From all of us at the Minnesota Orchestra, we wish you a wonderful, musical holiday season!
Osmo Vänskä /// Music Director
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!
Featuring Gabriel Campos Zamora, clarinet
Featuring Charles Lazarus, trumpet
Featuring Roma Duncan, piccolo
Featuring Tim Zavadil, bass clarinet
Featuring Erin Keefe, violin
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 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.
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.
Thank you to our audiences and donors for their wholehearted support which has made the achievements of the past season possible!
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.
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: kevinkling.com.
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.
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 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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Thank you for your support!
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 minnesotaorchestra.org/sensoryfriendly.
Sensory-Friendly concerts are sponsored by PNC Financial Services Group, Inc.
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.
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.
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 myhealthymatters.org.
Photos by Travis Anderson
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."
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.
“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: https://pitchfork.com/features/article/9886-blood-and-echoes-the-story-of-come-out-steve-reichs-civil-rights-era-masterpiece/
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 augustinhadelich.com.
Click here for more about the concerts and to purchase tickets.
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 minnesotaorchestra.org.
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!
Minnesota Orchestra member since: September 2017
Position/section: Principal Bassoon
Hometown: Tang Shan, China
Education: M.M., Rice University, B.M., Oberlin College
What is currently on your music stand?
On my stand, I always have the music for the next 2 to 3 weeks of orchestra programs, plus some etudes and French solo bassoon pieces.
Do you come from a musical family?
Yes, my parents are both Peking Opera musicians, and my uncle is a composer who introduced me to classical music at the age of three.
How did you choose to play the bassoon?
The bassoon kind of chose me. I started playing piano when I was three years old, and I studied it until I was 12 years old. When I finished elementary school, I wanted to audition for the middle school attached to the Central Conservatory of Music, one of the best music schools in China. After taking a lesson with one of the professors, she told me that I would not be accepted that year as a pianist, but that I should try to audition for the wind department if I really wanted to get into the school. The wind department would sometimes accept students who had musical talent but hadn’t learned to play any particular wind instrument yet. I went to the audition and one very nice lady asked if I would consider learning the bassoon. I had no idea what the bassoon was at that time. It wasn't until the next day, when I brought my parents to meet the professor, that I first saw and heard the bassoon, and I fell in love with its beautiful sound! Now I am here!
Fei Xie with bassoonist J. Christopher Marshall onstage at Orchestra Hall
Where did you play before coming to Minnesota?
I always knew that I wanted to play in an orchestra, so I started taking orchestral auditions when I was in college. My very first job was as the principal bassoon of Mansfield Symphony in Ohio, while I was a junior at Oberlin. My second job was as the second bassoon of the Houston Grand Opera. I won that position while I was a graduate student at Rice University. One year after I graduated from Rice University, I won the second bassoon job in Baltimore Symphony, and later won the principal bassoon audition there. After serving 5 years as principal bassoon in Baltimore, I joined the Minnesota Orchestra.
Which moment in the bassoon’s orchestral repertoire is your favorite?
I love them all! The bassoon doesn't get as many solos as the other woodwind instruments, so I love it anytime one is written for bassoon. I really have an interest in story-telling, so if I had to pick one, I’d choose the solo from Scheherazade by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.
Principal Oboe John Snow and Principal Bassoon Fei Xie (both at center) after a masterclass with students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, January 2018
What Minnesotan activity are you excited to try for the first time?
Since I am new to Minnesota, I am trying my best to adapt to the weather. One of the things I have never done but am looking forward to is skiing. I just signed my son up for ski lessons, and I hope I will also become a skier soon.
What would you recommend to audience members here?
Come to as many concerts as you would like. The Minnesota Orchestra really puts on variety of music. You can find so many different genres of music in the concert hall.
Fei Xie with a student at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, January 2018
What upcoming performances are you looking forward to?
I am really looking forward to the Mahler symphonies we are playing and recording this season. I am also looking forward to the collaboration with Pink Martini. I love that group.
What do you like to do when you aren’t performing?
I love to cook, particularly authentic home-style Chinese food. I think cooking is so much like making music. Everyone can look at the same notes, but you play it differently. With cooking, everyone is working with the same ingredients and yet the food always comes out a little bit different. I like to apply things I learn while cooking to music-making, and vice versa. I probably would have become a chef or had a cooking show if I wasn’t a musician.
Click here to read more about Fei Xie.
When you attend a Minnesota Orchestra concert, you may start out by reading program notes. Learn more about who writes program notes and their unique backgrounds and perspectives in our new “Meet the Annotator” Q&A series. First up is Eric Bromberger, who most recently wrote program notes for our Tchaikovsky Marathon.
How long have you been writing program notes for the Minnesota Orchestra?
I’ve written for this Orchestra since 2000, when I was recommended by the renowned musicologist and writer Michael Steinberg, the late husband of former Minnesota Orchestra concertmaster Jorja Fleezanis. It’s been a good relationship ever since!
What was your initial background and training in music?
I started out as a performer. I grew up in Southern California, learned to play the violin as a boy and graduated from the University of Redlands. I was drafted in 1968 and spent a year in Vietnam with the First Cavalry Division. After I returned, I completed a Ph.D. in American literature at UCLA. For 10 years I taught literature and writing courses at Bates College in Maine and at San Diego State University. Then I left teaching to devote myself to writing about music.
Your performing experience must help in your writing.
Yes, being a musician has aided me immeasurably, since I’ve learned the classical repertory in the best possible way: by playing it. I’ve been lucky to play in some very good orchestras, and played through the symphonic literature, from the Saint Matthew Passion through Xenakis, Glass, and Adams. I’ve always played second violin, and I love playing second violin, in both orchestras and string quartets. That lets me learn the music from the inside out. I like being inside the music, hearing the harmonies shift, feeling the cross-rhythms, and having to master the challenges of music by quite different composers. That’s quite a different way of learning music from hearing it out in the hall.
What do you think makes a good program note?
As an annotator, I feel that I have one job: to give an audience the tools to listen for themselves. My job is not to tell an audience how to feel about a piece of music, but to help them listen. Every program note should give certain basic information—like where a work comes in a composer’s career, what he or she said about it, why it’s distinctive or important, any good stories associated with it—but a note should also pique listeners’ interest, make them want to hear the music, and give them some things to listen for or ways to approach a piece. And I like the challenge of having only about 90 seconds of the audiences’ time to do all those things. I know that not everyone is going to like every piece of music, and that's fine: I like audiences to listen well, and also to listen for themselves and be honest in their response to a particular piece, whether they like it or not.
Tell us a bit about your favorite composers to write about.
My own special interests are the great symphonic tradition of Haydn through Shostakovich, the music of Bartók, and American music in general. One thing I’ve enjoyed about writing for the Minnesota Orchestra is that it’s pushed me in directions I haven’t been before. This Orchestra has played some very unusual music, and I like learning music that's new to me.
What other ensembles and organizations do you write for?
I’m also the annotator for the San Diego Symphony, Washington Performing Arts at the Kennedy Center, San Francisco Performances, La Jolla Music Society, Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival and the Chicago Symphony’s chamber series, among others.
What do you do when you’re not writing?
Much of it involves family. My wife is a pediatrician who specializes in newborn intensive care. She’s done a number of medical projects overseas, and I’ve gone with her on extended projects in Ghana, Vietnam and Ethiopia. Our three children have careers in quite different places (London, New York City and San Francisco), so we travel a lot to see them. We live in Los Osos, on California’s central coast, and work as docents at Morro Bay and Montana de Oro State Parks. At the top of this interview is a photo taken on the edge of Morro Bay.
Stay tuned in coming months for profiles of the Orchestra’s other annotators.
On December 21, the Minnesota Orchestra presents two performances of a new concert called Home for the Holidays. Middle-schooler Alejandro Vega —who is a bright, young actor and singer — makes his Minnesota Orchestra debut in these performances. We took some time to get to know Alejandro and talk about his role in this new show as we prepare for the concerts.
Home for the Holidays was conceived and directed by Peter Rothstein, written by Kevin Kling, features music by composers Robert Elhai and Peter Ostroushko, and is conducted by Sarah Hicks. A talented cast of Minnesota-based actor-singers will join the Orchestra onstage to share holiday stories and music that are uniquely Minnesotan.
How would you describe Home for the Holidays in 5 words or less?
Quirky family holiday experiences
What is your role in this new holiday show?
In a way, I am an assistant to Kevin Kling’s narrating—I am a younger version of Kevin Kling. It helps to have the perspective of what an older person (Kevin) would think and what a child (me) would experience or think in different situations.
Do you have a favorite song or scene?
My favorite song in the show is probably is In Praise of MN Foods—the music and the singing are complex (at least for me they are), and it really brings another comedic and melodic level to the show.
Alejandro in Peter Pan at The Children's Theatre. Photo credit: Dan Norman
Of all of your onstage roles, which has been your favorite and why?
I played Albert Grissom at the Guthrie in 7th House Theater’s The Passage or What Comes of Searching in the Dark. I enjoyed the role because I got to be extremely imaginative. I played a kid who changed a very dark personal experience into a creative game to try to save his dad from an inevitable death. In some way Albert was in denial, but to save his childhood he needed to embrace it.
What holiday traditions do you have with your friends or family?
When we go to Mexico for Christmas to spend time with family, it is so much fun. There is a whole week of pre-Christmas parties called Posadas when we reenact the journey of Mary and Joseph looking for lodging. Each night the celebration ends with a piñata. On Christmas Eve, we go to church and then our huge family gets together—but it starts really late, like around 9 pm. We open presents, and we have dinner at midnight after everyone hugs and kisses to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Then Santa Claus comes on Christmas Day. A week after New Year’s, the Reyes Magos (Three Wise Men) come and leave presents in our shoes.
What is on your holiday wish list this year?
Nintendo Switch, clothes, rock climbing shoes, my 2 front teeth.
Alejandro in The Shining with Minnesota Opera. Photo courtesy Minnesota Opera.
Do you have a favorite Minnesota activity or food?
Fishing at the cabin with my dad and uncle, and eating alligator and corn on the cob at the Minnesota State Fair.
If you were programming your own Minnesota Orchestra concert, what music would you have them play?
Do you have other upcoming performances you are looking forward to?
I am really excited about a show I am doing this April at Theater Latté Da called Five Points. It’s a world premiere. The music and lyrics are so good. Even though it takes place during the U.S. Civil War, the message is really important today.
Alejandro in The Shining with Minnesota Opera. Photo courtesy of Minnesota Opera.
ALEJANDRO VEGA is excited to be making his Minnesota Orchestra debut in Home for the Holidays. Alejandro has performed with Theater Latté Da in Oliver!, Gypsy, and the NEXT Festival 2017. He appeared in The Shining (Danny Torrance) with the Minnesota Opera, Damn Kids These Days in the MN Fringe Festival, The Passage with 7th House Theater/Guthrie Theater, and in Hennepin Theater Trust’s Spotlight Showcase. Alejandro has also performed with the Children’s Theatre Company in The Abmoninables, Peter Pan The Musical and The Wizard of Oz. Besides theater, Alejandro enjoys anime and manga, kendamas, listening to music, dance, soccer, surfing, skateboarding, math and science. Ale is in 7th grade at Minnetonka Middle School East in the Chinese immersion program. He will next be seen in the world premiere of Five Points at Theater Latté Da.
Top Photo Credit: Stephan Kistler
Minnesota Orchestra member since: 2003-2012, 2016-current
Position:Principal Second Violin
Where did you grow up? Do you come from a musical family?
I am a Minnesotan, from Mankato. My dad, Jim McGuire, a classical and jazz guitarist and teacher, was inducted this year into the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame. My brother, Colin, is also a violinist.
Tell us about your orchestral journey so far:
My first position was in Des Moines, Iowa, with the Pioneer String Quartet. Four years later, I moved to Minneapolis to play as a substitute violinist with the Minnesota Orchestra. After a brief stint as Principal Second Violin of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, I joined the Minnesota Orchestra’s first violin section. Then, I spent a few years in Zurich, Switzerland, as Second Konzertmeister of the Tonhalle Orchester, before returning last year to serve in my current position. Along the way, I’ve played as a guest with many orchestras, including the Berlin Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, SWR Sinfonieorchester-Stuttgart, OSR-Geneva, Seattle Symphony, Gurzenich orchester Köln and the All-Star Orchestra.
What are you listening to lately?
I've been enjoying Renaissance choral music lately. It is so elemental, and a good palette cleanser. Schubert, Bruckner—I’m really into the classicists.
Which solo moment in the violin’s orchestral repertoire do you love?
There are so many great solo moments for violin. I think the Sanctus from Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis is my favorite.
Tell us about someone or something that has influenced you most?
There are so many people that come to mind, but I’d like to acknowledge Fred Halgedahl as a terrific balance of violinist, teacher, writer and thoughtful human being.
What is one of your proudest career moments?
Joining the Minnesota Orchestra in 2003, and rejoining the Orchestra as Principal Second Violin in 2016, are two favorites. These were life-changing events for my family.
McGuire, front center, serves as the leader of the Orchestra's Second Violin section
This season with the Orchestra, which concert is most exciting to you and why?
We are continuing recording all the symphonies of Mahler. When we perform them in concert, the Orchestra will be in top form.
Do you have any words of advice for new audience members?
Be as open as you can, but trust yourself.
McGuire greets an audience member during intermission at a concert in Naples, Florida.
Do you have any words of advice for aspiring musicians?
If you ever get to a point where you think it isn’t about loving to play great music, you’re wrong.
If you weren’t a professional musician, what would you be?
I'd be ever so slightly more out of tune!
What is your favorite Minnesotan food or activity to enjoy?
I love a good hot dish. Actually, I love that it is a portable gesture of comfort. If we can’t talk about it, we can at least bring a hot dish.
What is your favorite joke?
I can't remember jokes, and when I can, I don’t deliver very well. May I kindly suggest consulting violist Richard Marshall, who always has a joke at the ready.
Minnesota Orchestra member since: 2016
Position: Principal Clarinet
Hometown: San José, Costa Rica
Education: The Colburn Conservatory, Los Angeles, CA
Tell us about your orchestral journey so far.
My first orchestra job was in Norfolk, where I played principal clarinet with the Virginia Symphony. I wasn't there for long before I moved to Kansas City where I played both bass clarinet and was eventually associate principal clarinet. The rest is history—here I am in Minnesota!
Do you come from a musical family?
I was born and raised in San José, Costa Rica, and both my parents are jazz musicians. My dad is a drummer and my mom a singer. For many years they had a group called Jazz Garbo.
What has been on your music stand recently?
I've had new music for last week's Future Classics concert as well as music for MPR's 50 year celebration. I also have Rossini's Introduction, Theme and Variations, which is a concerto that I'm playing with the Linden Hills Chamber Orchestra.
Which piece on this season are you most excited to perform?
I'm really looking forward to playing and recording Mahler's Fourth Symphony. This piece is a sort of pillar in my musical formation and I have some very deep memories from when I was growing up, musically speaking!
Gabriel Campos Zamora, center, performing Mendelssohn's Reformation Symphony with the Minnesota Orchestra, November 2017
Which solo in the clarinet’s repertoire do you love?
This year I got to play Beethoven’s Fourth. There are a couple of incredible clarinet solos in the slow movement that are usually heard in auditions–they are a lot easier to play with an actual orchestra!
If not the clarinets, which section of the orchestra would you like to be in?
Ever since I knew that music was something I wanted to do professionally, I have wished that I hadn't dropped violin as a kid, especially because of the amount of chamber music repertoire violinists have available to them.
What is one of your proudest career moments?
Lately, I'd say that being in the Minnesota Orchestra and feeling as welcomed as I do is an incredible source of pride!
Campos, center, receives special recognition along with his colleagues, for a performance of Copland's Appalachian Spring in August 2017.
Do you have any advice for audience members?
For those who are new to Orchestra Hall, come talk to us! Musicians love to greet all audience members before and after the concert and during intermission. It's an absolute pleasure for us to walk you through a piece that perhaps you don't quite understand. There was a point in all of our lives in which we didn't understand the same piece. Don't be shy!
Do you have advice for aspiring musicians?
Practice, practice, practice, but also listen to as much music as you can. Listen to live music, support your Minnesota Orchestra, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Minnesota Opera and any other music organization that you think might interest you!
If you weren’t a musician, what would you do?
I come from a family of doctors and I thought I might want to do that when I was younger. Who knows, maybe I'll still switch careers and one day become a doctor!
What do you love to do when you aren't performing?
I'm a huge soccer fan and can't wait to visit the Minnesota United's new stadium. Also, I'm constantly on the lookout for the best Old Fashioned cocktail in the Twin Cities–if you have a recommendation let me know!
Click here to read more about Gabriel.
Minnesota Orchestra member since: 2016
Section: First Violin
Hometown: Shoreview, MN
Education: Northwestern University
You’ve had a very exciting history with the Minnesota Orchestra! Tell us a little bit about your journey so far.
I started going to hear Minnesota Orchestra children’s concerts when I was 4 or 5 years old, and eventually I studied violin with the Orchestra’s former Associate Concertmaster Sarah Kwak. I also had the opportunity to solo with the Orchestra during Sommerfest a few times as a teenager after participating in Minnesota Idol and winning a prize in the YPSCA School Music Auditions.
After I finished college at Northwestern University in Chicago, I took an audition to sub with the Orchestra. I played occasionally with them for several years until the audition last October, when I won a position in the violin section.
Sarah (age 13) with Music Director Osmo Vanska at a Minnesota Youth Symphonies workshop.
How did you choose the violin?
My dad plays the trumpet, my mom is a pianist, and my younger sister and brother play viola and cello, respectively. I started violin when I was four, and grew to love its vocal quality and range of sound colors, but I’m pretty sure my motivation for choosing it at that age was that I just wanted to be unique and play a different instrument than anyone in my family!
Tell us about an experience that has influenced you most?
When I was little, my grandma took me to play at nursing homes and hospitals—something I continued doing as I grew up. On a superficial level, it was a way to become more comfortable in front of an audience, but I think it also impressed upon me at a very early age what a profound gift it is to be able to share music with people. Those experiences really shaped and grounded my perspective as a musician.
What is one of your proudest moments as a musician?
One of the coolest moments for me was playing a Minnesota Orchestra concert with my dad, who is a substitute trumpet player with the Orchestra.
Sarah and her dad, Greg Grimes, on the Orchestra Hall stage after a performance together.
Which moment in the violin’s orchestral repertoire is your favorite?
I love the balcony scene from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, and my favorite violin solo is the obligato from the aria Erbarme dich in St. Matthew’s Passion.
What career would you have pursued if you weren’t a musician?
Growing up I always said I wanted to be an archeologist, and I studied Latin and Ancient Greek in high school and college. I also (briefly) considered double majoring in journalism or creative writing. So, basically, even if I wasn’t a musician, I’d still be a nerd.
If you could play a different instrument, which would you choose and why?
Cello or horn. They have the most gorgeous timbres, but I don’t think I’d do well with the physical challenges of either!
What are you listening to lately?
Recently I’ve been studying several violin sonatas by a Polish composer named Grazyna Bacewicz, and I’ve been listening to some of her other solo and string quartet works. She has an impressive and varied body of work—go check her out! Outside the classical realm, I like Sufjan Stevens, The Cure, anything Chris Thile does, Courtney Barnett, Robyn, Beach House, Chance the Rapper, Fleet Foxes, Beyonce, and so many others.
Do you have any thoughts or advice for audience members?
As a kid who grew up listening to the Minnesota Orchestra, I’m a big proponent of taking your kids (or grandkids, nieces, nephews, etc.) to see the orchestra. Take them out for ice cream and ask them to tell you a story about the music they heard. Their imaginations never disappoint.
Sarah, at age 4
Do you have any advice for aspiring musicians?
Whenever musical opportunities arise that scare you, just say yes.
French conductor and contralto Nathalie Stutzmann visits Orchestra Hall on October 12, 13 and 14 to conduct the Minnesota Orchestra in music by Prokofiev, Mozart and Beethoven. We’ve asked her a few questions about her early musical memories, life as a traveling musician, her hobbies and upcoming projects, and the music she conducts here this weekend.
How did you get your start in music?
I grew up in a family of singers, and there was always music at home and at my grandparents’ home. Whether it was someone playing the piano or putting on the radio or a disc, there was always music around, so I was permanently immersed right from the childhood and it already fascintated me.
What are some of your favorite spots to travel for performances?
It has to do with the beauty of the acoustics: Carnegie Hall, Berlin’s Philharmonie, Vienna’s Musikverein, Amsterdam’s Concergebouw and São Paulo’s Sala São Paulo—they all have wonderful acoustics! When I travel for performances, I also like to find some free time to simply walk into the city to feel the atmosphere, the people, eat local food if possible and soak up the atmosphere of real life.
Tell us a bit about your Minnesota Orchestra this week with Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto and Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony.
Prokofiev's Classical Symphony and Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony are related by the fact that Haydn was the master teacher of Beethoven, and Prokofiev was truly inspired by Haydn to write his Classical Symphony. They are two very joyful, happy works. Beethoven was very much in love at the time he wrote his Fourth Symphony, of a countess named Therese, and Prokofiev was very cheery in his way of imagining the use of the classical period writing, referring to Mozart and Haydn.
Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto is also quite cheerful—this is actually quite a bright programme!—and of course there’s the Adagio, which is a particularly beautiful and moving moment and one of the great summits of Mozart’s meditative music. I discovered it when I was very young and I really loved this passage as well as the Beethoven symphonies by Herbert von Karajan. I also loved Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, which I discovered soon after Peter and the Wolf.
Watch Nathalie Stutzmann conduct Beethoven’s Third Symphony.
When you get a chance to attend a concert as an audience member, what do you love to listen to?
As a member of the audience, I like to go everywhere, to symphonic concerts, to operas, to listen to recitals, string quartets... Each genre mutually contributes to one another, and I think it’s quite a pity that some audiences only go to one type of concert. Music is so vast, and that’s what’s great! And of course, I also try to listen to artists or conductors who take risks and arouse emotions in me, rather than people who are too cautious and not totally invested in their role of interpreter.
What do you enjoy doing while away from the concert hall?
I love to drive boats on the sea in summer, and I would love to play golf again but I don’t have time for it anymore.
We hear that your dog has a unique name.
Yep—Pamina! Here’s a photo of us.
Do you have any advice for aspiring conductors?
If your will to conduct is not burning in you, just do something else because it's really tough! And conducting is about sharing, inspiring, communicating, much more than just giving orders.
What are some of your upcoming projects?
I’m just coming from Washington where I conducted the National Symphony. I’ll return to the U.S. next year, to the Philadelphia Orchestra and Houston Symphony, and in following seasons to the San Francisco Symphony and St. Louis Symphony. I have many projects with great European orchestras including the Rotterdam Philharmonic, Konzerthausorchester Berlin and Royal Stockholm Philharmonic. This is also my first season as Principal Guest Conductor of RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland in Dublin, and I’m Associate Artist of São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra (Osesp). I will open the famous French opera festival Les Chorégies d’Orange in 2018 conducting Boito’s Mefistofele with Erwin Schrott in the lead role. And my new recording of Italian arias, Quella Fiamma!, will be released under Warner/Erato in just a few days, on October 27!
Nathalie Stutzmann conducts the Minnesota Orchestra in Guarantors’ Week: Beethoven and Prokofiev on October 12, 13 and 14. For more information on these concerts, visit minnesotaorchestra.org.
For more about Nathalie Stutzmann, visit askonasholt.co.uk or nathaliestutzmann.com.
Pianist Alessio Bax performs Grieg's Piano Concerto with the Minnesota Orchestra in concerts on October 5 and 6. We asked him a few questions about where he finds inspiration, what he likes to do for fun on tour and about the concerto he performs in Minneapolis this weekend.
When you travel around the world to perform, what do you like to do when visiting a new city?
I try first to seek great local food and explore the markets if I have time, and especially in exotic places, I always try to sample something new. I love to walk everywhere I can so I can explore a city on foot. I would love to have time to sight-see more, but that is quite rare nowadays. I also try to connect with old and new friends wherever I am.
What is one of your favorite places to travel for performances?
You mean, other than Minneapolis? I like too many places for many different reasons, so I really can't pick one!
Describe Grieg's Piano Concerto in ten words or less.
Sergei Rachmaninoff’s favorite concerto. Who am I to argue?
What should audiences listen for in this concerto?
It truly is the perfect Romantic concerto: from the big dramatic cadenza to the glorious themes, from the intimate and beautiful second movement to the folksy Finale, it’s a concerto full of contrasts and one that manages to say so much in such short time. I love the way it is incredibly romantic but always imbued with a Nordic feel. It has a very special atmosphere throughout—I honestly don’t know how Grieg managed to create it!
Do you come from a musical family?
My parents loved music, but are not musicians. They have supported and encouraged my passion all my life. I clearly remember listening to a recording of Bruch and Mendelssohn violin concertos with Jascha Heifetz that we had at home. I was also in love with the organ and the music of Bach.
What or who influences you most as a musician?
That’s a tough one! Definitely I need to thank everyone in my extended family of teachers, of whom there are many in my life. Nowadays, my biggest influences are my colleagues, from my chamber music partners and conductors to my wife, pianist Lucille Chung, who always offers an exceptional extra set of ears anytime I need one! Also, I try to listen to the great old recordings, as well as some new ones. As pianists, we are confronted on a daily basis with some of the greatest music ever written, and that is itself a great inspiration. The biggest motivation to keep going and to find beauty in what I do, however, definitely comes from Mila, my three-year-old daughter.
Watch Alessio perform an NPR Tiny Desk Concert with his wife Lucille Chung and daughter Mila
If you could only perform music by one composer for the rest of your career, which composer would you choose?
That's a very cruel question. If it is performing, possibly Beethoven’s, because of its range, but I would definitely miss everything else. It would be a sad occurrence indeed.
When you get a chance to attend a concert as an audience member instead of as the soloist, what do you love to listen to?
I like listening to friends’ concerts, although I can get quite nervous for them. I love great singers, string players, and anyone with the ability to make an instrument sing and to inspire me to look beyond the piano.
What fun fact should the Minnesota Orchestra audience know about you?
I love food and mostly I love to cook for friends. I also am moderately proud of my little wine cellar in New York.
Do you have any exciting upcoming projects to share?
Since last year, I have been spending quite a bit of time organizing a week-long music festival in the stunning Val d’Orcia in Tuscany, called Incontri in Terra di Siena. It is a 30-year-old festival, but it’s new for me. This past summer, we had Joshua Bell, Henning Kraggerud, Paul Watkins, Antonio Lysy, Radovan Vlatković, the Escher String Quartet, Sarah Connolly and many others in residence. I am loving the challenge of putting musicians and programs together, but also coming up with other events, deciding on chefs and menus for the meals, and exploring different venues, from opera theaters to medieval churches and outdoor sites. It is a great joy when everything works well and a great satisfaction to sit in the audience at a concert you’ve been dreaming of for years, and just enjoy it.
Other than that, there are many exciting programs and projects this season. I have a couple of duo tours with Joshua Bell and Emmanuel Pahud, I am releasing a new Beethoven recording for Signum Records and performing the Grieg Concerto with an excellent band in Minnesota very soon!
Alessio Bax performs Grieg's Piano Concerto on October 5 and 6, 2017. For more information on these concerts, visit minnesotaorchestra.org.
For more about Alessio Bax, visit artsmg.com or alessiobax.com.
Member since: 2016
Position: Associate Principal Cello
Hometown: Tallinn, Estonia
Education: Sibelius Academy, Guildhall School of Music and Drama
When did you know you would make a career in music:
When people were willing to pay for a ticket to hear me play :)
Where did you grow up?
I lived for 8 years in Estonia (part of the Soviet Union at the time) and then moved to Finland in 1990.
Tell us a little bit about your orchestral journey so far.
My parents encouraged me to play the cello. After freelancing with different orchestras in Finland and London, I won the Principal Cello position in Colorado Symphony in 2009 and moved to the U.S. I held that position until I started my job here in Minnesota in September 2016.
Is there a performer who has been a great influence in your life?
Yo-Yo Ma has definitely been one of the biggest motivators through the years. The first encounter I had with him was in 1998 when he played Strauss' Don Quixote with an orchestra I played in, the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra. I accompanied him once with the Colorado Symphony and then this past June with the Minnesota Orchestra. I really appreciate how enthusiastic he is about music—not only about classical but also jazz, tangos and folk music. The first CD I owned was Yo-Yo playing Haydn concertos. It was cool for me to perform Haydn’s C-major Concerto with him more than two decades later.
Cellist Yo-Yo Ma gives the Minnesota Orchestra a thumbs-up after a June 2017 concert at Orchestra Hall. Silver looks on from his place in the cello section: front row, second from the right.
What is one of your proudest moments as a musician?
Perhaps performing a Mahler symphony with Claudio Abbado in Vienna's Musikverein.
What is one of your most unusual experiences as a musician?
Well, I was not yet part of the Minnesota Orchestra when the 2015 Cuba trip took place. However, one of my first symphony orchestra experiences was as a member of the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra and we stopped in Havana to perform in July 1998. The security at the hall seemed very strict and we joked that Fidel Castro must have been coming to the concert. Much to our surprise, he actually was there and he held a private party for us afterwards. There I was, 16 years old, standing in front of Castro thinking how I should greet him. The best I could come up with at the time was a head nod.
Silver (third from right), with members of the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra and conductor Claudio Abbado, on tour to Havana, Cuba in 1998.
In the Minnesota Orchestra season ahead, which concert is most exciting to you and why?
Feb 23rd and 24th. I'm always excited to perform music by Shostakovich. His Tenth Symphony paired with Beethoven's Emperor Concerto will be a delicious program!
Which solo or moment in the cello’s orchestral repertoire is your favorite?
The Andante from Brahms' Second Piano Concerto. In my opinion this concerto is some of the best of Brahms’ music. Also, the slow movement starts and ends with a beautiful cello solo. The warmth of that movement is mind blowing.
If you could play a different instrument, which would you choose and why?
Drums. I love drums.
If you weren’t a professional musician what would you be?
Maybe a carpenter or a dog trainer.
What are you listening to lately?
Quite a bit of Sting and John Mayer, Mahler symphonies and, of course, this summer I spent a lot of time listening to Strauss' Salome, since that was the last work of our 2017 Sommerfest season.
When you’re not performing or practicing, what do you enjoy doing in your free time? I enjoy spending time with my wife Anne and our dog Enzo. I also love to take ski trips to Colorado and bike all over the Twin Cities.
Silver with his dog, Enzo
Click here to read more about Silver Ainomäe.
Canadian violinist James Ehnes first performed with the Minnesota Orchestra in 1993 and has returned many times since as a soloist and chamber musician. He joins Osmo Vänskä and the Orchestra for Season Opening concerts on September 14, 15 and 16, performing the U.S. premiere of Anders Hillborg's Violin Concerto No. 2. Then, he returns in January 2018 to perform Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto during the Orchestra's Tchaikovsky Marathon. We asked him to tell us a little more about himself, what to listen for in these performances and his longstanding relationship with the Minnesota Orchestra.
Do you come from a musical family?
My father was, for many years, the trumpet professor at Brandon University (in Brandon, Manitoba, Canada, where I grew up), and my mother was a ballet dancer and had a ballet school, so I grew up around music, musicians and artists in general.
What or who influences you most as a musician?
Difficult question! I guess I’d have to say the music itself. I spend a lot of time with scores, trying to figure out how to “decode” that mysterious written language and trying to get into the head of the composer.
What are some of your favorite and most unusual venues in which you have performed?
A few favorites are Carnegie Hall in New York, the Musikverein in Vienna, and Wigmore Hall in London—from big, to medium, to small. But there are a lot of great places, for lots of reasons! I have definitely played in some unusual places, mainly in Canada—from hockey rinks to a fantastic igloo church in Iqaluit, Nunavut.
When you get a chance to attend a concert as an audience member instead of as the soloist, what or who do you love to listen to?
I want to hear performances that are honest and 100% committed, and where I feel that the performer really believes in what they are doing.
Do you have any favorite memories or standout performances among your previous Minnesota Orchestra concerts?
All of my memories with the Minnesota Orchestra are happy ones! I suppose I would have to pick my performances of the Brahms concerto in 2012, because that was the first time I had worked with Osmo Vänskä and the Orchestra together, and it was exciting to see the obvious chemistry that as we all know has blossomed into one of the great partnerships in the musical world.
In the upcoming season, you will perform with the Minnesota Orchestra several times. What is exciting to you about this partnership?
I love the spirit of this orchestra. There is always a sense of 100% commitment and an openness to explore all options to make the music speak as powerfully as possible.
What should audiences listen for in the Hillborg Violin Concerto No. 2 this week?
There are many striking features in the Hillborg Concerto, but I would particularly point out the use of color—the opening has an absolutely amazing atmosphere, and really draws in the listener. There is also very exciting virtuosity as the piece develops!
What should audiences listen for in the Tchaikovsky Concerto, which you perform when you return to Minneapolis in January 2018?
This piece really doesn’t need much of an introduction—it is one of the truly perfect pieces, and audiences should just sit back and enjoy! I can’t think of any concerto that has a more wonderful mix of lyricism and virtuosity.
If you could learn to play a different instrument, which would you choose?
I play piano and used to play a lot, but I wish I was better than I am and wish I had more time to learn all of the piano’s amazing repertoire.
What fun facts should we know about you?
I am the world’s No. 1 Boston Red Sox fan (but I also like the Twins, unless the Red Sox meet them in the playoffs). And I’ve known concertmaster Erin Keefe for 20 years! She is one of my great friends, and I even like to take a little bit of credit for getting her together with Osmo Vänskä.
What is your favorite must-have food when visiting Minnesota?
I hope to discover one on this trip! I’ve been hearing great things about the Twin Cities’ food scene.
Watch James Ehnes perform Jascha Heifetz's arrangement of Flight of the Bumblebee for violin and piano, with pianist Andrew Armstrong.
James Ehnes performs Hillborg's Violin Concerto No. 2 with the Minnesota Orchestra on September 14, 15 and 16. For more information on these concerts, visit minnesotaorchestra.org.
He returns to perform Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto on January 13 and 14, 2018. For more information on these concerts, visit minnesotaorchestra.org.
Sig and Marti Reckdahl are living proof that you don’t need to play an instrument to foster a lifelong love of classical music.
The couple, married for 62 years this year, has been attending Minnesota Orchestra concerts together since the 1950s, more than two decades before Orchestra Hall opened in downtown Minneapolis. “We don’t play anything,” said Marti, “we just love the music!”
As young adults, Sig, now a retired 3M employee and Marti, a retired Robbinsdale public school teacher, would gather often with friends to listen to records. “We’d compare who had the best speakers and sit in each other’s homes to listen to the newest classical recordings we could find,” recalled Sig.
Their earliest memories of the Minnesota Orchestra come from concerts in Northrop Auditorium on the campus of the University of Minnesota, with the ensemble’s fifth Music Director, Antal Dorati, on the podium. Standout solo performances they have heard include the Sibelius Violin Concerto with violinist Jascha Heifetz—with three encores!—and concerts featuring violinist David Oistrakh.
The couple has attended performances under the direction of six of the ensemble’s ten music directors, and has held season tickets for more than six decades. Yet, until just recently, they had never met any of the Orchestra’s musicians. After a spring concert at Orchestra Hall, Principal Cello Anthony Ross and Assistant Principal Cello Beth Rapier stopped by the lobby to change that and to thank the Reckdahls for their many years of Orchestra attendance.
“There were some excellent concerts this season!” said Marti, but she and her husband are already looking forward to a few of the 2017-18 programs. Tchaikovsky is one of Sig’s favorite composers and both Sig and Marti are fans of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. With the Orchestra’s Tchaikovsky marathon in January and the season opening concerts featuring Firebird, they are in for another exciting year.
The Reckdahls make their home in Fridley, Minnesota, where they helped to found the Michael Servetus Unitarian Church. They also regularly attend performances at the Guthrie. Thank you Sig and Marti for supporting the Minnesota Orchestra!
This article originally appeared on the streets.mn website.
The young man and woman locking up their bikes across from Orchestra Hall looked respectable enough on Friday, June 9, an evening of Mozart, Debussy — and a 50 percent off coupon for a subsequent concert in downtown Minneapolis provided cyclists were sporting a helmet or other gear.
The woman had thrown a jersey dress over her bike shorts; the young man wore a button-down shirt to offset his cut-off shorts. My husband and I, by contrast, were in full cycling regalia, sweaty jerseys and all, and we noticed — or I did — the disapproving glances, the quick up-and-down appraisals that women still inflict on one another.
This was the first time we had tried the Minnesota Orchestra’s Bike to Orchestra Hall program. Would I do it again? In an elevated heartbeat! And I would plan more thoroughly.
Let me share a few tips, so you can avoid our newbie mistakes.
1. Map your route. As a St. Paulite, I am loathe to concede any advantage to our shinier, more ambitious sister city. Hands down, Minneapolis has St. Paul beat on bike-ability. The cruise downhill from our home in Merriam Park to Mississippi River Boulevard was the only part of the 6.2-mile trip where we weren’t on off-street trails or on-street lanes, some of them protected. Planning the route made our trip both safer and more enjoyable.
This concert-goer had the foresight to wear a suit coat.
2. Dress for success. That term harks back to the early ’80s, when I was a young woman in a workforce still suspicious of female professionals. In this case, it means getting to the concert early — as we failed to do — so you can catch your breath and dry your sweat. It means taking advantage of the lockers where I could have stashed my backpack and biking shoes, if only we had allowed the time.
It means gearing up to weather the stares of an upper-crust audience accustomed to viewing the orchestra as an elegant evening out. (Note to marketing department: Don’t sell this good idea only to young people and on the website. Put an eye-catching ad in the 52-page Playbill, the June edition of which carried not a word or a warning that a growing number of concert-goers may be showing up in shorts.)
3. Pack lightly but strategically. I remembered my glasses but forgot Kleenex to deal with the allergies that set in during the first few measures of Manuel de Falla’s Interlude and Dance from La Vida Breve. My husband, who perspires heavily, wishes he had packed a clean shirt. “I feared I might be offensive to my neighbors,” he said later.
Orchestra Hall sells coffee, tea, red wine and iced cocktails, but you can’t bring any of them inside the hall. Only unheated beverages, without ice or staining power, are allowed. Bring your own water, unless you want lukewarm soda pop or white wine.
4. Consider your safety. Biking to Orchestra Hall in the early evening sunlight was fun. Coming home in the dark was another matter. It was 10 p.m. by the time we hit the bathrooms and packed up. I was sleepy, and I didn’t feel safe navigating the eastern edge of downtown, even with my husband’s presence and my full-range bike light.
Having my Metro Transit Go-To Card on hand allowed us to cycle the six blocks north to Fifth Street and take a Green Line train to Fairview, after which we had about a 10-minute ride.
David Studer and Amy Gage: worth the ride
5. Enjoy the experience! Mozart’s Concerto No. 23 in A major for Piano and Orchestra was both fresh and familiar. The playing of pianist Xiayin Wang, a last-minute addition, was energetic and inspired under the direction of BBC Philharmonic conductor Juanjo Mena.
When we returned to our seats after intermission, the properly dressed couple to my left greeted us warmly. “We took your bikes out for a ride and put them back,” the man said, grinning. “It looks like fun,” added his wife, wearing a pearl bracelet and sparkly shoes. Once I got over my self-consciousness, it really was.
Amy Gage is neighborhood liaison at the University of St. Thomas. She lives in the Merriam Park neighborhood of St. Paul. A former columnist on work-life issues for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press, she writes a blog about women at midlife.
At this week’s Minnesota Orchestra concerts, Orchestra Hall’s Target Atrium will be transformed into a gallery filled with paintings, as Minnesota artist Mary Pettis presents a solo art exhibition titled Beyond the Surface, inspired primarily by the brilliant Debussy work, Images for Orchestra, that will be performed at those concerts. Mary has generously shared her thoughts on her exhibition, the inspiration for the paintings, and the interplay between visual arts and music.
In my new art exhibition Beyond the Surface, created in conjunction with the Minnesota Orchestra and the OH+ (Orchestra Hall Plus) program, I’ve drawn upon Debussy’s music and philosophy to create a series of paintings that celebrate his three-movement Images for Orchestra, which the Minnesota Orchestra performs on June 8, 9 and 10 at Orchestra Hall.
As Debussy (who always wanted to be a painter) invited his audience to look for images in the music, I invite the viewer to see music in the images. He often used nostalgic images and songs as source material for his tradition-breaking style. I use a similar approach seeking to translate my impression of the visual world into evocative sensory experiences. The result, I hope, is an intensely fulfilling visual experience, both for the art novice and for those who are drawn to spend the time to look beyond the surface.
For several years I have been fascinated with the shared language used by both musicians and painters. Terms like balance, rhythm, harmony, color, tone, unity of effect, relation, and juxtaposition inspire me to seek out those abstract qualities in my subject and infuse them into my paintings. Music has always been an integral part of my life, and classical music is usually playing in my studio as I paint. I’m honored to have this opportunity to share my work in tandem with a world class orchestra, a heralded composer, and in this inspirational venue.
Largo – With Expression, painting by Mary Pettis
Great artists see deeply. I believe each sees beyond the surface appearance. Edgar Allen Poe said, “Art is the reproduction of what the senses perceive in nature through the veil of the soul.” As an artist who also teaches, I am compelled to understand and try to explain this phenomenon. I want to know how, exactly, we transition from the facts of what we see in front of us to the wordless visual poetry inspired from our subjects. In my work I want to capture the inexplicable.
All the arts, no matter the discipline, have in common a desire for the “unity of effect” that is achieved through balance, rhythm and harmony.
There is a flow to a visual impression, a cadence that leads us almost musically from one aspect to the next, and the more logical and connected it is, the more exciting and beautiful it is for me. I am compelled to paint it. Surface appearance is like individual musical notes in a composition, but I am looking for the melody instead. For me, it’s a different way of looking; it’s not the parts, but the relationship of all the elements that contribute to the balance, rhythm, and harmony in my subject. It’s not just describing a focal point, learning to only use the colors, shapes, and movement that are sympathetic to the whole impression or story I am trying to convey.
A painter must be like the conductor who knows how to sense the melody as it intertwines among the sections, while allowing the soloists to shine. The more awareness an artist brings to the orchestration of a piece, the more clearly viewers will understand the message.
There is a quote I love by John Lennon: “My role in society, or any artist’s or poet’s role, is to try and express what we all feel…not as a preacher, not as a leader, but as a reflection of all of us.” This humble attitude is also how I feel. There is a perfection that lies beyond what we directly can see, yet deep within we all recognize and respond to it. I get to spend time contemplating this sublime part of life, and I do my best to share my observations with the world.
Creating this exhibition of paintings has been an incredible experience, particularly the hours I shared listening to the works of Claude Debussy with A. Catherine Duthie, whose expertise and insights into music composition and theory were invaluable! I am so proud of the new exhibition catalog that accompanies the show, authored by A. Catherine and beautifully edited by Jen Nash Kochevar. Mitch Rossow did a great job on the photography. I’m grateful to the OH+ program for making this possible.
The Cycle of Lilies, painting by Mary Pettis inspired by Ibéria: Les Parfums de la Nuit, from Images for Orchestra by Claude Debussy
The Beyond the Surface show’s signature piece, The Cycle of Lilies, is a prime example of the multimedia adaptation spirit of this show. Based on the middle section of Debussy’s Images, Ibéria: Les parfums de la nuit, there is a shared sensation of liquidity between the art and the music. Like the melodic woodwinds echoing the oscillating motion of the accompaniment, the gentle movement of the water’s surface affects all of the plant life residing within it. The weeds below reveal glimpses of hidden, nourishing depths felt in the ambient bass. The floating opalescent flowers catch the eye against the strong dark reflections of the unseen trees, in the same way that the light reedy oboe and the breathy flute bring their melody to the forefront of the orchestra. The lilypads lazily dip in and out of the water in syncopation, mirroring the flowing movement within the strings. And much like Les parfums de la nuit, the longer you let the work wash over you, the more enriched and immersed you become.
Debussy and I have both drawn inspiration from familiar source material (such as the folk melody “The Keel Row” in Gigue, or the beloved St Croix River Valley) and transformed them through the use of modern vocabulary. Debussy lived during a progressive, tumultuous time in the art communities. Boundaries of subject matter, styles, and chroma were being broken within nearly all media. Barely over a century later, my tribute to Debussy exemplifies a large, ground-breaking movement in contemporary art: Expressive Realism. This movement is a fusion between the purest elements of art (such as color, texture, and balance) and representational subjects. The result is a deeply communicative style that is strikingly musical in nature.
A. Catherine Duthie, who authored our exhibition catalog and whose work in cross modal abstraction I greatly admire, has generously offered additional thoughts about the Beyond the Surface exhibition and Debussy’s music.
“Claude Debussy was among the composers whose works were deeply inspired by and influenced by artistic works at the turn of the century. As national artistic identities and cross-pollination between media became a priority, Debussy was at the forefront of bridging the media. Madame Gérard de Romilly, his piano student and friend, wrote of the composer, ‘Debussy always regretted not having pursued painting instead of music.’ We need not speculate on his intentions: Debussy was open about loving visual art as much as music, and the inspiration that he received from his artist friends.
“By drawing upon the works of the past to inspire works in the present, Mary Pettis has created a temporal collaboration with Debussy, his fluency of the musical language inspiring her own works. There is a shared language between music and art. Abstract terms such as chromatic, harmony, rhythm, and tone are ideas that artists and composers have applied to their respective media. These tools are used to not only describe the pieces, but also used in the creation process, to direct how the work is experienced. Harmony, for example, refers to a pleasant arrangement of parts in a composition. This idea can be applied in a musical work (for example, through the spacing of notes in a chord), or in a painting (for example, through the interplay of colors and texture). While these applications are different, the purpose of harmony is the same: to provide a sense of interaction among the elements within a work. Mary Pettis has translated Debussy’s Images into a visual language, expressing their shared sentiment of atmosphere, tonality, and naked elegance. The result is an intensely fulfilling multisensory experience, both for the art novice and for those who spend the time to look beyond the surface.
“In a time where Wagner was polishing vast theatrical epics of programmatic drama and leitmotif-infused gravitas, Debussy’s work is steeped in elusive, consistent tonality. At a time where Wagner and Mahler were using their music to captivate their audiences through the use of unfolding stories and theatre, Debussy rather focused on creating a holistic, exploratory experience with each of his works. If Wagner’s works build upon the unfolding stories of theatre, Debussy’s works most certainly build upon the concise mood of paintings. It is only fitting that his work be placed alongside the work of Mary Pettis, who emphasizes the musicality of her medium. Her studio in Taylors Falls has a large, antiquated speaker system that is perpetually filling the building with Classical MPR radio.”
Symphony Ball is less than a month away! The Minnesota Orchestra’s gala fundraiser, “A Night on the Silk Road,” will be held on June 24 and will feature a very special performance by the Minnesota Orchestra. We caught up with Kenneth Huber, Chair of the Symphony Ball’s Music/Entertainment Committee, for a Q&A session to learn more.
We’re hearing exciting things about the Minnesota Orchestra performance at the center of this year’s Symphony Ball! What will the performance consist of?
For the main event, the Minnesota Orchestra and Osmo Vänskä will perform the world premiere of the Silk Road Symphonic Fantasy, a 22-minute “medley” of excerpts from great symphonic repertoire. The Fantasy, which I helped create during the past year, is a musical journey by composers who were inspired by the Silk Road aura and composed some of the most colorful, exciting, beloved and well-known works in the symphonic canon. Each excerpt has a Silk Road connection—though none are literal representations or examples of music from that era. We’re very excited to have Brian Newhouse, the “voice of the Minnesota Orchestra” on MPR, as our narrator and host. In addition to the Fantasy, singer-rapper-essayist Dessa will perform with the Orchestra in two new pieces that she has created for the occasion followed by a 30-minute set with her own musicians.
How did you get involved in the Ball’s Music/Entertainment Committee, and what made you the right person for the job?
My involvement with the Symphony Ball happened when the Co-Chairs of this year’s Ball, Paula DeCosse, MaryAnn Goldstein and Laurie Hodder Greeno—all good friends of mine—asked my partner Stephen Hamilton and me to help them out almost the day after Marilyn Carlson Nelson asked them to Chair this year’s Ball. Paula, Laurie, and MaryAnn sort of left us no choice since we had worked on so many Minnesota Orchestra projects prior to this together. It seemed a logical extension of that process. Since I am a professional concert pianist, retired professor, and former director of a concert series, chairing the Music/Entertainment Committee of the Ball seemed like the right fit. And I know most of the musicians in the Orchestra either as personal friends or having performed collaboratively with them.
Did you start out with a vision for the Minnesota Orchestra Concert portion of the Ball?
From the moment I spoke with the Co-Chairs, an idea about the concert started to percolate in my artistic imagination. It was clear that a customary though truncated version of an orchestra concert would not suffice. The focus would be different—rather than on the performance repertoire it should be on the institution itself and its virtuoso musicians. From the beginning I felt it was important to make the focal/high point of the Ball the concert component of the evening. After all this is a major fund raising Gala supporting an internationally acclaimed institution that IS music. So the music and the musicians that produce it should receive the brightest spotlight given its world-class stature. Considering the shape of the entire event, there should be a big crescendo throughout the evening culminating in the concert.
Who worked on this with you?
From the beginning Minnesota Orchestra violist Michael Adams was in sync with my artistic concept. His involvement was crucial and part and parcel to this creation. It could not have been more fun batting repertoire ideas around and narrowing down the myriad choices. While working we cobbled together an audio CD of the excerpts coupled with a spoken narration so we could actually hear how the finished piece would sound. That went through countless incarnations. Most recently Orchestra trombonist Douglas Wright has been indispensable in shepherding all this through various channels to get it to the finish line.
Kenneth Huber and Music Director Osmo Vänskä reviewing the musical selections for the Silk Road Symphonic Fantasy.
Early last February Osmo Vänskä weighed in as well. His enthusiasm was palpable, and his perceptive suggestions were readily incorporated. My final meeting with Osmo to nail down the concert details was a highlight of the process. His keen artistic sensibilities as well as dramatic flair couldn’t have been more welcome! He remarked that we all benefit by collaborating! In addition, the members of this Committee (including musicians from the Orchestra) have been enthusiastic and supportive throughout the entire process and have offered critical insight at every step.
What symphonic excerpts are included?
In addition to the theatrical Orchestra entrance to The Procession of the Sardar (Ippolitov-Ivanov), we will hear how Beethoven, Mozart, Saint-Saëns, and Nielsen all embraced Silk Road elements. And Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances are musts. The heartfelt emotional highlight may very well be Chinese composer Tan Dun’s Crouching Tiger Cello Concerto, only to be topped by a blazing conclusion with the Russian Easter Overture.
How was the Silk Road Theme factored in to your creative thinking about the concert?
The Silk Road Theme always seemed like a wonderfully rich idea that leant itself to a wealth of imaginative ideas suggesting musical and artistic choices. The colors, textures, variety, and ambience associated with it have historically inspired spin-offs and ideas for hundreds of years. The music spawned by its scope and influence seemed endless and like the perfect jumping off place to construct an unusually engaging, unique, and fantastically accessible Minnesota Orchestra concert as part of the Symphony Ball. In my mind the Silk Road theme pretty much dictated the model for this concert.
How did you get Dessa involved as part of the concert?
An ad hoc meeting with Jim Watkins (a former student of mine and owner of Sociable Cider Werks) with some musicians and Symphony Ball Chairs led to the idea of how exciting and fortuitous this occasion might be for a collaboration between a marquee pop star and the Orchestra. Luckily that brainstorm resulted in inviting Dessa who immediately accepted our offer and has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic and cooperative. Being a Twin Cities original but now enjoying national celebrity, she seemed like the perfect choice. And of course her generous offer to write two new collaborative pieces for the occasion is a remarkable stroke of luck!
Any last thoughts on the Symphonic Fantasy and Symphony Ball?
I, for one, remain incredibly excited to hear the final version in Orchestra Hall. I would hazard a guess that all of those in attendance will experience a memorable, one-of-a-kind Symphony Ball Concert. It has been remarkably stimulating to be part of such a creative process including a kind of “world premiere” for what is destined to be an over-the-top successful Symphony Ball 2017.
From the first time I heard a cello, I have loved this instrument whose lush golden sounds are the closest to the human voice.
My earliest memories are of lying on the floor next to my father as he practiced the cello, the metronome marking the music’s pulse. When I took up the instrument, my parents insisted on discipline, dedication, persistence. They eavesdropped on my practice and barked criticisms, “Janetkém. Play it S-L-O-W-E-R … Dat vas out of tune. Play it again.” My parents never considered that my petite stature and tiny hands were not ideal for playing and for carrying the bulky beast in and out of vehicles and up staircases.
The alluring tones beckoned. I craved to learn the secrets behind its fantastic range of expression—the deep lamenting baritone, the silken tenor, the dazzling soprano.
I persisted—at times with bumps in the road. My first solo recital was held in the Art Gallery of Ontario, a prestigious location for a 17-year-old, but with conditions that were far from perfect. The cavernous space was open to museum browsers, and the marble walls created a reverberant acoustic. Audience members, who had to peer around pillars, ranged from curious museum attendees to music enthusiasts hoping to hear the latest wunderkind and mothers with fussy children who just wanted a chance to sit down.
Warming up in a small backstage room, I experienced jitters that proved quite distracting. Why had I chosen to start with such a difficult work, the Bach Solo Suite No. 3? I forced myself to inhale, to focus mentally. At the appropriate time, with a firm hold on my cello, I waltzed across the stage exuding confidence. Jamming my endpin, the metal spike that holds the cello, into the unyielding wooden floor, I launched into the first “C” of the music. Then came a cellist’s nightmare: my instrument careened forward out of my hands, and I only just caught it with my knees. Somehow I shoved it back into the floor, but I didn’t dare look up. My father had lurched forward in his seat, moaning audibly. My breathing eventually calmed, but he turned ashen.
After the Bach, when I had retired to the back room, the stage manager wheeled the piano out for the next work. My father jumped out of his seat to canvas the audience. “Anyone have a pocketknife?” he demanded. Someone did, on his keychain. Clutching the knife, my father scaled the stage, got down on all fours and dug a hole in the floor. Satisfied that he had prevented further equipment disasters, he returned to his seat in the audience. When I sashayed onto the stage for my second number I did not see the newly gouged rut. Then, just as I was about to thrust the endpin into the floor, I saw my mother flailing. “Jaaan-aaat!” she said, “Your daddy made a hole! Your daddy made a hole!”
Despite occasional episodes like this, I survived. I won the position of associate principal cello of the Minnesota Orchestra at a time when the inner circle of principal players included no other women. For three decades I was fortunate enough to perform countless programs in Orchestra Hall of the greatest musical masterpieces ever created—Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Schubert. And what a privilege to play in Vienna’s Musikverein, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, and other wonderful venues around the world.
We musicians are exquisitely attuned to the vibrations of performers and composers who came before us, who stood on these very stages. Wherever we perform, we never forget that our goal is to make mystical, meditative and revelatory musical experiences come alive, in the extraordinary magic that is great music.
Walt Whitman, the great music lover among our poets, says this wise line in “A Song of Occupations”: All music is what awakes from you when you are reminded by the instruments.
Now listen for the next violin in earshot, be it six-year-old Sven scratching away on his Suzuki, or the ghost of Jascha Heifetz playing the Bach Chaconne on an old record. That violin awakes in me the existence of magnificent orchestras manned by a whole sea of violins, but it also reminds me of the determination of stubborn human beings to make and possess music, thus beauty, whatever their unlikely circumstances. I grew up in a world without violins on a farm in western Minnesota. One neighbor, Old Steve, played fiddle for barn dances; Frank, the town druggist, collected and sold old violins but didn’t play them. In high school we had a band, no orchestra. I played alto saxophone, a far cry from a violin. We marched for parades and football games, much Sousa, no Mozart. The Minneapolis Symphony did not include little Minneota on its tours.
Rural high school teachers in the fifties were paid a starvation pittance so we often found ourselves with odd ducks, desperate for any work. Mr. Peabody, my English teacher, surely qualified as an oddity—a small reserved man with wire-rimmed spectacles. Every day he wore the same heavy gray wool tweed suit with vest and watch chain, precisely knotted tie with a collar pin. He spoke in a soft and cultivated voice, useful for the poets he loved: Keats, Shelley and Tennyson. He lived alone in a rooming house. Rumor had it that his family, in The Cities, had suffered some great tragedy. He seemed old to me then, perhaps in his mid-fifties. His English students inflicted unspeakable cruelty on this shy mild man who exhaled clouds of loneliness. We pelted him with spitballs, giggled when he recited Keats, chatted noisily while he diagrammed sentences. As the class nerd, my heart went out to him. One afternoon after school I went to his classroom to show him some of my poems. I stopped in the hallway. I heard the sound of a violin practicing music of sublime beauty, playing (I thought) with great skill and feeling. I didn’t disturb him, only stood in the hall, listening, transfixed.
Whenever I could I eavesdropped on his afternoon practice. Finally he discovered me, and invited me to sit and listen. He seemed pleased that someone liked this music. It was the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, that noble E-minor tune. Eventually Mr. Peabody disappeared back to the city, back presumably to his private loneliness. But something had awakened in me. I pestered my parents to buy the LP of that concerto, though after 45 years it is now lost or worn out.
I’ve heard the Mendelssohn many times since with many orchestras and many soloists, good and mediocre. But as Walt Whitman assured us, the power of the violin still reminds me of the interior orchestra that, once awakened, plays whenever you need it. It requires no electricity, only desire. There are still not many violins or visits by fine orchestras in western Minnesota, but one is enough. That’s why it is necessary for the great orchestras with their great players to come to unlikely, even woebegone places to offer their gifts. Maybe one human being waits to be awakened who, at the sound of that violin, will be stabbed at the core of his heart and reminded of his true humanity.
The classical music world lost a legend on February 21, 2017, when Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, the Minnesota Orchestra’s music director from 1960 to 1979, died at age 93. Musicians, staff, board members, audiences and other members of the Orchestra family shared their memories of Skrowaczewski.
Osmo Vänskä, music director, Minnesota Orchestra:
“The entire Minnesota Orchestra family is deeply grieved at the loss of our iconic Conductor Laureate Stanislaw Skrowaczewski. He was such an important conductor for the Minnesota Orchestra, as well as many of the world’s other great orchestras, and we greatly respect his legacy. Maestro Skrowaczewski’s mark on the Minnesota Orchestra was significant and continued well beyond his years as music director. He lived in the Twin Cities, and I was personally always happy to see him visit rehearsals at Orchestra Hall. I learned many special things about Bruckner’s music from Stanislaw and, last October, I was privileged to hear his grand performances of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8. He was a consummate musician and conductor, and he will be greatly missed.”
Greg Milliren, associate principal flute:
“Stan was an ardent advocate for letting music speak for itself and for the musicians who bring it to life. Even in his final years, the robust energy he brought to the podium was an example for us all. I will miss his warmth, his deep knowledge, and the way he drew inspired performances from the orchestra year after year.
Anthony Ross, principal cello:
“When ‘Skrovi’ conducts many works it feels like the composer is listening! His interpretation of Wagner’s Prelude and Love Death from Tristan and Isolde has shattered my expectations for that piece every time with him. I don’t think even Wagner could have imagined a more colorful, dynamic and moving interpretation, the scope of emotion and architecture was so immense!”
Jean Marker De Vere, second violin:
“I often ran into Stan at the Lunds in Wayzata. In his 90s he was still shopping for himself. It was fun to watch him examining the produce. I would stop to say ‘hi’ and he would tell me about his upcoming engagements around the globe. Stan has a special place in my heart. I was the last violinist he hired during his tenure as music director. I looked forward to his many guest appearances over the years. I especially enjoyed performing Bruckner symphonies with him. His love for this Orchestra knew no bounds.
Wendy Williams, flute:
“I vividly remember Maestro Skrowaczewski’s hands. They pulled him to the podium from backstage while seeming to be electrified by some inner source. In contrast, they could be gently and softly expressive. I am grateful for the deep friendship we shared as musicians with our ‘Stan’ and for his unbridled joy when he was with us at Orchestra Hall. His willingness to speak truth and his unwavering commitment to the service of music and our community will live on.”
Marni J. Hougham, oboe and English horn:
“I have been blessed to have worked under Maestro Skrowaczewski since 1990, first at the New World Symphony in Florida, and since with the Minnesota Orchestra. Stan is my hero. Without Stan our world feels a bit more empty.”
Manny Laureano, principal trumpet:
“I enjoyed the insights I gleaned from his rehearsals, as there were always new things to learn from him regarding balances to allow a melody to be completely clear. To him, the melodic line was everything. Most important, though, was his interest and generosity with my Minnesota Youth Symphonies. He donated many pieces of music along with his scores and the markings that came along with them. Thanks to the Maestro, MYS owns a complete set of Beethoven symphonies as well as other masterworks. What a fantastic gift to the coming generations!
Ellen Dinwiddie Smith, horn
“In April of 2012, I had the honor of playing principal Wagner Tuba in a few performances of Bruckner’s 8th Symphony with Maestro Skrowaczewski conducting. At the end of the concert Skrovi came back to the horn section as we were having our picture taken. We asked him to join in the photo (which he gladly did), and after the group photo I asked him if I might get a photo with him. Since I was holding the Wagner Tuba, he insisted that he should also hold one. The joy in his face says it all — he was having the time of his life!”
Michael Gast, principal horn:
“Stan loved soft playing. There is a long, high and delicate horn solo at the end of the second movement of Bruckner’s Second and I knew Stan was going to ask for the usual near-impossible soft dynamic. I prepared it using a ‘Stealth’ mute that sounded normal in sound. After playing it Stan exclaimed ‘Michael, that was so beautiful—how did you do that?’ I replied ‘It was magic,’ and he said ‘I’ve never heard it played that well, there must be a trick!’ I just smiled and shook my head no. He came back to me at the break and begged me to tell him how I did it, and I told him it was skill with some luck. I never admitted to him how I was pulling it off, but he smiled broadly every time I played it. I always had a great relationship with Stan, and we played our best for him and the music."
Katja Linfield, cello:
“Skrovi always began his first rehearsal of a week here by cupping his hands together and saying to us: ‘Good morning. I am so heppy to be here!’ It was always an endearing beginning to a work session with him.”
Roger Frisch, associate concertmaster, and Michele Frisch:
“Our favorite memory of Skrowaczewski: in 1999 Roger and I were touring throughout Ukraine, playing recitals and giving master classes as part of Love Lift to Ukraine. One of the last cities in which we gave concerts after five journeys of touring was Lviv, on the far western edge, known as Lvov when it was part of Poland years earlier. A beautiful city, like a smaller, quainter Vienna, with a lovely opera house and an illustrious, tradition-rich music conservatory, where we gave a recital and conducted master classes. Upon returning home, remembering that we had been in his home city and had taught at the conservatory he attended as a teenager, we prepared a photo album for him. When Roger presented it to him, the Maestro was overcome with emotion as he paged through the album. He explained that he had never returned, since fleeing the encroachment of the Nazi regime. He recognized the opera house, the fresh-baked loaves of bread, our Chopin Hotel, the morning street-sweeping. He had tears in his eyes and gently said that it was one of his best gifts, ever. We have the identical photo album (I made two) and when we page through it, we know that we are seeing a piece of Skrovi’s treasured past. And even better, he told Roger that several years later he embarked on a return trip, finally, to see his beloved home city.”
Robert Anderson, bass:
“I was hired by Stanislaw Skrowaczewski in August of 1974 and started right away in September. I think I may have been the last member of the Orchestra to have auditioned at Northrop Auditorium. I was totally thrilled to get a position in this great orchestra. Previously I had spent three years in the U.S. Army Band at Fort Myer, Virginia, followed by a year in the Fort Wayne Philharmonic following my completion of service. My goal was to join a major orchestra, but at my young age I didn’t know if I would pass the audition or where I would end up. I am originally from Connecticut and had not visited the Twin Cities before, so when I arrived here I was very pleased to find that not only was there a great orchestra here but that it was a very nice place to live.
We performed the first concert at Orchestra Hall on Friday, October 18, 1974. This was a special ‘acoustical concert’ and all of the workers involved in the construction of the hall were invited. When we had our first rehearsal for this concert in the new Hall, everyone was impressed by the resonant sound that resulted from the good acoustics. Northrop, by contrast, had always been problematical sound-wise. It was clearly understood why Mr. Skrowaczewski had pushed for a new hall. He had conducted in most of the major concert halls around the world and had in his ear what a hall should sound like.
As a double bass player one thing I appreciated about the maestro was that he liked a robust bass sound. Some conductors will shush the basses, but not Skrowaczewski. I think this is one of the reasons why he achieved a great sound from the orchestra. This was especially important in Bruckner symphonies.
When we were on an East Coast tour, we had played in New York at Carnegie Hall and the next day we were booked to play at a venue near Philadelphia. My colleague Chester Milosovich and I decided to take the fast Amtrak train to Philly instead of the Orchestra bus. As we walked through the train to find seats we encountered Skrowaczewski. We exchanged some pleasantries and then sat in the seats behind him. For the entire trip he was intensely studying scores. We knew that he knew the scores very well, but he was always trying to discover a better way to interpret the music.
Skrowaczewski was a great teacher. For a while he taught at the Juilliard School in New York, and I heard through the grapevine that he was highly appreciated there.
Shortly after Orchestra Hall opened we embarked on a project recording all of the orchestral works of Maurice Ravel. Skrowaczewski studied in Paris with the great pedagogue Nadia Boulanger and had a special affinity for French music. These recordings are still considered some of the best for this repertoire."
Kathryn Nettleman, acting associate principal bass:
“In this photo (below), taken after a coffee concert in May 2015, Kristen Bruya and I are thanking the Maestro after an inspiring performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.”
Former President Reflections, Richard Cisek, general manager, 1965-1978; president and CEO, 1978-1991:
“Though much has been said about the late maestro recounting his many contributions to the arts of our region, a few words offering an orchestra manager’s viewpoint might be interesting as well.
Stan has rightly been acknowledged as the force that marshaled various community resources that resulted in providing the Minnesota Orchestra with an internationally admired concert hall as its permanent home.
However, he did not simply build the Hall, he also filled it. From its opening in 1974 to his stepping away as the Orchestra’s music director in 1979, his concerts were virtually packed to capacity. This was also true for the 20 concerts each season performed annually during that time by the Orchestra at O’Shaughnessy Hall on the St. Catherine’s campus in St. Paul. Similarly, in 1965 Skrowaczewski and the Orchestra performed the dedication concert of the Benedicta Arts Center, College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, Minnesota, that quickly grew to an annual series there. Thus he was instrumental to the audience development program taking place during those years as the Orchestra’s performing (and employment) season worked its way from 30 weeks at the time of Stan’s arrival to an eventual year-round 52-week season.
The breadth of the repertoire he provided concertgoers reflected not only the masterworks of the past but also kept pace with classical music creativity taking place in the latter stages of the 20th century. The programs of those days also showcased a veritable ‘who’s who’ of international concert stars regularly appearing here. During his time away, guest conducting other major orchestras of the world, Skrowaczewski engaged renowned music directors of other American and European orchestras to direct the Minnesota Orchestra during his absences. Thus his artistic stamp was on the programs whether or not he was on the podium.
After the 19-year collaboration with our Orchestra my relationship with Stan blossomed into a more personal bond. This reached a particularly poignant peak just a couple of months ago when he called saying that he was experiencing a low point and simply wanted to hear ‘a warm, familiar voice.’ How much I wish I could now ask that of him.”
Life Director's Reflections, Betty Myers, Minnesota Orchestra life director:
“It was a very hot Sunday of Labor Day weekend in 1960 when my husband John and I went to the airport to greet Stan and Krystyna Skrowaczewski who were arriving in Minneapolis for the first time, having defected from their native Poland under the guise of guest conducting in America. Poland at that time was an Iron Curtain country, under the rule of the Soviet Union. They left behind their families, friends, their household effects, not knowing when they would ever see them again. The others on the greeting committee were Charles Bellows (then chairman of the Orchestra board) and his wife Eunice, and Stanley and Peggy Hawks. They had lived in Poland for a while, when Stan was in the foreign service, and he was a past board chair of the orchestra. All three of the men had been on the conductor search committee.
It was about a month later that Stan conducted the then-Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra for the first time—not at Northrop Auditorium, where the Orchestra had played for years, but at a high school gymnasium in Brainerd. The date coincided with Stan’s birthday (October 3), and the concert was followed by a supper party in a local golf club, complete with a birthday cake. About 20 Orchestra fans from the Twin Cities attended this debut concert!
The first concert at Northrop was later in October, and opened as usual with the Star-Spangled Banner. Stan wrote an arrangement of that music that is still used today on opening night. The enthusiastically-received concert was followed, of course, with a gala post-concert party. It was a formal black tie affair. In fact, for many years afterward, these quite formal seated, place-card suppers were held after the concerts—almost all of them were black tie events.
My husband’s three-year tenure as board chair went from 1962 to 1965, so we quickly became well acquainted with Stan and Krystyna. Fortunately John and Stan saw eye to eye on most things, so it was a very happy collaboration. There were few huge crises, and the finances were in order—no deficits as I recall! The greatest crisis came a little later, when the name of the orchestra was changed from Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra to Minnesota Orchestra. There were many repercussions from that event that went on for many years. The musicians were strongly opposed to the change, as were quite a few board members.
In 1961, as John and I were planning a trip to Europe, Stan asked if we could please include Warsaw on our itinerary, as because of the Russian government, it was very difficult for them to communicate with their families, and they could not return to Poland without being detained and would not be able to return to the U.S. We did spend 5 days in Warsaw. Krystyna’s parents lived in Crakow, but came to Warsaw to be with us. They were full of questions about how Stan and Krystyna lived, the Orchestra, their home, their friends. Dr. Jaroz, Krystyna’s father, an attorney, was a wonderful host. He was a very attractive, dapper, intelligent gentleman and planned our visit, which included dinner parties with some of the Skrowaczewskis’ friends and a concert of the Warsaw Philharmonic, which Stan had conducted. It was a most interesting visit, but always with the oppressive feeling that we were indeed in Iron Curtain territory. Eventually, of course, the Russians left Poland, so Stan and Krystyna could travel there and be reunited with their families.
Their two boys, Nick and Paul, were born and grew up here. Nick now lives in Minneapolis, and his wife Angela is a charming and capable member of the Orchestra staff. Paul lives in California, but he and his family come here often for special events.
For me, this has been a friendship for 57 years. And I was so glad that I could attend his last time with the Orchestra, when he conducted one of his favorite Bruckner symphonies. I always went backstage after his concerts to say hello. This time I did not realize it would also be goodbye.”
Click here to read audience member David Balto’s essay reflecting on Maestro Skrowaczewski, family and the Minnesota Orchestra.
Click here for more tributes and information about Maestro Stanislaw Skrowaczewski.
The stakes are high: it’s Game 163 of the 2009 baseball season, we’re in extra innings and the score is tied. We need the runner now on second base to score the winning run—a trip to the playoffs is on the line! It’s the most important game of the season, and I’m hard at work playing for the Minnesota Twins—playing organ, that is.
My fabulous job as the ballpark organist is full of moments like this, as thrilling as the game itself, because the job requires me to be in the game. Unlike a symphony musician who follows a score and a conductor, I have to decide what’s appropriate to play minute by minute, as the action unfolds on the ball field.
Not that there aren’t rules: they’re very specific, for me and the other 10 or 12 major league baseball organists around the country. I can (and do) play when the umpires, ground rules and opposing team are announced. I play chords in rising-key sequences for the other team’s outs and any time the catcher walks out to talk to the pitcher. I play at the top of the sixth inning, when the kids come out to change the bases. But rarely for situations other than these—and never, ever when a batter steps up to the box: that’s a universal rule in baseball.
What’s most fun is using my organ to rev up the fans when we have someone in scoring position, on second or third base. The better the Twins do, the more I get to play, and the more I love it. When a game is close, I don’t get nervous: I get excited. Yet despite the fact that my hands are on the keyboard, somehow my fingernails get shorter.
As for what I play—I get to choose from just about the entire world of music. I play different cheers with lyrics in my head like “Here you go, Mike” and “Let’s go, Joe.” Right up there with “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” I love Sousa marches and music with lively rhythm like Billy Joel’s Root Beer Rag. Though I don’t often see an opening for my all-time favorite composer, Mozart, there are plenty of classical pieces that work well, like the Suppé overture Poet and Peasant, Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld and the Thunder and Lightning and Tritsch-Tratsch polkas, by Johann Strauss Senior and Junior, respectively. But there are a few limits. All ballpark organists know about a certain occasion when an umpire made a really bad call, you might say a blind call. The organist played “Three Blind Mice"—and got fired for it. One time, after the Twins had played a very slow 14-inning game, which seemed all the longer because they played badly, I used “Show Me the Way to Go Home”—people had a good laugh, and I still have my job!
People ask how I got where I am, and I answer: by loving music and sports, and being open to whatever life brings. I was hooked on baseball at the age of five, when I saw my first Twins game on Grandma’s TV. Being a basketball cheerleader in high school showed me how much I love whipping the fans into a frenzy. A job in an organ store that involved performing as well as selling, stints as church organist and piano bar player, a friend’s insistence that I close the music books and trust myself to improvise, and teaching piano to thousands of kids—all these played a role. They prepared me for hockey gigs with the North Stars, then Gophers and Strikers games, and now my current job. They made me what I am—someone who loves cheerleading with music.
I aim to keep going with the flow, seeing where things take me. And whether I’m visiting grade school classrooms and encouraging kids to practice, or heading for Northwoods League games in Mankato with my pal Wally the Beer Man, my keyboard will be right there.
Minnesota-based rapper-singer-essayist Dessa is known for her incredible performances onstage and in recordings, including her recent single on the Billboard chart-topping Hamilton Mixtape released last fall. On or off the stage, though, Dessa is also a passionate advocate for our planet, encouraging all of her partners (including the Minnesota Orchestra!) to be as environmentally conscious as possible.
Watch: Dessa talks about her commitment to sustainable agriculture.
Over the last year she has worked with Minnesota Orchestra staff and musicians to prepare for her Orchestra Hall debut with the Minnesota Orchestra in two sold-out concerts on April 14 and 15. While planning for the upcoming concerts, Dessa shared with us an EnviroRider developed by the Minneapolis-based Effect Partners and championed by its founder and CEO Michael Martin. The EnviroRider suggests a wide range of actions that musicians, staff and audiences can undertake to give back to the environment during, and following, the performances.
The Minnesota Orchestra and its new Environmental Sustainability Committee have welcomed Dessa’s suggestions, taking on initiatives which include reducing CO2 emissions, decreasing food waste, supporting local sustainable agriculture and generally reducing the music industry’s environmental impact.
Native Energy, a Vermont-based climate solutions company, has worked with our staff to calculate the total estimated cost of emissions for energy use at the Minnesota Orchestra concerts with Dessa. In return, Minnesota Orchestra will donate that amount to the Improved Cookstoves Project in Peru, an initiative selected by the Orchestra staff and Dessa. The Improved Cookstoves Project helps families in rural regions of Peru gain access to energy and cooking solutions that are healthier, less expensive and more efficient. More: nativeenergy.com
Metro Transit has teamed up with the Minnesota Orchestra and Dessa to offer FREE rides on public transit for guests attending the concerts. Passes are available online for each individual concert now (April 14 and April 15). Print the pass to enjoy a free round-trip ride to the concert. FREE rides are valid from 5 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. on both April 14 and 15.
Beginning at the Dessa concerts and continuing through Sommerfest (April 14 to August 5), all guests who bike to Orchestra Hall and show their bike gear at the Box Office will have their name entered into a drawing to win prizes including a Golden Wrench Overhaul from Freewheel Bike ($240 value), tune-ups and gift cards up to $100 in value from local bike shops such as One on One Bicycle Studio, Erik’s Bike Shop and Penn Cycle, and more. For multiple chances to win, guests may enter the drawing at each concert they attend through the summer season! As part of this effort, additional bike racks will be installed outside Orchestra Hall for guests to use. More: minnesotaorchestra.org/bike.
Not sure about biking at night? Bike to the concert and take advantage of Metro Transit FREE Rides to get home safely (April 14 and 15 only). All buses and trains have space for storing bikes.
Visit the Move Minneapolis table in the Orchestra Hall lobby to learn about bike and pedestrian safety in the Twin Cities. More: moveminneapolis.org.
Bicycle Benefits is organizing a group ride in conjunction with the Dessa concerts, so that the biking community can enjoy all of the concert activities and participate in Bike to Orchestra Hall discounts and drawings. Visit their table in the Orchestra Hall lobby for information about biking downtown, upcoming bike events and fun giveaways. More info: bicyclebenefits.org.
Visit Sierra Club’s table in the lobby of Orchestra Hall to learn more about America’s oldest and largest grassroots environmental organization. Find out how you can participate in their efforts to advocate for clean, renewable energy, conservation and efficiency, and clean energy jobs. More: Sierraclub.org.
Waste bins in the Orchestra Hall restrooms will be appropriately labeled and composted following the Dessa concerts. Composting bins have also been added to our catering and office kitchens, and throughout backstage. These efforts build on a plan that already features numerous recycling opportunities throughout Orchestra Hall.
Please join us in recognizing Dessa, and all of these contributing organizations and individuals, for leading the way to make Orchestra Hall a greener space. Watch for more news as the Minnesota Orchestra continues to explore ways to reduce our environmental footprint, while offering world-class performances in Minneapolis and throughout Minnesota.
Photo, top © Betsy Wall
Rapper-singer-writer Dessa’s upcoming debut with the Minnesota Orchestra is one of the most-anticipated programs of the season. The indie music star, a member of the Minneapolis-based Doomtree hip hop collective, answered a few questions about her music, kites, Broadway musicals and what’s in store for the April 14 and 15 concerts conducted by Sarah Hicks.
What’s it been like preparing for these concerts?
This collaboration with the Minnesota Orchestra and my arranger, Andy Thompson, will be one of the biggest shows of my career. It’s been both gratifying and humbling to work with a big, prestigious arts organization that’s legitimately invested in the art. I’ve pitched wild ideas, cartwheeled across the stage to promote the concerts on social media, enlisted a team of research scientists to help me design the show—and the Orchestra has offered help at every turn. I can’t wait to share the stage with such virtuosic talent and pull the sheet off the project we’ve developed together!
How do you and Andy Thompson approach the job of combining your music with a symphony orchestra?
Andy is made out of music. He’s got the technical expertise and the artistic sensitivity to make for an incredible collaborator. Sitting at a piano, he can play ideas before I’ve finished properly describing them. He’s been able to find the central feeling of each song and expand it to the scope of an orchestral presentation. He’s also really calm. While I’m running around with my bangs on fire, he’s eating a healthy snack at his standing desk.
Describe the upcoming concerts in 5 words or less.
Love, loss, science, whiskey, lipstick.
What are some “crazy ideas” you’ve had for this Minnesota Orchestra collaboration that turned out, well, maybe a little too crazy?
I texted Andy Thompson to ask if we could make the orchestra rewind. He thought I was kidding. I pretended I’d been kidding.
Lin-Manuel Miranda of Broadway’s Hamilton picked you to be on The Hamilton Mixtape. If you wrote your own Broadway musical about a historical figure, who would you pick?
Marie Curie seems like a bawse. Plus, we could make her glow in the dark at the end of production.
Okay, we have to ask. What is it about kites, a recurring theme in your lyrics?
I could wax philosophical here: kites fly without wings, they seem both free and captive, they are fragile, but safely out of reach. But really, I'm not sure why I write about kites so much. Kites are…true. They’re like us, functioning precariously.
Hear Dessa answer more questions about her music and the upcoming Minnesota Orchestra collaboration in a recent Back to the City video podcast hosted by Simon Calder.
It was a disappointing move-in day. My new dorm at DePaul University in Chicago was not only a dismal, un-air-conditioned, cinderblock eyesore, but it was spitting distance from the Fullerton “L” stop. And it was eye level with the trains. I was bombarded by constant rumbles and screeches of trains, punctuated by the barking of a conductor: “FULLERTON...THIS IS FULLERTON....NEXT STOP... BELMONT!” On hot nights I had to keep my windows open, and the noise was even louder. I might as well have tried sleeping directly on the Fullerton platform. My first night in that building, I angrily counted trains instead of sheep.
Commuters barreling past my window at all hours was tormenting. At first. But soon, I was only reminded of the “L” during phone conversations. I either had to speak VERY LOUDLY for a few moments or stretch the phone cord out into the hallway to hear anything. The Fullerton stop had been reduced to mostly innocuous background noise. Huh.
Desensitization happens. Yet some great works of music seem to be immune to this phenomenon. Even ones you think of as a familiar old friend can still pick you up by the scruff of the neck, rattle you around, land some solid punches and drop you back into your seat.
For me, one such piece is Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.
The Rite is now considered standard orchestral repertoire—but as you may know, audience members rioted in outrage at its 1913 premiere. Patrons laughed, hissed and hollered throughout the performance, their eyes and ears offended by Stravinsky’s music as well as Nijinsky’s choreography. The ballet portrayed an ancient ritual where a young woman, “The Chosen One,” dances herself to death as a sacrifice to the gods of spring. Stravinsky exalted brutish rhythm over melody, jagged angularity over smooth transitions, primitive instinct over empathetic humanity. He purposefully rejected sentimentality in this music, orchestrating a musical distillation of the fiercest human instinct: survival.
Nijinsky’s choreography was equally feral. Instead of swooning over elegant dancers jeté-ing en pointe, attendees were appalled by the stooping, clomping, pigeon-toed corps. In 198, the Joffrey Ballet patch-worked a reconstruction of the original choreography. The performance is available on YouTube; view it and you’ll see just how outlandish the experience must have seemed more than a century ago.
Today we may be less shocked when we hear The Rite, but that doesn’t minimize its power or relevancy. To me, Stravinsky’s music feels like a musical realization of our crazy world’s current challenges. I’m struck by the gorgeous primacy Stravinsky conjures with the opening bassoon: the soul of the forest waking from winter. The life force of earth in spring insists on emerging. Life is beautiful. Still, I’m startled and unnerved when those undulations of sound crack wide into serrated, pulsing gashes. The relentless beats become the pounding hearts of the panic-stricken, or the merciless mechanisms of industry. I’m reminded of the forward crush of time and the inevitability of death. When the beat relents, languid sounds build and layer over each other, competing for my attention. I recognize the conflicting forces and responsibilities in my own life. The charging beat returns.
It’s too much to comprehend. It terrifies, thrills and challenges me. I hope I never get used to it.
The Minnesota Orchestra performs Stravinksy's Rite of Spring, March 31-April 1. Details and Tickets »
Student Ambassador Alexa Sorenson shared this wonderful account of her evening out at the Orchestra this winter.
All hometown bias aside, the Minnesota Orchestra is one of the greatest symphonies in the United States, as well as having a prominent place in the worldwide community of classical music. I am so lucky to be able to work as a Student Ambassador for this amazing organization, and I am here today to convince you all that you NEED to get downtown and see them asap. If seeing an orchestra full of incredibly talented musicians play some of the most influential music ever written isn't enough to get you to go, I hope these suggestions on how to "make a night of it" do.
Park in the ramp across from Orchestra Hall (on 11th and South Marquette), and go to the top level of the ramp. Best. View. Ever.
A great dinner spot for unique yet classic American fare is the Union Restaurant. About an eight minute walk from Orchestra Hall, this eatery features a bar on ground level, as well as a rooftop restaurant overlooking Minneapolis. If it's nice out, you can make reservations to sit out on the rooftop patio.
On your way back from dinner, you won't want to miss the photo opportunity of the legendary music wall. Located on South 10th and South Marquette Street, this wall is the perfect way to document your musical evening. Even Prince posed in front of it, c'mon.
Turn around and find another great skyline view, this time from the ground up.
Now, on to the concert. I highly recommend getting to Orchestra Hall early, as there is almost always something exciting happening before the performance. Listen to chamber groups in the lobby, get drinks on the mezzanine, take in the beautiful architecture, and meet other music-enthusiasts.
One of my favorite events of the season are the two "Campus Nights" where the Orchestra invites high school and college students to come at a student rate ($12) and enjoy pre and post concert activities geared towards them. At the most recent Campus Night, students were offered free chai and cookies by local businesses, and played games to win prizes (such as free tickets to the orchestra!). After the concert, they had a meet and greet with almost a dozen members of the orchestra! The best part is that Campus Night isn't the only chance for students to enjoy the Minnesota Orchestra - student priced tickets are available for nearly every subscription concert of the season!
Pictured above is the Orchestra Hall concert space. The sound in this room is absolutely impeccable. All of the cubes on the walls and ceiling direct each sound wave in a certain direction, bringing the instruments' notes together and delivering them to the ears of eager listeners. There is simply no bad seat or dead spot in the house.
For a late night snack, I recommend Spyhouse Coffee. There are four locations in Minneapolis, all of which are open until 10 or 11 at night. Enjoy some time with good coffee and treats, gushing to your friends about the awe-inspiring performance you just witnessed. ;)
Member since: 2010
Position: Assistant Principal Viola
Hometown: Longmont, CO
Education: The Juilliard School
Do you come from a musical family?
I do. My dad was a pianist and high school choir director, my mom is a recently-retired Suzuki violin teacher, one of my sisters is the associate concertmaster of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and my other sister is the principal cellist of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. My brother is a carpenter.
The Albers sisters: Rebecca (playing Julie's cello), Laura playing violin and Julie playing piano.
How did you choose the viola?
Like many violists, I started on the violin. When I was nine or ten, my mom asked me if I would be interested in learning to read alto clef because she needed a violist to play with her students in a string quartet. I said yes, and that was the beginning of the end for me and the violin. I started attending summer chamber music festivals as a violist and I couldn't get enough of the instrument. I fell in love with its voice and role, and was particularly thrilled to have a C string instead of an E string. I tried to switch over to viola officially when I was 14, but was convinced to stick it out with the violin for a few more years in order to build up my technique through learning violin repertoire. I finally made the change just before college and have happily not looked back.
Rebecca also learned to play the harp. She says, "I ultimately chose between viola and harp career-wise when I decided to audition for college on viola."
Do you have any advice for aspiring musicians?
Try not to get stuck doing just what's comfortable or familiar. In your own playing and thinking, challenge yourself to always be searching instead of settling. Go to as many concerts as you can, and listen to vocal music and music written for instruments you don't play.
If you could play a different instrument, which would you choose and why?
I would play horn or trombone. I'd like to play horn because composers often reserve the most powerful, meaningful moment in a piece for a horn solo. While it's satisfying to listen to that moment, I can only imagine how exhilarating it must be to soar above the orchestra and play it. I'm not sure why I have trombone envy, except that one of my best friends in high school played it and it always seemed like fun. Also, speaking as a violist, it would be particularly enjoyable to sit on the other side of that bell for once (notice our position on stage)!
What are your most memorable Minnesota Orchestra performances?
Three very different concerts come to mind immediately. The first was my first performance at Carnegie Hall with the Orchestra. We went to New York right after my first tenure review meeting. I had been told in the meeting that I could play out more and not be so worried about fitting in. That concert was the first time I truly felt comfortable playing in the section, because I had finally realized that I could be myself while still matching my colleagues, and that was actually exactly what they wanted from me.
The second concert was the first musician-produced concert I played during the lockout. It was, of course, a huge relief to be playing with my colleagues again, but the atmosphere in the hall and the incredible power of the audience's support was like nothing I had ever experienced before. I'm happy to say I have felt it many times since, and in much happier circumstances.
The third was our concert in Cuba when we performed both the Cuban and American National Anthems. Feeling the audience gradually realize what we were doing, feeling their disbelief turn to joy and pride—I was in tears.
Do you have any advice for audience members?
If you feel moved to clap after an exciting movement, go for it—I’m with you! When you're listening to/watching a performance, trust your instincts, but try to keep an open mind. Chances are, you know more than you give yourself credit for, and when it comes to reactions to art, every different perspective is valid.
What are you listening to lately?
Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, Schubert piano sonatas, Radiohead, whatever is on The Current and whatever I'm playing next week.
If I weren’t a professional musician I’d be:
Working with animals or trying to make it as a journalist.
"This is usually where I end up as soon as I put my viola down after work!" says Rebecca, here with one of her two dogs.
Do you have any upcoming performances or other news you want to share?
I'm looking forward to playing in the next Accordo concert, together with Minnesota Orchestra's principal cellist, Anthony Ross, and Steven Copes and Ruggero Allifranchini from the SPCO. The concert is on March 13 at Plymouth Congregational Church, and we'll be performing works by Beethoven, Schumann and Shostakovich.
When you’re not performing or practicing, what do you enjoy doing in your free time?
My wife, Maiya, and I have two cats and two dogs, and our non-musical life pretty much revolves around them and their happiness. I love exploring the twin cities and surrounding area with the dogs, and try to find a new place to take them every week. I also enjoy knitting, partially because it means I can binge-watch TV without feeling guilty, and partially because the process of creating something tangible with my hands is so satisfying.
Rebecca with her wife, Maiya, in Iceland. Photo credit: Osmo Vänskä
To read more about Rebecca Albers, visit minnesotaorchestra.org/about.
Last month we invited guest blogger Mandy Meisner to interview Principal Flute Adam Kuenzel in advance of his performance of a Bach Flute Partita at the January 22 Chamber Music in the Target Atrium concert. We’re delighted that Mandy has written us this follow-up reflection on the performance.
Of all the days of the week, Sunday remains one of my favorite.
Untethered by the expectations of a Monday, the drudgery of a Wednesday, or the excitement of a Friday, it delivers the stillness and comfort that only a cup of coffee and the crinkling turn of the newspaper can offer. These lazy mornings will often seep into the rest of the day, washing away the week so I can recharge and meet the expectant Monday once again.
On Sunday, January 22, I went to a Minnesota Orchestra chamber music concert. Rather than taking designated seats in the large auditorium, we file in first-come, first-served to the Target Atrium—the “Glass Box” right off the main lobby. We come in our cozy sweaters and heavy tights, sports coats and brown loafers, and watch a subdued city go about its business in the grey afternoon, unperturbed by us on the other side of the pane.
The concert starts out as chamber music on a Sunday afternoon should—with a leisurely chat. Gone are the imposing icons atop a grand stage; instead they are regular people sharing juicy tidbits about composers and exotic locals and the evolution of instruments. The music itself now feels familiar, like a forgotten story you suddenly remembered rather than the novel that caused such intimidation you dare not open it.
All four members of the flute section take turns playing Bach sonatas and a partita. The Bach sonatas open with the politeness of a well-structured vintage dress. This restrained introduction is brushed away to reveal the scars beneath with the hand of a minor key. The combination of flute, cello and harpsichord feels dear. Their distinct voices weave in and out and over one another with elegant subtlety and explicit purpose.
When Adam Kuenzel plays the Partita in A minor on a wooden flute, I am fearful for him. He stands alone before us all. The wood lends a softer sound, so we lean in to hear him speak in long lush phrases through brilliant and seemingly impossible arcs of technique and nuance. The Sarabande sounds like fog in the marshes, blurry and strange, enticing you to explore with a haunting promise. We sit in awe at his moxie and skill. I am so close that I can see the music coming through the slightest bobs and sways, leaving his patterns in the air.
The concert ends with the Mendelssohn String Quintet No. 2. I expect to be delighted, and I am. After the lone flute, the quintet’s big sound is startling. The Adagio fills the space with silken ribbons, as wide as your arms can stretch, where they float and flutter to drape from the ceiling and glass walls. I can see the music in sweeps of pale blues and strong violets, later turning into reds and oranges in the last movement. The music adorns us all as the grey sky turns black outside.
When it ends, we clap and smile, sigh and chatter, as we put on our coats to meet the winter night. But we can still feel the music in our bones. It seeps into us, washing away the week so we can recharge and meet the expectant Monday once again.
It was everything a Sunday should be.
On Tuesday, February 21, 2017, Minnesota Orchestra Conductor Laureate Stanislaw Skrowaczewski passed away, at the age of 93.
Tributes to Maestro Skrowaczewski have poured in following the news of his death, and here are a collection of them that outline his life and legacy.
Maestro Skrowaczewski was a giant in the history of the Minnesota Orchestra. He served as music director for 19 seasons, from 1960 to 1979, and he returned each season since then to lead the Orchestra as conductor laureate. Although he traveled the world conducting major orchestras until just last year, he continued to make Minnesota his home across the decades. He was a champion of new music, an extraordinary interpreter of Bruckner, a celebrated composer, an advocate for musicians during the lockout—and the major force behind the creation of Orchestra Hall in 1974. In total, his partnership with the Minnesota Orchestra spanned 56 years of music-making.
The Memorial Service for Maestro Stanislaw Skrowaczewski was held at Orchestra Hall at 3pm on Tuesday, March 28, 2017. The service included both remarks and musical performances, including one by the full Minnesota Orchestra.
Friday, March 31 at 8pm Classical Minnesota Public Radio (99.5 FM) will broadcast the Stanislaw Skrowaczewski Memorial Service that was held earlier this week at Orchestra Hall. The Service included touching personal tributes to Maestro Skrowaczewski and special musical performances, including the Adagio from Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, performed by Music Director Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra.
Air from Orchestral Suite No. 3 by Johann Sebastian Bach
Minnesota Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä, Music Director
An Artist and a Visionary Leader—Anthony Ross, Principal Cellist, Minnesota Orchestra
For Krystyna (2011) by Stanislaw Skrowaczewski
Chamber Music Society of Minnesota, including Young-Nam Kim, Ariana Kim, Daniel Kim, Thomas Turner and Anthony Ross
A Courtly Friendship—Linda Hoeschler, Past Chair, Board of Directors, American Composers Forum
Duet for Violin and Viola (2015) by Stanislaw Skrowaczewski
Ariana Kim and Daniel Kim
An Artistic Life Well Lived—Frederick Harris, Skrowaczewski Biographer and Director of Wind and Jazz Ensembles at MIT
Lent from Sonata for Violin and Cello by Maurice Ravel
Jorja Fleezanis and Lynn Harrell
When Great Trees Fall by Maya Angelou
Marilyn Carlson Nelson, Chair, Minnesota Orchestra Board of Directors
Closing Musical Selection:
Adagio, from Symphony No. 7, Anton Bruckner
Minnesota Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä, Music Director
Thank you on behalf of the family:
Nicholas Skrowaczewski, Son and Paul Sebastien, Son
Contributions to honor the memory of Conductor Laureate Stanislaw Skrowaczewski may be made to the Skrowaczewski Fund for Artistic Excellence, established to support the Minnesota Orchestra’s extraordinary ensemble of musicians. Contribute online »
Minnesota Public Radio: Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, Minnesota Orchestra's conductor laureate, dies at 93
Musical America: Stanislaw Skrowaczewski dies at 93 (PDF)
Arts Desk: Farewell, Stanisław Skrowaczewski
The Guardian: Stanislaw Skrowaczewski Obituary
Photo, top: Skrowaczewski in Orchestra Hall by Mark Luinenburg
Familiar to many Twin Cities orchestra fans, Hugh Wolff was the principal conductor and music director of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra from 1988 to 2000. This September, he begins his tenure as the next Music Director of the National Orchestra of Belgium. He conducts the Minnesota Orchestra on February 23 to 25 in performances of Adès Dances from Powder Her Face, Bartók's Violin Concerto with violinist Karen Gomyo, and Mendelssohn's Scottish Symphony. We caught up with him to ask a few questions before he arrives in Minneapolis for these concerts.
What is your earliest musical memory?
My parents were casual listeners to equal parts classical, opera and Broadway, but I got a late start as a musician. My earliest classical music memory is the Infernal Dance from Stravinsky’s Firebird being used as theme music for a science TV show in fourth grade. I didn’t know it was Stravinsky until I heard it again when my class went to a National Symphony Orchestra young people’s concert. That got me interested and excited.
What or who influences you most as a musician?
The composer I am studying and performing influences me the most—and the desire to communicate my own passion and excitement about that composer to others.
Which piece of music on your desk right now is especially fascinating or challenging?
Massenet’s opera Cendrillon—a charming and effective piece, and it will be my first venture back into the opera pit in quite a while.
What excites you as you return to Minnesota for these concerts?
We lived in the Twin Cities for ten years, so I am always happy to return, see friends and rekindle good memories.
What should the audience listen for in these performances?
The Adès Dances from Powder Her Face are 1920s jazz tunes seen through a modern kaleidoscope: raunchy, edgy, both humorous and uncomfortable. Brilliantly orchestrated.
The Bartók Violin Concerto, like a lot of the composer’s music, is based loosely on folk melodies. But Bartók was the master of expanding the vernacular to encompass a whole world of complex sounds and emotions. Listen for the middle movement’s variations on a simple, beguiling tune first played by the violin alone. And the last movement is a wild romp in waltz time, based on the same melody that began the first movement.
What is your favorite conducting venue?
My favorite venue is probably the Musikverein in Vienna. It was home to Brahms and Mahler, and its unparalleled acoustics are a joy to play in. The hall does so much for you, enhancing the sound and putting a sheen on everything.
What about the most unusual venue?
The most unusual venue I played in recently was the depot for the street cars in Frankfurt, Germany. This was part of a Daniel Libeskind-curated day of concerts throughout the city in unusual or quotidian venues. We performed the Mozart Requiem in the train depot, and it was a surprisingly moving experience. Putting this masterpiece of sacred music in a decidedly down-to-earth setting seemed to intensify the music and its message.
If not on the podium, in which section would we find you onstage?
I was actually trained as a pianist, and among my most thrilling memories are the times when I played a piano concerto with an orchestra. I’ve also played piano within the orchestra, which is an entirely different and very difficult task.
When you aren’t conducting, what do you do for fun?
I like to cook, listen to non-musical podcasts and go for walks. Having lived and worked overseas, I am interested in other cultures and politics. I feel it is more important than ever to work for global understanding and tolerance. I am excited to begin working in Brussels next season, where the now-threatened project of European cooperation is based—a project that has kept the peace in Europe for 70 years.
When you get a chance to attend a concert as an audience member instead of as the conductor, what do you love to listen to?
Not surprisingly, I suppose, I am drawn to orchestral concerts and piano recitals. And a good string quartet concert is a real delight—a miracle of musical cooperation.
I’ve just returned to my room after a brief breakfast with Mike Boyman and Michael Foumai before they head to the airport. Judy was supposed to join us, but I hope she is sleeping and having an awesome dream about tigers. Mike and I both looked a bit scraggly because we could barely sleep last night after the concert–our minds were still spinning. After such an intense and amazing week, we are all happy and exhausted.
Leading up to last night’s concert, we were immersed in rehearsals with the orchestra. The first was a quick run of all of the pieces, followed by a more intensive working rehearsal, then a final session to fix last minute details. However, casually listing that in one sentence really does not do justice to the density of information and music-making that happened over the last few days. We set up camp in Orchestra Hall, surrounded by coats and piles of each other’s scores. As the musicians quickly picked up our technical instructions, they gradually began to understand our poetic intentions as well. I was impressed by the extremely efficient pace of the rehearsal and how quickly it all came together. Moreover, this underscored the importance of the composers’ job to communicate with clarity both verbally and in our written materials.
Throughout the process, we each had the privilege of meeting individually with Maestro Osmo Vänskä. We spoke about specific concerns in our pieces and discussed more general topics about writing for the orchestra. One point that came up frequently was the issue of balance within and between the instrumental families–proving how crucial it is for a composer to have a strong inner ear. While he was accommodating with our rookie mistakes, it was also very clear that he approached our pieces with the same focus as he would Sibelius or Beethoven. The same could be said for all of the musicians. It felt validating to be taken so seriously, and yet humbling to experience their knowledge of the repertoire and the depth of commitment to their roles in the orchestra.
Nothing brings a group of composers together more than anxiety about an upcoming concert. Throw in some public speaking engagements and there will probably be some life-long friendships in the making. We had all kinds of practice with this important skill: in front of cameras, with microphones, in small groups, as well as an entire hall full of people. In spite of the nerves, I was proud that we successfully communicated about ourselves, our music and the work of being a composer. It has been incredibly fun to get to know the other composers over beers and laughs, then to see each person’s little quirks peeking through the more packaged-up formal remarks and responses. And of course, I learned many lessons from my colleagues’ musical viewpoints and am so inspired by each work’s specific strengths. I’ve grown to love all of the pieces and will have them playing in my head over at least the next few days.
As for the concert itself, we could not have asked for a better performance or a more interested audience. All of the pieces shone uniquely and I could see and hear the accumulation of effort and passion that grew from the first rehearsal onward. It is rare for an orchestra to reach the point of interpretation with brand new music, much less seven pieces on the same program! On top of that, we were buoyed by a hall full of people who were responsive listeners and curious about our work. The entire evening was a thrilling experience and one that I will definitely cherish.
As I wrap up this very short blog series, I would like to thank Kevin Puts for his guidance and mentoring, Frank Oteri for his lovely presence and cheering us on, and all of the American Composers Forum and Minnesota Orchestra staff for facilitating the week. The composers are particularly grateful to Mele Willis for managing our activities and being so supportive of us. I also want to publicly send love to my colleagues and friends: Katie, Mike, Judy, Michael, Conrad and Phil. This week has reaffirmed for me that music requires making broad connections to be successful and impactful— from the administrators and staff, conductor, composers and musicians, to the audience members. As I return to Kansas with a stack of new CDs and wonderful memories, I hope to always keep in mind the strong sense of community surrounding the Minnesota Orchestra and this particular institute.
Read Tonia's first blog entry »
Read Tonia's second blog entry »
The Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute »
Thank you, Tonia, for sharing your experience during this year's Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute!
It is Tuesday evening and I am back in my hotel room after the second long day of presentations, meetings and fun conversations. Everyone is excited and jittery about the first rehearsals, which will finally take place tomorrow afternoon. We’ve talked a lot about our pieces and their potential issues, but no one has actually heard anything yet! Since the rehearsals alone will shift the week into an entirely different gear, I’d like to write a bit about what we’ve covered so far.
The Composer Institute offers young composers advice about practical matters, whether it is on the business side or the specifics of part-making and notation. Self-publisher Bill Holab and Norman Ryan from Schott Music presented us with divergent perspectives about the benefits of self-publishing versus traditional publishing. It was particularly interesting to hear their opinions about the changing world of music distribution and how various software and publication platforms are currently undergoing dramatic change. It is now easier than ever for anyone to share music with the public digitally, yet acquiring an expert level of musical craft/development/commitment seems to be a timeless standard to work toward, regardless of individual style.
These presentations also brought up big, philosophical questions that we discussed more informally between sessions. I was especially heartened by our visit to the (cozy and bubble-themed) American Composers Forum office in St. Paul. There, we learned about their diverse programs, which prioritize individual artists and simultaneously engage local communities. Using these projects as a model in states outside of New York and Minnesota could potentially make dramatic positive changes in our nation’s music scene as a whole. John Nuechterlein, the President of ACF, asked us candidly about rallying support for public arts funding in this time of great political uncertainty. Those of us who were in the conversation had a few ideas: creating a unified front of diverse arts organizations, making our voices heard through calls and mailings on behalf of this singular effort, and showing up in the community as volunteers and educators, particularly in rural areas.
Our meetings with the Orchestra musicians—harp, percussion and strings thus far—addressed specific technical concerns. It is clear that all of us have had extensive experience composing for different instrumental families. However, we learned from the past two days that expressing ideas to a professional orchestral musician requires a bit of translation from a chamber or new music ensemble setting. Because of the nature of the American orchestral institution, particularly the busy rehearsal and performance schedules, it is crucial for composers to reduce instructions to their basic essence in order to best convey our intentions. We tend to fill our scores and parts with very “composer-ly” reassurances for ourselves, such as expressive adjectives, technical symbols and other markings. Such details are probably crucial during the compositional process, but might actually hinder learning a part in the larger context.
One thing that struck me about our meetings with the musicians were their wonderfully distinct personalities. I find myself wanting to dream up concertos or solos for each of them. They were gracious with their time and offered extremely detailed comments, but definitely gave us some “tough love,” as principal bassist Kristen Bruya said after our strings session. I am curious as to how their individual personalities contribute (or not) into the orchestral effort. How much do the unique qualities of each person’s sound need to be dialed back in order to play successfully in an orchestra? Or do little personality quirks find their way into defining the sound of a particular section, and a particular orchestra? I am sure to be confronted with these completely unanswerable questions at rehearsal tomorrow!
Read Tonia's first blog entry »
The Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute »
My name is Tonia Ko, and I will be writing about the 2017 Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute as it happens. I’m looking forward to seeing the other six composers on Sunday after my short flight from Kansas City to Minneapolis. (No winter weather joke here, because it is only a little bit colder). Starting Monday, I anticipate many mind- and ear-opening sessions with Kevin Puts, Osmo Vänskä, and the orchestra.
It’s remarkable how this program brings together young composers from all over the world, yet we are all still part of the same small community. Judy Bozone is coming from Bangkok, Thailand, where she teaches, and I will finally (finally!) meet Michael-Thomas Foumai from my hometown of Honolulu. The rest of us are spread out over the continental US–in New York City, Colorado, and me in my new home of Lawrence, Kansas. I am sure that after taking into account hometowns and birthplaces, this becomes even more complicated.
That is all to say that composers tend to be quite nomadic. This lifestyle of traveling for school, workshops, and performances probably explains why I already know all but one of the participants this year. I can’t wait to reconnect with these folks—and make a new friend! Moreover, it will be so fun to get to know everyone through their music since we are stylistically quite different from each other.
One thing that we will all be grappling with this week is our personal distance from the pieces. I tend to be extremely attached to my work and will obsess over square centimeter of a score if not reeled back in time. So working on a piece with performers, much less 85 of them, is always a sensitive process.
And yet, we might have composed these pieces up to several years ago and have already moved onto other aesthetic and technical concerns. With orchestral music, the turn-around time is much longer than for solo or small chamber pieces (which is more my recent area of focus). The pieces take longer to write, more time to rehearse, and opportunities for such performances are certainly hard to come by. So what happens when I’m confronted with a stupid mistake that I made back in 2015, but definitely would not have in 2017? I shall defer to my colleagues with more experience working with large ensembles for wisdom and advice.
I’m very excited about this upcoming week, but honestly I have a lot weighing on my mind due to the current political events. An event like this institute reminds me of our responsibility as musicians to unite diverse communities and to inspire hope. Even though we might be working on musical details for much of the time, I’m sure the coming days will give me many ideas on how to be a better—politically engaged—artist.
This month we’ve invited guest blogger Mandy Meisner to interview the Minnesota Orchestra’s principal flute, Adam Kuenzel, in advance of the flute section’s performance at the January 22 Chamber Music in the Target Atrium concert. As Mandy notes in her introduction, a lifetime of music can often have the simplest of starts.
We Minnesotans are hearty folk who take our traditions seriously. Not the bitter winds, nor the darkness of winter nights can stop us from throwing on our jackets and crunching our way across an icy parking lot to partake in one of the most iconic American rites of passage for young musicians.
The first concert.
As parents, we have listened to months of squeaks and squawks, shrills and bangs wafting through our homes from what we suppose are bona fide instruments, but can’t be sure. First came the piece of paper, crinkled from excited little hands, asking to play an instrument. Later, we see our children red-faced and wide-eyed, delicate eyebrows stitched to the middle of their foreheads begging us to watch while they squeak and squawk, shrill and bang out their first notes with great pride and expectation.
As supporters of our young musicians, we will huddle together in cramped auditoriums and gyms, waving to our kids as they walk out carrying their instruments with the stoic glory of Trojan soldiers. Though this first performance might leave us grimacing through our smiles, somewhere between Beethoven’s Ode to Joy and Let’s Go Band we may have a brief fantastical moment and think: this concert could be their first step to a life of music. Suddenly, we see our children on-stage in sophisticated composure, playing with a full ensemble in honeyed song, their musical aspirations attained.
And for many, many fledging musicians, this will be true. That a lifetime of music started out simply—in a cramped auditorium or gym squeaking and squawking, shrilling and banging their first notes for a crowd who listened with great pride and expectation.
What starts out as a childish delight and curiosity will end—for the chosen few—in a lifetime of pursuing music with a world class orchestra. It is far too easy to see these bookends as finite. The struggling beginner cannot comprehend the mastery of an instrument. It’s tough to visualize the professional on stage ever having struggled for his or her skill. But it is this persistent in-between that is the magic that turns years of study, auditions, and lots of failure from a novice into a professional.
I recently interviewed Adam Kuenzel, the Minnesota Orchestra’s principal flute, to talk about his background, tips for young musicians, a preview of his performance at a Chamber Music in the Target Atrium concert on January 22, and what keeps the music magical for him.
Q. Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview! Let’s start with the beginning: how old were you when you started playing the flute, and what was it that intrigued you about this instrument?
A: I was about nine years old when I started on the flute. My recollection is that I first heard it at a school assembly. I was fascinated by the way it looked.
Q. Did your family have much of a musical background?
A. No one else in my family played an instrument. Unless you include my dad who had played trombone in high school and in a service band on Okinawa. A funny “family” coincidence is that lots of people thought I was related to Eric Kunzel, the conductor of the Cincinnati Pops.
Q. Like many people, probably, I view flute as stereotypically more of a feminine instrument than a masculine one. In my elementary and high school years everywhere I looked it was only girls that played the flute. Did you find it alienating in your youth to be a male flutist?
A. Isn't it strange? Yep. I play a girls' instrument, oh well. Luckily, I'd been taking private lessons for three years before I attended a school with a band program. By then I was pretty good and wasn't affected much by the fact that hardly any boys played flute.
Q. It’s cold and flu season. As a flutist, when your respiratory system isn’t working, your playing suffers. I know that was one of my biggest fears before a performance: coming down with a cold/cough. Any tricks you do to prevent this? Or do you just pray to the Performance Gods?
A. This past summer I played a recital with a sore throat and chest congestion. My main concern was that I might have a coughing fit after inhaling too rapidly. The solution was simply to take a dose of cough suppressant and then explain to the audience beforehand that I had to perform this particular concert seated because the medication was making me kind of drowsy and dizzy. The adrenaline that kicks in during a solo performance offsets some of the effects of respiratory illness, too.
Q. As an audience member, I feel moved every time I hear the Minnesota Orchestra perform. Is it challenging to feel inspired as a performer? What keeps music “fresh” for you?
A. It is a challenge to feel inspired sometimes. But being a professional requires one to deliver a quality of performance that inspires the listener regardless of other concerns or distractions that vie for my attention. Recently, I realized how inspiring it is for me to mingle with the audience in the lobby beforehand. As an orchestra we intuitively seized on this strategy during the lockout which ended three years ago. My colleagues and I still regularly "meet and greet" our audience before or after a concert. Ar first, it was out of a sense of duty and it took a while before I felt comfortable introducing myself to our audience members. But there is a palpable sense of anticipation and excitement among them that I get to share. That’s what helps get me "psyched up" for a performance.
Q. What is the most challenging part about the Bach A-minor Partita that you’re playing on the January 22 chamber music concert? What is the most loved?
A. Overall, the main challenge is to make a convincing statement playing only a single line of music. In particular the first movement or dance, I should say, is a real puzzle. Not a single rest in the entire piece! Unless you count the 16th rest at the beginning. Ha-ha! Very funny Herr Bach. I'm working with the concept that this was some sort of riddle on his part. Obviously a wind player needs to breathe. But how to pace those quick breaths and keep the flow of the line intact is the answer. (Click here for January 22 tickets and details.)
Q. Being a professional musician is highly competitive. What advice would you give young musicians who have their heart set to play in an orchestra someday?
A. Seek out any opportunity you can and see how you stack up against other players. Start jumping through the hoops early. Success doesn't come suddenly but by a persistent effort. I don't know how many contests, summer festivals, master classes, etc., I'd taken before I felt ready to compete for a paid position (a lot). And then, of course, all of the auditions I didn't win could fill an entire page. I like a quote from Tour de France winner, Greg LeMond. When asked what it was like to be a rising star in the professional cycling world he said, "It doesn't get easier, you just go faster.” Be idealistic but also realistic at the same time.
Q. What do you enjoy doing that is not musical?
A. I enjoy being active outdoors. Cross-country skiing, cycling, running, swimming, etc. I have a dog, Leo, who is very type A and requires lots of attention.
Member since: 2005
Hometown: Columbus, GA
Education: Northwestern University
I knew I'd make a career in music when: When I was a junior in high school I started playing in the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra with a lot of amazing musicians (including Robert Dorer who is now in the Minnesota Orchestra's trumpet section), and from that moment on I just couldn't imagine doing anything else for a career.
If I weren't a professional musician I'd be: I never really considered any other profession, but I've always been interested in architecture, and I think that's something that I would enjoy doing. Either that or professional baseball (I pitched three no-hitters when I was 12)!
How did you choose the clarinet? I come from a very musical family (except for my brother, who was a tuba player!) Both of my parents were very talented clarinet players and pianists, and my father was my band director growing up. I didn't choose the clarinet so much as it chose me.
Who has influenced you most as a musician? I was fortunate to have three outstanding clarinet teachers growing up, and, coincidentally they had all studied with the same teacher, Robert Marcellus of the Cleveland Orchestra. Marcellus was a lynchpin of the legendary Cleveland Orchestra woodwind section under George Szell, and produced one of the most beautiful clarinet sounds in the world. I was very lucky to study with Mr. Marcellus at Northwestern University.
This season with the Orchestra, which concert is most exciting to you? The Orchestra is in the midst of recording Mahler’s symphonies, and I'm particularly excited about performing the Sixth and Second Symphonies this season.
Which solo or moment in the clarinet’s orchestral repertoire is your favorite? There aren't really many noteworthy solos that one gets to play from the second clarinet chair: however, there are some particularly sublime moments in many of the Mahler symphonies. And Bartok wrote some really interesting, entertaining second clarinet parts in The Miraculous Mandarin and in his Concerto for Orchestra (which the Orchestra performs at an Inside the Classics concert on Friday, March 3).
David Pharris (center) performs in a Minnesota Orchestra concert. Photo by Greg Helgeson.
What are your most memorable performances with the Orchestra? There have been several memorable performances during my time here, but some that have really stood out are our performances with Maestro Stanislaw Skrowaczewski (especially Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony) and our performance of Beethoven’s Ninth at the BBC Proms.
If you could play a different instrument, which would you choose and why? There are several other instruments that I would really enjoy playing (particularly cello, horn and, of course, accordion), but the one instrument I would absolutely not want to play is oboe, unless it came with a full-time reed maker just for me.
Do you have any upcoming performances or other news you want to share with audiences? I am a member of The Musical Offering chamber ensemble, and on February 26 we'll be performing Anton Reicha's Wind Quintet in E minor and Bohuslav Martinu's La Revue de Cuisine at Sundin Music Hall. I will also be performing Nielsen’s Wind Quintet with other members of the Orchestra at a NightCap performance on February 25.
When you’re not performing or practicing, what do you enjoy doing in your free time? In my spare time I enjoy spending time with my family, riding bikes, hiking, going to movies and exploring the many brewpubs in town.
And a fun fact? During my senior year of high school, I was one of two representatives from the state of Georgia in the McDonald's All-American High School Band (why did they ever get rid of it?). With that ensemble, I marched in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York and the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena.
Pharris, second from right, performs in the McDonald's All-American High School Band. Photo courtesy of David Pharris.
To read more about David Pharris, visit minnesotaorchestra.org/about.
Photo: Student Ambassadors at our November 4 Campus Night, photo by Don Hughes
The first Campus Night on November 4 was a big success, as nearly 500 college students were part of the sold-out crowd that filled Orchestra Hall! All the credit goes to our Student Ambassadors who helped spread the word on their campuses about Minnesota Orchestra student ticket discounts.
Now in its second year, the Student Ambassador program has grown to include 40-plus students representing six Minnesota campuses. Through this program, students can add their Ambassador experience to their résumés and have the opportunity to work directly with Minnesota Orchestra staff and musicians.
Here are just a few things our current Ambassadors had to say about the first Campus Night and being a Student Ambassador:
Photo: Ines Guanchez
“One reason Campus Night was very special to me was because of the energy. There is something to be said about sharing music in such a bright and diverse atmosphere, to see the hall filled with voices and excitement; it really is a unique experience that promises fond memories and an unforgettable performance.” - Ines Guanchez, University of Minnesota
Photo: Connor Neill
“The best part about being a Student Ambassador for me is getting involved in the greater Twin Cities community. I can connect with other students as well as professionals who share an appreciation for orchestral music.” - Connor Neill, University of Minnesota
Photo: Zack Pentecost
“Overall, the best part of Campus Night was being able to watch a crowd of young and old concertgoers get larger and larger as they enjoyed their time in Orchestra Hall…even before the start of the concert.” - Zack Pentecost, University of Minnesota
“I hope that after this concert, students who don’t normally go to classical concerts realize how great they can be and what an amazing experience they are. And those who normally attend, keep going to make their life better through music!” - Justin Thai, University of Minnesota
“To me, the best part of being a Student Ambassador or is hearing students that are new to the orchestra world saying how much they enjoyed the concert. It has been a great way to reach out and show people how great classical music is.” - Alexa Sorensen, Eagan High School
Photo: Derek Parshall
“But the best thing of being an Ambassador is thinking BIG about the future. Not just classical concerts, but movie concerts, family concerts, youth concerts, events that entertain us all every single day.” - Derek Parshall, Augsburg College
“As one of the volunteers, I enjoyed meeting the other ambassadors and hearing why they were passionate about music.” - Elena Kolbrek, University of Minnesota
“We made a difference by helping to create energy. Our volunteering was a declaration that classical music is still relevant and important to younger generations.” - Kristen Rokke, University of Minnesota
Bravo Student Ambassadors! Keep bringing that energy. We’re already looking forward to our next Campus Night on March 3 for the Inside the Classics: Bartók’s Farewell concert. Student discount tickets for that concert will go on sale in January.
Interested in joining the Student Ambassador team? We’ll be recruiting in January. Details and information »
The Minnesota Orchestra recorded Mahler's Sixth Symphony with BIS records this week! Listen as Music Director Osmo Vänskä describes Mahler's music and our recording process.
Audience member David Balto contributed this powerful essay after hearing Stanislaw Skrowaczewski conduct the Minnesota Orchestra in Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony recently.
One of my fondest memories of my early childhood was going to concerts of the Minnesota Orchestra with my parents and sister Joan. It was rare for us to be able to go out as a family and going to a concert required us to try to be something more than just children. We would have to dress up. Our parents took us out to dinner at a nice restaurant. And we would have to listen (or try to listen) quietly to a two-hour concert to music that was not the least bit familiar. This was a lot to expect from an 8-year-old.
Patient and well-behaved were not terms easily used to describe us. But there was something about the entire process, getting dressed up, going to the magnificent Northrup Auditorium, going into a huge concert hall and ascending to the balcony seats, trying to acquire the state of concentration, and trying to fall into the music that was both moving and magical. And to do anything together with my parents seemed special.
A child has a special vision touched by innocence. A child can more easily find the sense of awe.
I had never been in a building so large and majestic―a building built in the 1920s as a memorial for World War I. Cyrus Northrup was the second President of the University and Cass Gilbert’s original plans for the University was to have an Auditorium at one end of the Mall. You walked in to a magnificent foyer with golden chandeliers. The inscription above said "The University of Minnesota: Founded in the Faith that Men are Ennobled by Understanding; Dedicated to the Advancement of Learning and the Search for Truth; Devoted to the Instruction of Youth and the Welfare of the State." WPA murals throughout the building. We climbed countless stairs to the “upper decks.”
Even at a distance the inside of the Hall was stunning. Great, majestic, regal. A great proscenium arch above the stage. A huge chandelier―over two tons―280 bulbs (my father explained how it was cleaned). And then we saw the stage―so many instruments and musicians, and they all seemed so intense, so devoted.
And then the music. We had not been touched by classical music. A child’s mind wanders “why so long, where is this going, what is the journey we are on?” But I could see my father transfixed. His eyes had a special vision. The music is not just aimed for the ear, it is aimed for and touches the soul. It touched his soul.
My father loved music. He and his five siblings, like most depression children, had so little; they just hoped to be fed and clothed. But sometimes he and his brother and sister would get their hands on some sheet music and harmonize with the only instruments they possessed―their voices. And their home would be filled with the tunes of the day.
He worked his way through college in the 1940s and was assigned the job of washing the walls of Northrup Auditorium. Climbing scaffolds and washing walls. He could watch the Orchestra practice. And that gave him the opportunity to be introduced to the wondrous world of classical music.
I never asked my father what composers he loved. I could tell by sitting next to him in concerts, by being close, that he was powerfully moved by the romantics―Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Grieg, Stravinsky. He could really cheer at any sporting event but you could see his soul ascend when the romantic classics were played.
When I hear that music played today, I think my soul is specially attuned from sitting next to him and watching him.
A Great Polish Conductor
In 1960 my father was so excited. Was it the Senators moving to Minnesota? (Yes, that was exciting.) There was perhaps even a greater gem―Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, a great Polish conductor had fled from behind the iron Curtain to come lead the Minnesota Orchestra. The iron curtain seemed like a prison. How did he escape? What would happen to him? Why did he leave?
Skrowaczewski and the Romantics were meant for each other. He had a vision, an intensity, and a drive that brought out the pain, joy, strife and passion in the music. I was too young to ponder why or how he could transform the music. (Or even know it was transformed). I only knew that for a few moments a magnificent artist led a group of talented musicians to bring out the unique sounds that touched our souls.
My father developed a special attachment to the Orchestra. He was an accountant for many of the musicians and did their tax returns. I remembered how much fun it was for me to assist him and figure out how to depreciate a timpani, bassoon, or viola.
Skrowaczewski conducted the Orchestra until 1974. It’s hard for Midwest culture to be recognized on the East Coast or in Europe or in other cultural capitals but with Skrowaczewski at the helm the Orchestra was acknowledged as superb.
Skrowaczewski Returns to the Podium
On October 15, 2016, accompanied by my wife Naomi, my niece Susan (one of my father’s ten grandchildren, his greatest blessing) and my cousin Peggy, I attended Skrowaczewski’s return to conduct the Orchestra at age 93. When we arrived at Orchestra Hall I could remember the anticipation and wonder I felt as a child. Seeing the Orchestra on stage with musicians busily preparing. And then Skrowaczewski appeared.
It was remarkable. Short, somewhat hunched over, but energetic. He conducted Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony flawlessly. It was over 80 minutes with no intermission. And he conducted without a score―when the music is engraved in your heart you do not need the script.
And I remembered the blessings of the music. I remembered the wonder of an orchestra creating something much greater than any individual artist. I remembered how the music can create a beauty that no words or images can ever describe.
And I remembered how being with my parents and sister taught me how to listen and how to open myself to be touched by and moved by the music.
And I was grateful for that blessing.
Skrowaczewski stood for three curtain calls. He stopped because it was tiring the Orchestra. While he was standing I recalled the Psalmist:
Even in old age they shall bring forth fruit
They will be filled with vigor and strength
To declare the Lord is upright
In whom there is no unrighteousness
David Balto is a public interest attorney and a hospital chaplain in Washington DC; he previously served as policy director of the Federal Trade Commission. His wife is the President of her Jewish Community Choir Kolot Halev (Voices of the Heart). He is a graduate of St. Louis Park High School and the University of Minnesota.
Member since: 1982
Position: Co-Principal Bassoon, currently Acting Principal Bassoon
Hometown: Lincoln, Nebraska
Education: University of Nebraska
I knew I’d make a career in music when:
I knew I would not be big enough to play in the NFL.
How did you choose your instrument?
Just like the actor Rainn Wilson, I was told that you could pick up girls in school by playing the bassoon. And it worked! I met a cute girl in college who also happened to play the bassoon, and I have been married to Cheryl for almost 40 years.
If I weren’t a professional musician I’d be:
A billionaire tech inventor (just ask the rest of the bassoon section about my tech skills).
What has influenced you most?
My faith has influenced me through my playing career. I know that there is a reason why I am playing in a great orchestra.
What is one of your proudest moments as a musician?
That I am a member of a great bassoon section.
Minnesota Orchestra's Current Bassoon Section (Norbert Nielubowski, Mark Kelley and J. Christopher Marshall)
How do you explain the bassoon to someone who has never heard of it before?
Picture a large, tall bed post. And when you are watching a funny spot in a movie, the bassoon is usually playing! They call us the clown of the orchestra.
If you could play a different instrument in the orchestra, which would you choose and why?
Viola! Because the viola section seems to have the most fun in the orchestra, and it is a very easy instrument to play (just kidding).
Which solo or moment in the bassoon’s orchestral repertoire is your favorite?
The Berceuse from Stravinsky’s Firebird suite.
What is your most memorable performance with the Orchestra?
Most recently, our performances and master class in Cuba. Also, playing at the Musikverein in Vienna and at the Proms in London.
What are your thoughts on the recent passing of Sir Neville Marriner, the music director who hired you in 1982?
Mr. Marriner was a kind and gentle soul who I very much enjoyed making music with. He always had a smile on his face, and helped bring the Orchestra up to another level in the world of classical music.
When you’re not performing or practicing, what do you enjoy doing in your free time?
Spending time with our family and seven grandchildren. Also boating, traveling, gardening, drinking coffee and painting, especially landscapes. Lately, I’ve been listening to Adele.
Bassoonist Mark Kelley, his wife Cheryl (also a bassoonist!), and their seven grandchildren (Photo courtesy of Mark Kelley)
Do you have any thoughts for audience members?
We appreciate each and every one of you, more than you know.
To read more about Mark Kelley, visit minnesotaorchestra.org/about.
Last month we invited guest blogger Mandy Meisner to interview Principal Harp Kathy Kienzle in advance of her performance of Ginastera’s Harp Concerto—and we’re thrilled that Mandy has now written us this follow-up reflection on the October 1 performance of music by Bach, Ginastera and Paulus.
I am convinced that magic exists in the world. The kind that, as children, once washed our lives in wonder and possibility every day. It’s the same magic that, as we grew older, became harder and harder to find, until most of us stopped believing in it altogether. But in our hectic, digital, selfie-crazed time, in between the emails and the texts, the deadlines and the meetings, we still long for its return.
On the beautiful evening of Saturday, October 1, I filed into Orchestra Hall with a throng of the casual and refined. People speckle the lobby in an eclectic mix of diamond studs glinting under elegant hair, sturdy skirts and practical sweaters, and tasseled shoes peeking out of the slacks of silver haired gentlemen. Inside the auditorium chairs stand in obedient rows, their plush charcoal grey seats cushioning us like pearls in a fine jewelry box.
A live musical performance is a fleeting and unique experience. Unlike a recording, in which the phrases and lines can be heard over and over again in exact duplication, a live performance is never the same thing twice. Indeed, there is a huge difference between the same notes being played and the same music being created—which only a true artist can articulate with nuanced beauty and skill.
When the Minnesota Orchestra starts to play the First Brandenburg Concerto, though a smaller ensemble, the hall is filled with sound. At once the musicians are transformed. They sat down as mere people and become something else entirely, something you feel privileged to behold. Oboe and violin cry out to one another, pulling at us somewhere deep, and we become helpless to do anything but sigh and ache from it.
Stagehands scamper to re-set for the Ginastera Harp Concerto. I have never heard a harp concerto live before, and though I know a bit about the piece from last month’s interview with Kathy Kienzle, I am curious to hear the music and this instrument. I am surprised to see it colorfully strung in red, white and blue, evoking a slightly patriotic appearance. It is taller than an average man, its impressive girth counterintuitive to its delicate voice. The soloist, Kathy Kienzle, walks out. She is polished and calm, her garnet dress flows silently behind and I see flashes now and again of her glasses. She sits down and begins.
What can I write about astonishment? That it starts as crisp and tart as a green apple, then gives way into something mysterious—lush and rounded and dark. Her playing is hypnotic, swaying from the silken delicacy of a new lover, to the confident strength of a favorite one. During the cadenza my ears cannot keep up with the flurry of notes, they are like a thousand monarch butterflies—uncontainable and magnificent in their abundance. The finale is a steady heartbeat of an otherworldly march—intriguing and exotic—finishing in an unexpected last explosion followed by an end that leaves me stunned and grasping in the abrupt silence.
I can feel the anticipation for the last component of the night. The distinguished looking couple next to me are singers, associates of the late composer, and their faces blur into affection as they talk about what comes next. And what comes next is Stephan Paulus’ Mass for a Sacred Place. Instantly I feel the commanding merge of voice and instrument. The music becomes an omnipresent force. I don’t need to look to know that it seeps into every person, in every soul—a wordless understanding through a shared moment in time, sweeping us away to some place extraordinary.
I wonder how his family and friends must feel, to see their loved one resurrected in all the ways that count. To have his heart and mind—the best and most intimate parts of himself—alive and well again. And I think this must be the true meaning of legacy.
After the piece is done, after the encore is finished that leaves you heartbroken from sheer beauty, I look around to see the entire night reflecting back to me from this sliver of humanity, and change my mind. This isn’t the meaning of legacy.
It is magic.
POSTSCRIPT: During intermission I am allowed to go backstage to meet Kathy Kienzle. I walk past musicians who are regular people again, their abilities hidden behind cups of hot coffee and the electric light of cell phones. I find myself a bit tongue-tied meeting Kathy after listening to such a powerful performance. She is kind and gracious, still glowing from the stage. We both gush about the music, how unusual it is, how captivating. She talks about the stamina required for the piece, her preparations and the intricate challenges (the pedal action alone was very involved). But what I find most interesting is when she shows me her hands, palms up, which are surprisingly smooth. She explains if the calluses get too thick, it affects the sound of the strings, producing a “hard” sound. Who knew?
This Fall, violinist Esther Yoo made her U.S. debut with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra and then traveled north for her Canadian debut with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Her next stop is Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis, where she will perform Bruch's First Violin Concerto with the Minnesota Orchestra and Osmo Vänskä. We had the chance to get to know a little bit about her, why she loves Bruch's Concerto and much more about her very full musical career.
What are you looking forward to about your upcoming performance in Minneapolis with Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra?
I’m very excited about performing with the Minnesota Orchestra and making my Minneapolis debut. They are an orchestra that I have admired for many years and I’m glad that we have one of my favorite violin concertos programmed. I had the great pleasure of working with Maestro Vänskä in Iceland for the first time at the start of the year. We played the Sibelius Violin Concerto, obviously a very contrasting concerto to the Bruch, and it was a wonderful experience. I’m looking forward to another great musical adventure with Maestro Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra!
What is personally meaningful, exciting or challenging for you about this concerto?
The Bruch Concerto was one of the first major violin concertos that I ever learned so it holds a very special place in my heart. I remember coming back to this piece after not having played it since my childhood and being awed by its beauty, lyricism and brilliance. It is a true classic in the violin repertoire and I love remembering how I interpreted this music when I was a kid and how my expression and the emotions I translate into the piece have evolved now.
How would you describe Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in ten words or less?
Captivating, romantic, passionate, nostalgic, lyrical, stormy, brilliant.
What is your favorite performance venue?
I have to say that my favorite (and the coolest) venue I have ever performed at is the Royal Albert Hall in London. I made my BBC Proms debut there this summer and I had only ever seen the hall through photos and videos before my first rehearsal. I was expecting it to be big but my jaw literally dropped when I stepped into the hall and processed the phenomenal size and grandeur of the venue. It was mind-boggling to play for nearly 6,000 people but it was also very thrilling and special to be able to share my music with so many people at once.
What about your most unusual performance venue?
I’ve experienced several unusual venues but one of the most memorable ones was a church in the Czech Republic that I performed at around the beginning of my career. The church wasn’t unusual but the fact that it was winter and they had forgotten to turn on the heating beforehand was! It was literally -10 degrees Celsius (14 degrees F) inside the church and I had to play with fingerless gloves on!
What is your earliest musical memory?
My earliest musical memory is of me tinkering around on a toy xylophone with rainbow colored keys which I loved and would lug all around the house! This soon evolved into me fiddling around on the piano and then my parents introduced me to a piano teacher at the age of four.
What is your favorite musical memory?
I have too many favorite memories! Each one is unique and meaningful. To sum up a few, working with the late Maestro Lorin Maazel was something I'll never forget as it shaped me into the musician I am today. Releasing my debut album on Deutsche Grammophon earlier this year was literally a dream come true. Any moment that I spend with the Z.E.N. Trio, which I recently formed with my friends pianist Zhang Zuo (who performed with Minnesota Orchestra in Sommerfest 2016 ) and cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan, is a blast. And my Proms debut this summer was one of the most exciting experiences of my career so far.
When you get a chance to attend a concert as an audience member instead of as the soloist, what or who do you love to listen to?
I enjoy all types of performances and try to attend whatever/whenever I can. Most often I’ll try to get in to the second half of whichever concert I’m playing in, to listen to the Symphony programmed after intermission. It’s extremely inspiring to go to operas and ballets as well and I always wish I had time to go more frequently.
Music has been a main source of comfort to me and a natural method of communication from a very early age. I used to be very shy as a child and expressing myself through music was a safe portal of expression for me. As I grew older I discovered how I could transform the sound of my instrument to be unique and it fascinated me that I could create a “voice” through music. I also appreciate how there’s an endless amount of learning and discovering to do through music. But most importantly, it is an art that can be enjoyed universally, without any borders and a language that can be felt and understood by all.
What else should our audience know about you?
I’m a very curious person so I have many interests and I like to experience new things. I love anything that has to do with food so I enjoy cooking whenever I’m at home, I’m an avid writer and I try to make time for sports such as swimming, running, yoga and horse-back riding.
I feel very privileged to have the opportunity to travel around the world, to meet so many interesting people and I enjoy sharing my experiences with my audiences via social media. I love being able to communicate with my audience both on and off-stage so I invest time into creating good content on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat as well as my YouTube Channel where I make videos about my experiences as a young artist as well as sharing more personal aspects of myself.
Want to know even more about Esther? She shares 15 fun facts about herself in this video: youtube.com
Esther Yoo performs Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1 with the Minnesota Orchestra on November 3, 4 and 5. For more information on these concerts, visit minnesotaorchestra.org.
Our friends at the London Philharmonic Orchestra produced a series of wonderful interviews featuring Music Director Osmo Vänskä on his beloved Sibelius. He conducts the entire Sibelius cycle with the London Philharmonic later this month. Video:
Photo: Stage Manager Gail Reich with Technical Director Joel Mooney at Usher Hall in Edinburgh, Scotland in August 2016.
Hours before and after a Minnesota Orchestra concert, Gail Reich is hard at work moving instruments and equipment, carefully handling the Orchestra’s precious belongings along with her fellow stagehands. A stage manager with the Minnesota Orchestra since 1992, she is retiring this fall. With the recent tour to Europe in mind, we’ve talked with her about what her job is like on the road.
Touring is hard work for everyone. What does it involve for stagehands?
We travel four to six hours ahead of the musicians, on different planes or trains, and we spend many more hours at the performance venues. First we team with the facility’s own stagehands to unload two trucks and a trailer jam-packed with road cases specially built to hold the instruments. Then we set up the stage and arrange the backstage area with signs telling our musicians where to find their instruments, wardrobe trunks and dressing rooms. Each hall has its own quirks, and we troubleshoot so the musicians can focus on the music. After the concert we pack it all up again, head to the next city and repeat the process. We wish it included time for sightseeing!
No doubt weather is a factor.
So true. On a 2004 tour we arrived at our hall in Glasgow early on a Wednesday, loaded in, did the rehearsal, did the show, re-loaded the truck and drove to a small airport. It was the middle of the night before everything was moved into a very old cargo plane. We strapped ourselves into the back of the plane and took off—practically straight up into the air!—with that huge load of trunks suspended directly above us, trusting with all our might for the straps to hold. On landing in Finland we had to drive through a blizzard to get to the next concert hall, in Lahti, only to learn that the musicians were delayed by the storm. The concert started late, and by the time we finished packing everything up, it was 2 a.m. on Friday, almost 48 hours since I’d begun, with no time to sit other than on taxi rides and that scary plane ride. Exhausting, but memorable.
Does it ever feel “old hat”?
Never. The Orchestra’s tour this summer was my ninth, but no matter how often we work abroad, it’s still awe-inspiring to see these famous institutions—especially Sibelius Hall in Lahti and the Concertgebouw—and appreciate the intricate ways they function. It gives me a window on what my job would be like on the other side of the Atlantic.
There, like here, you’d be in the minority: a woman in a male-dominated field.
Yes, but it seems perfectly natural to me. I’ve worked backstage since my theater and dance days in college, doing lighting and stage managing. When I started at Orchestra Hall in 1992, I might have been the only woman stagehand at a major American orchestra, but now that’s changed. Like my colleagues, I find it very gratifying that the musicians have confidence in our ability to handle and transport their instruments— their livelihood—safely. It’s a job we take very seriously, and I’m proud to have been part of such a great team for the last 24 years.
We have invited Stanislaw Skrowaczewski’s biographer and friend Dr. Frederick Harris, Jr., to contribute the following essay about the legendary maestro’s remarkable career in celebration of his appearance with the Minnesota Orchestra this week.
Extraordinary music history is quietly being made each time audiences witness Maestro Stanislaw Skrowaczewski conduct. At 93, he stands alone as the only major conductor-composer his age still active internationally. With his Minnesota Orchestra concerts this weekend he matches Leopold Stokowski in age for longevity of conducting public performances.
The act of leading a major orchestra at such an age is impressive, but the integrity of Skrowaczewski’s ever-deepening interpretations is what places him on a unique plateau. His conducting repertoire of recent decades ranges from Mozart to Alban Berg and beyond, but his leadership of Bruckner symphonies is transcendental. It stems from a personal identification with Bruckner’s spiritual aesthetic and Skrowaczewski’s own inner life as a composer.
Decades ago he added a soft tam-tam note and cymbals in the finale of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony. “I thought it was necessary for this mystical place,” he explained. Years later, upon the release of the Korstvedt edition of this symphony, Skrowaczewski was astonished (and gratified) to discover that Bruckner had added a cymbal in precisely the same spot. He clearly relishes the aesthetic nexus. Retelling this story Skrowaczewski joked, “Maybe Bruckner learned something from me!”
In Japan and Europe (particularly in Germany and in the U.K. with the London Philharmonic Orchestra) Skrowaczewski is a bona fide “rock star” consistently selling out concert halls and earning ovations that often linger for ten minutes. Yet outside of Minnesota, where he is beloved and revered, in recent decades he has largely been neglected in his adopted home country. (Polish-born, he fled his then-Communist birth-country in 1960, becoming a U.S. citizen in 1965. But recently the Polish government honored Skrowaczewski with its two highest awards: The Order of the White Eagle and The Order of Reborn Poland.)
Last summer, however, the Cleveland Orchestra was wise enough to invite him back after a 33-year gap. He tore apart Severance Hall with a performance of Shostakovich’s Fifth with which he made his American debut with the Clevelanders back in 1958. “So authoritative—and fresh—was Skrowaczewski’s interpretation,” noted The Plain Dealer in 2015, “that he seemed to fade from view, with the shade of Shostakovich coming into focus over the proceedings.” The rave reviews were reminiscent of a long-ago date with the Cleveland Orchestra that was pivotal to Skrowaczewski’s life. “Polish Conductor Electrifies Severance Hall,” trumpeted the headline of The Plain Dealer review from an atypical placement on the newspaper’s front page following Skrowaczewski’s first Cleveland Orchestra engagement. Board members from the then-Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra were in the audience for Skrowaczewski’s second equally-successful Cleveland performance in 1959 and knew they had their next maestro.
Thankfully the Minnesota Orchestra has valued Skrowaczewski’s artistry since appointing him music director in 1960 (a post he held until 1979—a tenure length only matched by the Minnesota Orchestra’s first music director) and continuing to this day. In fact his professional relationship with the Minnesota Orchestra as music director and now as conductor laureate is the longest such ongoing relationship (56 years!) in the annals of major American orchestras.
Skrowaczewski’s bonds with the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra go beyond years of service. He fervently supported them during the lockout and led them in their first concert as the “Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra” in 2012 and again in 2013. And when the Minnesota Orchestra officially returned in February 2014, it was Skrowaczewski who conducted their “Homecoming” concert, the first performance in the newly renovated Orchestra Hall, an edifice that Skrowaczewski fought for and musically inaugurated in 1974.
Two weeks after the “Homecoming” concert, the Chamber Music Society of Minnesota presented “Happy 90th, Maestro Stan!” at Orchestra Hall. Featuring premieres in his honor by some of America’s greatest composers, the concert brought together cellist Lynn Harrell, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges (who presented a “Skrowaczewski Day” proclamation from Governor Dayton), and an all-star orchestra of musicians from the Minnesota Orchestra, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and beyond to celebrate Minnesota’s most distinguished classical artist.
Though Skrowaczewski’s primary musical persona is as a conductor, his career as a composer is the life-blood of his artistry. Currently he is working on a large-scale composition for orchestra, chorus and vocal soloists that he describes as “a non-religious ‘Requiem for Civilization,’ but still with hope for the future.” Given the duality of Skrowaczewski’s personality, his harrowing experiences living through World War II, and his concern for over half a century of what he describes as “an erosion of cultural and aesthetic values,” the concept of his new symphonic piece is not surprising.
For 70 years Stanislaw Skrowaczewski has in many regards been a singular artistic voice in the world of music. Artistically uncompromising, professionally consistent, and endlessly probing, he has conducted and composed on his own terms. Through his concerts, compositions, and recordings, he has created a priceless artistic legacy—one that Minnesota and the greater world of music should rightly embrace, study and celebrate.
While our fast-paced, technology-driven society promotes ease and self-absorption, this maestro invites us to pause, reflect and contemplate the deeper mysteries that surround us—in effect, to join him in seeking the infinite.
Sto Lat Stanislaw!
My violin is over 300 years old.
Known as the Gibson ex Huberman, the revered instrument came into my life one fateful day during the summer of 2001.
I was in London, getting ready to play a ‘Proms’ concert at the Royal Albert Hall and decided to stop by the famous violin shop J & A Beare to pick up some strings. As I entered the shop, Charles Beare was just coming out of the back room with a stunning violin in hand. He told me that it was the famous Huberman Strad, and of course I was instantly intrigued.
I soon learned all of the known details of the violin's remarkable history, which is complete with twists and turns to rival the film that I had only recently finished working on, The Red Violin. Believed to be one of only five or six instruments made in 1713 by Antonio Stradivari in Cremona, Italy, the violin has belonged to many, including the English violinist George Alfred Gibson. But it was its connection to Bronislaw Huberman that I found particularly fascinating and somewhat personal.
Huberman was a Jewish Polish violinist who lived from 1882-1947. He was a child prodigy who was revered for his remarkable virtuosity and daring interpretations. Huberman studied under Joseph Joachim in Berlin, and by the age of 11 he was already touring Europe as a virtuoso. It was during one of those early tours that he met the pianist Arthur Rubinstein, who was only six at the time, and had not yet achieved the legendary status that he came to hold. The two musicians remained lifelong friends.
At 13 Huberman had the honor of performing the violin concerto of Johannes Brahms in the presence of the composer himself, who was stunned by his interpretation. According to biographer Max Kalbeck, “As soon as Brahms heard the sound of the violin, he pricked up his ears, during the Andante he wiped his eyes, and after the Finale he went into the green room,
embraced the young fellow, and stroked his cheeks. When Huberman complained that the public applauded after the cadenza, breaking into the lovely Cantilena, Brahms replied, ‘You should not have played the cadenza so beautifully.’”
Huberman became one of the most celebrated musicians of his time, but it was in 1929 that his contribution to humanity took on an added dimension. During that year he visited Palestine and came up with the idea to establish a classical music presence there. During Hitler’s rise to power, Huberman had the foresight to realize he could save many Jewish artists while fulfilling his desire to start a Palestinian Orchestra. Huberman auditioned musicians from all over Europe. Those selected for the orchestra would receive contracts and, most importantly, otherwise impossible-to-get exit visas from their homeland to Palestine. Huberman raised the money for the musicians and then their families, even partnering with Albert Einstein to set up an exhaustive U.S. fundraising trip in 1936. By the end of that tour, the money for the orchestra was secured and sixty top-rate players had been chosen from Germany and Central Europe. All in all, it was a fantastically successful tour, barring one particular performance at Carnegie Hall on February 28th.
That night Huberman chose to play the second half of his concert on his ‘other violin’, a Guarneri del Gesu. During the applause following his performance of the Franck Sonata, Huberman’s valet walked on stage to inform him that his Stradivarius had been stolen from his dressing room. The police were called while Huberman tried not to panic, continuing optimistically with his encores. The instrument had previously been stolen in 1919 from a hotel room in Vienna but was recovered days later when the thief tried to sell it. This time, Huberman was not so lucky.
There are several versions as to exactly how and why the violin was stolen, but what we know for sure is that the instrument ended up in the hands of a young freelance violinist by the name of Julian Altman. Some say Altman’s mother convinced him to steal it; others report that Altman bought if off the actual thief for $100. Regardless, Altman took great pains to conceal the violin’s true identity, covering its lovely varnish with shoe polish and performing on it throughout the rest of his career, which included a stint as first chair with the National Symphony Orchestra during World War II.
Heartbroken, Huberman never saw his Stradivarius again. However, his great dream was fulfilled when the new Palestine Orchestra made its debut in December of 1936 with the great Toscanini on the podium. I like to imagine that my own relatives might have been in the audience on that opening night, as my grandfather was born there and my great grandfather was part of the first “Aliyah” of Russian Jewish immigrants to Palestine in 1882. As for his violin, it was played by its suspected thief for over fifty years, and in 1985, Julian Altman made a deathbed confession to his wife, Marcelle Hall, about the true identity of the instrument. She eventually returned the violin to Lloyd’s of London and received a finder’s fee; and the instrument underwent a nine month restoration by J & A Beare, Ltd., which noted it was like “taking dirt off the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.”
The instrument was then sold to the late British violinist Norbert Brainin of the Amadeus String Quartet. Previous to my fortuitous encounter with the violin at J & A Beare, Brainin had once let me play it after a rehearsal of the Mozart G minor string quintet which I had the pleasure of playing with him one evening in the 1990s. “One day you might be lucky enough to have such a violin,” he had said prophetically.
And so here I was in 2001, buying some strings at the violin shop and I was introduced to the 1713 Stradivarius again. As it was handed to me, I was told it was being sold to a wealthy German industrialist for his private collection. However, after playing only a few notes on it I vowed that this would not happen. This was an instrument meant to be played, not just admired. I fell in love with the instrument right away, and even performed that very night on it at the Royal Albert Hall. I simply did not want it to leave my hands.
This violin is special in so many ways. It is overwhelming to think of how many amazing people have held it and heard it. When I perform in Israel with the Israel Philharmonic, I am always touched to think how many of the orchestra and audience members are direct descendants of the musicians Huberman saved from the Holocaust – with funds raised by concerts performed on the very same instrument I play every day. Who knows what other adventures will come to my precious violin in the years to come? While it certainly will be enjoyed and admired long after I am not around anymore, for the time being I count myself incredibly lucky to be its caretaker on its 300th birthday.
Essay and Photos Courtesy of Joshua Bell.
Joshua Bell performs Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto with the Minnesota Orchestra on September 22 and 23. For more information about the program, visit minnesotaorchestra.org.
Photo: Stagehand Don Hughes captured this image of Kathy's harp in the airport x-ray machine at Glasgow, Scotland during our recent European Tour.
This month we’ve invited guest blogger and Minnesota Orchestra fan Mandy Meisner to interview Principal Harp Kathy Kienzle in advance of her upcoming solo on Sept. 29-Oct. 1. As Mandy notes: “It’s always the quiet ones that can surprise us the most. And the harp is one of them.”
Some instruments have all the luck. Made to be the Life of the Party, they dazzle us over and over again. Take the trumpet, for example. Elegant in design, it is simply arranged in a slender metallic loop with a bloom at its end, sporting three measly keys that disguise a five octave range. And the sound! Its confident, clear explosions transport you to fields of glory and rooms of royal ceremony. Or, it can lull you in the calm, raspy threads of jazz that hang in the air like smoke. The trumpet conjures up a personality that is charismatic and powerful. Gutsy and triumphant.
Then, there are other kinds of instruments. The kind that are so ingrained in our cultural psyche, we easily forget their significance. One in particular blends in the background, ever present and quiet—as Wallflowers tend to be. Rather than being the Life of the Party, it demonstrates a subtle, hypnotic ability, requiring remarkable skill and strength of the player. Hearing it crowds our heads with all things feminine, evoking images of slender outstretched arms, of upturned demure faces. Its sound brings us inside the chambers of gilded chairs and velvet benches, where poetry is read to the genteel and elite. Thanks to consistent type casting over the years, it is doomed to be played atop generic white clouds, eternally strummed by cherubim and seraphim, its true splendor suffocated by our ignorant, sweet notions. Forever delicate and polite.
This instrument is the harp.
We all come to accept and understand a convenient definition of ourselves and of others. It’s how our brains work to parcel out the multitude of different kinds of people and ideas in the world. Yet we also—at least sometimes—long to break the mold, to redefine our labels, to shock and defy with creative expression. Composers, with their musician partners, have been doing just that since the dawn of man. The harp is among the oldest instruments on record and therefore, to the public, may have the most constraining molds to rebel against.
So what, then, is the harp all about? Which music can properly showcase its versatility? And who are the people who play it? In an attempt to break some of our deep seated (and misguided) ideas about the harp, I interviewed the Minnesota Orchestra’s principal harpist, Kathy Kienzle, to help set us straight.
Wallflowers can often persuade us to hear a different tune, if we only care to listen.
Thank you so much for this interview! I’ll confess, I don’t know much about the harp and probably represent a lot of other people out there in my unfamiliarity. And it’s not an instrument played as much as, say, the violin or cello. What was it about the harp that made you want to study it? What first impressions did you have of the harp?
Kienzle: I first saw and heard the harp played when I was 6 and I was fascinated both by the sound and the way it looked. My (future) harp teacher played at our church every Christmas and Easter. I was extremely lucky that even though I grew up in a pretty small town, there was a wonderful harp teacher who had had lessons in New York and Paris with some of the finest harp teachers in the world. I studied with her for 11 years before I went to college.
I’ve listened to a few harp concertos now (beyond just Mozart’s for flute and harp…) to get a better sense of the instrument. As a layman, I perceive that the variety of colors of the music are coming from the orchestra, not the harp. The harp (to me) has a very consistent sound: a pure, clear quality that even when playing dissonant chords still rings so true. Do you ever wish you could express something really dark and “un-pretty” on the harp? Is there a (dark) harp piece out there that is really striking?
Kienzle: People often say that the harp is very soothing and calming to listen to. It also has a reputation of sounding “pretty” (it’s often used in commercials for that purpose) and for being a very feminine instrument. This drives me crazy! It’s very difficult to move, and also takes a lot of strength to play. So yes, I like the idea of showing listeners that the harp can express something dark and dissonant, or at least something different than “pretty.” The Ginastera Harp Concerto I’m playing with the Minnesota Orchestra at the end of September is one of those pieces. It is dissonant, but I wouldn’t say it is dark. It shows off the harp in a very rhythmic, technical, exciting way. And there are many pieces written for the harp in the 20th and 21st centuries that are dark, dissonant, and even contain ugly sounds. Composers are now exploring the outer limits of the instrument.
What are the most difficult and the most fun aspects of performing the Ginastera Concerto?
Kienzle: Probably the technical aspect is the hardest part of this piece, and the scariest. This includes very complicated pedaling. My feet are almost as busy as my fingers. What’s most fun about performing this, is that the piece shows off the harp in a very different way. It has lyrical moments, but is also very rhythmic and exciting.
OK, I’m going to ask a question you probably get really, really tired of being asked: How much of a hassle is it to transport a harp? How much does it weigh? Does it require a special vehicle or special attachment?
Kienzle: Concert grand harps weigh between 81 to 92 pounds. Yes, it’s a hassle to move it. It’s very top heavy, so it’s extremely awkward, especially if the harpist is short. There are now lots of vehicles that will hold a harp. A lot of us have mini-vans, so we can get a lot in the car with the harp, but a harp will actually fit in a Prius!
I grew up playing the flute. Right or wrong, I view the flute as more of a feminine instrument than a masculine one. I have the same bias for the harp. In elementary and high school years everywhere I looked it was only girls who played the flute. But then you get to the college and professional level, and the top positions are absolutely dominated by men. Is there a similar arc for the harp?
Kienzle: Yes, many more girls are attracted to the harp than boys. I have had maybe 4 male students out of 100 (total) over all my years of teaching. I think it may be getting a bit better now. At the college level it’s about the same, but at the professional level it is more equal (men do not dominate.) Of the 10 major U.S. symphonies right now only one has a male harpist. In Europe it is a bit different, because up until a few years ago women were not allowed in some symphony orchestras, especially in Germany and Austria. This has now changed.
Is there a challenge to get the next generation of harpists interested to study?
Kienzle: Not at all. There are many, many students studying harp now. I teach Suzuki harp, so I have students as young as 5. I just had a student graduate high school who started with me when he was 5 years old. I will have 5 students at the U of Minnesota this fall.
Musicians are susceptible to specific kinds of injury. What is a harpist susceptible to, and what do you do to prevent injury?
Kienzle: Harpists are susceptible to tendinitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, back pain, shoulder pain, neck pain, etc., etc., etc. It’s a very awkward instrument to play. When I was younger I didn’t think or worry much about this. Now I have learned I have to really pace myself. I can’t practice for hours and hours like I used to. Warm-ups and specific stretches are extremely important. I also see a chiropractor regularly and sometimes see a massage therapist and physical therapist.
People can readily see the harp is a unique instrument. What is unique about it that is not so readily noticeable or observable?
Kienzle: Most people don’t know about the 7 pedals, one for every note of the scale, and that we get all our sharps and flats by changing the pedals. Also a harp does not get better with age, as bowed string instruments do. The pressure of the strings on the wood is so great, that eventually they pull apart or crack, and have to be rebuilt.
You’ve been with the Minnesota Orchestra since 1993. Have you seen an evolution in the MO audience over the years? Why do you think that is?
Kienzle: The biggest change in the audience is how they were before the lockout compared to how they are now. I would say that also is true about how the musicians relate to the audience. During the lockout, when the community did not have our concerts to attend, except the monthly ones we produced ourselves, the audiences were starved for orchestral music. Now they seem to appreciate us much more than before, because they realize how much they missed us.
Likewise, on the musicians’ side, it is easy to get used to going to work, doing our jobs, and going home, without even acknowledging how important our audience is to us. That has totally changed too. During the lockout we started going out into the lobby before and after concerts and chatting with the audience. This has continued after the lockout. We now know how much the audience means to us. In the industry the edge of the stage is called the “fourth wall” and we are much more determined to break through that and make connections with our audience.
Want to hear for yourself what the harp can really do? Kathy Kienzle will be playing the colorful Ginastera Harp Concerto on Thursday, September 29 (11am), Friday, September 30 (8pm), and Saturday, October 1 (8pm) at Orchestra Hall. Details & tickets »
The New Standards, the versatile piano-bass-vibraphone trio that has won a global following since its formation in the Twin Cities a decade ago, will take the stage for a first-time collaboration with the Minnesota Orchestra on Saturday, July 2. As they prepped for this musical mash-up, band members Chan Poling (piano) and John Munson (bass) talked to us about the Minneapolis music scene, Orchestra Hall’s first onstage bar and the joy of sharing music with fans. Complete concert details »
The New Standards and the Minnesota Orchestra―tell us how this collaboration came about.
Chan Poling: I reached out to [Minnesota Orchestra Director of Live at Orchestra Hall] Grant Meachum when he first moved to Minneapolis, and by sheer coincidence he had just heard (from his barber!) that he should check out The New Standards. He thought we wanted to simply do a TNS show in the Hall, but we had a dream to play fully embedded in the Orchestra. It was this desire, to come with fully fleshed-out interactive arrangements of our pop repertoire—not simply sing over string “pads”—that intrigued Grant and [Principal Conductor of Live at Orchestra Hall] Sarah Hicks.
John Munson: We have wanted to work with the Orchestra for quite awhile. We discovered Orchestra Hall as a favorite venue when we played Macy's Day of Music a few years back, and we've been trying to get back in ever since. Turns out it's a pretty exclusive gig.
Who is putting together the orchestral arrangements for the July 2 concert? How did you determine the set list?
Poling: The amazingly talented and deeply experienced Robert Elhai, who has written arrangements for Broadway and Hollywood blockbusters and for orchestras around the world, is creating our arrangements. We are thrilled to have him on our team! It’s been a process. We wanted to stay true to our “mission,” and be clear that we play NEW standards and not the old. And we wanted to choose songs that we would enjoy playing for the next few years, as we hopefully tour this sort of show.
You invited a woodwind quintet from the Orchestra to perform at your annual holiday show this year. What was that experience like?
Munson: That was a great experience! Such a thrill. The musical facility of orchestral players is really something to behold. Not to mention the tone. I personally had the bell of a French horn pointed right at me, and the tone and expressive qualities were thrilling. On the other hand our show is pretty free-wheeling, different than the usual thing for the orchestra players. But I think they had fun.
What are you particularly excited about in this partnership?
Munson: I am excited for us. Super excited. But I have to say, as a community member I’m more excited about what this collaboration suggests in terms of the Orchestra opening its arms to the incredibly rich, vital, vibrant pop music scene that lives in the same town as the Orchestra. It is my opinion that everyone will really benefit from the Orchestra’s openness to these sorts of collaborations.
Poling: We work on these arrangements in a very compositional way and think in orchestral terms, actually—we get really satisfied when the parts are inventive but simple and work together to be huge-sounding even though we are only three players. Yes, these are pop and alternative rock songs, but we take them seriously and the weighty potential (if I may say so) of having a full orchestral palette, I think, will elevate them to the kinds of heights we always imagined!
The New Standards reinterpret songs from so many genres. What is the connecting thread in the music you choose to play?
Munson: The songs have to suggest something latent in them, something that was not explored in the original arrangement. And something great about the lyrics. Those are the common threads.
You’ve suggested the idea of hosting “bar seating” onstage during the July 2 concert. How did this come about?
Poling: Well, we were trying to think of something that would be unique about this show, because honestly The New Standards are not your typical concert hall group. We thrive in situations that are loose and where the banter can flow freely. And the booze. Enter to win tickets and bar seating at this concert »
Putting aside this concert, what is your favorite venue to perform in?
Munson: So many, many wonderful places to play. Impossible to choose really, BUT if I want to play a rock show then I want to play at First Ave. That bar was all I aspired to as a young man. And every time I get back there it feels like a tremendous blessing. For The New Standards though, out of town Joe’s Pub in New York is delightful. And of course we love The Dakota, our home in Minneapolis.
When you attend a concert as an audience member, who or what do you enjoy listening to?
Poling: In all honesty I listen to and go see a LOT of diverse stuff. I really enjoy exploring and listening to all sorts of music. Recently I have attended shows that ranged from Gounod to Janis Joplin, Harold Budd and Brian Eno, Penderecki, “C,” the new Cyrano musical, Iggy Pop and more.
In the time following Prince’s death there has been conversation about how his music is grounded in Minneapolis and how he chose to remain part of the Twin Cities music scene. You clearly feel this tie to the Minneapolis scene—what is the draw for you?
Munson: The days immediately after Prince’s death tell you all you need to know about our cities’ music scene. It was nothing surprising to me personally, to be honest. It’s a sentimental town. It’s a town that loves its own and takes pride in its own. Especially when those heroes stay home or stay true to their roots. You learn about that when you roll up to play a gig in December or January and there’s a line down the block. I think the draw for me is to be on a journey with some of those old fans, to try and surprise them by growing but also being able to provide a comfortable place for them. Best fans in the world. Without a doubt.
Poling: I’m finding it a bit hard to talk and write about Prince these days. It was a big blow. But the outpouring from around the world illustrates better than words how very vital this town’s contributions to pop musical culture have been.
What else should Minnesota Orchestra audiences know about The New Standards?
Poling: We are serious about the music we love, and get great joy out of playing, but mainly it’s about having fun with everyone.
Christine Van Loo has performed with the acrobatic troupe Cirque de la Symphonie for a decade and is considered a legend in the sport of acrobatic gymnastics. On May 18 and 19, she performs onstage, above stage and flying through the air at Orchestra Hall in concerts with Cirque de la Symphonie, the Minnesota Orchestra and conductor Sarah Hicks. The Minnesota Orchestra musicians may be acrobats on their instruments, but having an aerialist like Christine in Orchestra Hall is a rare treat, and we wanted to learn more about her before these upcoming shows.
When did you begin training for your career?
I actually started as a competitive acrobatic gymnast when I was eight. I represented the U.S. internationally in that sport until I was 19. I was a Female Olympic Athlete of the Year, an Athlete of the Decade and I have the honor of being the only person in my sport to win seven consecutive national championships. I became a performer after retiring from competition and have been an aerialist for about 18 years. I trained myself to become an aerialist, which I don’t recommend to anyone.
How many disciplines and apparatuses do you train in? Do some interact better with live orchestra performances than others?
All in all I do about nine different aerial and/or ground acts. I haven’t done all of my acts with the symphony. With Cirque de la Symphonie I usually perform my duo aerial silks act and static aerial silks or corde lisse (aerial rope). I sometimes perform cerceaux (aerial hoop) or duo pendulum (similar to cerceux but with two people) and I have performed a duo trapeze act as well.
Why do you enjoy performing with live symphony orchestras?
I love performing with live music, and to perform with an orchestra is the epitome of that.
What have been some of your most memorable performance venues?
With Cirque de la Symphonie, it’s always nice to remember the Sydney Opera House and the Kennedy Center, but there have been so many beautiful big and little theaters. I love traveling internationally too, so I am thinking of South Africa and Venezuela as being highlights.
Outside of the orchestra venues, performing for Paul McCartney solo before one hundred thousand people was quite exciting.
How is performing in concert halls a different experience from other acrobatic performance venues?
I have performed in a huge range of performance venues from corporate shows to the Grammys and American Music Awards, and in television and movies. They are all very different, but a concert hall feels classy and elegant. Although we generally perform before a few thousand people, it still feels intimate. I can feel the audience’s energy and give them mine. I like that. What I love is that our show brings people from different age ranges together to enjoy our entertainment and to be exposed to classical music. I think that is so important.
How have you seen this show bring together people or offer exposure to something new?
I often teach aerial or acrobatics master workshops when I am in different towns performing with orchestras. As a result, I have many aerial and acrobatics students come to watch the show. It is often their first time being exposed to the orchestra. On the other hand, I met a musician, a bass player from the Seattle Symphony, who loved the circus part so much that she memorized the entire show so that she could watch instead of looking at her sheet music. She then went on to start taking aerial classes. She took several lessons and a retreat from me.
What kinds of reactions do you get from audiences when you perform?
Everything from screams (when they think I’m really falling) to standing ovations.
If you could switch places with one of the orchestra members, what instrument would you choose?
The violin. I love the violin. It plucks at my heartstrings.
What else should Minnesota Orchestra audiences know about you or about Cirque de la Symphonies’ upcoming performances here?
About me: Together my husband and I own Airborne Arts, an aerial retreat center in Costa Rica that overlooks a 600-foot waterfall. We have flying trapeze and aerial artistry classes and retreats and accommodations. I am also a motivational speaker and a master instructor.
About Cirque de la Symphonie: Come one, come all. This is a show for everyone! Information & Tickets »
The Minnesota Orchestra’s historic trip to Cuba is (already!) a year in the past—but its impact is still being felt near and far.
One such postscript involves members of the Orchestra’s oboe section. While in Havana, they met Lauren Ríos Hernández, an oboist in the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional de Cuba, and worked with her oboe students at the Escuela Nacional de Arte. After learning of Hernández’ wish to give her students experience on an English horn—the larger, lower-toned relative of the oboe—the Orchestra’s then-oboe section of John Snow, Julie Gramolini Williams and Marni J. Hougham took action.
Their research yielded a high-quality, gently-used English horn offered by Nancy Huang of RDG Woodwinds at a reduced price of $7,400. The oboe section, joined by Paula DeCosse, a Board member and amateur oboist, then made lead gifts to launch an online campaign that ultimately raised $8,375 from more than 70 donors.
Photo: Marni J. Hougham with Nancy Huang of RDG Woodwinds, which sold the English horn at a generous reduced price.
The English horn has now arrived safely in Havana at Hernández’ studio, completing an extraordinary odyssey—one community’s musical gift to another.
Photo: Lauren Ríos Hernández receiving the English horn, handed off by Johan van Zyl of the tour company Classical Movements on behalf of the Minnesota Orchestra.
Vocalist China Forbes began singing with Pink Martini in 1995 and has since co-written many of the ensemble’s most beloved songs with Thomas Lauderdale. She takes the stage at Orchestra Hall with Pink Martini and the Minnesota Orchestra on March 9 and 10.
How did you become part of the ensemble?
Thomas Lauderdale—Pink Martini’s founder and pianist—and I met at Harvard. We had a musical collaboration and friendship and when he eventually formed Pink Martini he invited me to fly from New York to Portland to sing with the band. I became seduced by Portland and hooked on the delightful music and left New York for the Pacific Northwest Chapter of my life. I have never regretted it.
Photo: China with Thomas Lauderdale and other members of Pink Martini
What is your earliest musical memory?
Singing along with Donna Summer at the top of my lungs and declaring that I wanted to be a singer. I taught myself to sing by copying her and many other singers until I found that I had voice of my own.
What or who influences you most musically?
Voices are my inspiration. I love so many different voices and I learn from them and aspire to improve my own instrument. Challenging myself by singing opera and classical music has been a joy and I have grown so much from performing my favorite arias.
Do you have any special connections with Minnesota?
My only connection to Minnesota is Prince and growing up on his music, as we all did.
What is your favorite venue and/or the most unusual venue or concert in which you have performed?
There have been so many amazing venues so I will go with the first few that popped into my mind: Royal Albert Hall, Red Rocks and always and forever the Hollywood Bowl. However, my favorite thing in the world is to sing without amplification in reverberant spaces like churches, marble lobbies and tunnels.
Photo: China Forbes performing at Red Rocks
What is most enjoyable about being a member of Pink Martini?
Truly it is the camaraderie. I find myself noticing all the time that we are this big traveling circus of totally different personalities and backgrounds, and we make music that reflects that. The music is great, the performances are rousing and delightful, but really the best part are the friendships and the feeling that we all have each other’s back, and we have been doing this for so long that we are cemented forever as family.
When you aren’t performing, what are your hobbies or other interests?
I love to remodel and design spaces. I always have a project going at home, whether it is in the planning stage or the building stage. I LOVE to rearrange furniture. I would do that for a living if I couldn’t sing—to make spaces feel better and look better makes me calm and happy. Whenever I enter a room I fix the lighting immediately: turn off the overhead lights and turn on the lamps, dim whatever is dimmable and bring in the warmth. I like to leave a space better than the way I found it.
Photo: China Forbes and Thomas Lauderdale
How would you describe Pink Martini in 5 words or less?
Elegant, boisterous, romantic and life-affirming.
What would you like Minnesota Orchestra audiences to know about Pink Martini?
Pink Martini is an organism that reflects back the heart and soul and energy of the audience. We all love what we do and when we get strong energy from the audience it elevates the show to higher heights. What I mean is, we can’t wait to see YOU and what you all bring. Conga line anyone?
Photos Courtesy of China Forbes and Pink Martini.
This interview originally appeared on Showcase Online in April 2016.