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Osmo Vänskä /// Music Director

Recent Articles: Education

Giving Back: Getting to Know Minnesota Orchestra's First Good Fellow

Orchestra Hall is quiet and tuba player Jason Tanksley sits alone on the stage, performing some of the most challenging passages in the tuba’s repertoire. He plays behind a large opaque screen; on the other side sits a committee of Minnesota Orchestra musicians, each of whom is listening carefully. It’s a typical set-up for an orchestral audition, but this one is out of the ordinary.

Jason Tanksley is the Minnesota Orchestra’s Rosemary and David Good Fellow—and performing a “mock” audition is just one part of the advanced training that is now his job.

The Orchestra launched the Rosemary and David Good Fellowship last spring as a two-year program intended to enhance opportunities for African American, Latin American and Native American professional orchestral musicians early in their careers and to encourage greater diversity in the orchestral field. The first two participants, who began their fellowship experience in September 2017 after winning a competitive audition, are Tanksley and trombone player Myles Blakemore. Tanksley is now completing his first season with the Orchestra; Blakemore participated in the fellowship program for several months before winning a position in the New World Symphony.

The mock auditions help to prepare Tanksley for professional auditions that he hopes will eventually earn him his own permanent chair onstage in an orchestra. For the first mock audition, he explained that the Orchestra staff and musicians treated the entire experience as if it were the real thing. The musicians on the committee then gave individual feedback to Tanksley on his performance.

He has also been able to sit in during actual auditions throughout the year to test his ear and learn from what the audition committee hears from the other side of the screen. Tanksley, like many musicians, says he used to be scared by the idea of a committee that you can’t see. Among many lessons from observing the process up close, he says one thing in particular has eased his mind a little: “You know, the committee is really cheering you on and wanting you to do well, so they can hire you. They aren’t a bunch of monsters.”

As part of the fellowship, Tanksley also observes Orchestra rehearsals and concerts, and performs onstage in selected Orchestra concerts. He takes two private lessons each month with musicians from the Orchestra and is able to select who he’d like to work with. So far, he has had the opportunity to learn from Principal Tuba Steven Campbell, all three members of the trombone section and trumpet player Robert Dorer, and next on his schedule is a lesson with Principal Bass Kristen Bruya. When he’s working with musicians who don’t play the tuba, Tanksley says: “they don’t care if something is a challenging tuba part or not. They might not even know if it is. Instead, I’m getting their unique musical perspectives and new ideas about how my part fits into the context of a piece, or how we might work together across the ensemble.” 

When he first heard about the fellowship, Tanksley saw it as a great chance to grow as a musician, but also as an opportunity to inspire others. “I feel like, if I can do this, if a black kid from Detroit like me can sit onstage with the Minnesota Orchestra, I can show other kids that they can do it, too. That’s what I’d really like to do.”

“It’s important for me to give back, and to share my experiences. I want kids in my hometown and other places where classical music isn’t as easy to find to be introduced to it at an earlier age. I never had a tuba lesson or played in an orchestra until I got to college,” says Tanksley, who now holds music degrees from Wayne State University and Cleveland Institute of Music. “When I teach young students, I encourage them to audition for local youth orchestras and other groups, so they have greater access to classical music than I did when I was their age. One of my first students is now studying music at Bowling Green State University.”

Jason with Principal Flute Adam Kuenzel and a student musician from the Minnesota All-State Orchestra

Tanksley continues the fellowship for another year and plans to have many more lessons and mock auditions, plus performances with the Orchestra and engagement activities around Minnesota. “Two years is not very long,” he says, “so I’m trying to soak as much of this fellowship in as I can while I have the chance!” He’s also excited to travel with the Orchestra to South Africa this summer and be part of performances and educational engagement on the tour.

“The biggest takeaway from this year so far has been the confidence boost,” he says. “To be selected for this fellowship and to get feedback and advice from the musicians here—who are the real deal—about my own playing has really helped me understand how I’m doing as a musician and where I might be able to go in the future.”

For a recent educational visit to a Minneapolis elementary school, Tanksley adapted a violin solo into a piece for solo tuba. He loves finding new ways to share what the instrument can do and what is fun about music. 

Jason, performing for students and staff at a Minneapolis elementary school.

His favorite composer lately? Berlioz. There are two tuba parts in Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique and Tanksley is thrilled to join Principal Tuba Steve Campbell onstage for the Orchestra’s June performances. He also performs with other Minnesota Orchestra brass musicians in a free event on Thursday, May 10, at BlackStack Brewing in Saint Paul, as part of the Orchestra’s Pint of Music series.

Jason with Principal Tuba Steven Campbell, far right, and a student musician in a side-by-side rehearsal with Minnesota All-State Orchestra.

For more about Jason or the Rosemary and David Good Fellowship program, visit minnesotaorchestra.org.


 

Arts Access: A musical collaboration across the Twin Cities

Young musicians from two local organizations will perform before Minnesota Orchestra concerts at Orchestra Hall Thursday and Friday.

The world-class venue in downtown Minneapolis is nothing new or intimidating to these young artists, though. They have impressed audiences there in past performances, and are motivated and inspired by the chance to share their music in a familiar space. 

These musicians are all participants in youth music programs at MacPhail Center for Music and ComMUSICation. Over the past year, the Minnesota Orchestra formed a special partnership with these organizations from Minneapolis’ Northside and Saint Paul’s Promise Neighborhood, thanks to a generous grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. The program, called the Arts Access project, sent Orchestra musicians into the community to work side-by-side with the students, and in turn brought the students and their families to Orchestra Hall to perform and experience music alongside a professional ensemble. 

On the morning of Thursday, November 16, musicians from MacPhail Center for Music and Ascension Catholic School will perform in Orchestra Hall’s Target Atrium. The performers, who are enrolled in grades 6 through 8, are led by conductor Tamara Gonzalez. This past March, she and many of her students attended Minnesota Orchestra concerts as part of the Arts Access project. The following week, Gonzalez recalls, “They were full of questions about the soloist. ‘How did she memorize all of those notes? How long has she been playing her instrument? How does she make the vibrato sound?’ It was like an explosion of motivation in rehearsal.” 

A MacPhail student performing at Orchestra Hall. Photo: Courtney Perry

On Friday, November 17, Orchestra violist Kenneth Freed and bass player David Williamson will perform alongside the ComMUSICation choir, sharing original music created over the course of the partnership. During their visits to the choir’s Saint Paul home, Freed and Williamson improvised music based on creative suggestions and direction from the students. Local composer Timothy C. Takach then arranged five folk tunes based on this material; these are the songs that will be featured in the group’s Orchestra Hall performance.

Sara Zanussi, ComMUSICation’s founder and Executive Programming Director, explained that “This project has allowed our young musicians to reflect on their own cultural backgrounds by exploring musical concepts in new ways with professional musicians.” 

The benefits of this partnership have reached beyond the individual students, though. The program provided tickets for the students and their families to attend Orchestra concerts together last season, and Orchestra violinist Catherine Schubilske says that the experience “has enriched Minnesota Orchestra musician partners as much as our presence has hopefully encouraged the students.” She has been inspired by the dedication of the young musicians she mentored at Harvest Preparatory School. 

“While most of their classmates are eagerly escaping the building by late afternoon, a few students begin the challenge of learning string instruments, music reading and ensemble skills,” shares Schubilske. “The grit and persistence of these students is a happy indicator of future success in any endeavor.”

A young musician from MacPhail Center for Music performs before a Minnesota Orchestra concert. Photo: Courtney Perry

Cover photo: The ComMUSICation choir performs in the lobby of Orchestra Hall. Photo: Greg Helgeson


MacPhail-Ascension Strings perform on Thursday, November 16, from 10:15 to 10:45 a.m., in the Target Atrium.

ComMUSICation and Minnesota Orchestra musicians Kenneth Freed and David Williamson perform on Friday, November 17, from 7:00 to 7:30 p.m., in the Target Atrium. 

 

Camping with Strings Attached—Plus Brass, Woodwinds, Percussion

For many Minnesotans, summer camp means mosquitos, al fresco cooking, fishing, and fireside singalongs of old-time camp tunes. Few campers, however, can report learning to play the boisterous Roman Carnival Overture by Hector Berlioz. Or performing it in a sold-out concert hall alongside world-class members of the Minnesota Orchestra led by Osmo Vänskä. Or earning a standing ovation.

“There’s nothing like 150 to 200 individuals coming together and becoming its own instrument,” said Victoria Honetschlager, a flutist and physics teacher who decided to revive her interest in performing by applying to the Orchestra’s Fantasy Camp. 

That’s what the camp was like for 51 musicians ranging in age from 20 to 70—two full days of musical immersion in late July at Orchestra Hall. For some, the experience fulfilled enduring dreams of playing with a major symphony orchestra. Although not required to audition, they submitted essays describing their backgrounds and motivations. Many had played with other ensembles but sometimes not for decades. For part of one week, they were embedded in every section of the orchestra.

This was the Orchestra’s second Fantasy Camp, six years after the first, and musicians attended from across the state― and some even from outside Minnesota. Each camper paid $600 for the experience, plus travel expenses.

Before gathering in Minneapolis, they had practiced their parts for weeks at home and played along with YouTube recordings of the Berlioz piece.

During the camp, they rehearsed in small groups led by orchestra members and with the full Orchestra led by Vänskä and Sarah Hicks, principal conductor of Live at Orchestra Hall. They learned what it takes to conduct (three campers briefly conducted a string quartet), as well as to plan a season’s worth of concerts and to audition for a job with a symphony orchestra. And they shared music stands with full-time Orchestra musicians during rehearsals and the concluding concert.

Some campers grew apprehensive at the tempo they thought Maestro Vänskä might demand. Laura McCullough, a 56-year-old violinist from Chanhassen, was among them.

“I might step out and just keep counting” beats until the speed becomes more manageable, she said the day before the concert. 

She need not have worried. Orchestra members who led sectional rehearsals said such “air bowing” or phantom playing would be acceptable during difficult passages.

Gabriel Campos Zamora, the Orchestra’s principal clarinetist, told woodwind Campers, “If you feel your tongue getting fatigued, you can skip every other beat. I won’t fault you for that.”

But he also cautioned them to reenter precisely on time: “Maintain the pulse when you’re not playing….Don’t try to slow down the train and then get on it.” Such split-second playing might require taking a breath a little sooner than usual, he said.

Raye Eyrich, a 62-year-old oboist from Willmar, said she felt “a moment of panic” before the first orchestral rehearsal when a key on her instrument fell off. But she found the screw that held it in place and the orchestra’s second-chair oboist used his oboe toolkit to reattach the key. 

“Hindsight tells me I should have had the horn looked over before camp,” she said.

Sam Grabarski, a 70-year old bassoonist who once studied at the Juilliard School in New York, said the rehearsals showed him how much the professionals focus on details.

“The specifics of the rhythms, the tempos, the blending of sounds are elements that matter much to professionals but are often lost in playing with less-trained musicians,” he said.

As for battling performance anxiety, Orchestra violinist Michael Sutton tried to put the campers at ease.

“You don’t need to be as nervous as you think you do,” he said. “Trust your training…your gut and instinct. For one piece, you belong here…You’ve practiced. You’ve paid money….It’s going to be fun….It’s fantastical. It’s a fantasy camp.”

Besides, he added, “So many little [musical] sins disappear over the lip of the stage” between orchestra and audience. “Something magic happens.”

He urged the campers to enjoy the camaraderie and humor that infuses the Minnesota Orchestra.

“We are an exceptionally goofy set of people,” he said. “The violas are almost out of control.”

His advice resonated with some campers, who chose not to spend the night before the concert sweating over their parts. Oboist Eyrich said she chatted with a friend and watched TV: “My state of mind was pretty peaceful.”

Meanwhile, Pam Jaworski, 45, a horn player and a doctor, said she logged on to her computer to catch up on work, then “fed my kids and snuggled with them while they watched a movie. When we tucked them in, we talked about how they would be going to Orchestra Hall to watch the morning rehearsal the next day….I think they were just as excited to come there and see me on the stage as I was to be there.”

For Music Director Vänskä, the infusion of campers into his Grammy-winning Orchestra was not a recipe for lower quality. 

“It’s not a sacrifice,” he said. “We want to share the joy of music here with other people too.”

During rehearsals, he said, “I haven’t heard too many wrong notes….I don’t hear every individual instrument.” That should have reassured the campers, he added, because the Orchestra’s professional musicians surround them with a musical safety net.

During the concert, Vänskä was his usual lively self on the podium, and the campers looked just as intense as the regulars. If there was the errant “click” of a violin bow striking a music stand, the casual listener couldn’t tell who committed that particular little sin.

In any case, Vänskä said he would like the Orchestra to hold another Fantasy Camp sooner rather than later.

After the concert, it was clear the experience had ignited a spark.

Flutist Honetschlager already has signed up for weekly lessons and plans “to get serious about refining my technique and skills and auditioning for several local community orchestras.” She also will be able to add substance to her message to students at Lakeville South High School.

“I tell them to get outside their comfort zone,” she said. “It’s important to try new things.” Thanks to the Fantasy Camp, “I got to walk the talk.”

She also can use her camp gig to reinforce her physics lessons with mid-teens students “who always have their earbuds in” listening to music: “I can teach simple harmonic motion, closed-and open-pipe resonators” and the ways that meter and chords play out harmonically. She has been known to drop by the high school’s band rehearsals and play along because “You can’t teach without making connections.”

Grabarski, who considered a career performing music before turning to arts administration and later heading the Minneapolis Downtown Council, hopes to fill in occasionally in larger ensembles. He figures the Fantasy Camp may have enhanced his chances.

“My insights have changed about what I might need to do to prepare for auditions, especially in the materials I might face or choose to use myself,” he said.

Frank David, a biotech consultant from Milton, Massachusetts, relished the chance to play clarinet with a major orchestra. “It was a big [financial] splurge, to be sure—especially coming from Boston!” But he enjoyed the experience, although he remains convinced he made the right choice not to pursue a musical career. 

“I love my work, I love music, and I have no need or desire to combine them,” he wrote afterward. “For the Orchestra musicians, practicing and performing is a job, whereas for me, it’s 100 percent fun. I’d like to keep it that way.”

That doesn’t mean he’ll give up playing chamber music back home, partly because it provides a renewing outlet from work.

“When you’re playing music, you have to be all in,” he said. “It forces me to turn off my job.”

That’s part of the goal, Vänskä said. “I like the idea so much—to have a chance for someone who has something else than music for a job. Bring them back [to making music]. It’s not a question of age.”

For trombonist Rick Carlson, his age, 59, and health did matter. He is battling cancer, and although his treatments have not interfered with his playing, “I don’t know whether I’ll be able to do this next year.” The Fantasy Camp was a welcome experience to play with the “heightened intensity” of a major orchestra. 

“I’m excited,” he said. “I’m happy I did it.”

For Jaworski, the camp also held bittersweet overtones.

“This was going to be a short-lived opportunity for me to return to music for a very limited period, because the demands of my day-to-day life (as a physician, mother and part-time solo parent) just don’t permit the time it requires to play even in a non-professional community group. During each of the rehearsals and the concert, I found a time where I really had to try very hard NOT to think about that, because I started to get choked up—and you really can’t play well while you’re crying and trying not to cry….”


Dan Wascoe is a retired reporter and columnist at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis and co-founder of Nuance/a duo with vocalist Baibi Vegners.

Introducing Experience Cafés

Great music, sumptuous refreshments, the incomparable Andrew Litton on the podium and at the piano—what more could you want from Sommerfest? We have the answer: new this summer are “Experience Cafés,” a variety of interactive events and exhibits held at stations throughout the Orchestra Hall lobby and adjoining outdoor spaces at all Sommerfest performances.

listening to records from Hymies

Patrons listen to vinyl records courtesy of Hymie's Vintage Records before last weekend's concerts

At these Café stations, you can peruse a library of books curated by the Orchestra’s music librarians; connect with artists from Mia (the Minneapolis Institute of Art) in a “sketching corner”; sample a selection of vinyl records at listening stations provided by Hymie’s Vintage Records; bird-watch with Audubon Minnesota; and play an interactive music and fitness game created by Glitch.

virtual reality in the lobby

A patron explores virtual reality before last week's concert

And in our “Conversation Café,” you can converse with local dancers, actors, composers, string instrument experts and brewers about how they learned their craft, their current projects or any topic on your mind. Among featured guests are dancers from the St. Paul Ballet (July 8), Shakespeare expert Amy Bolis (July 9), actors from Mu Performing Arts (July 9 and 10), luthiers from Clair Givens Violins (July 14), local composers including Jocelyn Hagen (July 16), and brewers from Boom Island Brewery and distillers from Tattersall Distillery (July 22).

playing games

A patron and her grandson enjoyed a game of Uno before last week's concert

Click here for details on the Experience Cafés, special Sommerfest food and beverage options, and free pre-and post-concert performances by musicians and groups including the Jeremy Walker Trio, the Minnesota Orchestra Band and pianist Chris Lomheim. Come one and all—a concert ticket is not required.