as harsh contrast with the soloist, sometimes as a way of modulating to new keys. The movement is built on two ideas: the dignified chordal melody announced by the woodwinds immediately after the opening timpani strokes and a rising-and-falling second idea, also stated initially by the woodwinds. Beethoven delays the appearance of the soloist, and this long movement is based exclusively on the two main themes.

larghetto; rondo: allegro. The Larghetto, in G major, is a theme-and-variation movement. Muted strings present the theme, and the soloist embellishes that simple melody, which grows ornate as the movement proceeds. A brief cadenza leads directly into the finale, a rondo based on the sturdy rhythmic idea announced immediately by the violinist. But this is an unusual rondo: its various episodes begin to develop and take on lives of their own. One of these episodes, in G minor and marked dolce, is exceptionally haunting. After it is developed briefly, it vanishes, never to return. The movement drives to a huge climax, with the violin soaring high above the orchestra, and the music subsides and comes to its close when—almost as an afterthought, it seems—Beethoven turns the rondo theme into the graceful concluding gesture.

Instrumentation: solo violin with orchestra comprising flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings

Program note by Eric Bromberger.

Hector Berlioz

Born: December 11, 1803, La Côte-Saint André, Isère, France

Died: March 8, 1869, Paris, France

Symphonie fantastique, Opus 14

Premiered: December 5, 1830

No disrespect to Mahler or Shostakovich, but Symphonie fantastique is the most remarkable First Symphony ever written.

Berlioz composed it in 1830, when much that was new and forward-looking was in the air, particularly in the social, political and scientific spheres. The Parisians had torn up their cobblestones and gotten rid of a king who believed in Divine Right; the British parliament would soon enact the first in a series of reform bills designed to enfranchise the middle class; America experienced the Nat Turner revolts and the first effective moves towards abolition.

It would be surprising if music had not exploded as well. When the 1830s were over, Chopin had written his Etudes and Preludes, Schumann had done most of his important work for solo piano, and Liszt’s transcriptions and original compositions practically constituted a reinvention of the piano. Paganini vastly expanded the possibilities of the violin, and important technical advances were achieved in the design of wind instruments.

the “new music” of Berlioz

From today’s vantage point we can see fairly easily that the beginnings of a new music were to be found in two places where not every observer in 1830 would have thought to look: in the works of Beethoven and Bach. And the better we know the Symphonie fantastique, the more clearly we can sense in it the presence of Beethoven and of that classical tradition Beethoven brought to so remarkable a pass.

At the same time, however deeply he was in debt to Beethoven, Berlioz strove to write “new music.” He succeeded. The fantastique sounds and behaves like nothing ever heard before. It takes off on paths Beethoven could never have imagined; that it was written just three years after the death of Beethoven is a fact to stagger the historical imagination.

the composer in love

In 1827, at the Paris Odéon, Berlioz saw a performance of Hamlet by a company from London. It was a distinguished group, whose leading men were Edmund Kean and Charles Kemble, two of the most renowned actors on the English stage. Performing the younger female roles was Harriet Smithson, a 27-year-old actress with whom Berlioz fell instantly and wildly in love. He wrote to her repeatedly; he heard gossip about an affair between her and her manager. This hurt him, but it also provided enough distance to enable him to plan and to begin work on the symphony—whose subject was an artist “with a vivid imagination” who falls in love with his “ideal” woman, experiences hope and doubt, then an opium-induced dream in which he sees himself being executed for killing his beloved; after his death she appears to be “only a prostitute” taking part in an orgy at “a foul assembly of sorcerers and devils.”

The premiere took place on December 5, 1830. Two years later Berlioz presented a sharpened and improved version of his symphony, now with a sequel whose script was full of unmistakable allusions to his passion for Miss Smithson. She was in Paris again, and she was persuaded to attend Berlioz’ concert on December 9, 1832. They finally met, and on October 3, 1833, they were married. The whole business was a disaster. By the time they separated in 1844, Smithson was no longer performing, as an accident had put an end to her career. She died in 1854, an alcoholic and paralyzed; Berlioz supported her financially until her death.

a fantastic symphony

Berlioz wrote several programs for his autobiographical and in every way fantastic symphony. Excerpts from the note he published with the score in 1845 are indicated with quotation marks.

reveries – passions. A young musician, “the artist,” sees and falls hopelessly in love with a woman who embodies the charms of “the ideal being of whom he has dreamed.” In his mind she is linked to a musical thought, and both “the melodic image and its human model pursue him incessantly like a double idée fixe….The passage from this state of melancholic reverie, interrupted by a few fits of unmotivated joy, to one of delirious passion, with its movements of fury and jealousy, its return of tenderness, its tears, its religious consolation—all this is the subject of the first movement.”

The subtly shaped idée fixe is the melody that violins and flute play to an accompaniment of nervous interjections by the strings when the Allegro begins.

a ball. Whether the artist is engaged in festivities or contemplating nature, the “beloved image appears before him and troubles his soul.” The first three dozen measures paint for us the ballroom with its glitter and flicker, its swirling couples, the yards and yards of whispering silk. All this becomes gradually visible, like a new scene in the theater. This softly scintillating waltz is exquisitely scored.

in the country. The artist is calmed by the sound of shepherds piping, by “the quiet rustling of the trees gently disturbed by the wind,” but wondering if his beloved might be deceiving him, he feels a “mixture of hope and fear...ideas of happiness disturbed by black presentiments.” This scene speaks very much from a new sensibility, yet it is also here that we most feel the presence of Beethoven, particularly the Beethoven of the Fifth and Pastoral Symphonies. Berlioz’ piping shepherds are mutations of Beethoven’s nightingale, quail and cuckoo, but there is nothing in music before this, or since, like the pathos of the recapitulated conversation with one voice missing. As a picture of despairing loneliness it is without equal.

march to the scaffold. “Having become certain that his love goes unrecognized, the artist poisons himself with opium.” But rather than dying, he “dreams that he has killed the woman he loves, that he is condemned, led to the scaffold, and that he is witnessing his own execution.” In this stunning march, an instant knockout, Berlioz’ orchestral imagination—the hand-stopped horn sounds, the use of the bassoon quartet, the timpani writing—is astonishing in every way.

dream of the witches’ sabbath. The artist sees himself “in the midst of a frightful assembly of ghosts, sorcerers, monsters of every kind, all come together for his funeral.” The melody representing his beloved is now “no more than the tune of an ignoble dance, trivial and grotesque…she takes part in the devilish orgy…funeral knell, burlesque parody of the Dies irae…”

As we enter the final scene, with its trim thematic transformations, its bizarre sonorities—deep bells, squawking E-flat clarinet, the beating of violin and viola strings with the wooden stick of the bow, glissandos for wind instruments, violent alternations of ff with pp—its grotesque imagery, its wild and coruscating brilliance, we have left the Old World for good.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 2 clarinets (2 doubling E-flat clarinet), 4 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, 2 tubas,  timpani, field drum, bass drum, cymbals, chimes, 2 harps and strings

Program note excerpted from the late Michael Steinberg’s The Symphony: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press, 1995), used with permission.

Program Notes: Bernstein and Walton

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance

One-minute notes:

Bernstein: Fancy Free

In Bernstein’s best-known ballet, three sailors compete for female attention during a 24-hour shore leave in New York. Tension builds between the characters until the three dance variations—Galop, Waltz and Danzon—when, in the waning hours of their leave, the sailors all vie for the same woman.

Bernstein: Chichester Psalms

This choral masterpiece sets Hebrew text from three Biblical Psalms to chorus, orchestra (sans woodwinds) and a large percussion section that contributes compelling colors. Bernstein himself described the Psalms as “simple and modest” and “tonal and tuneful” in a poem he wrote about the work.


Walton: Belshazzar’s Feast

Walton’s rich and evocative oratorio combines two brass choirs with an oversized orchestra and double chorus, as well as a baritone soloist who takes on the voice of major characters at critical moments in a story that is at moments mysterious and chilling, exultant and brilliant.

Full program notes: 

Leonard Bernstein

Born: August 25, 1918, Lawrence, Massachusetts

Died: October 14, 1990, New York City

Fancy Free, complete ballet music

Premiered: April 18, 1944

Listeners trying to place Fancy Free in their mind’s ear will break into a big smile as soon as they hear the opening riff, for this is the predecessor music to the better-known On the Town. Fancy Free was Bernstein’s first complete stage work, a collaboration with dancer and choreographer Jerome Robbins. Bernstein was in only his mid-20s, but his career had begun to skyrocket.

The ballet, about three sailors on shore leave, was a conscious attempt to perk up morale during the war. Robbins wanted something specifically American and contemporary that would address the reality of wartime, and incorporate popular music and dance. Bernstein obliged, and conducted the ballet's premiere at the old Metropolitan Opera House on April 18, 1944. Robbins danced one of the three sailors’ roles. The ballet was a smash hit, receiving 163 performances its first year.

The scenario, attributed to both Robbins and Bernstein, follows:

“With the sound of a juke box, the curtain rises on a street corner with a lamp post, a side street bar, and New York skyscrapers pricked out with a crazy pattern of lights, making a dizzying background. Three sailors explode onto the stage; they are on shore leave in the city and on the prowl for girls. The tale of how they meet first one, then a second girl, and how they fight over them, lose them and in the end take off after still a third, is the story of the ballet.”

“theatre music at its best”

Fancy Free’s seven movements address the traditional tension in the battle of the sexes. Bernstein’s score successfully blends elements of jazz, folk music, blues and romance—even a fleeting 12-tone passage in the drunken fight scene. The ballet resonated because it dealt with a plausible contemporary situation, without romanticizing it. Joan Peyser has written: “His music is theatre music at its best. Never strained, sentimental, or phony, it is hard-edged in its urban sexuality....Aggression is at least one of the ingredients.”

The jazzy syncopations of the sailors’ entrance establish the live-for-the-moment atmosphere, where the pursuit of a good time is the prime objective. Bernstein’s brilliant use of jazz piano, trap-set percussion effects, and muted trumpets combine to evoke the bar. He portrays each of the three sailors in, respectively, the Galop, Waltz and Danzon Variations.

Recognizing Fancy Free’s theatrical potential, Bernstein and Robbins enlisted the assistance of Betty Comden and Adolf Green as librettists, to develop the ballet into a full-length Broadway musical. On the Town opened in December 1944, and was later made into a successful film starring Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Vera Ellen and Ann Miller. Although Bernstein insisted that On the Town was not merely an expansion of Fancy Free, and that the two scores were entirely different, they are clearly related in spirit and style. In fact, anyone who knows and loves West Side Story may even hear the seeds of that brilliant score in this early ballet. The Cuban-inspired Danzon segment of the Three Dance Variations is almost a pre-echo of the Puerto Rican music in the later musical.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo (1 flute also doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, suspended cymbal, cowbell, triangle, woodblocks, piano and strings

Chichester Psalms

Premiered: July 15, 1965

The Chichester of Leonard Bernstein’s choral masterpiece Chichester Psalms is in west Sussex, near the southeast coast of England. A town of about 25,000, it has a beautiful cathedral with the only separate bell tower of any medieval church in the British Isles. Since the 1960s, the cathedral choirs of Chichester, Winchester and Salisbury have combined forces in a summer music festival.

For the inaugural Southern Cathedrals Festival in 1965, Walter Hussey, the Dean of Chichester Cathedral, contacted the American composer Leonard Bernstein to inquire whether he would accept a commission. Dean Hussey explained that space constraints and a modest budget would not permit a full symphony orchestra. In addition to the combined cathedral choirs, Bernstein would be limited to instrumental resources comprising strings, a brass consort, and possibly piano, organ and percussion. Hussey had written, “I think many of us would be very delighted if there was a hint of West Side Story about the music.” Bernstein accommodated with a score that is melodious, jazzy, and—in the spirit of its sacred text—profoundly human.

a Biblical choral masterpiece

A setting of three Biblical Psalms in Hebrew, Chichester Psalms is Bernstein’s most frequently-performed choral composition and is a beloved work in the Bernstein canon. Its exhilarating, mostly tonal themes beckon the listener into the musical web, persuading us that the comparatively unfamiliar sound of Hebrew tongue and the occasionally clangorous passages are absolutely right.

Always sensitive to language, Bernstein colors the Psalm texts with the instincts of a born musician who believes in the meaning of the texts. The first movement draws on Psalms 108 and 100, capitalizing on the fanfare implications of “Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awake the dawn.” The second movement shares the pastoral Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd”) with the bellicose opening of Psalm 2 (“Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain?”), while the finale brings resolution (Psalm 131, “ I have calmed and quieted my soul”) and Psalm 133's message of faith, hope, and brotherly love.

The results are spectacular, in part because of the unusual scoring. Bernstein preferred an all-male chorus with boys’ voices for the soprano and alto parts; however, he condoned performance by a mixed chorus like the one spotlighted in today’s performance, the Minnesota Chorale. He would not budge, however, on the boy soprano for the second movement solo. The Adonai introducing the 23rd Psalm is a pinnacle of the 20th-century vocal/choral literature. Its strains will resonate in your mind’s ear long after this evening’s performance is over.

Listeners who know and love Bernstein’s stage works—from West Side Story to the quasi-operatic Candide—will recognize his style. There are good reasons for the similarity. In part, it resulted from a suggestion that came with the commission—the aforementioned desire for “a hint of West Side Story.” Vibrant rhythms and a splendid sense of the right sound attend this music. The orchestration is arresting. Foregoing woodwinds altogether, Bernstein relied on brass, strings, voices and especially percussion for his sonic colors. Balancing jaunty spirits with spirituality, he produced a masterpiece in Chichester Psalms.

a bright spot in a difficult year

The first performance of Chichester Psalms took place in New York on July 15, 1965, with the composer conducting the New York Philharmonic in an all-Bernstein concert. Immediately afterward, Bernstein and his family traveled to England, where he oversaw rehearsals for the second performance in Chichester at the Southern Cathedrals Festival on July 31. In a letter to his friend Helen Coates after the English première, Bernstein wrote:

“The Psalms went off well, in spite of a shockingly small amount of rehearsal. The choirs [Winchester, Salisbury and Chichester] were a delight! They had everything down pat, but the orchestra was swimming in the open sea. They simply didn’t know it. But somehow the glorious acoustics of Chichester Cathedral cushion everything so that even mistakes sound pretty.”

Bernstein remained fond of this work. It was a bright spot in a year that had otherwise proved frustrating. After six seasons as the New York Philharmonic’s music director, he had taken a sabbatical during the 1964-65 season in order to composer. He intended to complete a musical based on Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth. Plagued by a number of problems, that project foundered and was canceled, causing disappointment and angst to Bernstein and his collaborators. Ever the pragmatist, however, Bernstein recycled much of the music from the discarded musical into the Chichester Psalms.

Instrumentation: four-part mixed chorus and solo boy soprano with orchestra comprising 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, suspended cymbal, bongo drums, rasp, slapstick, tambourine, temple blocks, triangle, wood block, glockenspiel, chimes, xylophone, 2 harps and strings

William Walton

Born: March 29, 1902, Oldham, Lancashire, England

Died: March 8, 1983, Ischia, Italy

Belshazzar’s Feast

Premiered: October 8, 1931

In the Biblical Book of Daniel, Belshazzar, the last King of the Mesopotamian city of Babylon, gives a splendid feast. During the festivities, a mysterious hand inscribes a prophecy of the monarch’s doom on the wall of the banquet room. That same night, Belshazzar is slain. The incident has given rise to one of the most frequently used Biblical phrases in common conversation: “to see the handwriting on the wall.”

Belshazzar’s dissolute dinner party, and its context of Israelite captivity and eventual freedom, also caught the imagination of the English composer William Walton, who composed a mighty oratorio with the feast as its musical centerpiece. Belshazzar’s Feast is one of Walton’s greatest compositions and one of Britain’s 20th-century masterworks, on par with Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius and Britten’s War Requiem.

a project grows in scope

Walton initially undertook the project in 1929 at the behest of conductor Edward Clark, director of music at the BBC and husband of the composer Elizabeth Lutyens. Under the BBC’s auspices, Clark commissioned three composers—Walton, Constant Lambert and Victor Hely-Hutchinson—to write a work suitable for radio broadcast. The commission stipulated that the performing forces be limited to small orchestra (no more than 15 players), small chorus and one soloist, so as to fit into a broadcast studio.

Then in his late 20s, Walton was not yet financially self-sufficient. For some years he had resided with the wealthy and cultured Sitwell siblings, Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell, in London and Italy. With manuscript paper packed, Walton took off in December 1929 for Venice, where he and Osbert Sitwell talked through possible topics for the commission. Sitwell suggested the Bible’s Writing on the Wall, and persuaded Walton of the inherent drama in the fall of Babylon and its suitability for the project.

Adapting text from the Book of Daniel, Revelations, and Psalms 137 (lamenting) and 81 (exulting), Osbert Sitwell devised a narrative in three principal parts: the prophecy of Isaiah and the lament of the Jews in captivity; the actual feast with its climactic moment of the handwriting on the wall; and the hymn praising the God of Jacob upon the Jews’ deliverance from their oppressors.

From Venice, Walton and Osbert Sitwell traveled to Amalfi, where the Sitwells customarily spent their winters. There Walton began composing. By the time he returned to England in May, 1930, his score, tentatively entitled Nebuchadnezzar, or the Writing on the Wall, had expanded to two soloists with small orchestra and small chorus. By September, it had grown further, now requiring a large orchestra and double chorus. The work, renamed Belshazzar’s Feast, had reached the point where it was impractical for radio broadcast performance, and Walton opted to submit another piece in fulfillment of the BBC commission. The coup de grâce to the giant score purportedly came as a result of an off-the-cuff remark from the conductor Thomas Beecham when Walton first showed him the score. Walton related the story to Peter Lewis of the London Daily Mail in a 1972 interview.

“This is a work,” roared Beecham in his best seigneurial manner, “which shall never be heard. Since it shall never be performed, I advise you to throw in all that you can. Throw in, let’s say, a couple of brass bands for good and useless measure!”

Walton did. He added two brass choirs, each comprising three trumpets, three trombones, and tuba, and placed them on either side of the conductor. Combined with an oversized orchestra and double chorus, the brass choirs brought the performing forces to a head count and stage arrangement nearly identical to that of the Berlioz Requiem. Pagan, outspoken and flamboyant, Belshazzar’s Feast proved Sir Thomas Beecham wrong at its Leeds Festival premiere on October 8, 1931, and has done so repeatedly since. Its enormous success catapulted Walton to the forefront of British music, and the work remains one of his crowning achievements.

a lament, deadly night and hymn of praise

The three principal parts of Belshazzar’s Feast unfold without pauses. After the opening prophecy, we hear the lament of the Israelites, culminating in their affirmative belief that Babylon will fall. The second part is the feast itself, during which we learn of Babylon’s riches and her plunder of the sacred vessels from the temple in Jerusalem. King Belshazzar’s entrance catalyzes paeans of praise to false gods, which grow progressively more frenzied until the interruption by the handwriting on the wall. After we learn that Belshazzar has been slain that very night, the oratorio concludes with a mighty hymn of praise to the God of Jacob.

Walton uses the baritone soloist in key places to provide transition and to advance the plot, as in the boastful description of Babylon’s riches that launches the second part. The soloist also takes on the voice of major characters at critical moments, such as Belshazzar’s praise of the false god of gold, and later the voice of the mysterious hand as it inscribes its chilling message on the wall.

The oratorio has a rich and evocative orchestral score, with unusually prominent roles for brass and percussion and a significant amount of a cappella writing for both the chorus and the baritone soloist. A trombone fanfare heralds the opening prophecy of Isaiah (for a cappella men’s chorus). A subsequent trumpet fanfare announces King Belshazzar. Walton uses the two brass choirs both antiphonally and stereophonically, at moments of pagan revelry and exultant celebration.

Although the percussion section is not so visibly expanded as the brass, its members work exceptionally hard in Belshazzar’s Feast. They are stars in the brilliant double chorus of invocations to heathen gods. As each deity is praised, the orchestra paints its portrait in percussive, metallic colors: the god of gold with gong, tambourine, cymbals and drums in addition to brass, the god of silver with glockenspiel, triangle and saxophone, the god of iron with the anvil, the god of wood with xylophone and woodblocks, and the god of stone with slapsticks.

The climax occurs during the banquet when the debauchery is interrupted by the mysterious hand. A hush falls over the orchestra: silent except for tremolando chords played pianissimo—and sinister, skeletal commentary from the percussion: cymbals, castanets, bass drum and gong. The effect is spine-tingling and fearful, as the spectral hand begins to inscribe its damning assessment of the idolatrous king.

Instrumentation: four-part mixed chorus and solo baritone with orchestra comprising 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 3 clarinets (1 doubling E-flat clarinet and 1 doubling bass clarinet), alto saxophone, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, side drum, tenor drum, bass drum, cymbals, anvil, castanets, gong, slapsticks, tambourine, triangle, wood block, glockenspiel, xylophone, 2 harps, piano, organ, 2 brass bands (each comprising 3 trumpets) and strings

Program notes by Laurie Shulman ©2018. First North American Serial Rights Only.


Meet a Musician: R. Douglas Wright

Minnesota Orchestra member since: 1995
Position: Principal Trombone
Hometown: Hopewell, VA
Education: New England Conservatory; Boston University

In June, you’ll be one of four soloists from the Orchestra in James Stephenson’s Pillars, a concerto for low brass. What role did you have in this piece’s creation?
Jim and I have known each other ever since our freshman year at New England Conservatory. He was a terrific trumpet player back in those days and has since turned his considerable talents toward composition. We spent a lot of time playing music together throughout our college days in brass quintets and large ensembles. We even went on an orchestra tour together to Israel. So, there’s lots of history there. When Jim told me about a potential commission to write a low brass concerto, I got really excited and begged him to let us premier it. The concerto was to be in memory of Bill Zehfuss, the longtime principal trombonist of the Charleston Symphony, who had passed away several years prior, and the funding for the commission was being raised online. I sent word out to every trombonist and tuba player I know—all of us in the Orchestra’s low brass section helped spread the word. Many wonderful friends and family members of Bill’s and lots of low brass players chipped in to make this wonderful commission possible. Even a few non-low brass players chipped in.

What should the audience listen for during this piece?
In standard orchestral repertoire, the low brass section gets to play everything from beautiful, soft chorales to big, powerful climactic sections of symphonies, and just about everything in between, usually in a more supportive role. Jim really knows the sounds the low brass section is known for and he has done a terrific job of letting each member of the section shine individually as well as showing off what we can do together. We even get to play the melody!

What is particularly exciting about performing a concerto for low brass?
I find it gratifying and inspiring each and every time I get to play with my good friends in the low brass section. To get to do so out in front of the orchestra is a thrill! Since we rarely get the spotlight for more than a few measures at a time, I’m guessing that will present its own set of challenges. However, I anticipate that moving from the back row to the front of the stage for a week is going to be a lot of fun. It’s no doubt exciting for our viola section as well, who might appreciate the break from our bells aiming at the backs of their heads.

Tell us about a proud moment in your career?
I was extremely fortunate to have gotten the chance to perform with Leonard Bernstein as he conducted his next-to-last concert. The man was a musical giant and an inspiration unlike any other I’ve ever encountered. I still get chills thinking about what it was like to work with him. Kids, look him up on YouTube. You’ll be amazed!

What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career in music?
Pursuing a career in music is challenging, to say the least, because there are so many people who want to do it. It takes a lot of work and dedication, perseverance, and a bit of luck, and some good teachers—I had some great ones! Even then, it can be tough. However, if you are driven and passionate about music, I can think of nothing more gratifying than touching people’s lives through music.

What do you do when you are not performing?
I teach trombone at Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music in Evanston, Illinois. So, you’re liable to find me at the airport from time to time. I also enjoy throwing the football with my son when he’s home from college, watching my daughter play soccer, and walking through the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum with my wife. The air out there is amazing! 

Click here for more about R. Douglas Wright.

Click here for more about the world premiere performances of James Stephenson's Pillars.

"Sounds of the Cinema" - 2018 Symphony Ball

Thanks to the many community members and volunteers who generously invested their time, talents, energy, and financial support, the 2018 Symphony Ball was a spectacular success. More than 1,200 guests experienced the magic of music in the movies brought to life by your Minnesota Orchestra and special guest jeremy messersmith.

Take a look back at photos from Courtney Perry and Greg Helgeson.


Meet a Musician: Augustin Hadelich

Violinist Augustin Hadelich performs Beethoven's Violin Concerto in concerts with the Minnesota Orchestra on June 8 and 9, under the direction of German conductor Jun Märkl. We asked Hadelich to tell us about his favorite moments in this concerto, and about his greatest influences, travels and recent projects (including an animated short film). 

What are some of your earliest memories involving music?
I started playing the violin when I was five years old. I have two older brothers who were already playing the cello and the piano, and that was what made me want to make music, too. In the evenings my whole family would assemble at the piano and sing Schubert Lieder or parts of operas.

Who influences you most in your career?
The first time I heard a great violinist play was when I was seven years old, and had been playing the violin for two years: it was a performance by the Italian violinist Uto Ughi, and it changed how I viewed the instrument (I did not even have any violin records or CDs prior to that). Later on, the recordings of David Oistrakh were a major influence for me. Nowadays I mostly get inspired by the people I play with, conductors and chamber music partners.

Which moments in Beethoven’s Violin Concerto are especially meaningful to you?
Every time I play the slow movement of the Beethoven, I marvel at how perfect, how simple, intimate and human it is. Perhaps it gives us—just for a moment—an insight into some deep fundamental truth of our existence, a glimpse of what lies beyond. My feeling about Beethoven's greatest works is that the better you know and understand them, the harder it is to imagine a person being able to write something so extraordinary.

The first movement begins with four fateful notes in the timpani, a motive that appears throughout the movement, sometimes tranquil, other times in anger or defiance. The movement that’s most fun for me to play, though, is the last movement, a light-hearted rondo which always makes me smile.

As you travel around the world to perform, what are some of your favorite destinations?
My two all-time favorite places in the world are New York (where I’ve lived for the past 14 years) and Tuscany (where I grew up), but I feel lucky that I get to go to so many other exciting places! I’ve recently traveled to wonderful places like Amsterdam, Hong Kong, London, Tokyo and Hawaii. Since I’m there to work, I usually pick only one day to explore a bit, and focus on rehearsals and concerts the rest of the time. 

When you get a chance to attend a concert as an audience member, what do you love to listen to?
When I hear a great performance that moves me, I am reminded of why I do what I do! I travel so much that I don’t get the chance to go to as many concerts as I’d like. When I do I often stay away from the violin repertoire, because I can never switch my violinist brain off when listening to that repertoire. Piano recitals, voice recitals (Lieder for example), opera—it really depends on what’s on when I happen to have a free evening!

What do you do in your free time?
Many people don’t realize how much of my time is spent traveling, writing, thinking up programs and booking flights. I wish the only thing I did was play the violin; that’s the fun part! When I am home in New York, I like to get together with friends and play board games.

Do you have any recent projects you would like to share? 
I recently released an album of the 24 Caprices by Nicolò Paganini on Warner Classics, which was a big project and took about a year to make (although it feels like I worked towards it my whole life!). 

I also made an animated cartoon called “Fantasia dei Gatti” featuring Caprice No. 17—it is a caprice that always reminded me of meowing cats, and I collaborated with an amazing director, Paul Glickman, and animator, Tam King, to make this animated short film.

For more about Augustin Hadelich, visit

Click here for more about the concerts and to purchase tickets. 

Andrew Litton Prepares a June Triple Bill

By Dan Wascoe

When Andrew Litton returns to lead the Minnesota Orchestra June 1 and 2, he’ll bring to the podium three old friends—pieces he knows well but that seldom get performed in Orchestra Hall.

  • Belshazzar’s Feast by Sir William Walton (1902-1983) was last performed in Minneapolis 41 years ago (1977), with Henry Charles Smith conducting. Performed by orchestra and a full chorus (this year the Minnesota Chorale), it recounts the Biblical story of a disembodied hand writing a dire (and fatal) prophecy about a disrespectful king on a palace wall—giving birth to the phrase, “the writing on the wall.” Litton’s recording of the work with the Bournemouth Symphony in England won a Grammy in 1995.
  • Chichester Psalms by Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) was most recently performed by the Orchestra in 1999 under Eiji Oue. It, too, will feature Biblical lyrics sung by the chorale plus baritone Christopher Maltman. Its rhythms and harmonies recall those in Bernstein’s West Side Story, but the psalms quoted in the lyrics are sung in Hebrew, not New York-style English. The piece was commissioned for a 1965 performance in England’s Chichester Cathedral.
  • Fancy Free, also by Bernstein, was written for a ballet and evolved into the Broadway show On the Town. Segments were included in the soundtrack for Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. The piece was most recently performed by the Orchestra in 2009 under Mischa Santora.

For Litton, who was artistic director of the Orchestra’s Sommerfest programs from 2003 to 2017, choosing a program can hinge on factors such as the acoustics of a performance hall, special anniversaries (Bernstein’s 100th birthday this year), the capabilities of an orchestra, and the sensibilities of an audience.

Despite the Biblical roots of the Belshazzar and Chichester works, Litton said religiosity was not the basis of his programming decision. More telling was his familiarity with all three pieces, and his unabashed admiration for Bernstein. He added, however, that his experience with a piece doesn’t mean every performance he conducts will be identical.

Conducting is “a constant evolving experience” in which Litton tries to discover “what a composer meant to do—being true to the composer.” When learning an orchestral work, he may first play it on the piano, reflect silently for a while to “get the concept,” then listen to recordings, especially of performances conducted by the composer.

That still leaves room for variations and interpretation, he said: “The composer’s version is basically a blueprint.” The conductor’s role is akin to that of someone moving into an apartment; the structure remains from tenant to tenant but each might change the wallpaper.

Walton, a British composer, is “a tough sell in the United States,” he said, because his work is less known. Litton would like to change that, along with works of Edward Elgar.

That’s not necessary with Bernstein, perhaps the most well-known U.S. composer. As a youngster, Litton attended one of Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts in New York. The program included Respighi’s Pines of Rome, and Bernstein himself played piano.

“I became fascinated with him,” Litton said. He admired Bernstein’s animation, his “complete dedication to music,” and his desire to share that passion with his audiences. And because his compositions have endured, so will his legacy, Litton said, unlike those of many conductors who do not also write music.

Minneapolis, he said, is “renowned for inventive programs,” made possible by well-educated audiences. But he still found himself carefully planning Sommerfest performances because summer and winter programs are “very different.” Nothing too heavy in those warm, humid months.

To succeed with adventuresome programs, he said, a conductor must build and earn an audience’s trust—exposing them to new pieces in a way that is “not painful, or at least not for long. You don’t just clobber them over the head” with unfamiliar music. Similarly, a guest conductor must approach an orchestra “with caution.” If the musicians must learn a new or unfamiliar piece, for example, they might need more rehearsal time. Even then, “there are certain repertoires only (an in-house) music director should do” because he knows the abilities of the players and can help them “get to the finish line,” Litton said.

His 14 years of experience with Sommerfest leads him to believe that despite the rarity of the Walton/Bernstein program, “there are no challenges there” that its players can’t handle.

What should Minnesota audiences expect from the triple bill that Litton will conduct in June?

“Music is all so heartfelt and expressive” that he hopes listeners simply “sit down and forget about their day.”

He added, however, it might help to “read up on your Bible stories.”

Dan Wascoe is a retired reporter and columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and performs with vocalist Baibi Vegners as Nuance/a duo.

Common Chords: Mankato

Take a look back at the Minnesota Orchestra's recent stop in Mankato from April 25-27. This visit to the Minnesota River Valley is all part of the Minnesota Orchestra’s Common Chords program, which establishes partnerships between the Orchestra and Greater Minnesota cities, each culminating in its own unique residency.

Music In The Minnesota River Valley

Minnesota Orchestra musicians hit the high notes early on Wednesday, launching a multi-day Mankato residency at Mankato West High School at 8:15 am, followed by a pop-up performance at the Mayo Specialty Clinic and interviews at Radio Mankato. Junior visitors to the Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota learned that a trombone can make sounds like a race car—and that a tuba can play really really low notes. Seventh and eighth grade music students at Prairie Winds Middle School gathered other insights, like how to articulate with precision—“If it says ‘accent,’ I want you to give more than you think possible,” encouraged violist Richard Marshall, as Orchestra string musicians played alongside the middle schoolers on Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King. “I fell in love with music today,” said one middle school bass player after the experience.

Brass Quintet performing music of all genres (classical, jazz, blues, rags) for visitors at the Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota.

Principal Tuba Steve Campbell demonstrating how low the tuba can go.

Brass and String quartets performing, chatting and working with music students at Prairie Winds Middle School.

The Brass Quintet wraps up their day at Radio Mankato, doing several interviews and testing the limits of how many brass players can fit (and perform!) in one small sound booth.

Sparking Music Memories

The Common Chords Mankato project opened its second day with a jaunt 20 minutes north to St Peter, Minnesota. Led by Assistant Conductor Akiko Fujimoto, the full Orchestra visited this picturesque community to play Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique in a noon hour concert for students at the brand-new St. Peter High School.

Violist Sam Bergman hosted the post-concert Q&A, where one student posed the question, “Why did you want to play in this band?” (Principal Cello Anthony Ross’ answer: “We get to make a living doing what we love in a great orchestra. We are fortunate!”)

The Brass and String ensembles headed back to Mankato for concerts at Mankato Brewery, playing amidst the gleaming brewing apparatus, and Old Main Village Senior Living Community, where one 103-year-old resident smiled wistfully at the end of the string performance. “The music reminds me of my father,” she said. “He played the mandolin.”

Tchaikovsky Wraps The Week

Mankato Area Youth Symphony students were among the first to arrive for the Minnesota Orchestra’s evening performance at Mankato’s Verizon Center on Friday, April 27. The student musicians met with their professional string and brass counterparts to pose questions, pre-concert. (A running theme: “How much do you practice?!”)

Assistant Conductor Akiko Fujimoto led the full-Orchestra performance in Verizon’s Grand Hall that featured Principal Second Violin Peter McGuire, a Mankato-native, in Mozart’s exquisite Turkish Violin Concert. The evening, and the Mankato Common Chords week drew to a dramatic close with the power and drama of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6.

The Minnesota Orchestra's innovative community engagement program, Common Chords, features weeklong residencies in Minnesota cities. Learn more >> 

Photos by Greg Helgeson

Giving Back: Getting to Know Minnesota Orchestra's First Good Fellow

Orchestra Hall is quiet and tuba player Jason Tanksley sits alone on the stage, performing some of the most challenging passages in the tuba’s repertoire. He plays behind a large opaque screen; on the other side sits a committee of Minnesota Orchestra musicians, each of whom is listening carefully. It’s a typical set-up for an orchestral audition, but this one is out of the ordinary.

Jason Tanksley is the Minnesota Orchestra’s Rosemary and David Good Fellow—and performing a “mock” audition is just one part of the advanced training that is now his job.

The Orchestra launched the Rosemary and David Good Fellowship last spring as a two-year program intended to enhance opportunities for African American, Latin American and Native American professional orchestral musicians early in their careers and to encourage greater diversity in the orchestral field. The first two participants, who began their fellowship experience in September 2017 after winning a competitive audition, are Tanksley and trombone player Myles Blakemore. Tanksley is now completing his first season with the Orchestra; Blakemore participated in the fellowship program for several months before winning a position in the New World Symphony.

The mock auditions help to prepare Tanksley for professional auditions that he hopes will eventually earn him his own permanent chair onstage in an orchestra. For the first mock audition, he explained that the Orchestra staff and musicians treated the entire experience as if it were the real thing. The musicians on the committee then gave individual feedback to Tanksley on his performance.

He has also been able to sit in during actual auditions throughout the year to test his ear and learn from what the audition committee hears from the other side of the screen. Tanksley, like many musicians, says he used to be scared by the idea of a committee that you can’t see. Among many lessons from observing the process up close, he says one thing in particular has eased his mind a little: “You know, the committee is really cheering you on and wanting you to do well, so they can hire you. They aren’t a bunch of monsters.”

As part of the fellowship, Tanksley also observes Orchestra rehearsals and concerts, and performs onstage in selected Orchestra concerts. He takes two private lessons each month with musicians from the Orchestra and is able to select who he’d like to work with. So far, he has had the opportunity to learn from Principal Tuba Steven Campbell, all three members of the trombone section and trumpet player Robert Dorer, and next on his schedule is a lesson with Principal Bass Kristen Bruya. When he’s working with musicians who don’t play the tuba, Tanksley says: “they don’t care if something is a challenging tuba part or not. They might not even know if it is. Instead, I’m getting their unique musical perspectives and new ideas about how my part fits into the context of a piece, or how we might work together across the ensemble.” 

When he first heard about the fellowship, Tanksley saw it as a great chance to grow as a musician, but also as an opportunity to inspire others. “I feel like, if I can do this, if a black kid from Detroit like me can sit onstage with the Minnesota Orchestra, I can show other kids that they can do it, too. That’s what I’d really like to do.”

“It’s important for me to give back, and to share my experiences. I want kids in my hometown and other places where classical music isn’t as easy to find to be introduced to it at an earlier age. I never had a tuba lesson or played in an orchestra until I got to college,” says Tanksley, who now holds music degrees from Wayne State University and Cleveland Institute of Music. “When I teach young students, I encourage them to audition for local youth orchestras and other groups, so they have greater access to classical music than I did when I was their age. One of my first students is now studying music at Bowling Green State University.”

Jason with Principal Flute Adam Kuenzel and a student musician from the Minnesota All-State Orchestra

Tanksley continues the fellowship for another year and plans to have many more lessons and mock auditions, plus performances with the Orchestra and engagement activities around Minnesota. “Two years is not very long,” he says, “so I’m trying to soak as much of this fellowship in as I can while I have the chance!” He’s also excited to travel with the Orchestra to South Africa this summer and be part of performances and educational engagement on the tour.

“The biggest takeaway from this year so far has been the confidence boost,” he says. “To be selected for this fellowship and to get feedback and advice from the musicians here—who are the real deal—about my own playing has really helped me understand how I’m doing as a musician and where I might be able to go in the future.”

For a recent educational visit to a Minneapolis elementary school, Tanksley adapted a violin solo into a piece for solo tuba. He loves finding new ways to share what the instrument can do and what is fun about music. 

Jason, performing for students and staff at a Minneapolis elementary school.

His favorite composer lately? Berlioz. There are two tuba parts in Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique and Tanksley is thrilled to join Principal Tuba Steve Campbell onstage for the Orchestra’s June performances. He also performs with other Minnesota Orchestra brass musicians in a free event on Thursday, May 10, at BlackStack Brewing in Saint Paul, as part of the Orchestra’s Pint of Music series.

Jason with Principal Tuba Steven Campbell, far right, and a student musician in a side-by-side rehearsal with Minnesota All-State Orchestra.

For more about Jason or the Rosemary and David Good Fellowship program, visit


Program Notes: Britten and Schumann

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance

One-minute notes:

Britten: Sinfonia da Requiem

Britten’s three-part Requiem, written as an anti-war statement, opens with a mournful procession in which saxophone plays a striking role, proceeds into chaos and concludes with a prayer-like hymn.

Schumann: Cello Concerto

Distinctive for the sheer beauty of its content, this concerto represents Schumann’s lyricism at its best. Three movements flow without pause as the music’s mood changes from the sweeping passions of the opening to the brightness of the finale.


Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 6

Vaughan Williams’ Sixth Symphony is restless and compelling, quiet and questioning, and unconventional in its approach—with an epilogue rather than a finale, and each movement connected to the next by a single sustained note.

Full program notes: 

Benjamin Britten

Born: November 22, 1913, Lowestoft, England

Died: December 4, 1976, Aldeburgh, England

Sinfonia da Requiem, Opus 20

Premiered: March 29, 1941

Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem had a genesis as strange as anything in the history of music. An avowed pacifist, Britten left his native England as war clouds gathered in 1939, hoping to make his life and career in the United States, which was, for the moment, staying out of the European war.

While living on Long Island, Britten was contacted by the British Council with a remarkable proposal. The Japanese government, which was also staying out of the war for the moment, planned to celebrate the 2,600th anniversary of its ruling dynasty, and for that occasion, set for September 1940, it was commissioning works by a number of composers, Richard Strauss and Jacques Ibert among them.

Now the Japanese government invited Britten to write a work for the occasion, and he accepted, stipulating only that “no form of musical jingoism” be required. Britten hurried to complete the music, which he titled Sinfonia da Requiem, early in June 1940, and the Japanese government promptly paid him. (The composer used the money to buy an aging Model T.)

Then came a sour surprise. The Japanese authorities rejected the piece, claiming that its “melancholy” tone was inappropriate for their festive occasion. More specifically, they objected to the titles Britten gave the three movements—Lacrymosa, Dies irae and Requiem aeternum—claiming that these made the Sinfonia “purely a religious music of Christian nature” and thus insulting to the Emperor. Though they allowed Britten to keep the commission fee, they refused to perform the music, and the premiere was given by John Barbirolli and the New York Philharmonic on March 29, 1941.

an anti-war statement

Despite the titles of the movements, Britten did not regard the Sinfonia da Requiem as religious music. In fact, he intended it specifically as an anti-war statement. In an interview with a New York newspaper at the time of the premiere, Britten said: “I’m making it as anti-war as possible….I don’t believe you can express social or political or economic theories in music, but by coupling new music with well-known musical phrases, I think it’s possible to get over certain ideas. I’m dedicating the symphony to the memory of my parents, and, since it is a kind of requiem, I’m quoting from the Dies irae of the Requiem Mass. One’s apt to get muddled discussing such things—all I’m sure of is my own anti-war conviction as I wrote it.”

The question remains whether music—abstract sound—can express anti-war (or any other) sentiments. It is worth noting, however, that Britten would incorporate the titles of the three movements of the Sinfonia in his War Requiem of 1961, where he combines the Requiem text with Wilfred Owen’s poetry to create a clear anti-war statement. The Sinfonia da Requiem makes that same statement, but at an abstract, purely instrumental level.

The Sinfonia is concentrated music. Its three movements, in a slow-fast-slow sequence that is performed without pause, span barely 20 minutes, and Britten surprisingly anchors all three movements around the tonality of D: D minor in the stern initial movements, D major in the consoling finale. Further, Britten is not so interested in the classical symphony’s opposition of different themes and keys as he is in a sort of organic growth of seminal material. The work’s opening theme will return in modified form in all three movements.

the music in brief

lacrymosa. The Lacrymosa, which traditionally announces the day when mankind faces judgment, bursts to life with great explosions of sound that resolve into a numbed, steady tread. Against this dark pulse, cellos announce the movement’s swaying, rising main theme. Secondary material is based on the leap of a seventh, but the swaying motion of the opening is never far away, and after a thunderous climax, that rhythm leads the movement to its subdued close.

dies irae. The Dies irae, which Britten himself called a “formal Dance of Death,” is a tour de force for orchestra, with tremolo flutes, brilliant brass writing and great full-orchestra swoops and shrieks. In its central episode, the eerie sound of alto saxophone briefly recalls the symphony’s undulating opening theme before the violence returns. The movement rises to another climax, then shatters into fragments.

requiem aeternum. From those fragments the harp assembles a quiet ostinato pulse, and the Requiem aeternum opens with three flutes singing the movement’s consoling main melody. Britten’s friend W.H. Auden described the finale as “a movement of peace and quiet rejoicing,” and Britten asks for a tempo of Andante molto tranquillo. But this peace is not long-lived. Gradually the swaying melody of the beginning insinuates itself, and Britten plays this up to a tremendous climax before the furies subside and the Sinfonia closes with a prayer for peace in which D major is affirmed quietly but clearly.

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (1 doubling alto flute and piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets (1 doubling E-flat clarinet, 1 doubling bass clarinet), alto saxophone, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 6 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, suspended cymbal, tambourine, whip, xylophone, 2 harps, piano and strings

Program note by Eric Bromberger.

Robert Schumann

Born: June 8, 1810, Zwickau, Germany

Died: July 29, 1856, Endenich, near Bonn, Germany

Concerto in A minor for Cello and Orchestra, Opus 129

Premiered: June 9, 1860

On September 1, 1850, the Schumanns—Robert, Clara and six children—moved to Düsseldorf after six unhappy years in Dresden. Actually, Dresden was a lively musical center, not least because of Wagner’s presence there until 1849, but the Schumanns found it personally and artistically stultifying.

the Schumanns in Düsseldorf

Düsseldorf, where Schumann was to become municipal music director, had a reputation as a conductor-eating town, but Schumann badly wanted an orchestra of his own, and he was willing to give Düsseldorf a try. He arrived at his new Rhineland home in high spirits, and the Düsseldorfers did everything they could to make their new music director feel welcome, unleashing an exhausting round of speeches, serenades, celebratory concerts, banquets and balls.

But contentment was brief. Clara worried about social standards, especially “the breezy, unconstrained conduct of the women, who at times surely transgress the barriers of femininity and decency....Marital life is more in the easy-going French style.” (All she could do about the women was to avoid them.) Both Robert and Clara were distressed by the noisiness of their first apartment, although a Rhine excursion at the end of the month and a move to quieter quarters helped.

Through all this turmoil, Schumann’s creative energies were not to be suppressed: in just 15 October days he composed his Cello Concerto, and in what remained of 1850 and in 1851 he wrote the Rhenish Symphony, revised his D-minor Symphony into what he considered its definitive form (Symphony No. 4), and wrote two violin sonatas, the Märchenbilder for viola and piano, two substantial cantatas and several overtures on literary themes.

The day Schumann finished the Cello Concerto he conducted the first of his ten subscription concerts. Clara was his soloist in Mendelssohn’s G-minor Piano Concerto, and, except that Robert was miffed because she got more attention than he did, it went well.

Nonetheless, it soon became inescapably clear that Schumann was unequal to his new position, and in October 1852 he was asked to resign. The matter was smoothed over temporarily, but a year later he had conducted his last concert in Düsseldorf. Always subject to depression, Schumann threw himself into the Rhine on February 27, 1854. This suicide attempt was not his first. He was rescued and committed into Dr. Richarz’s hospital at Endenich, where he died two and a half years later.

a “wholly ravishing” concerto

The Cello Concerto—and this always comes as a surprise—is the first important one since the beautiful examples by Boccherini from the 1780s.

Clara Schumann was delighted by the Cello Concerto. “It pleases me very much and seems to me to be written in true violoncello style,” she noted in her diary on November 16, 1850. The following October she wrote: “I have played Robert’s Violoncello Concerto through again, thus giving myself a truly musical and happy hour. The romantic quality, the vivacity, the freshness and humor, also the highly interesting interweaving of violoncello and orchestra are indeed wholly ravishing, and what euphony and deep feeling one finds in all the melodic passages!” Robert, on the other hand, seems to have had reservations: he canceled plans for a performance in the spring of 1852 and he did not send it to Breitkopf & Härtel, his Leipzig publisher, until 1854. In fact, the first performance was posthumous, given by Ludwig Ebert at the Leipzig Conservatory on June 9, 1860, at a concert in honor of the composer’s 50th birthday.

the music: passion, lyricism and a swift finale

In the Cello Concerto, each movement is linked to the next, and the middle one, even while it blooms in gloriously expressive song, has something of the character of a bridge or an intermezzo.

nicht zu schnell (not too fast). The concerto begins with three solemn chords for woodwinds with pizzicato strings. Their immediate purpose is to usher in the solo cello’s impassioned melody, but we soon discover that they have more than a local function, appearing at many of the concerto’s important junctures and especially pervading the slow movement. They are not, by the way, static and unalterable; rather, Schumann constantly finds new harmonies, rhythms and colors for them, although they are always and instantly recognizable. And to make the bridge from the slow movement to the finale, Schumann turns the cello theme itself into a gripping recitative, fascinatingly shared by soloist and orchestra in a moment both tender and full of pain.

Like his Piano Concerto, Schumann’s Cello Concerto has no opening tutti, only a brief but striking gesture that introduces the soloist right away: the three rising chords for woodwinds, each accented by pizzicato strings. Quiet though it is, it suggests the opening of a theater curtain, and the performer who stands revealed is an inspired singer who gives us an expansive and constantly developing—that is, non-repeating—melody. Here is Schumann at his most personal, his most poignantly vulnerable. Only when this lyric utterance is done does the orchestra ground the music with a vigorous and impassioned paragraph. Clearly, though, Schumann means this to be the cellist’s day, and the soloist returns with another lyric and exploring song, one of great range and full of wide intervals. A brilliant passage in triplets ends the exposition. The development is a kind of contest between virtuoso display and lyricism, and the chugging triplets are constantly interrupted—almost rebuked, it seems—by reappearances of parts of the opening melody in ever more distant and mysterious keys.

langsam (slow). After the recapitulation, the opening wind chords return, now heard from a deeply strange harmonic perspective. This time, the cello responds not with its first melody, but with a brief transition that gently sets the music down in F major. The slow movement has begun, and Schumann gives us a new melody, one full of melancholy downward curves. Like a chorus of sympathetic mourners, woodwinds echo the ends of the phrases. The passage reminds us that Tchaikovsky was one of the great Schumann-lovers. The accompaniment is notable, for along with neutral pizzicato chords we hear a soft countermelody played by another solo cello.

sehr lebhaft (very lively). After the urgent recitative that forms the bridge into the finale, Schumann gives us a more swift-moving music than any we have yet heard in the piece. Unfortunately, it is likely to sound not brilliant but just damnably difficult. Schumann relies much on sequences, and it takes a special mix of planning and spontaneity to bring out the energy in this music. (The 1953 Prades Festival recording by Casals and Ormandy shows wonderfully what can be done.) The drooping two-note phrases from the slow movement are often heard in the background.

Schumann moves into the coda by way of an accompanied cadenza (an inspiration to Elgar and perhaps also to Schoenberg and Walton in their violin concertos). Many famous cellists, among them Casals, Piatigorsky and Starker, all of whom should have known better, have struck out 32 measures of Schumann’s music at this point and substituted grandly rhetorical unaccompanied cadenzas of their own.

But Schumann was right, he really was: in the last moments of this finale, which is so difficult to move purposefully forward, it is important not to bring everything to a halt but to keep the momentum going, as Schumann does with his in-tempo cadenza. When he emerges from this episode, one of the concerto’s most original and effective, Schumann shifts metric gears, going from 2/4 into a still peppier 6/8, a device Brahms found worth imitating, and often.

Instrumentation: solo cello with orchestra comprising 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings

Program note excerpted from Michael Steinberg’s The Concerto: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press, 1998), used with permission.

Ralph Vaughan Williams

Born: October 12, 1872, Down Ampney, Gloucestershire, England

Died: August 26, 1958, London, England

Symphony No. 6 in E minor

Premiered: April 21, 1948

Near the dawn of Vaughan Williams’ composing career, his collecting of traditional Norfolk songs had been a critical step toward the finding of his own musical language. At the time his Fourth Symphony came along in 1935, the 62-year-old composer of the opera Sir John in Love (source of the popular Fantasia on “Greensleeves”), as well as the Tallis Fantasia and The Lark Ascending, seemed fixed more firmly than ever as the dean of England’s “pastoral school.” Thus the sometimes harshly dissonant Fourth Symphony brought a real shock. “I feel that I have at last become master of my material,” Vaughan Williams wrote to a former student, “but it now seems too late to make any use of it.” Happily he was wrong, and 23 more years of work (including five more symphonies) lay ahead.

not a “War Symphony”

Using some material he had sketched in 1943 for a movie score, Vaughan Williams began his Sixth Symphony in about 1944 and completed it in 1947. The first public performance was given by Sir Adrian Boult and the BBC Symphony in London’s Royal Albert Hall on April 21, 1948. At the beginning of 1950, Vaughan Williams revised the third movement, Scherzo, clarifying some of the orchestration as well as adding a new countertheme for brass in a couple of places. This version of the symphony has become the standard.

Ending, as it does, in 11 or 12 minutes of chill, unbroken pianissimo, the Sixth Symphony hardly seems like a piece designed for success, yet the reception at the first performance was overwhelming, and it took only a little over two years for the work to achieve 100 performances. Vaughan Williams’ pleasure at having, as he liked to say, “rung the bell” and “done the real thing” was offset by the annoyance of people insistently imposing their extramusical interpretations on this work. In the 1930s, he had had a hard time persuading some people that the Fourth Symphony was not political and moral commentary about Hitler and Mussolini. In 1948, the year the Sixth Symphony premiered, Hiroshima was a recent memory, the Soviet Union had just cut off road and rail traffic between Berlin and the West, and nuclear war was coming to be an ever-present threat. But no, Vaughan Williams said, his bleak finale was not a depiction of a world flattened by The Bomb, and when Frank Howes, the music critic of The Times, referred to the Sixth as Vaughan Williams’ “War Symphony” (with capital W), the composer was aroused to real fury.

the music: full of anguish

allegro. Without question, the Sixth Symphony is a disturbing piece, full of anguish, and it begins with a cry. In defiance of the key designation in its title, E minor, the symphony begins resolutely one half-step up, in F minor. As Vaughan Williams himself points out, the music “[rushes] down and up again through all the keys for which there is time in two bars”; in other words, the harmony is exceedingly restless and unsettled. The mood, for the moment at least, is savage.

What Vaughan Williams calls “fussy” 16th-notes have been prominent from the beginning, and these continue while violins, woodwinds and horn introduce an impassioned new melody. It is immediately repeated in the bass with the fussy 16ths on top. When this agitation subsides, an oddly saucy accompaniment starts up, to which various woodwinds soon add a tune with a stammer. For a moment the sound gets to be quite Broadway, partly because the saxophone climbs into a high register where it is extremely prominent. There is one more theme to come, a spacious D-major tune that sounds like the old familiar Vaughan Williams. The saucy accompaniment continues right through this. Both melodies, the hesitant and the spacious, get some more play, after which there is a recapitulation—“just enough,” says Vaughan Williams, “to show that this is a Symphony [and] not a symphonic poem.” The spacious tune makes one more appearance, tranquillo, with harp accompaniment, and also in E major, which serves to settle the accumulated harmonic tension, though there is continuing argument between E major and E minor. The close is quiet.

moderato. The final E in the cellos and basses hangs over into the first measure of the second movement. In 1943, Vaughan Williams wrote the music for a film called The Flemish Farm, which Halliwell’s Film Guide describes as a “tolerable wartime flagwaver.” Not all of Vaughan Williams’ score made its way into the soundtrack, and he rescued two of the outtakes for the Sixth Symphony. This second movement’s first theme, a slow and sinister march, is one of them. Because of its rhythm (long-long-short-short-short), the studio orchestra always referred to it as “two hot sausages.”

A drumroll and a fanfare introduce an unharmonized pianissimo passage for the strings, which builds, then recedes. Suddenly the trumpets and timpani begin to insist on the “sausages” rhythm. When we first heard this, it was part of a theme; now it takes on a life of its own and is bent on destroying whatever thematic or other musical activity is going on. It cows the orchestra into silence; trumpets and drums, again pianissimo after their domineering forte, appear to have the last word. The English horn muses for a moment on the unharmonized string theme, but under its last notes, the persistent, destructive rhythm, now in the sullen, dark colors of timpani, bass drum and pizzicato low strings, reminds us that it is still there, that this nightmare could return.

scherzo: allegro vivace. The English horn’s last long C-flat constitutes the bridge into the third movement. It is a sardonic Shostakovich-esque scherzo, polyphonic in texture, and based on a theme with running 16th-notes. The saxophone adds a sleazy tune by way of a trio, and here I must quote Vaughan Williams’ good-humored program note for the first performance—in which he references the opinions of composer-writer Constant Lambert, his former pupil at the Royal College of Music:

“[The saxophone tune] is repeated loud by the full orchestra. (Constant Lambert tells us that the only thing to do with a folk tune is to play it soft and repeat it loud. This is not a folk tune but the same difficulty seems to crop up.)

“When [this] episode is over, the woodwind experiment as to how the [first theme] will sound upside down but the brass are angry and insist on playing it the right way up, so for a bit the two go on together and to the delight of everyone including the composer the two versions fit, so there is nothing to do now but to continue, getting more excited till the [saxophone] tune comes back very loud and twice as slow.”

epilogue: moderato. This time it is the bass clarinet which, descending through two octaves, builds the bridge into the Epilogue. Vaughan Williams describes this music as “[drifting] about contrapuntally with occasional whiffs of theme.” The two sections of violins lead off, all muted. The firsts show a definite bias toward F minor, the seconds then providing something like an E-major/minor corrective. After a time, flutes play the first violins’ theme in longer notes so that it sounds rather like a cantus firmus or chorale. The muted brass sigh three times, and a solo cello, unmuted but of course still pianissimo, responds to their dejection with a new musical idea. The oboe is the instrument that feels most free to sing out expressively in melodies of wide compass. The sounds themselves become ghostly, with string tremolandos and bell-like harmonics on the harp.

After one last “outburst”—a pianissimo outburst by the oboe—the strings take the symphony to its end. Vaughan Williams wrote that he “never had any conscience about cribbing,” and I suspect in these last measures he was cribbing from Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra. That work ends in a strange back-and-forth between high instruments playing chords of B major, and basses punctuating those chords with C’s. Vaughan Williams settles into an uncertain seesawing between chords of E-flat major and E minor, which have G as a note in common. The last chord, which finally disappears into the distance, is E minor, that being the symphony’s keynote, but the E-minor chord is in its most unstable distribution, with B in the bass, and so the effect is anything but definite. The conductor Andrew Davis, comparing this “unanswered question” close with the oscillations that usher Berg’s Wozzeck into silence, has observed that the Sixth Symphony “should not end with a sense of rest. A performance that sounds final is not a good performance.”

Whatever the intended meaning—and in fact, an exceedingly irritated Vaughan Williams said late in life that “a man might just want to write a piece of music”—the hushed music speaks so eloquently and so disturbingly on its own.

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, tenor saxophone, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, suspended cymbal, triangle, xylophone, 2 harps and strings

Program note excerpted from the late Michael Steinberg’s The Symphony: A Listener's Guide (Oxford University Press, 1998), used with permission.

Program Notes: American Voices

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance

One-minute notes:

Copland: Suite from Billy the Kid

Designed as a one-act ballet, Copland’s suite follows the adventures of Billy the Kid as he travels across the Wild West. Tender string harmonies set the scene of wide open prairies, while clashing keys and cowboy tunes add excitement along the journey.

Beal: Flute Concerto

In Beal’s brand-new Flute Concerto, the virtuoso solo flute speaks above active but less demanding music from the orchestra. The opening movement’s focus is on the soloist’s dexterity and swift musical gestures, while the Rubato middle movement is gently beautiful and lyrical. The electric bass is prominent in the rapid-fire, jazz-laced finale.


Barber: Violin Concerto

In Barber’s concerto, the violin sings passionate, lyrical lines in the opening pair of movements, then delivers a whirlwind of triplet rhythms in the fast-paced finale.

Bernstein: Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront

Bernstein transformed his only original film score into a single-movement symphonic suite highlighted by a solo horn that guides the orchestra through many of the movie’s main themes.

Full program notes: 

Aaron Copland

Born: November l4, 1900, Brooklyn, New York

Died: December 2, 1990, North Tarrytown, New York

Suite from Billy the Kid

Premiered: October 16, 1938 (original ballet)

Early in 1938 Aaron Copland was approached by Lincoln Kirstein, director of the Ballet Caravan, who wished to commission a ballet based on the life of Billy the Kid. But Copland was not drawn to this subject, and he felt a particular aversion to cowboy music: “'I have never been particularly impressed with the musical beauties of the cowboy song as such. The words are usually delightful and the manner of singing needs no praise from me. But neither the words nor the delivery are of much use in a purely orchestral ballet score, so I was left with the tunes themselves, which, I repeat, are often less than exciting. As far as I was concerned, this ballet could be written without benefit of the poverty-stricken tunes Billy himself must have known.”

Kirstein assured Copland that he need not use actual cowboy tunes in the ballet, but as the composer left to spend the summer of 1938 in Paris, Kirstein gave him several collections of cowboy songs to look over. And then a strange thing happened, softening Copland: “Perhaps there is something different about a cowboy song in Paris. But whatever the reason may have been, it wasn’t very long before I found myself hopelessly involved in expanding, contracting, rearranging and superimposing cowboy tunes on the rue de Rennes in Paris.” Copland uses theme-shapes, intervals and bits of rhythm from these tunes—we sense their origins and distinctive flavor without ever hearing the tunes in their original form.

the music: adventures in the frontier

The premiere of Billy the Kid was a success, and Copland arranged an orchestral suite from its music, preserving about two-thirds of the original score. The suite begins with The Open Prairie, which creates a sense of great space, and the steady tread of two French horns marks the appearance of humans within this vastness. Suddenly we are on a Street in a Frontier Town, full of dizzy human energy. Here Copland quotes “Old Grandad,” “Whoopee-Ti-Yi-Yo” and “The Old Chisholm Trail,” and a solo trumpet performs a Mexican Dance—specifically, a jarabe. A reprise of the opening prairie music leads to the Prairie Night (Card Game at Night)a nocturne for woodwinds, trumpet and strings—and this proceeds into the Gun Battle, with its booming drums and spatters of gunfire.

Celebration depicts the town’s relief at Billy’s capture. Eugene Loring, who danced the part of Billy at the premiere, had encouraged Copland to include a “macabre polka” as part of the ballet, and this was Copland’s response. This Celebration is built on dotted rhythms and the sound of a honky-tonk piano, but what gives this music its “macabre” dimension is its bitonality: Copland sets the dance-tune in C major and its accompaniment in C-sharp. The suite now jumps to Billy’s

Death—his final breaths are heard in the quasi tremolando solo violin. In the suite, Copland moves directly from Billy’s death to a reprise of the music for The Open Prairie, and Billy the Kid concludes out under the open sky of the vast prairies.

Copland’s score for Billy the Kid set the gold standard for music about the West. Its epic sense of space, use of cowboy tunes, and concise evocation of a raw frontier town—replete with honky-tonk revelry, gunfights and the lonely hero—have become part of the imagination of every subsequent composer who writes music about the American West.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo (1 flute also doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, suspended cymbal, guiro, slapstick, sleigh bells, tin whistle, triangle, wood blocks, glockenspiel, xylophone, harp, piano and strings

Program note by Eric Bromberger.

Jeff Beal

Born: June 20, 1963, Hayward, California; currently living in Agoura Hills, California

Concerto for Flute and Orchestra

Premiered: January 18, 2017 (third movement); May 3, 2018 (full concerto)

Jeff Beal may be best known as a composer of music for films and television, but his newly-written Flute Concerto has its origins not in Hollywood—nor the Washington D.C. of his Emmy Award-winning score for Netflix’s House of Cards. Instead the genesis came in Stockholm, Sweden, where Beal worked out the basic parameters of the concerto over coffee and conversation with flutist Sharon Bezaly in June 2015.

Beal recalls that inspiring meeting: “Sitting in Stockholm harbor on a beautiful sunny day, I had a long chat with Sharon about the concerto I would compose for her. The light of the northern summer sun bathing the harbor was a perfect metaphor for what she wanted: A concerto full of joy, energy and rhythm, with some of the eclectic jazz sensibilities of my scoring on House Of Cards.”

The seeds for the project were planted earlier in 2015 when Bezaly and BIS Records founder Robert von Bahr reached out to Beal, whose music they knew through House of Cards, and invited him to Stockholm to hear Bezaly play. “He came, listened to Sharon and was stunned,” says von Bahr. “He cleared away his much-better-paid schedule to compose her a concerto.”

Beal’s Flute Concerto, this week receiving its first-ever complete performance, is the latest in a series of world premieres given by Bezaly, a strong advocate of new music who is the dedicatee of more than 20 concertos—among them works by Kalevi Aho, Sally Beamish, Sofia Gubaidulina and Anders Hillborg. Bezaly comments: “Breathing life into the past, making it part of our present, is a great privilege for any performer. But a significant part of my vocation as a musician is the aspiration to inspire the great composers of our time to write new and ground-breaking music, so that future generations are able to breathe new life into our present, their past, in a perpetual celebration of timeless music.”

This particular project came near a time of personal grieving for Bezaly, which impacted the concept and structure of the piece. Beal further recalls from their conversation in Stockholm: “Sharon shared the story of her childhood in Israel, and her close connection to her mother who had also been her musical mentor, whom she had lost earlier that year. This, coupled with this emotional brief sense of Sharon’s personality, provided me a way into the piece. As painful as a loss of a parent can be, her deep affection for her mother was certainly part of my inspiration for the second movement. We also spoke about the beauty of memorable melodies, and kept returning to this idea of rhythm and energy.”

Bezaly performed the concerto’s third movement a handful of times in 2017, first with the Seoul Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra on January 18, 2017. The first and second movements have never been performed for audiences prior to this week, making this the world premiere of the concerto in its full form.

a multi-talented composer

Jeff Beal is hardly the first composer known primarily for films and television to find his way to the concert hall (another, James Newton Howard, will have his Violin Concerto heard at the Minnesota Orchestra’s upcoming Sommerfest), but he may be among the most multi-faceted. His early studies were as a jazz trumpet player—first spurred by the gift of a Miles Davis/Gil Evans record from his grandmother Irene Beal, who had been a pianist and professional accompanist of silent movies. After graduating from the Eastman School of Music, where he met his wife, operatic soprano Joan Beal, he pursued a career in New York City as a jazz performer, recording artist and composer.

In the mid-1990s Beal moved to Los Angeles, where in 2000 he made his breakthrough into film music by scoring the Academy Award-winning film Pollock. His notable projects since have included scores for the documentaries Blackfish, The Queen of Versailles and An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power; music for the HBO series Carnivàle and Rome; and the score and theme for Monk. In 2013 came the opportunity to score one of the first major online series featuring an A-list cast and director when Academy Award nominee David Fincher tapped him as composer for Netflix’s House of Cards. Overall Beal’s music has been recognized with 16 Emmy Award nominations and five Emmy wins, most recently in 2017 for season five of House of Cards.

For his film and TV projects, Beal follows the “do it yourself” mantra, as he composes, orchestrates, conducts, records and mixes the music himself. Much of the recording happens not within the confines of a Hollywood studio—but rather, in Beal’s own living room, where an entire string orchestra squeezes in to record for House of Cards. The well-known theme music for that show is a family affair: Beal supplies the lonely trumpet calls and piano arpeggios, his son Henry performs the relentless bass guitar riff, and his wife Joan lends her operatic voice beginning in the series’ second season.

Aside from his work for media, Beal has composed commissioned works for the St. Louis, Rochester, Pacific, Frankfurt, Munich and Detroit symphony orchestras. He has also written for the Smuin Ballet, Metropole Orchestra, Ying String Quartet, Debussy Trio, Henry Mancini Institute, Chamber Music Festival of Lexington, Los Angeles Master Chorale, Brooklyn Youth Chorus, guitarist Jason Vieaux and Minnesota-based men’s vocal group Cantus, which premiered Beal’s Beneath Thin Blanket in 2016.

the concerto in brief

The instrumentation of Beal’s Flute Concerto is smaller than that of many modern orchestral works, which appropriately clears a path for the solo flute. The brass “section,” for instance, consists of a single horn. The sole atypical addition to the orchestra is an electric bass guitar. Throughout the concerto, which comprises three untitled movements, Beal makes use of what he calls Bezaly’s “gorgeous tone throughout the entire register of the instrument and prodigious circular breathing ability.”

[quarter note = 106]. The tone of the concerto is set from the earliest measures: the virtuoso solo flute speaks above active but less demanding music from the orchestra. The opening movement’s focus is on the soloist’s dexterity and swift musical gestures rather than sustained melody. Harmonies are creative but gentle on the ears, and staccato articulation dominates.

[quarter note = 57] rubato. Here is the gently beautiful, lyrical music inspired by Bezaly’s affection for her late mother. Occasional rippling tremolos played by the two clarinets are among the distinctive touches, and the last word is given to rising solo violin.

[quarter note = 142]. The rapid-fire finale, in which electric bass plays a prominent role, brings to the fore some of Beal’s native language, jazz. Like other portions of the concerto, this has roots in Beal’s Stockholm meeting with Bezaly, following which she drove him through the city. Beal recalls: “Winding through the Swedish countryside, she showed me the impressive acceleration ability of her Tesla. This pedal-to-the-metal image of Sharon might have stayed with me, and certainly the third movement is not your father’s Oldsmobile.”

Instrumentation: solo flute with orchestra comprising flute, oboe, English horn, 2 clarinets, bassoon, horn, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, suspended cymbal, bongos, mark tree, temple blocks, tom-toms, triangle, glockenspiel, marimba, harp, bass guitar and strings

Program note by Carl Schroeder.

Samuel Barber

Born: March 9, 1910, West Chester, Pennsylvania

Died: January 23, 1981, New York City

Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 14

Premiered: February 7, 1941

In the golden days of the Renaissance and early Baroque age, most male composers began their musical lives as boy sopranos trained in church choirs. Ultimately, instrumental virtuosity superseded the human voice. By contrast, the 20th century’s Samuel Barber, a supreme American lyricist, was among the few composers of his time who studied singing. Gifted with a mellow baritone voice, he pursued a triple major in composition, piano and voice as a member of the charter class of Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music.

Barber’s lyrical style also characterizes his instrumental concertos: the Violin Concerto premiered under Eugene Ormandy in Philadelphia in 1941, the Cello Concerto introduced by Raya Garbousova under Koussevitzky in Boston in 1946, and the Piano Concerto which John Browning premiered at Lincoln Center in 1962 and repeated here at Orchestra Hall in the 1980s.

like a human voice

Of all instruments, the violin may be closest to the human voice—and this is how Barber employs it, maximizing the instrument’s warmth and intimacy. However, the patron who commissioned the Violin Concerto had sought a different effect.

Samuel Fels, a wealthy businessman in Barber’s hometown of Philadelphia, proposed a vehicle for his adopted son, Iso Briselli, a violin prodigy. The young composer developed the first two movements of this Opus 14 while residing in the idyllic Swiss village of Sils Maria, but like other expatriate Americans, fled Europe after the Nazis invaded Poland. Back in Philadelphia, Barber presented the opening movements to Fels—but they did not please.

Fels had anticipated flashy music of the kind that triggers cheering, and this thoughtful discourse between soloist and orchestra was too lyrical for him. Barber responded by dashing off a showpiece finale demanding consummate skills—but this was judged too difficult! Soon, however, a promising Curtis student named Herman Baumel delivered a polished reading of the finale. Baumel also gave a private performance of the concerto with the Curtis Orchestra under Fritz Reiner and played it with the Philadelphia Orchestra in rehearsal before the official premiere.

Fels was unable to reclaim money already dispensed to Barber, who had spent it in Europe. So the businessman compromised by paying half the fee and surrendering the rights of first performance to the composer. The esteemed American violinist Albert Spaulding delivered the concerto’s premiere on February 7, 1941.

the concerto in brief

The traditionalist side of Barber as well as his progressive impulses—irregular rhythms and sometimes edgy dissonances—are shown to advantage in this moving work, which has commanded a solid niche in the repertory for more than half a century.

allegro. The music is not hard to follow. There are no contests here, only a harmony of dialogue between partners, the big orchestra and the little violin, cast as a wordless troubadour of intense personal emotion. The opening movement includes moments of dark agitation and high intensity, not unlike profound conversation. The passion is shared in the development and a full reprise incorporating a brief cadenza.

andante. Initially, the violin is silent, as an oboe delivers the slow movement’s introductory song. Cellos take up the singing, which spreads across the orchestra before—heralded by a horn solo—the soloist speaks out with a fresh idea, initially tranquil, but soon growing passionate.

presto in moto perpetuo. In abrupt contrast, drumming launches the spiky finale, a swift perpetual motion conclusion which sustains triplet rhythms almost throughout, especially in the rapid bowing of the soloist, driving headlong to the close. Energy is the essence of this bracing movement.

Instrumentation: solo violin with orchestra comprising 2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, snare drum, piano and strings

Program note by Mary Ann Feldman.

Leonard Bernstein

Born: August 25, 1918, Lawrence, Massachusetts 

Died: October 14, 1990, New York City

Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront

Premiered: August 11, 1955

While both West Side Story and On the Town were made into successful motion pictures, On the Waterfront represents a distinguished Bernstein effort conceived for a film from the outset—and not for a “musical,” but as the cinematic equivalent of the traditional “incidental music” for stage plays.

Understandably enough, film composers at first followed the stage tradition of providing background music for individual scenes, but it did not take long for them to recognize the new medium’s inherent opportunities for a greater unity between the musical and dramatic elements. In the 1930s such composers as Sergei Prokofiev in the Soviet Union, Silvestre Revueltas in Mexico and Virgil Thomson in our own country were able to work in direct collaboration with their respective screen directors in developing and shaping films in which music enjoyed an unprecedented prominence. This new type of partnership led to films in which music was used not only to augment the dramatic mood, but frequently in place of words to create the various moods. Bernstein’s only contribution to this genre, his score for Elia Kazan’s 1954 production On the Waterfront, remains outstanding in this respect. The Symphonic Suite from the film is one of seven Bernstein works that the Minnesota Orchestra performs during 2018, the composer’s centennial year.

music from a violent milieu

Like West Side Story, which came a few years later, On the Waterfront deals with a violent milieu in the city Bernstein’s music captured so brilliantly in its various phases. In this case the subject is racketeering on New York’s teeming commercial docks, and the defiant response of one sensitive young longshoreman (“Terry,” unforgettably played by Marlon Brando) to the situation in which he finds himself.

It happens not infrequently that a composer writing for a film may produce more music than is actually used. Parts of Bernstein’s score had been cut in the editing of the film, and the composer was motivated to prepare a Symphonic Suite to salvage some of this music. The suite was completed on July 5, 1955, and was first performed on August 11 of that year by Bernstein and the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood. In the program note for the suite’s New York premiere in 1960, Howard Shanet wrote:

“The film score of On the Waterfront lends itself especially well to conversion into concert music because it is so symphonically conceived from the very beginning. The score of the entire film is built from only five or six thematic ideas which, however, are constantly being combined with each other and transformed into new shapes to meet the changing dramatic requirements of the story. Because the original film score is not just scraps of background music but a tightly organized symphonic structure, the concert suite derived from it makes complete musical sense...even if the listener does not know what each theme represents in the film story.”

It is possible, however, to relate the suite’s five sections (played without pause) to parts of the film, as Shanet did in the following outline:

andante (with dignity). The broad theme that opens the suite serves also, in a much grander version, to end it. In the film, this music has the same double function: as the so-called Main Title it accompanies the opening credits and titles; but it recurs at the end of the picture, as the music to which the injured Terry makes his heroic walk in defiance of the racketeers’ power.

presto barbaro. This striking passage starts with the percussion instruments alone—softly at first, then rising to a climax. The whole passage then becomes the basis for what is essentially a set of variations, each working up to its own climax. In the picture this music is always associated with violence—sometimes warning of it in advance, sometimes actually accompanying it, sometimes recalling it. For example, the first time it is heard (for percussion instruments alone) the screen shows an ordinary street scene; but the shocking contrast between the prosaic, static street and the brutal, dynamic music produces an ominous warning of tragedy to come.

more flowing. This lyrical, melodious section, sung first by the woodwinds, but then taken up by all the other elements of the orchestra, is the “Love” theme in the picture. It is associated with the girl, Edie, whose love is responsible to a great extent for Terry’s conversion to the forces of good.

allegro non troppo, molto marcato. In the Symphonic Suite this section has the role of a scherzo, contrasting with the flowing quality of the love music that precedes it. In the film it is heard under the climactic fight between Terry and the racketeer Johnny Friendly.

a tempo. This is the return of the opening Main Title theme in its final transfiguration as Terry’s heroic walk to victory. Starting as softly as possible, it grows as it marches irresistibly toward the last powerful chord. In the final phrases the Love theme is blended with it. But it does not end on the conventional triumphal cadence of most Hollywood films; On the Waterfront, as William Hamilton observes in a brilliant essay on this subject, “requires a finality that does not say everything is going to be just dandy,” and the last measures are marked by discordant cries that remind us of the bitterness and suffering that have characterized this story of violence.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, alto saxophone, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, 2 timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, suspended cymbal, large and small tamtams, triangle, tuned drums, wood block, glockenspiel, vibraphone, chimes, xylophone, harp, piano and strings

Program note by Richard Freed.

Symphony Ball Q&A with Wendy Williams

“Sounds of the Cinema” is the theme of the Minnesota Orchestra’s 2018 Symphony Ball gala fundraiser, which takes place on Saturday, May 12. Complete details of the Orchestra’s performance are being kept as a surprise for unveiling at Symphony Ball, but Orchestra flutist Wendy Williams gave us a few clues and background on how the music was selected, and details about special guest performer jeremy messersmith.

What was your role in selecting the music for Symphony Ball?

WW: I chaired the Music and Entertainment Committee, a great mix of musicians, staff, board members and community volunteers. This is one of the things I love most about our Symphony Ball—that it’s a collaborative effort that involves all of us. We worked hard to winnow down hundreds of ideas to 30 minutes of music. We were inspired by the vision of Co-Chairs Karen and Lloyd Kepple for the theme this year and their idea to share beautiful, entertaining and inspiring music from the movies.

There is nearly 100 years’ worth of movie music to choose from. How did you go about narrowing the focus?

WW: We started with film genres: action, foreign, love, mystery, epics, etc., with movies in each category. We then looked for a mix of tempos, moods and styles as well as a mix of classical music and music composed for film. We wanted scores that would appeal to a diverse audience in age and background, and on a practical level, we had to keep an eye on costs as most film music is expensive to rent. Music is what gives movies their emotional and dramatic impact, and we had a great time listening to so many scores!

Which film scores might you pick to program that didn’t quite make it onto this year’s Symphony Ball program?

WW: The music of Bernard Hermann didn’t quite make it this year. His music for Hitchcock films is fantastic, but alas very expensive to rent and requires lots of rehearsal time.

How did you get singer-songwriter jeremy messersmith involved in Symphony Ball? And what’s his connection to film music?

WW: I’ll turn this question over to Grant Meachum, the Orchestra’s director of Live at Orchestra Hall.

GM: I met jeremy messersmith for the first time in summer 2017 in a “getting to know you” situation with Sarah Hicks, principal conductor of Live at Orchestra Hall. Sarah and I are both huge fans of jeremy’s music, and we wanted to get to know him and brainstorm ideas for how he might collaborate with the Orchestra. We learned quickly that jeremy and Sarah are both enormous Star Wars fans, and after that first meeting jeremy took us up on an invitation to become a regular visitor to Minnesota Orchestra concerts.

When the Symphony Ball committee began to discuss a film theme for this year’s Ball, I thought back to that conversation with jeremy—his love for film, the beautiful lyricism of his writing, and the theatrical scope of his music-making. This seemed to be the perfect opportunity to collaborate—and Wendy and my colleagues on the committee were quick to agree.

What will jeremy perform at Symphony Ball?

GM: Jeremy will be performing two original songs with the Orchestra, as well as the Henry Mancini/Breakfast at Tiffany’s classic “Moon River.” He has partnered with the brilliant arranger Andy Thompson to re-imagine his original songs in a style that is both cinematic and a natural pairing for the Minnesota Orchestra with the Twin Cities’ foremost singer-songwriter and Star Wars fan.

Anything closing thoughts on Symphony Ball?

WW: I’m thrilled about the mix of music we are offering this year: Bryan Nichols playing movie music in the lobby for the Party, DJ Ander Other and Synergy for dancing, the Orchestra’s concert and jeremy messersmith!

Symphony Ball takes place on the evening of Saturday, May 12, at Orchestra Hall and the Hilton Hotel. The evening’s activities include dining, auctions, dancing and a performance by the Minnesota Orchestra under Music Director Osmo Vänskä, joined by indie pop singer-songwriter jeremy messersmith. Visit for details and ticket information. RSVPs for Patron tickets (for the entire evening’s events), are accepted through Saturday, May 4, while Partier tickets (for all activities that follow the dinner and auction) are available through Tuesday, May 8.

Jeff Beal's Concerto for Flute and Orchestra

Jeff Beal may be best known as a composer of music for films and television, but his newly-written Flute Concerto has its origins not in Hollywood—nor the Washington D.C. of his Emmy Award-winning score for Netflix’s House of Cards. Instead the genesis came in Stockholm, Sweden, where Beal worked out the basic parameters of the concerto over coffee and conversation with flutist Sharon Bezaly in June 2015.

Beal recalls that inspiring meeting: “Sitting in Stockholm harbor on a beautiful sunny day, I had a long chat with Sharon about the concerto I would compose for her. The light of the northern summer sun bathing the harbor was a perfect metaphor for what she wanted: A concerto full of joy, energy and rhythm, with some of the eclectic jazz sensibilities of my scoring on House Of Cards.”

The seeds for the project were planted earlier in 2015 when Bezaly and BIS Records founder Robert von Bahr reached out to Beal, whose music they knew through House of Cards, and invited him to Stockholm to hear Bezaly play. “He came, listened to Sharon and was stunned,” says von Bahr. “He cleared away his much-better-paid schedule to compose her a concerto.”

Beal’s Flute Concerto, receiving its first-ever complete performance by the Minnesota Orchestra on May 3 to 5, is the latest in a series of world premieres given by Bezaly, a strong advocate of new music who is the dedicatee of more than 20 concertos—among them works by Kalevi Aho, Sally Beamish, Sofia Gubaidulina and Anders Hillborg. Bezaly comments: “Breathing life into the past, making it part of our present, is a great privilege for any performer. But a significant part of my vocation as a musician is the aspiration to inspire the great composers of our time to write new and ground-breaking music, so that future generations are able to breathe new life into our present, their past, in a perpetual celebration of timeless music."

This particular project came near a time of personal grieving for Bezaly, which impacted the concept and structure of the piece. Beal further recalls from their conversation in Stockholm: “Sharon shared the story of her childhood in Israel, and her close connection to her mother who had also been her musical mentor, whom she had lost earlier that year. This, coupled with this emotional brief sense of Sharon’s personality, provided me a way into the piece. As painful as a loss of a parent can be, her deep affection for her mother was certainly part of my inspiration for the second movement. We also spoke about the beauty of memorable melodies, and kept returning to this idea of rhythm and energy.”

Bezaly performed the concerto’s third movement a handful of times in 2017, first with the Seoul Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra on January 18, 2017. The first and second movements have never been performed for audiences prior to next month, making the Minnesota Orchestra's performance the world premiere of the concerto in its full form.

a multi-talented composer

Jeff Beal is hardly the first composer known primarily for films and television to find his way to the concert hall (another, James Newton Howard, will have his Violin Concerto heard at the Minnesota Orchestra’s upcoming Sommerfest), but he may be among the most multi-faceted. His early studies were as a jazz trumpet player—first spurred by the gift of a Miles Davis/Gil Evans record from his grandmother Irene Beal, who had been a pianist and professional accompanist of silent movies. After graduating from the Eastman School of Music, where he met his wife, operatic soprano Joan Beal, he pursued a career in New York City as a jazz performer, recording artist and composer.

In the mid-1990s Beal moved to Los Angeles, where in 2000 he made his breakthrough into film music by scoring the Academy Award-winning film Pollock. His notable projects since have included scores for the documentaries Blackfish, The Queen of Versailles and An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power; music for the HBO series Carnivàle and Rome; and the score and theme for Monk. In 2013 came the opportunity to score one of the first major online series featuring an A-list cast and director when Academy Award nominee David Fincher tapped him as composer for Netflix’s House of Cards. Overall Beal’s music has been recognized with 16 Emmy Award nominations and five Emmy wins, most recently in 2017 for season five of House of Cards.

For his film and TV projects, Beal follows the “do it yourself” mantra, as he composes, orchestrates, conducts, records and mixes the music himself. Much of the recording happens not within the confines of a Hollywood studio—but rather, in Beal’s own living room, where an entire string orchestra squeezes in to record for House of Cards. The well-known theme music for that show is a family affair: Beal supplies the lonely trumpet calls and piano arpeggios, his son Henry performs the relentless bass guitar riff, and his wife Joan lends her operatic voice beginning in the series’ second season.

Aside from his work for media, Beal has composed commissioned works for the St. Louis, Rochester, Pacific, Frankfurt, Munich and Detroit symphony orchestras. He has also written for the Smuin Ballet, Metropole Orchestra, Ying String Quartet, Debussy Trio, Henry Mancini Institute, Chamber Music Festival of Lexington, Los Angeles Master Chorale, Brooklyn Youth Chorus, guitarist Jason Vieaux and Minnesota-based men’s vocal group Cantus, which premiered Beal’s Beneath Thin Blanket in 2016.

the concerto in brief

The instrumentation of Beal’s Flute Concerto is smaller than that of many modern orchestral works, which appropriately clears a path for the solo flute. The brass “section,” for instance, consists of a single horn. The sole atypical addition to the orchestra is an electric bass guitar. Throughout the concerto, which comprises three untitled movements, Beal makes use of what he calls Bezaly’s “gorgeous tone throughout the entire register of the instrument and prodigious circular breathing ability.”

movement I. The tone of the concerto is set from the earliest measures: the virtuoso solo flute speaks above active but less demanding music from the orchestra. The opening movement’s focus is on the soloist’s dexterity and swift musical gestures rather than sustained melody. Harmonies are creative but gentle on the ears, and staccato articulation dominates.

movement II. Here is the gently beautiful, lyrical music inspired by Bezaly’s affection for her late mother. Occasional rippling tremolos played by the two clarinets are among the distinctive touches, and the last word is given to rising solo violin.

movement III. The rapid-fire finale, in which electric bass plays a prominent role, brings to the fore some of Beal’s native language, jazz. Like other portions of the concerto, this has roots in Beal’s Stockholm meeting with Bezaly, following which she drove him through the city. Beal recalls: “Winding through the Swedish countryside, she showed me the impressive acceleration ability of her Tesla. This pedal-to-the-metal image of Sharon might have stayed with me, and certainly the third movement is not your father’s Oldsmobile.”

Instrumentation: solo flute with orchestra comprising flute, oboe, English horn, 2 clarinets, bassoon, horn, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, suspended cymbal, bongos, mark tree, temple blocks, tom-toms, triangle, glockenspiel, marimba, harp, bass guitar and strings

Program note by Carl Schroeder.

Meet a Musician: Maureen Conroy

Minnesota Orchestra Member Since: 2017
Position: Principal Librarian
Hometown: Valencia, CA
Education: University of California, Santa Barbara; University of Michigan, Ann Arbor 

How did you decide to become a music librarian? 
When I went to school at Michigan, I was able to be a part of the work-study program. I chose to work in the Ensembles Library, which introduced me to the behind the scenes world of the music library. I enjoyed working there so much, I got in touch with the librarians in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra library to seek out an internship. I worked as an intern on the weekends throughout my master’s degree. The internship turned into a 32 hour-a-week job, and I filled the other hours with practicing, teaching and taking whatever gig came my way. I also took every horn audition I could. Then I took my first library audition in 2009 for the New York Philharmonic. I did better at that audition than I ever did at any horn audition and I was happier off-stage than on, so for me, the answer was clear. 

Tell us about your proudest career moment.
There are many proud moments—getting tenure with the Utah Symphony and winning the job here in Minnesota top the list.  

What has been especially exciting or challenging in your role at the Minnesota Orchestra?
I have never been on an international tour with an orchestra, so I am really looking forward to heading to South Africa in August. The new challenge for me is being in charge of all the music that gets performed. This orchestra goes through A LOT of repertoire. Keeping it straight and moving through the library can be overwhelming. Luckily, I have a great team in the library and we have each other's backs.   

Maureen's daughter Florence, helping add notes to the music.

When you are able to sit in the audience and enjoy a concert, what composers or performers are your favorites to experience?

I am still a brass player at heart, so anything that has wonderful horn writing tops my list, such as Mahler, Strauss and Wagner. I also appreciate that this orchestra commissions new works on a regular basis, so I am exposed to new ideas and timbres I haven't experienced before.  

Do you have any thoughts or advice for audience members?
Come to a concert you wouldn't normally attend! You may be surprised by how much you like something new.  

What is one thing the music librarians do in their job that would surprise most people?
We transfer all the bow marking from the principal string part to the entire section by hands. No photocopies, just pencil to paper. 

What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career as an orchestra librarian? 
Explore the field by experiencing it firsthand! Seek out internships and guidance from people already doing those jobs. A strong musical background is a must; orchestral librarians are musicians first. 

What are you doing when you are not in the music library?
Spending time with my husband and 2 year old daughter, hopefully outside!  

Maureen with her husband and daughter. 

What Minnesota activity are you excited to try for the first time?
While I miss my Utah mountains for downhill skiing, I would like to get into cross-country skiing next winter. This summer, I am hoping to spend some time around Lake Superior 

What else should we know about you?
I briefly considered changing my major to art when I was in undergrad, where I worked as an illustrator for the school newspaper. I have had a children's book idea hanging in the back of my mind for long time. Maybe someday it will get out!


Click here to read more about Maureen. 


Program Notes: Osmo Vänskä and Joshua Bell

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance

One-minute notes:

Sibelius: En Saga
Hypnotic rhythms and dark orchestral coloring permeate this tone poem, which conveys the sense of a primordial adventure, fiercely urgent, and tragic as well as exhilarating.

Wieniawski: Violin Concerto No. 2
Wieniawski’s show-stopping Second Violin Concerto is rich in Polish tradition, featuring Gypsy rhythms and fiery fiddling. The work is dedicated to Wieniawski’s friend and fellow violinist, Pablo de Sarasate, whose own work follows this one on tonight’s program.

Sarasate: Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs)
A riveting lament, embellished with an array of trills and dramatic ornamentation, leads to a furious, brilliant and breathtaking conclusion.


Beethoven: Symphony No. 7
Beethoven’s lively Seventh Symphony, famously called “the apotheosis of the dance” by Wagner, builds a series of astonishing musical moments from short, simple figures. The second movement, based on a repeating rhythm, has been an audience favorite since its premiere two centuries ago.

Full program notes:

Jean Sibelius

Born: December 8, 1865, Tavastehus, Finland
Died: September 20, 1957, Järvenpää, Finland

En Saga, Opus 9

In his mid-20s Sibelius studied for a year in Berlin, and then for another year in Vienna. He had at first intended to be a violinist, but in Berlin he heard the Aino Symphony of his senior compatriot Robert Kajanus, which was all the impetus he needed for giving a higher priority to composing, and to turn his own creative effort toward the furtherance of Finnish nationalism. Aino is one of the heroines of the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala; Sibelius’ wife was one of the numerous Finnish women named for her. Early in 1892 in Vienna, Sibelius completed the first of his own several works based on the Kalevala: the vast five-part symphony Kullervo, in which solo singers and a male chorus depict episodes in the life of the eponymous tragic hero. Kajanus saw to it that the Kullervo Symphony was performed in Helsinki that April, and its success prompted him to ask Sibelius for a shorter piece that could be performed more frequently. Sibelius responded, at about the time of his wedding, in June of that year, with En Saga, in which he recycled material from an octet for winds and strings he had composed in Berlin.

The new piece was not a success when the composer conducted the premiere in Helsinki, on February 16, 1893, but nine years later, when Ferruccio Busoni invited him to present En Saga in Berlin, he subjected the score to a major revision, which made such a positive impression when he introduced it in Helsinki on November 2, 1902, that it immediately took its place in the general repertory. (Kajanus, for his part, eventually gave up composing in order to devote himself to conducting Sibelius’ works; in his last years he went to London to make the premiere recordings of several of them.)

It was not until four decades later still, when he had written the last of his works and the world had celebrated his 75th birthday, that Sibelius said anything at all about the extra-musical significance of this work. At that time (the early 1940s) he remarked, “En Saga is the expression of a state of mind. I had undergone a number of painful experiences at the time, and in no other work have I revealed myself so completely. It is for this reason that I find all literary explanations quite alien.” Still later, according to his most distinguished biographer, Erik Tawaststjerna, Sibelius “answered an inquiry from abroad by saying that if one had to find a literary or folkloristic source for En Saga the atmosphere of the piece was far closer to the [Icelandic] Eddas than to the Kalevala.”

elemental forces

As Sibelius’ early symphonies show traces of Tchaikovsky and Borodin, En Saga might be said to owe something to such Russian works as Balakirev’s Tamara and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Skazka. (The latter title, in fact, has a meaning similar to that of En Saga, but with less fearsome connotations: “A Tale,” or “Legend,” or in some cases “A Fairy Tale.”) The freedom Sibelius gained by not attempting to tell a specific story or paint a specific picture, though, gives En Saga a universality and directness altogether beyond the scope of those charming and colorful works. This music may not actually make us “want to wrestle a polar bear,” as the enthusiastic Sibelian Olin Downes suggested on hearing En Saga in the 1930s. But it is powerfully evocative in a more general sense, and it may touch us on deeper levels—may convey a sense of some primordial adventure—involving elemental forces rather than individuals, and both tragic and exhilarating in its fierce urgency.

The themes, strong and persistent, seem to grow directly out of one another, in the nature of metamorphoses. The rhythms are hypnotic, the darkish orchestral coloring (with a bass drum replacing, rather than augmenting, the timpani) as deftly achieved as anything from Rimsky-Korsakov, Strauss or Ravel. The overall effect is one of striking originality, a style as unlikely to be successfully imitated or duplicated as it is to be mistaken for that of anyone but Sibelius himself.


2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, bass drum, cymbals, triangle and strings

Program note by Richard Freed.

Henri Wieniawski

Born: July 30, 1835, Lublin, Poland
Died: March 31, 1880, Moscow, Russia

Concerto No. 2 in D minor for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 22

Most of the violin heroes from Paganini, who was born in 1782, to Adolf Busch, who died in 1952, were composers of considerable competence. It is different today, when a violinist such as Joshua Bell, daring to write his own cadenza for the Brahms concerto and doing so with flair and originality, is very much an exception among his colleagues.

Henri Wieniawski, born a half-century after Paganini, was one of the most esteemed Romantic violinist-composers. His mother, Regina Wolff, was an able pianist, and his uncle, Edouard Wolff, quite a celebrated one, as well as an active composer. At the age of eight, when Henri had already been playing the violin for some years, he was admitted to the Paris Conservatory, where he soon entered the class of Lambert Massart, one of the pedagogic eminences of the day. By the time he was 13, Wieniawski was a busy performer, usually with his younger brother Jósef at the piano, but in 1849 he returned to Paris in order to take up the serious study of composition.

always on the road

The violinist Leopold Auer recalled running into Wieniawski at the gambling tables at Wiesbaden, Germany. On tour with the great Anton Rubinstein, Wieniawski thought he had figured out a way to beat the system and bankrupt the casino; when that happened, he told Auer, he would give up concertizing, play only for his pleasure, and concentrate on composing. That happy day never arrived, and Wieniawski’s life was that of a traveling virtuoso. He lived in Saint Petersburg, where he was a ubiquitous presence on the musical scene, but his career constantly took him all over Europe. In 1872 he began a two-year tour of the United States, giving 215 concerts with Rubinstein in the first year alone, then continuing on almost as exhausting a schedule with the soprano Pauline Lucca.

Wieniawski returned to Europe with shattered health and a lot of money. He settled in Brussels, succeeding Henri Vieuxtemps at the Paris Conservatory. But being the sort of man who spent whatever he earned as soon as he could, he was under continuing pressure to stay on the road and play. A heart condition gave him ever more trouble. In November 1878 he collapsed during a performance in Berlin of his Concerto No. 2. His colleague Joseph Joachim was in the audience, and Wieniawski asked him to finish the concert for him. A month later, in Moscow, he was obliged to break off a performance of the Kreutzer Sonata after the first movement. Undeterred, he was soon off and running again, this time with soprano Désirée Artôt, who had once briefly been engaged to a young Tchaikovsky. Once again, though, the tour had to be called off so that Wieniawski could enter hospital in Odessa. When he died he was not yet 45.

For all his physical tribulations, Wieniawski was a cheerful sort and delightful company, a man who could never resist a pun and was a captivating raconteur. His marriage to an Irishwoman, Isabella Hampton, brought him much happiness. Accounts of Wieniawski’s playing invariably take note of its technical brilliance but remark even more on its fire and ardor. His compositions of course demand these qualities.

the concerto in brief

Wieniawski composed his Second Violin Concerto in 1862 and gave the first performance on November 27 of that year in Saint Petersburg, with Nikolai Rubinstein conducting. The score is dedicated to a fellow violinist-composer, Pablo de Sarasate, whose Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs) follows the Wieniawski concerto on tonight’s program. The Concerto No. 2 is the only one of Wieniawski’s larger works to have taken a firm hold in the repertory, though a few modern violinists, notably Midori, have made a persuasive case for the Concerto No. 1, which is more pyrotechnical than the Second, but with less soul.

allegro moderato. The first of the Second Concerto’s three movements is an Allegro moderato, more lyric that excited, and Auer recalled that Wieniawski himself used to play it “rather quietly, more moderato than allegro.” There is, of course, enough brilliant passagework to constitute a barrier to all but the most secure fiddlers. For years, having come to know this concerto through Heifetz’s wonderfully played 1935 recording, I had no idea that Wieniawski had begun the movement with an extended orchestral exposition that introduces the main themes and that midway through there is a similarly broad passage for orchestra alone: Heifetz cut all that out and came straight to what he conceived to be the point, namely Himself. But these passages do attest to the seriousness of Wieniawski’s intentions and to his sense of proportion, and they are not badly carried out. He is not quite as adventurous, fluid and skilled as his older contemporary Henri Vieuxtemps, but he is streets ahead of such predecessors as Paganini and Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst.

romance. A shapely and spacious phrase for clarinet alone makes a bridge into the second movement, a Romance. Here Wieniawski is at his most likeable and touching best. The melody is lovely, and the accompaniment imaginative and euphonious.

allegro con fuoco–allegro moderato (à la zingara). The finale is designed to bring the house down, and for this purpose the soloist regales us with flying 16th-notes, a reprise of a wonderfully soulful theme from the first movement, and an absolutely irresistible spell of gypsy-fiddling abandon.

Instrumentation: solo violin with orchestra comprising 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani and strings

Program note by the late Michael Steinberg, used with permission.

Pablo de Sarasate

Born: March 10, 1844, Pamplona, Spain
Died: September 20, 1908, Biarritz, France

Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs) for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 20

As a parting gift on tonight’s program, Joshua Bell delivers a second virtuoso showpiece by a Romantic-era violinist-composer: Spaniard Pablo de Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs). Sarasate was known in his day primarily as a performer, but he punched above his weight as a composer, rising to fame in the generation just after Paganini. His music, Zigeunerweisen in particular, is yet more evidence that the composers who have written most intelligently and virtuosically for violin have also been violinists—Vivaldi, Mozart, Sibelius, Bruch and Paganini easily come to mind. So, too, does Wieniawski, whose Second Violin Concerto (dedicated to none other than Sarasate) precedes Zigeunerweisen on tonight’s program.

royal connections and unmatched technique

Sarasate’s credentials as a violinist were formidable, earned at a very young age in spite of his origins in the musical backwater of Pamplona, the Basque city known for its annual Running of the Bulls. As is usually true with prodigious musical talent, one of his parents was a musician—in this case, his father, a violinist and military bandmaster who taught five-year-old Pablo the basics. Perhaps his biggest career break came when his playing caught the attention of her royal highness Queen Isabella of Spain, who sponsored Sarasate’s enrollment at the Paris Conservatory at the tender age 12, and gave him a 1724 Stradivarius violin. As a teen, Sarasate quickly rose to fame as a fearless virtuoso with an unmatched technique that won not only ardent fans, but major competitions in Europe as well. This launched an international touring career that brought him to America twice and regularly to London, where he took audiences by storm. Not since Paganini had a fiddler caused this kind of sensation. He inspired a number of important composers to write pieces for him: among them Bruch, Lalo and Saint-Saëns.

Early in his career, Sarasate began to perform his own works: extended, virtuosic fantasies based on themes from popular operas of the day. His fantasies on Bizet’s Carmen and Gounod’s Faust are bravura pieces that only the most gifted virtuosos need attempt. Regarding Sarasate’s idiomatic writing for the violin, the playwright and music critic George Bernard Shaw may have said it best when he declared that though there were many composers of music for the violin, there were but few composers of violin music.

a dash for the finish line

Perhaps Sarasate’s best-known work is Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs), evoking the Gypsy fire of Romany life. Written in 1878 and recorded by every major violin virtuoso since, it has become a staple for violinists, often as a concert encore. Zigeunerweisen begins with about seven minutes of slow, soulful melodies, leading into a spectacular two-minute dash for the finish line—extremely demanding of the performer—that leaves audiences breathless.

Instrumentation: solo violin with orchestra comprising 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, triangle and strings

Program note by Michael Adams.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Born: December 16, 1770, Bonn, Germany
Died: March 26, 1827, Vienna, Austria

Symphony No. 7 in A major, Opus 92

Beethoven turned 40 in December 1810, and things were going very well. True, his hearing had deteriorated to the point where he was virtually deaf, but he was still riding that white-hot explosion of creativity that has become known, for better or worse, as his “heroic” style.

re-imagining music

Over the decade-long span of that style, 1803 to 1813, Beethoven essentially re-imagined music and its possibilities. The works that crystallized the heroic style—the Eroica and the Fifth Symphony—unleashed a level of violence and darkness previously unknown in music and then triumphed over them. In these symphonies, music became a matter not of polite discourse but of conflict, struggle and resolution.

In the fall of 1811, Beethoven began a new symphony, his Seventh, which would differ sharply from those two famous predecessors. Gone is the sense of cataclysmic struggle and hard-won victory. Instead, this music is infused from its first instant with a mood of pure celebration.

Such a spirit has inevitably produced interpretations as to what this symphony is “about”: Berlioz heard in it a peasants’ dance, Wagner called it “the apotheosis of the dance,” and more recently Maynard Solomon has suggested that the Seventh is the musical representation of a festival, a brief moment of pure spiritual liberation.

But it may be safest to leave the issue of meaning aside and instead listen to the Seventh simply as music. There had never been music like this before, nor has there been since: this symphony contains more energy than any other piece of music ever written. Much has been made (correctly) of Beethoven’s ability to transform small bits of theme into massive symphonic structures, but here he begins not so much with theme as with rhythm: tiny figures, almost scraps of rhythm. Gradually he releases the energy locked up in these small figures and from them creates one of the mightiest symphonies ever written.

the symphony: small ideas transformed

poco sostenuto–vivace. The first movement opens with a slow introduction so long that it almost becomes a separate movement of its own. Tremendous chords punctuate the slow beginning, which gives way to a poised duet for oboes. The real effect of this long Poco sostenuto, however, is to coil the energy that will be unleashed in the true first movement, and Beethoven conveys this rhythmically: the meter of the introduction is a rock-solid (even square) 4/4, but the main body of the movement, marked Vivace, transforms this into a light-footed 6/8. This Vivace begins in what seems a most unpromising manner, however, as woodwinds toot out a simple dotted 6/8 rhythm and the solo flute announces the first theme. This simple dotted rhythm saturates virtually every measure of the movement, as theme, as accompaniment, as motor rhythm, always hammering into our consciousness. At the climax, horns sail majestically to the close as the orchestra thunders out that rhythm one final time.

allegretto. The second movement, in A minor, is one of Beethoven’s most famous slow movements, but the debate continues as to whether it really is a slow movement. Beethoven could not decide whether to mark it Andante, a walking tempo, or Allegretto, a moderately fast pace. He finally decided on the latter, though the actual pulse is somewhere between those two. This movement too is built on a short rhythmic pattern, in this case the first five notes: long-short-short-long-long—and this pattern repeats here almost as obsessively as the pattern of the first movement. The opening sounds like a series of static chords—the theme itself occurs quietly inside those chords—and Beethoven simply repeats this theme, varying it as it proceeds. The central episode in A major moves gracefully along smoothly-flowing triplets before a little fugato on the opening rhythms builds to a great climax. The movement winds down on the woodwinds’ almost skeletal reprise of the fundamental rhythm.

presto. The scherzo explodes to life on a theme full of grace notes, powerful accents, flying staccatos and timpani explosions. This alternates with a trio section for winds reportedly based on an old pilgrims’ hymn, though no one, it seems, has been able to identify that hymn exactly. Beethoven offers a second repeat of the trio, then seems about to offer a third before five abrupt chords drive the movement to its close.

allegro con brio. These chords set the stage for the finale, again built on the near-obsessive treatment of a short rhythmic pattern, in this case the movement’s opening four-note fanfare. This pattern punctuates the entire movement: it shapes the beginning of the main theme, and its stinging accents thrust the music forward continuously as this movement almost boils over with energy. The ending is remarkable: above growling cellos and basses (which rock along on a two-note ostinato for 28 measures), the opening theme drives to a climax that Beethoven marks fff, a dynamic marking he almost never used. This conclusion is virtually Bacchanalian in its wild power. No matter how many times we’ve heard it, it remains one of the most exciting moments in all of music. Beethoven led the first performance of the Seventh Symphony in Vienna on December 8, 1813—a huge success, with the audience demanding that the second movement be repeated.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings

Program notes by Eric Bromberger.

Program Notes: Cameron Carpenter Plays Rachmaninoff

Download program page (pdf) | Buy tickets to this performance

One-minute notes:

Mussorgsky: Prelude to Khovanshchina
Delicate harmonies, sweet folk tunes and morning church bells animate this exquisite tone poem, extracted from an unfinished Russian nationalist opera, that depicts dawn on the Moscow River.

Rachmaninoff/Carpenter: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
A twisting Paganini melody is the basis for Rachmaninoff’s ingenious set of 24 variations. The famous 18th variation turns Paganini’s theme upside down, transforming it into a gorgeous, moonlit love song. Rachmaninoff wrote the solo part for piano, but tonight it is played on organ in an exciting new version that arranger-performer Cameron Carpenter calls “Rachmaninoff on steroids.”


Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5
Shostakovich’s Fifth, the most frequently performed of his 15 symphonies, is forceful and questioning. It imitates the form of a classical symphony until its icy third movement, scored without brass, as gorgeous melodies rise and fall. Dueling critics have interpreted the finale as either triumphant or bitingly sarcastic.

Full program notes:

Modest Mussorgsky

Born: March 21, 1839, Karevo, Russia
Died: March 28, 1881, St. Petersburg, Russia

Prelude to Khovanshchina

The most original voice among the “Mighty Handful” of five 19th-century Russian composers was that of Mussorgsky, who was both the genius of the group and its most unstable personality. When he died from the effects of alcoholism at age 42, he left several of his most important compositions unfinished, including the opera Khovanshchina, to which Rimsky-Korsakov then put his hand. While Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov has become one of the most well-known Russian operas, Khovanshchina has held the stage far less often. In the meantime we must make do with the attractive orchestral episodes that have carved a place in the concert hall.

a prolonged project, rescued by Rimsky-Korsakov

As we know from Boris Godunov and Pictures at an Exhibition, Mussorgsky was an avid Russian nationalist. His most eloquent expression of the national soul was in songs and operas, while his purely orchestral efforts were minimal. In 1872 he began to collect historical and musical materials for Khovanshchina. The work dealt with the political disturbances under the regency which preceded Peter the Great’s full accession to the throne, probing the collision between the old feudalism and the czarist reforms, a crucial time in late 17th-century Russian history.

Instead of drafting a cogent scenario, Mussorgsky assembled fragments of a libretto, being carried away by the historical sources into which he delved. By 1873 he began to create the music, which occupied him intermittently until the summer of 1880. Noting his obsessive drinking, his friends worried about the future of the opera. Their fears were not unfounded, and Khovanshchina loomed importantly in the pile of unpublished manuscripts left at his death in 1881. It was the first work to be rescued by Rimsky-Korsakov. Once completed and orchestrated, the opera was produced by an amateur group in St. Petersburg on February 21, 1886. Rimsky-Korsakov omitted some passages that were subsequently orchestrated by Ravel and Stravinsky; Shostakovich also produced his own version and orchestration of the opera.

pastel washes of sound

The first act of Khovanshchina begins at daybreak in front of a church in a Moscow square. The tranquil, pastel washes of sound in the introductory Prelude evoke, in the composer’s own words, “the growing light of the rising sun,” depicting a dawn on the Moscow River. As orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov, the principal theme is announced by an oboe against shimmering background of tremulous and divided strings before being taken up by other colorful instrumental combinations. The image of bells, signaling early Mass, infiltrates the music.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, timpani, tamtam, harp and strings

Program note by Mary Ann Feldman.

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Born: April 1, 1873, Oneg, Novgorod, Russia
Died: March 28, 1943, Beverly Hills, California

Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Opus 23, arranged for Organ and Orchestra by Cameron Carpenter

In the spring of 1934 Rachmaninoff, then 61, and his wife moved into a villa they had just built on Lake Lucerne in Switzerland. They were delighted by the house, its opulent size and its view across the beautiful lake. Rachmaninoff was especially touched to find a surprise waiting for him there: the Steinway Company of New York had delivered a brand new piano to the villa.

a tune that beckons composers

Rachmaninoff spent the summer gardening and landscaping, and he also composed. Between July 3 and August 24 he wrote a set of variations for piano and orchestra on what is undoubtedly the most varied theme in the history of music, the last of Niccolo Paganini’s Twenty-Four Caprices for Solo Violin. Paganini had written that devilish tune, full of rhythmic spring and chromatic tension, in 1820, and he himself had followed it with 12 variations. That same theme has haunted composers through each century since—resulting in variations on it by Liszt (Transcendental Etudes), Schumann (12 Concert Etudes) and Brahms (the two sets of Paganini Variations) in the 19th century, followed in the 20th century by Witold Lutosławski, Boris Blacher and George Rochberg. And there may be more to come.

After considering several titles for his new work, the composer settled on Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, a title that places the focus on melody and somewhat disguises the ingenious variation-technique at the center of this music. The first performance, with the composer as soloist, took place in Baltimore on November 7, 1934, with Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. Pleased and somewhat surprised by the work’s reception, Rachmaninoff observed dryly: “It somehow looks suspicious that the Rhapsody has had such an immediate success with everybody.”

bravura solos, brilliant contrasts

The Rhapsody has a surprising beginning: a brief orchestral flourish containing hints of the theme leads to the first variation, which is presented before the theme itself is heard. This gruff and hard-edged variation, which Rachmaninoff marks Precedente, is in fact the bass line for Paganini’s theme, which is then presented in its original form by both violin sections in unison. Some of the variations last a matter of minutes, while others whip past almost before we know it (several are as short as 19 seconds). The 24 variations contrast sharply in both character and tempo, and the fun of this music lies not just in the bravura writing for keyboard but in hearing Paganini’s theme sound so different in each variation. In three of them, Rachmaninoff incorporates the old plainsong tune Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) used by Berlioz, Saint-Saëns and many others, including Rachmaninoff, for whom this grim theme was a virtual obsession. Here it appears in the solo part in the seventh and tenth variations, and eventually it drives the work to its climax.

Perhaps the most famous of Rachmaninoff’s variations, though, is the 18th, in which Paganini’s theme is inverted and transformed into a moonlit lovesong. The soloist states this variation in its simplest form, and then strings take it up and turn it into a soaring nocturne. The 18th variation has haunted many Hollywood composers, and Rachmaninoff himself noted wryly that he had written it specifically as a gift “for my agent.”

From here on, the tempo picks up, and the final six variations accelerate to a monumental climax. The excitement builds, the Dies Irae is stamped out by the full orchestra, and suddenly, like a puff of smoke, the Rhapsody vanishes before us on two quick strokes of sound.

“Rachmaninoff on steroids”

Today’s performance of the Paganini Rhapsody is unlike any ever heard at Orchestra Hall: Cameron Carpenter will perform his own version of the solo piano part on the International Touring Organ (ITO), a one-of-a-kind instrument built for Carpenter by digital organ pioneers Marshall & Ogletree. The ITO is billed as the world’s first truly artistic digital organ, with sophisticated technology that reproduces the sounds of the finest historical organs, providing Carpenter with great flexibility in performances spaces and in his concert repertoire.

Unveiled by Carpenter in a 2014 performance at New York’s Lincoln Center, the ITO features a modular five-keyboard console; a processing system that utilizes samples from several organs key to Carpenter’s artistic development; and a “geographic” concert audio system scalable to venues ranging from concert halls to nightclubs, as well as open-air use and television.

Carpenter’s version of the Rachmaninoff Paganini Rhapsody, which debuted on July 17, 2015, with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Long Yu, takes full advantage of the ITO’s capacities while leaving all the orchestral parts as originally written. Carpenter explains:

“In transcribing Rachmaninoff’s great exploration of Paganini’s theme, I haven’t changed one note or phrase of the orchestral material. That is fortunate, since Rachmaninoff’s writing is incredibly economical, lacking any extra notes or gestures. In the piano part, many interior melodies, figures and other events are given greater tonal contrast on the organ than is possible in the piano, and the organ’s much larger dynamic range—obvious in any comparison between the piano in general with any large organ, but even more extreme in the case of the International Touring Organ—is exploited to the maximum.

“When performing this work on the organ, I think of it as a kind of darkly theatrical, sinister magnification of the original that exaggerates its dynamic and emotional heights and depths to even more extreme degrees, while emphasizing the music’s prolific counterpoint in a way that makes it clearer and more structurally obvious than in the original. It is intended to be Rachmaninoff on steroids: the organ’s powers of perspective and contrast, its ability to indefinitely sustain tone, and to crescendo, tremulate and otherwise alter held tones, afford many technical capabilities of which no piano or pianist is capable; and these are utilized to the full. Rooted in the Dies Irae, a natural match for the organ’s usual imagery, this version strives at moments to invoke a pall of mythic doom, while its sensuous moments should be supercharged with unheard-of horsepower.”

Instrumentation: solo organ with orchestra comprising 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, glockenspiel, harp and strings

Program note by Eric Bromberger.

Dmitri Shostakovich

Born: September 25, 1906, St. Petersburg, Russia
Died: August 9, 1975, Moscow, Russia

Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Opus 47

Shostakovich’s Fifth is at once the most popular symphony since Mahler and the most enigmatic. It was composed in the aftermath of the savage January 1936 attack by Pravda on Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, which probably had been ordered by Stalin himself. Before that, Shostakovich had been the bright young star of Soviet music, hailed as a product of that system and acclaimed around the world for his witty, sardonic music. Now, virtually overnight, he found himself in disgrace, his career in ruins and he himself perhaps ticketed for a labor camp.

After a great deal of soul searching, Shostakovich composed his Fifth Symphony very quickly (between April 18 and July 20, 1937), and its triumphant premiere in Leningrad on November 21 of that year signaled his artistic and political rehabilitation. One of the most striking features of this music is Shostakovich’s return to classical form, a move that has signaled capitulation to some Western critics. But it may well be that Shostakovich felt that there was justice in the Pravda description of his music as “fidgety, screaming, neurotic,” and that his music did need greater balance, restraint and stability.

intense drama

There is a great deal of superb music in the Fifth Symphony. This is an intensely dramatic score, so powerful that it is easy to overlook the control and unity of Shostakovich’s writing.

moderato. The first movement opens with ominous canonic exchanges between string sections, and these give way to the violins’ quietly twisting main theme. Almost incidentally, Shostakovich introduces the simple rhythmic motif (short-short-long) that will saturate and unify the entire symphony. There follows a beautiful episode: over string accompaniment that pulses along on the rhythmic motif, first violins sing a melody full of wide leaps. But the wonder is that this peaceful theme, which sounds completely new, is actually a subtle transformation of the powerful canonic introduction to the Symphony. This sort of ingenious transformation of material marks the entire Fifth Symphony.

The entrance of the piano signals the beginning of the development. It has been said that in this symphony Shostakovich does not so much develop his material as brutalize it, and now themes that had been peaceful at their introduction are made shrill, almost hysterical in their intensity. The movement reaches a climax on a furious tamtam stroke as brass stamp out the rhythmic motif. After all this fury, Shostakovich resolves the tensions beautifully: the themes now return peacefully and, with its energy spent, the movement ends quietly.

allegretto. Many have felt the influence of Mahler in the bittersweet second movement that waltzes past in quickstep time. Much of the fun here lies in the instrumental color—the sardonic solo clarinet, the solo violin’s slides in the trio and the rattling sound of the xylophone.

largo. The third movement is more complex. Its scoring is unique: Shostakovich eliminates the brass, divides the strings into eight parts, and gives a prominent role to the harp, piano and celesta. He wrote this movement in one great arc, and the Largo features lean textures, an icy sound and some of his most beautiful melodies. It rises to a great climax, then falls away to end quietly on the spooky sound of harp harmonics.

allegro non troppo. Out of this quiet, the finale rips to life with pounding timpani, ringing brass and boundless energy; an angular second subject arrives in the solo trumpet over whirring strings. The militaristic bombast of this movement has bothered some listeners, but Shostakovich rescues it by his stunning transformation of this bluff beginning. Gradually these themes are made to slow down and sing, and material that had been strident on its first appearance yields unsuspected melodic riches in the subdued center section. Shostakovich gathers his forces and drives the symphony to a triumphant, if somewhat raucous, close in D major.

interpreting the music

Music this dramatic cries out for interpretation, and ideological critics on both sides of the Iron Curtain have been happy to supply violently divergent explanations of its “meaning.” Prompted by authorities to provide a politically correct program, Shostakovich obliged: “The theme of my symphony is the stabilization of a personality. In the center of this composition—conceived lyrically from beginning to end—I saw a man with all his experiences. The finale resolves the tragically tense impulses of the earlier movements into optimism and the joy of living.” So existential an explanation even led to this symphony’s being labeled the Hamlet Symphony in some Soviet circles.

More recently, the Fifth Symphony has become the locus classicus of what might be called “The Great Shostakovich Debate” between two groups: those who regard this symphony as sincere and consciously heroic, and those Western critics who wish to rescue Shostakovich from his past and are unwilling to accept the proposition that great music might have been composed under the Soviet system. These critics have been able to accept this symphony only by declaring the entire piece ironic. Its triumph, they say, is hollow, a conscious nose-thumbing at a political regime that insisted on happy endings from its artists.

To such extremes have ideological critics been driven by their politics—and it is clear that the Cold War lives on in the minds of those engaged in this debate. Perhaps, in this century, it may be possible to approach Shostakovich’s symphony as it should be understood: as music. Heard for itself, it remains an exciting work, satisfying both emotionally and artistically. Far from being a capitulation, Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony marks a refinement of his musical language and an engagement with those classical principles that would energize his music for the next 40 years.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, tamtam, triangle, glockenspiel, xylophone, harp, piano, celesta and strings

Program note by Eric Bromberger.

Audience spotlight: My unexpected connection with the Minnesota Orchestra

By audience member David Steinmeyer

On a pleasant evening in the spring of 1983, I attended a performance by the Minnesota Orchestra at the College of St. Catherine. On the program was the Armenian Suite by Armenian-American composer Richard Yardumian. I had never heard it before, and I didn’t know what to expect, but as the Orchestra performed it, I was completely captivated. The audience applause was vigorous, and I felt the strong desire to shout out “Play it again!” But logic prevailed and I kept my peace. At the third appearance of the conductor, onto the stage came the composer himself, Richard Yardumian! This was almost more than my heart could bear.

The next day I was on the phone to the record shops trying to find a recording of that piece, but to no avail. I then called the Minnesota Orchestra and explained my situation, and a helpful person suggested that I talk with the composer’s daughter, Miryam, who was on the staff of the Orchestra. “What? Can this be?” I thought. Well, it was true, and Miryam passed my request on to her father.

A couple weeks later in the mail I received an LP recording of the Armenian Suite, with an autographed greeting from the composer and a short note from his wife. I asked Miryam if I might pay her father for the recording, but she said that no, it was a gift. I felt strongly that I must somehow reciprocate, so being an amateur photographer I made an enlargement of a nature photo, A Grasshopper at the End of Summer, and sent it to him in a handmade redwood frame. On the back I wrote: “The same God who made the universe, and you and me, also made the grasshopper.”

Richard responded immediately with a very generous letter, which included some deep philosophical thoughts, indicating a superior intellect. He said he hoped we might get together someday soon for what he called “a discussion of truth,” but two years later he was dead. Now, decades later, I continue to be grateful for my contact with this creative genius, and I still love to hear the Armenian Suite. Thus began my strong connection with the Minnesota Orchestra, which is now like family to me.


David Steinmeyer is a subscriber, Laureate Society member and donor, as well as an amateur luthier and a clarinetist. The photo at top shows David and his wife Gwendolyn Steinmeyer.

Are you interested in sharing your own “Audience spotlight” story? We invite you to email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..