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Osmo Vänskä /// Music Director

Recent Articles: Sam Bergman

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.”

The Best Piece

By my count, I’ve played on a couple of dozen Minnesota Orchestra recordings in the 15-plus years I’ve been employed here, and there are more than a few CDs in that stack that I’m quite proud to have been a part of. But it’s no hyperbole to say that I had been waiting my entire career to sit down and make the CD that we recorded in the spring of 2011.

That disc, released by the BIS label in 2012 and nominated for a Grammy later that year, included Sibelius’s Second Symphony, probably his most popular multi-movement work. And of course, recording any Sibelius with Osmo is a virtual guarantee that the world will pay attention to the results. But for me, the highlight of the recording session was the chance to lay down a memorable rendition of the mighty Finn’s Fifth Symphony. The Fifth is not just my favorite Sibelius work, not just my favorite symphony – it’s my favorite music, period. I love it more than the Mendelssohn Octet, more than Leonard Cohen’s best songs or the Indigo Girls’ tightest harmonies, more than Bach fugues or Brahms symphonies. In my opinion, separating out any peripheral issues like how groundbreaking or influential a work of art is or isn’t, Sibelius 5 is purely and simply the best music ever written.

There are a lot of reasons I believe this, but most of them come down to perfection of pacing, which also means that Sibelius 5 only becomes the best music ever written with the right performance. I was a fairly late convert to Sibelius, because most of the recordings of his music that I heard as a kid were heavy, ponderous things (listen below) presided over by ultra-serious conductors who liked to stretch every phrase to its maximum possible length, as if to convey, through slowness, that this was Important Art. Then, as now, that approach to music did almost nothing for me, and I just assumed that I wasn’t a big Sibelius fan.


That changed one night in 1996, when I made the 45-minute trek from my little college town to hear the Cleveland Orchestra play Sibelius’ Second at Severance Hall. (I think the conductor was Jukka-Pekka Saraste, but I’m not even a little bit certain of that.) It was a revelation: played correctly by a really great string section (Cleveland has one of the very best in the world), the opening swells of that symphony set a mood that wraps around you like a hug, and propels you forward into Sibelius’s universe of murmuring rhythmic pulses and explosive brass flourishes. I was an instant convert.

I discovered the Fifth a couple of years later, and knew instantly that I had found my symphony. From the opening horn call (which somehow manages to sound exactly like a sunrise), to the halting, nervous chattering that follows in the strings, to the propulsive brass arpeggios that herald the opening of the scherzo, everything is paced to extract the maximum emotional response from the audience.

The first movement ends with an accelerando that lasts for about five minutes, builds to a frenzied climax, and then slams to a halt with almost no warning. Here, take a listen. Cue the video below to 12 minutes, 14 seconds:

If you pace it just right, the audience will sometimes gasp audibly as the final chord rips past them. Our audiences at Orchestra Hall that spring when we made our recording not only gasped, some of them jumped in their seats, and there was an audible moment of discombobulation bouncing around the still-electric room, during which I watched a few people clearly going through the following mental progression in a matter of seconds:


Okay, that was...


...I mean, what just happened?!...

Hey, I should applaud!!, wait! Maybe I shouldn’t!

You could practically see these people’s heart rates being yanked up and down, which is a pretty impressive thing for a piece of music to do. It requires a tremendous amount of technical setup for a composer to place an audience so squarely in the palm of his hand that a quick right turn into a tonic chord can be enough to cause a physical jolt. And that’s just the first movement!

The end of the finale of the 5th is every bit as impressive, and even more daring on Sibelius’s part. Like the first movement, the finale builds slowly, progressing organically to what is clearly going to be another shattering climax. But satisfying our basest desire for simple resolution isn’t what Sibelius has in mind. Instead, he preps us for full-on emotional catharsis, and then provides that release not through excess, but through cavernous, pregnant silence. To hear this, cue the video below to 29 minutes, 5 seconds.

Call it the Anti-Tchaikovsky approach. Nothing against Tchaikovsky (though, in truth, I have plenty against him), but in his symphonies, he mostly specializes in sending waves of consonant sound crashing over the audience, and then providing exactly the final, sugar-bomb catharsis he knows you’re craving. Sibelius, by contrast, takes his time, builds the sound in layers, brings us to the edge of the cliff, and then sweeps away, leaving us standing on its edge, filled with the thrill of it all but also with the profound emptiness of eternity.

This immensity and appeal to the furthest reaches of human contemplation were no accident. As he was beginning to compose the Fifth, in 1914, Sibelius wrote in his notebook that, while the details of the piece were not yet clear to him, he already knew that he was embarking on a monumental journey. Never one to mince words, he described his hoped-for outcome this way: “God opens His door for a moment and His orchestra plays the Fifth Symphony.”*

I don’t know about God’s orchestra, or what they like to play. But I know that I’ve never experienced a sense of musical power like the one I feel when I’m a part of a performance of Sibelius 5. It’s perfect, perfect music. I honestly believe that.

*(citation: Michael Steinberg. The Symphony. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.)

Addendum: In addition to our recording of Sibelius’s 5th (and 2nd) symphonies, which you can purchase here, Osmo also recorded what is arguably the definitive version of the 5th with Sinfonia Lahti back in the 1990s, also for BIS. As proud as I am to have been a part of our version, the Lahti recording is the gold standard, and you should go get it, now.

Originally published June 2011. Revised September 2015.