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Osmo Vänskä /// Music Director

Recent Articles: Your Stories

Q&A with Symphony Ball Chairs Karen and Lloyd Kepple

Lights, camera, action! Symphony Ball 2018, “Sounds of the Cinema,” is bringing Hollywood magic to Orchestra Hall on Saturday, May 12, for a gala evening of film music, dining, auctions, dancing and good company, all for a great cause: your Minnesota Orchestra. Ball Chairs Karen and Lloyd Kepple share thoughts on Symphony Ball—the Orchestra’s largest annual fundraiser.

How did you pick the theme “Sounds of the Cinema”?

It came from our memories of all those special movies that have spoken to us and moved us. When we later hear the scores from those movies, perhaps on Saturdays on Minnesota Public Radio, the same emotions are summoned, and we’re reminded of how essential the score is to the overall impact of the movie. All sorts of fantastic ideas flowed from there.

How will this theme come to life?

We’re planning a red carpet experience, literally and figuratively! From walking on the red carpet, to a sumptuous meal in a Hollywood-style ballroom, to beautiful and exciting movie scores performed by our beloved Minnesota Orchestra, it will be a special and magical evening. We’ll also add a local twist as the Orchestra collaborates with the phenomenal jeremy messersmith. Other musicians and partners will tie in to the theme as well, including the Bryan Nichols Trio, Synergy, DJ Ander Other and Trivia Mafia.

Tell us about a few of your favorite film scores.

Our love of film music started with the Disney movies of our distant youth—Cinderella, Snow White, Pinocchio. More recently, that love relates to special films that hit an emotional sweet spot. For baseball-loving Lloyd, it’s Field of Dreams—especially the swell of James Horner’s magnificent score when Kevin Costner plays catch with his father. For Karen, it’s West Side Story, Dances with Wolves, The Sound of Music, and the classic song and dance movies of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. And then there are the Hitchcock films in which the music is the dramatic effect. We also love Dave Grusin’s score from On Golden Pond, which was released about the time we were married. We watch it together every few years—seeing it through a different lens each time as our marriage and life experiences evolve and mature.

What have been your connections to the Orchestra over the years?

When Lloyd was a young boy, his mother took him (by the ear) to hear the Orchestra in 1960, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski’s first year as music director. Karen’s parents also took their family to the Orchestra and insisted on each kid choosing at least one instrument to learn to play. Our shared love of music led us to attend many Orchestra concerts over the years. Then in 2009, Lloyd joined the Orchestra’s Board of Directors and our involvement increased significantly. As our connections have deepened, we’ve come to appreciate the fine musicians and the broader team that make the Orchestra a robust jewel of our community.

An especially wonderful moment came a few years ago when we, along with Lloyd’s mother, joined the Orchestra onstage for a rehearsal with Skrowaczewski conducting. It was 55 years after Lloyd’s mother took him to that first concert conducted by Stan, and this time Lloyd was able to return the favor with Stan still at the podium. As this year’s Symphony Ball Chairs, we’re honored to have the opportunity to give back to the broader community by leading our wonderful committee (including many musicians) in planning the Orchestra’s primary fundraising event.

Members of the 2018 Symphony Ball committee. Front row (left to right): Margee Bracken, Nancy Lindahl, Marilyn Carlson Nelson, Lloyd Kepple, Karen Kepple, Allison Hillman, Sue Zelickson, Emily Sumners Pyne and Mary Sumners. Back row (left to right): Warren Mack, Gary Cunningham, Laurie Greeno, Lynn Smith, Melodie Bahan, Douglas Wright, Kathy Junek, John Wilgers, Linda Murrell, Trudy Wilgers, Lisa Paradis, Rob Spikings, Akiko Fujimoto, Maureen Conroy, Grant Meachum, Bryan Pyne, Sarah Grimes, Desralynn Cole, Beatrice Blanc, Amy Lamphere, Michael Sutton, Marni Hougham, Charlie Anderson, Sanja DeGarmo, Paula DeCosse and Wendy Williams. Photo by Frank Merchlewitz.

What have you learned about film music from your experience as Ball Chairs?

One thing we’ve noticed since we chose the “Sounds of the Cinema” theme for is that we’ve been listening more carefully to the music in movies we’ve watched.  Rather than it being more subliminal, the music has become a focal point in our enjoyment of movies, even those for which the music isn’t overtly the focus, but is still just as essential. The movie experience would be incomplete without the musical score.

Are newcomers welcome at Symphony Ball?

Of course! This is a special and inclusive party to celebrate and support our world-renowned Orchestra and the wonderful community which we serve. This event is your event—open to all music lovers. Members of the community can support and join the celebration at multiple price points. Orchestra Hall is the place to be on May 12, 2018!

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“The Best Conversation I Ever Had”

Assistant Conductor Akiko Fujimoto shares thoughts on her new Minnesota Orchestra position, running a good rehearsal, and the best conversation she ever had.

By Dan Wascoe

In the long history of orchestra conductors, Akiko Fujimoto can claim this unique distinction: During her debut leading the Minnesota Orchestra last November, she was ordered by a stripe-shirted referee into an on-stage penalty box. Her offense: delay of game caused by mischievous musicians. Her reaction: Holding her head in her hands and apparently weeping in despair.

It was, of course, scripted schtick. Minutes later, she returned to the podium to finish the concert in front of hundreds of school kids bused to Orchestra Hall. And although she couldn’t see them while she directed the musicians, several girls in the audience imitated her conducting gestures.

Such is the role of the Orchestra’s new assistant conductor—not only wielding a baton to keep scores of skilled musicians playing together with feeling, but doing the kind of community engagement that builds future audiences. If that requires a bit of slapstick by melding sports and music, that comes with the territory. So does introducing young listeners to musical chestnuts such as Flight of the Bumblebee and the da-da-da-DAH of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

About six weeks after Fujimoto’s debut, she led a mini-seminar for much older concert-goers by interviewing Principal Cello Tony Ross before an all-Tchaikovsky program. But there, too, she added a populist touch—playing a seldom-heard recording of Frank Sinatra singing an adaptation of a Tchaikovsky symphonic theme.

Problem Solving through Rehearsals

As the newest member of the conducting staff, Fujimoto nevertheless has enough experience to understand what she needs to succeed with various audiences, including the Orchestra itself.

“You can never be the one who’s stressed out,” she said, and orchestra members can tell in a hurry. She believes rehearsals should be a blend of priorities, sense of humor and a banishment of boredom. “To manage the sounds they create, you must be positive all the time,” she said. “Rehearsal is a time to come together.”

That’s not always easy because of the limited time available for rehearsals, so “I have to know what I want to address. It’s important to know what not to spend time on,” she said.

An example: She doesn’t dwell on “technical problems” of how musicians are playing—uniformity of bowing strokes by the strings or articulation by the winds—because at this level the musicians can resolve them on their own, perhaps with guidance from principal players in each section.

Because “there are infinite ways of performing even one note,” the crux of rehearsals is to “see where the disagreements are,” she said. Playing in an orchestra is “really a selfless act because you’re constantly accommodating someone else’s opinion….My job is problem-solving in the best way.” And because the orchestra is “very organized” with its own hierarchy, members must play as a team, she said: “There’s no room for prima donnas. They don’t last.”

Building a Life in Music

Born in Japan, Fujimoto began her music education with piano lessons. Then came general music appreciation, playing in a brass band and singing in a children’s chorus in elementary school. After moving to California with her family at age 14, she continued playing the trombone and singing in choruses. In high school, the faculty director “figured out that I could lead the choir in rehearsal and even let me conduct some Christmas carols in performance.” The same director suggested Fujimoto consider a career in music and conducting. It wasn’t an idea that bore immediate fruit.

“I laughed it off because I didn’t know what a career in music would look like,” she said. At that point she was more interested in child psychology.

But when she applied to Stanford University and was asked to write an essay about “the best conversation I’d ever had,” she drew on her Christmas carol performance experience.
“I described the magic moment when I felt connected with the musicians,” she said. Connecting nonverbally with eyes and hands was “the purest form of communication—the best ‘conversation’ I’d ever had.”

By her second year at Stanford “my psych grades were terrible,” she said, and she began taking introductory conducting classes. Gradually, she said, “the scale started to tip” toward music. After a summer conducting workshop before her junior year, the teacher said Fujimoto had potential and “that fall I switched to a music major.”

After Stanford, she attended a two-year program at the Eastman School of Music in New York where she earned a Master’s degree in conducting. The level of performance and creativity there “opened my eyes at a level I hadn’t experienced before. It was a huge shock, in a great way.”

Two more years at Boston University—and another Master’s degree—included “a lot of podium time” with the school’s orchestras. She also became assistant conductor of a mixed choir at Harvard University. Next came work with one of the student orchestras at Harvard. That led to a joint conducting position at the College of William and Mary and the Virginia Symphony.

The next step was five and a half seasons as associate conductor of the San Antonio (Texas) Symphony, a “really formative” experience because she conducted a wide range of music, including classics, pops, baroque and ballet and notably a program featuring violinist Gil Shaham playing Brahms’ Violin Concerto.

Fujimoto figures she’s “quite unusual — someone with this much experience coming into this job” with the Minnesota Orchestra. She also considers it unusual that she accrued 10 years of conducting in a liberal arts university setting rather than starting from a music conservatory base. Success here will mean growing professionally by “doing what the Orchestra needs me to do,” she said. That includes “covering” for subscription concerts by learning the music and preparing to substitute, if needed, for a scheduled conductor. She describes it as a combination of pinch-hitting, understudying and serving as an insurance policy.

So far, she said, “nobody’s missed a flight.”

Speaking of flights, one outcome of moving to Minnesota is living farther from her husband, Israel Getzov, a conductor and professor in Arkansas. They met during a conducting workshop but have never lived in the same place, she said.

Until that happens, she hopes that during her Minnesota tenure the Orchestra sees “that I have matured in my artistic expression.”

A Fabulous Fit

Roma Duncan, the Orchestra’s piccolo player, said that in Fujimoto’s short time in Minnesota, “One of the things I admire about her is that she really does have confidence and poise.”

That’s important, Duncan said, because “one of the tougher things a conductor does is to interact with soloists. The best can let the soloist’s vision come through.” After one rehearsal for that first November concert, in which Duncan had a solo, “she made me feel very confident. She was very adept, neither really leading or following us as much as she was with us,” imparting an organic “sense of ease.”

Women are showing up more frequently these days on orchestra podiums—Sarah Hicks, for example, is the Minnesota Orchestra Principal Conductor of Live at Orchestra Hall— and Duncan said, “I am really delighted Akiko is here. She’s very approachable, a pleasant person.”

She added that during final auditions for the new assistant conductor, Orchestra members “evaluated her as a conductor, not as a woman conductor.”

She is “a fabulous fit for our Orchestra,” said Duncan.

Jessica Leibfried, the orchestra’s director of education and community engagement, said the assistant conductor’s ability to handle many moving parts—including a script with an onstage penalty box—is important. For her first concert, Fujimoto helped tweak the script and asked for an additional rehearsal with the actors on the program.

“She came in with a clear plan about how to use her time,” Leibfried said. “She’s very calm and collected.”

Leibfried added that the assistant conductor’s role as a community ambassador in kids’ concerts and touring performances demands someone who “knows what she’s doing off the podium. The job doesn’t stop at the door.”

It helps, she said, that Fujimoto believes in collaboration, remembers names, greets board members and trusts the Orchestra staff to help her understand “what’s best for students.”

And, Fujimoto said she doesn’t mind if her young listeners applaud before a piece is over or even nod off. “It’s just great,” she said, “It’s so visceral.”

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

Silver Linings

by Adam Kuenzel

When I got word that I had won the audition for principal flute in the Minnesota Orchestra, I felt like I’d won the lottery. Things seemed pretty straightforward: all I had to do from then on was play beautiful music with one of the best orchestras in the U.S. But I’m happy to find that it’s become more complex than that.

One of the most rewarding aspects of playing in this orchestra is getting to know members of the audience. I enjoy strolling around the Orchestra Hall lobby before a performance, welcoming concertgoers to the orchestra’s home. It’s inspiring to hear how profoundly our patrons revere the orchestra. Many of them speak about what we musicians add to their lives, and our conversations often center around accounts of earliest memories of attending concerts.

I joined the orchestra in 1990, a decade and a half after Orchestra Hall was built. I’ve spoken with many who began their relationship with the orchestra long before that, back when Northrop Auditorium was its home and Antal Dorati was music director in the late ’50s. Every conversation I have with an audience member adds to the rich mosaic of my experience with the orchestra. My favorite comment came from a longtime subscriber who was delighted to tell me in person how much she has enjoyed my playing since I joined the orchestra. And it only took us a quarter-century to meet face to face!

Often when I introduce myself, I’m met with surprise that an orchestra musician is taking time to greet patrons. And there are several of us. My colleague and fellow audience engagement enthusiast Brian Mount and I encourage and challenge one another to show up before concerts and welcome folks. It’s evolved into a friendly competition, in fact, complete with the associated boasting and teasing.

A silver lining resulting from the orchestra’s 16-month lockout was that my colleagues and I realized we depended upon the audience far more than we’d previously been aware. We would like everyone who comes to the Hall to feel that they are an honored guest, without whom the orchestra would be irrelevant.

I’m especially gratified to see newcomers (and relative newcomers) at our concerts. Occasionally someone will apologetically explain to me that they don’t really know or understand enough about “classical music.” My response is: “That’s okay! I didn’t know anything about music either when I started going to concerts.” In fact, after having been in the profession for 33 years, I think a listener without much technical knowledge is at an advantage in being able to receive the most visceral and emotional impact of the music.

Conversations sometimes aren’t about music or the orchestra. I recently spoke with a civil engineer at a Thursday morning concert and asked him about his impressions of the lobby. He pointed out the structural techniques utilized to maximize open space in a multilevel area. While everyone has their own perspective, I think the design achieves at least one important goal: to provide a spacious and welcoming area where people can meet and relax before a performance.

Even the auditorium itself does double duty—primarily as our performance space, but also as a place to gather socially after our casual “Symphony in 60” concerts. Following these one-hour performances, my colleagues and I invite the audience onstage to meet and mingle. Bassist Kathryn Nettleman shared with me that she’s happiest playing concerts when she has a chance to meet and talk with listeners before or afterward. She said it reminds her of what’s most important about what we do.

Adam Kuenzel, right, and tuba player Jason Tanksley, center, meeting Minnesota All-State Orchestra students in the Orchestra Hall lobby in February 2018. Photo by Tony Nelson.

The history of the Minnesota Orchestra can be read as a list of accomplishments; a succession of music directors, musicians, board members and administrators; a legacy of tours and recordings. But that’s only part of the story. The history that lives are the moments when audience and orchestra together experience the music that we cherish. Learning your personal stories and offering my sincere gratitude for your participation is valuable and enriching. Aside from playing the flute, it’s my favorite part of the job.

Adam Kuenzel at center stage in a performance of Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 2 in November 2017. Photo by Courtney Perry.

Principal Flute Adam Kuenzel joined the Minnesota Orchestra in 1990 and is regularly featured as a soloist, including in world premieres of music by Stanislaw Skrowaczewski and Manuel Sosa. He recently premiered Laura Schwendinger’s Aurora for flute and piano, which was commissioned by the National Flute Association for its convention in Minneapolis.

I'm No Expert

Something funny has happened. People assume I know a lot about music.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, I’ve been regularly writing about the Minnesota Orchestra for the online version of Showcase, recapping concerts, interviewing musicians and even observing a rehearsal. Understandably, people might think I have expertise in this field—but really, I don’t.

It’s not that I’m completely ignorant. I went to an arts high school as a music student, managed to play flute in the top-level orchestra of Minnesota Youth Symphonies, and studied with some amazing teachers. But I was a bit of a laggard, only getting serious about my studies in my later years of high school. That was a long time ago, and it’s pretty much where my music education ended.

Fast-forward to the present. I’d been blogging for years, covering topics of interest to various communities, but never on a consistent theme. Feeling nostalgic one day, I wrote about my MYS days playing under Manny Laureano, the Minnesota Orchestra’s principal trumpet. I pitched it to the Orchestra’s editor and was invited to write more.

Repeatedly writing about a specific subject—particularly an art form and an ensemble I revered—was intimidating, and it was something I had never done before. But I decided to embrace my good luck, get over my nerves and give it my all.

I started telling people about my blogs. About our Orchestra. About our musicians. And then the questions started coming. What did I know about the Orchestra’s history, or the music’s structural elements, or critiques of past performances? I had no idea about these things, no good answers.

So, if I’m not a music expert, then what exactly am I doing? Just this: I write about how the music feels, and I write for the people who, like me, are head over heels in love with music.

My time at Orchestra Hall has connected me with people who can’t read a single note of music or tell you a thing about the composer. (Even though some have been coming for enough decades to remember when the Orchestra played at Northrop at the University of Minnesota.) We come to the Hall and mingle in the lobby, an assorted throng of the casual and the sophisticated, and take our seats in the auditorium.

We may start side by side as strangers, but as we hold our breath together, we become silent comrades as the music washes away our daily trials. We listen to notes that sound first like a thousand butterflies—uncontainable and magnificent in their abundance—then give way to something mysterious, lush and rounded and dark. We experience moments when the music is so sweet and pure and fleeting, we want to weep for its existence.

Sometimes, when I can’t make it to Orchestra Hall, I sit alone in the dark and listen to the Orchestra on Minnesota Public Radio. Without the grandeur of the Hall’s space and my high heels, the broadcast feels like an intimate conversation with an old friend.

These are the things I write about.

I like to think it’s universal and why music exists. To know what beauty is. And now when people ask me about my expertise in music, I finally have a good answer, one I say with heartfelt enthusiasm every time.

I’m not a music expert. I’m a music lover.

Winter Dreaming

Guest blogger Mandy Meisner rings in 2018 at Orchestra Hall.

I can’t remember the last time I went out on New Year’s Eve. Even in my youth, when the allure of all that glitters was strong, being amid a crowd on this holiday never appealed to me. I much prefer to stay at home, puttering in the kitchen and sipping a good red wine. But, as my love for the Minnesota Orchestra has grown this past year, so has my curiosity—and I decided to welcome 2018 in style at Orchestra Hall.     

We hearty Minnesotans didn’t let 30-below windchills keep us away. We come bundled in down coats and wool scarves; underneath we’re bejeweled and well-heeled, modestly and practically attired. The lobby is aglow with a 16-foot Christmas tree, and in the Target Atrium oversized star lanterns drip from the ceiling in white light. From somewhere on the second balcony, bubbles float down in shimmering waves.

Instagram photo by @johnpanning

The Orchestra musicians walk onstage, dotted with bold dashes of fuchsia and teal, burgundy and sequins. Osmo Vänskä gives the downbeat, and Tchaikovsky’s Winter Dreams Symphony starts as light and crisp as the first snowfall. At times the music is as quiet as a whisper, and we lean forward with our breath held to listen. Dancers from Minnesota Dance Theatre garbed in gossamer and velvet dresses flicker across the stage periodically, pale outstretched arms and long lines of leg accenting the music. It ends with the stunning energy of a dying star.

We know Tchaikovsky’s Serenade will be different from the beginning. The strings stand alone, unconducted. They sway and slant to lengthy romantic phrases as the music moves from lush to delicate to fiery, as deep and broad as the Mississippi River. We marvel at the beauty of it.

Inon Barnatan looks a mere mortal as he walks onstage to sit at the grand piano. When he starts to play the Tchaikovsky Concerto No. 1, he is transformed into something else entirely. Instantly we are mesmerized by the famous opening measures; later we become breathless at his complete mastery of the music’s tenderness and virtuosity. His physicality is captivating. He bends over the piano with fierce intent, only to look up and away in peaceful repose as the piece shifts. His fingers release the notes as light and fast as fireflies in peals of unbelievable music. When it ends, we are standing on our feet, our hands getting weary from the appreciation.

If we were getting tired, then the energy of the lobby soon revives us. Various morsels are offered on silver trays, hats and bobbles are quickly grabbed and put on in festive delight, and glasses of Champagne float about in steady hands. We fill the balconies and hang from stairways to listen to Belle Amour croon out jazz. And the Orchestra musicians mingle all night shaking hands, posing for pictures, graciously receiving adoration from their fans.

Belle Amour performing in the lobby.

We wait together for midnight, and as the New Year arrives, hundreds of gold streamers slink down on us from high above. And for a lovely pause, no matter what kind of year we might have had, we are open and joyful, completely in the moment of what is possible.

A clean slate granted to all.

Mandy Meisner, center, with first-time concertgoer Tracy David at right.

Chopin, the Piano and Me

by Al Sicherman

I’m taking piano lessons—as a grownup (if, at 63, that’s what I am). And, surprisingly, it’s working!

The last time I “took” piano was in a public-school group class in first or second grade, and to say I was terrible greatly understates the situation: I was stubborn, too. Notably, I refused to accept the teacher’s stultifying notion that particular notes should be played with particular fingers.

To prove her wrong, I went home and sort-ofmemorized some piece of music, and although I played it absolutely wretchedly, I did so with an entirely free-style approach to fingering. The result was an abrupt (but satisfying) conclusion to my piano education. For the next 50-some years.

Now and then in my adult life, I’ve thought of resuming my piano career (I have schlepped my grandmother’s piano from house to house through my last seven moves), but I never did so. I think I assumed it would be like my grade-school experience, but without the sailor suit. In any case, it never happened until a friend who’s an accomplished pianist raved about her teacher and prodded me to call her.

There are many ways that taking piano lessons as an adult differs from doing it as a kid. Two big ones are that I’m paying, so I’m practicing, and that when I ask questions—at least with my teacher, Stephanie Wendt, who is wonderful—I get very good, thoughtful answers. (Sometimes, if I’m really not ready for the lesson, I’ll ask a question that deserves a long answer.)

Anyway, after a couple of years I was playing simple pieces—works that don’t require using very many fingers at once, and that contain the agony to one page. That might not sound like much, but I’d started from zero, and I was pretty pleased.

One day I was at a friend’s house and a Chopin CD was playing. I don’t know many pieces of classical music beyond the William Tell Overture and what Tommy Smothers called “Clyde DeBussy’s immoral Clune de Bune,” but when the Nocturne No. 2 in E-flat started, I realized not only that I knew it (I think it must have been on one of the RCA Victor Red Seal 78s kept in the wind-up phonograph on my parents’ back porch in Milwaukee), but also that I have always loved it. And at my next lesson, what the heck, I asked Stephanie if there was any way I could learn to play it. I expected a pleasant but firm outline of the many hurdles between me and Chopin, and a suggestion that, having somehow made it from A to B, we should continue our steady, measured progress toward C, and that we’d get to Chopin somewhere around Q, if I was still alive.

This is the very best thing about adult piano— and about having a wonderful teacher: what she actually said was that, well, it would take quite a while, and it would be the first time she’d used a Chopin nocturne to teach using the pedal, but if I really wanted to play it, that’s what we’d do.

Stephanie was right. It took about a year, and it’s still far from polished, but it’s recognizably (and not very wretchedly) a Chopin nocturne. And I can play it for myself whenever I want. Which is five or six times a week.

I can’t play it for anyone else without freezing up, but public performance was nothing I’d wanted— and I’ve discovered that I can play it in public if people eat and talk while I play, so they can’t hear me.

Stephanie and I agreed recently that although I haven’t exactly defeated the E-flat Nocturne I have at least fought it to a draw, and I need to move on to another piece.

I picked another Chopin nocturne. I think I have time.

The late, much-loved Al Sicherman, who died in August 2017, wasn’t known for writing about music: for decades he charmed Star Tribune readers with his columns on food and on, as he put it, “the endless variety of human failings.” We’re grateful that Al made time not only to learn Chopin nocturnes, but to share his experience in this Showcase essay, first published in 2005.

Hope Never Sounded So Good

On October 7th, guest blogger Mandy Meisner went to the “Send Me Hope” concert conducted by Roderick Cox. How was this concert different than the usual fare? Read on to find out.

Community. It’s a word I use often. It’s a rally cry and the great unifier among diversity. And community is also overwhelming challenge and profound heartache. It is all these things simultaneously, and we are responsible for shaping it into something good, while shedding light into the dark corners to see what is there.

Last month’s “Send Me Hope” concert is an intriguing proposition, incorporating cultural awareness, mixed art forms and difficult history. Throw in the venue of Orchestra Hall, a place that traditionally hosts the music of Mozart and Bach, and this unusual offering holds great appeal. Its origins extend back a year ago with a collaborative “Spirit of the Season” concert in north Minneapolis at Shiloh Temple International Ministries. Associate Conductor Roderick Cox led their church choir in a joint performance of the Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus with the Minnesota Orchestra, and the room-shaking experience demanded an encore.

From the very beginning of the “Send Me Hope” evening, the energy is palpable. Men and women crowd the lobby, a large number of them African American. Young children look crisp in their finest as they are pulled excitedly by their parents, and laughter bounces off in deep throaty cannons.

I take my seat and make acquaintance with the people around me; some have never been to Orchestra Hall before. They are beaming. When Roderick Cox enters the stage, you can feel the collective adore from the audience and performers alike. He says a few words that are heartfelt and welcoming, making the large space feel intimate. As he conducts the opening Ballade in A minor by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, I see the crimson lining of his jacket peek out in the wake of his passionate gestures.

The kids of the Shiloh Temple Drummer Boys and MacPhail Northside Youth Orchestra line on stage, as still as mice. Their faces are arranged in serious expressions, and one arcs his head to see the full scope of their fans, his eyes wide. When the drumming starts, they play their music with deep focus, their small arms piston in furious motion, producing incredible syncopation.

Nygel Witherspoon, the young cellist for the Dvořák Concerto, sits calmly on stage waiting for his entrance under a cloud of tight curls. He plays with confidence and agility, as undisturbed as a pool of still water. There is a tenderness to his sound. It is sweet and refreshing, everything that youth should be.

The next piece is the gospel choir. I am not familiar with gospel music, having instead the experience of Catholic mass, a more restrictive form of worship often held under giant panes of stained glass and the white curls of incense. Here We Are is introduced as a commemorative work by Dr. Henry Panion III, giving remembrance to the four little girls killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963. This will be followed by its partner, Send Me Hope, about reflecting, honoring and moving forward.

Here We Are is powerful music. As voices shout out “where are the girls?!” I feel the tragedy press against me. But this piece does not dwell in the anguish, it quickly moves to we are here—in a better place, watching over you, the love remains. The largeness of this is deeply moving.

As the vocals continue, the pure joy and talent and vitality of the choir rushes over us in waves. We don’t wait for the end of the concert to give a standing ovation, we are on our feet after nearly every piece, whooping and clapping, laughing and smiling, the tide of energy flowing back to the performers. We all go wild during More Abundantly.

Taiyon J. Coleman’s last spoken word of the night enchants and activates us. Her clear voice fills the hall, its deep timbre as solid and strong as oak. Her message is clear: that we have power to influence in small and meaningful ways, no matter how dark. Her words seep into us, make us somber in their truth and importance.

The concert closes the night with Total Praise, a simple melody with a simple message, sung with heartfelt devotion and abandonment by this beautiful Minneapolis gospel choir. “You are the source of my strength. You are the strength of my life. I lift my hands in total praise to you.”      

Hope never sounded so good.

The Live Radio Experience: “Making a Little Community for a Few Hours on a Friday night”

By Brian Newhouse

I remember that night so well because I’d never kicked in a door before. I was a few months out of college and living alone in a rented farmhouse. The cornfields that stretched for miles around the house were buried in snow. A northwest wind had drifted the roads shut and badgered the house all day. Just after dinner the bathtub pipes burst. It sounded like two small firecrackers. Twin roostertails of water sprouted from the pipes and sprayed the walls.

A frantic call to the landlord in town. He told me where in the basement I’d find the main to shut off. He didn’t mention the lock on the basement door. So I kicked it in. That sounds way more Rambo than it actually was, but the door was as rickety as the farmhouse walls and it popped right open.

As I mopped up the water, I couldn’t get over the cry of the wind and how the house shuddered. What if the power went and the roads were still closed?

I turned on the radio and a few minutes later there was this reassuring voice: “Good evening from Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis, and welcome to a live broadcast by the Minnesota Orchestra.” Something about that moment struck me, and I just sat there on the floor with the cold wet rag in my hands: someone was talking to me from hundreds of miles away, talking to thousands of us in the same moment, gathering us wherever we were, making, for at least a little while, a kind of community in the winter dark. When the Orchestra played Brahms’ Second, oh man, it was like pouring 40 minutes of June sun into that January night.

Fast forward a few years and I sat down at that very Orchestra Hall mic, stupefied at my good fortune. My first live broadcast was of a Sommerfest concert in 1983. An hour earlier, though, a gully-washer of a thunderstorm had blown a roof vent off Orchestra Hall. Rainwater gushed in and the smell of wet carpet filled our broadcast booth and the whole hall. For years after that, I’d walk in the Stage Door and take a little breath in; a hint of that smell still hung there. I liked it. It reminded me of a warm, muggy night when I’d found a new kind of home with 90 amazing onstage artists.

Brian Newhouse interviewing former Associate Conductor Giancarlo Guerrero.

I’ve stepped away from the mic a few times since then, and these hosts and engineers have kept the live broadcasts thriving: Silvester Vicic, Preston Smith, Nick Kereakos, the late Mark Sheldon, and Eric Friesen. For the past decade-plus, engineer Michael Osborne has been the invisible genius behind the on-air sound you hear of the Orchestra.

MPR host Eric Friesen interviewing composer John Corigliano about his First Symphony at a 1993 performance, with then-Music Director Edo de Waart looking on.

After nearly 25 years hosting the Orchestra’s broadcasts, I still feel inordinately blessed. Memorable moments? There are dozens, but here are three: Elgar’s Nimrod Variation, when we were desperate for music in the unnervingly quiet and frightening empty-sky days immediately after 9/11. That heartbreaking moment when Osmo Vänskä turned to the audience and asked for no applause at the end of his Farewell Concert during the lockout. And when the Orchestra played the Cuban National Anthem, and the translator standing next to me in our Havana broadcast booth burst into tears.

The Orchestra, led by Music Director Osmo Vänskä, performing the Cuban National Anthem in Havana in May 2015.

After nearly 25 years I’m still trying to get it right, still trying to make a little community for a few hours on a Friday night wherever you are, still trying to convey what a wonder an orchestra—this Orchestra—is.

In addition to hosting Minnesota Orchestra live Friday night broadcasts, Brian Newhouse is the Managing Director of Minnesota Public Radio/American Public Media's classical programming, including SymphonyCast, Performance Today, Pipedreams, and the national 24-hour service, Classical 24. He holds degrees in voice and English from Luther College, and has been a soloist with the Dale Warland Singers, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and an Artist-in-Residence at the Oregon Bach Festival. He won a Peabody Award for writing the radio documentary "The Mississippi: River of Song." He's the author of the memoir, "A Crossing." He and his family live in St. Paul.

Happy 90th birthday to our Composer Laureate Dominick Argento!

Happy 90th birthday to our Composer Laureate Dominick Argento! The Minnesota Orchestra is honored to be associated with this Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, who has called Minnesota his home since 1958. He’d certainly belong on a “Mount Rushmore” of Minnesota composers, if one were ever created. Please join us in wishing him a happy 90th birthday!

Considered the preeminent American composer of lyric opera, Argento is the recipient of numerous high honors, including a Pulitzer Prize, a Grammy Award and a McKnight Distinguished Artist Award. Perhaps as importantly, he has been a guiding light to generations of composers during his decades as a professor, and now Regents Professor Emeritus, at the University of Minnesota—where his former students included the Minnesota Orchestra’s first composers in residence, Libby Larsen and Stephen Paulus. Argento’s nearly 60-year relationship with the Minnesota Orchestra that has brought about numerous performances, commissions and premieres. In 2004 he won the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition for a recording of his orchestral song cycle Casa Guidi made by the Minnesota Orchestra and mezzo Frederica von Stade, with former Music Director Eiji Oue conducting. Last year, Governor Mark Dayton declared a Dominick Argento Day in the state of Minnesota, recognizing him as a master composer, revered educator and beloved Minnesotan. 
Dominick Argento officially accepting the title of Minnesota Orchestra Composer Laureate with a plaque presented by former Music Director Eiji Oue in November 1997.
Earlier this month, the Minnesota Orchestra performed Argento’s Valentino Dances, a set of dances from his opera The Dream of Valentino, under the baton of Associate Conductor Roderick Cox. Many other organizations worldwide are also celebrating his 90th birthday. Among them are the New York City Opera, which next month performs two of his one-act operas at Carnegie Hall, and Minnesota’s own Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra (led by the Minnesota Orchestra’s Assistant Principal Bass William Schrickel), which presented a semi-staged production of his opera The Boor earlier this month. Argento’s original home state of Pennsylvania is also honoring the milestone with a concert of his songs presented by Philadelphia’s Song Fest. He is seen in the image at the top of this story with the late former Minnesota Orchestra Music Director Sir Neville Marriner in 1975, the year Argento won the Pulitzer Prize for the song cycle From the Diary of Virginia Woolf.
Happy 90th, Dominick Argento!
Bach, Mendelssohn, Luther and Leipzig: Musical Echoes of the Reformation

Carla Waldemar shares her thoughts on music and the Reformation, inspired by her recent travels to Leipzig, just in time for the Minnesota Orchestra’s Reformation-themed concerts from November 2 to 4.

This year, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is being celebrated throughout Germany. Its musical echoes are being heard near and far, as well—including through the music of Bach, Mendelssohn and even Martin Luther himself. Earlier this year I had the opportunity to visit the country and reflect on these connections while traveling the Luther Trails that comb everywhere the reformer lived, travelled and preached his message.

Luther famously translated the Bible from scholarly Latin into German, so the common people could read and make up their own minds on its contents. He also ardently believed they should take part in—not merely witness—church services. So he also wrote and published hymns. Lots of them. Perhaps the most famous is “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (A Mighty Fortress Is Our God), based on Psalm 46. Luther considered music to be a vital tool of faith; music, he stated, is “the gift of God that drives away the devil and makes men happy.” A century after Luther began his movement, his many hymns inspired Johann Sebastian Bach—a devout Lutheran—to use his mentor’s poetry in many of his own chorale cantatas and organ compositions.

The city of Leipzig, one of my stops earlier this year, links Luther and Bach, and both men are being honored there during the Reformation anniversary in 2017. In Leipzig, Luther carried on a famous debate with Catholic clergy that is now known as the Disputation. In 1539 he preached at Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church, which was so packed with fans, or the merely curious, that ladders were put up to open windows to provide a peek. In the next century, Bach served as cantor at St. Thomas Church for 27 years, during which time he was responsible for its illustrious boys’ choir and composing cantata after cantata for Sunday services.

Today Bach’s statue overlooks St. Thomas Church’s cobblestones and his tomb, always strewn with flowers from admirers, is now under the nave. The Bach Museum, standing just across the street, invites visitors to inspect his organ console and the family tree he compiled, along with many manuscripts, then listen to recordings via headsets. Choir concerts at St. Thomas still thrill the public today, especially during the annual summertime Bach Festival. As we disembarked at the city’s train station, we were treated to a free concert, right there in the Arrivals Hall, as part of the “Bach in the Subways” program of promoting the composer’s music in nontraditional venues throughout Germany, and the world.

Statue of Johann Sebastian Bach at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig.

In Leipzig, I found music everywhere. Where else can you toss a euro in the hat of a busker playing Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus on a tuba? Or pop into a church for Bach’s music tootled by a combo of recorders?

Leipzig is Felix Mendelssohn’s hometown, too. Although a statue of the composer (born Jewish but a young convert to Christianity) was razed by the Nazis, it’s been reconstituted and stands not far from the church of the musician he most admired, J. S. Bach. The proximity is fitting: Mendelssohn is credited for the revival of interest in Bach, which had lapsed.

Mendelssohn’s own home has been converted into a museum where devotees can admire the study with his writing desk, his piano, and the many watercolors this multi-talented artist created to commemorate vistas on his European tour. The highlight of my visit was in the Effectorium, where one may pick up a baton at the podium and “conduct” a composition of one’s choice (mine: Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony, which honors Luther and the founding of his Church). One can choose the volume, tempo and sound of each individual instrument, represented by bollards rising from the floor, as well as choose between choir and orchestral music, modern or historic instruments, and salon or concert hall  “performance.”

Felix Mendelssohn’s piano at the Mendelssohn House in Leipzig.

Alas, I was not offered a contract. But Mendelssohn was—that of leader of the famed Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra; a model of the famous performance hall is on display here in his home, along with information that portrays Mendelssohn as a lobbyist for his players’ interests, both in time and salary. I relaxed in Felix’s garden, then headed to Coffe Baum, the oldest coffeehouse in all Germany, where Robert Schumann, a regular, sipped many a kleine tasse. My advice: find your way to Leipzig one day and experience all of the above. Meanwhile, revel in the music of all these master composers.

Dissection: Observing a Rehearsal at Orchestra Hall

Earlier this month, we invited guest blogger Mandy Meisner to observe a Minnesota Orchestra rehearsal led by Associate Conductor Roderick Cox. What happens to get the music ready for an audience? Read on to find out.

When I write, I can spend ridiculous amounts of time laboring over decisions like using an and or a the. I can be writing during any hour of the day or night, usually dressed in leggings and a sweater, with a cup of coffee keeping me company, or sometimes a glass of wine. I may have a story I want to tell, but the words will have their fun with me first; coming out in poor sequence, having the emotional attraction of a rock, or eluding me altogether. Writing requires solitude. There is no one to collaborate with until after you finish the work. All this can be unnerving, frustrating and hard. But this is the process I accept and embrace—every time—simply for the chance to create, out of nothing.

But what is the process like for the Minnesota Orchestra? I share my extraordinary Wednesday morning at Orchestra Hall.

I’ve never seen Roderick in person but I feel as many Minnesotans do—I am completely smitten with him. I’ve been following the well-earned media coverage he’s been receiving lately and am ecstatic to see him and the Orchestra in this intimate setting.

I am brought up to perch on an upper balcony where I gaze at Minnesota Orchestra musicians as they enter a fully-lit stage, their usual finery replaced with plaid shirts and sweater vests, sneakers and yoga pants, and the occasional hoodie. Roderick’s tall frame walks to the podium in long, smooth strides. He looks comfortable in jeans and a button up, and exudes an easy air.

When Roderick starts with the third movement of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, I am mesmerized by the way his arms sway and arc as if performing in a ballet. This dance-like quality colors his whole body as the music becomes more complicated; the nod of head, the slight bounce of heel, and the quick urgent slices through air—they all have a definitive grace that is captivating to watch. When I see his face, it opens up like a bloom.

In the throes of the music, the sound stops. The abruptness is shocking. Verbal direction is given with care and gentleness. Musicians listen quietly and pick up pencils to scribble their notes. Their communication is good. They talk with ease back and forth, and the conductor doesn’t hesitate to go over anything that is requested. Roderick has a technical focus; dynamics and articulation are clarified with clear language, and he does not use poetic analogy or frivolous words. He rarely comments on the tempo. Did he communicate tempo in an earlier rehearsal? Or settle it with the mere motion of his baton? It will remain a mystery for a layman like me.

They work together on just this one piece for hours, dissecting the music, putting it back together. Roderick appears more conjurer than conductor, pulling and stretching the music from musician and instrument, from the composers themselves, long silenced from human life. I try and experience it as a professional would, with intellect and discrimination, but all I experience is the sheer beauty of the music. It overwhelms me in the empty Hall.

When rehearsal ends, the Orchestra members again become mere mortals. Cell phones and lunch are waiting, next appointments and other projects beckon. Bits of conversation and laughter rise up as they exit stage left, through the side door and back to their regular lives. I stay among the charcoal velvet chairs, which gape open in their vacancy. I try and absorb this moment, the privilege of witnessing world-class musicians in plaid shirts and sweater vests, sneakers and yoga pants, work through a process of that is accepted and embraced—by the entire Minnesota Orchestra—simply for the chance to create, out of nothing.

Fan Club

Our guest blogger Mandy Meisner has generously shared her thoughts on being inspired to become a Minnesota Orchestra subscriber for the first time.

I have a confession to make. For many months, I’ve gushed to friends and family about how electrifying it is to hear the Minnesota Orchestra live, my eyes wide with fervor. I’ve gone on and on about what a big fan I am and why their music is important. I’ve written about performances and musicians with gusto, so that you too might experience the Orchestra at home, while sipping your morning coffee.

I’ve been lucky to listen to the Orchestra’s musicians, write about them, and even meet some of them. But, for all the love I’ve been shown, I wonder whether I’m being a true fan, or merely a fair-weather one. I see various posts on social media about upcoming events, think that sounds great! and click the “like” button—but rarely click the “buy” button.

I’m not exactly sure why I’ve been so negligent. Partly because I believe the Orchestra, as a thriving part of our arts community, surely doesn’t really need me to be in their seats—a suburban woman who is not particularly well-versed in classical music, nor has deep pockets. They must be looking for classical music buffs, and potential large donors. And partly because I have fallen into the same dangerous mindset of five years ago; they will always be around as they have always been, I can go later.

My time at Orchestra Hall has taught me none of these reasons are good ones to stay away. All the musicians I’ve had the privilege to interview and shake hands with have expressed their desire and gratitude for people—all people—to be in the seats. Many of them continue to mingle in the lobby, giving surprised attendees a chance moment of connection, which will inevitably turn into an exciting tidbit at work come Monday morning.

I’ve been thinking about all this. And I’ve made a decision. I am now able to show my love for the Orchestra not just by talking about them, but also by becoming a season ticket holder for the first time. And I couldn’t have picked a better time! The 2017-18 season starts with one of my all-time-makes-me-swoon favorites, a piece wrought with beauty and nostalgia, Stravinsky’s Firebird.

I don’t have the VIP season package, and I don’t have to. Because being a true fan of the Minnesota Orchestra doesn’t require sitting in an elite section of the Hall, or having a degree in music, or the ability to give generous sums of money.

To be a true fan of the Minnesota Orchestra means only that you show up.

Create your own series and enjoy savings of up to 15%! Mix and match concerts as well as price and seating sections.

A Star-Spangled Tradition

On the morning of September 14, the Minnesota Orchestra’s 2017-18 season will begin with the sound of a snare drum, rolling into the familiar opening chords of The Star-Spangled Banner, as the audience will rise to sing Francis Scott Key’s lyrics. This season-opening tradition extends back several decades, most often using an orchestration custom-made by Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, the Orchestra’s music director from 1960 to 1979, who passed away in February of this year.

Skrowaczewski’s A-flat major arrangement, perhaps most distinctive for the piccolo part that brightens the tone color at key moments, has been played at several historic occasions since its creation for Orchestra Hall’s inaugural concert in 1974. High on the list is a performance in Havana during the Orchestra’s landmark Cuba tour in May 2015, in which it was paired with the Cuban national anthem.

The New York Times described the scene of that performance: “After the orchestra took to the stage for its Saturday night concert at the Teatro Nacional, Mr. Vänskä strode out to the podium, turned and faced the audience and, with a gesture, urged the somewhat confused concertgoers to stand. Then he turned to the orchestra and urged them to stand. Then, to audible gasps, the Minnesota Orchestra played the Cuban national anthem, which the audience sang along to lustily. When it was over they cheered loudly.

“The orchestra kept standing and Mr. Vänskä signaled the percussion section. A drumroll began. Then the orchestra began playing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ drawing more surprise in the theater, which sits on the Plaza de la Revolución, which for many years was the scene of some of Fidel Castro’s most fiery anti-American speeches. Fewer Cubans seemed to know the lyrics, which were mostly sung by the Americans in the orchestra’s entourage. But when it was over the Cuban members of the audience cheered as well.”


Another memorable performance came at the Orchestra’s first concert after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Principal Trumpet Manny Laureano recalls that 2001 performance as one of great emotion and unified spirit: “I will always remember the concert that opened the season just days after the World Trade Center fell by the hands of our enemies. The public that attended that concert sang our national anthem with a heartfelt spirit I had never heard before. The petty differences that divided us gave way to a unity that defined ‘E Pluribus Unum.’”

Other historic performances of the anthem include one on America’s 200th birthday of July 4, 1976 (with none other than Aaron Copland conducting), and another at the final concert led by the Orchestra’s founding Music Director Emil Oberhoffer in April 1922, following the conductor’s stirring farewell remarks. During World War I, the Orchestra performed The Star-Spangled Banner to start each of its tour concerts. Performances of the anthem again became regular upon America’s entry into World War II, and have since become a fixture of the Orchestra’s season openings as well as outdoor summer concerts.

Aaron Copland rehearsing the Minnesota Orchestra in July 1976.

Although none of the Orchestra’s ten music directors have been American-born, at least four have produced their own orchestral arrangements on our national anthem: Henri Verbrugghen, Eugene Ormandy, Antal Dorati and Skrowaczewski. Over the years, the Orchestra has also played orchestrations by Igor Stravinsky, Mischa Bregman, Bud Caputo, Walter Damrosch, Arthur Luck and former Minnesota Orchestra Resident Conductor Henry Charles Smith, among others.

Come to our season-opening concerts on September 14, 15 and 16 to hear Skrowaczewski’s orchestration and join in with your own voice.

Retired musician spotlight: Q&A with Mina Fisher

It’s our pleasure to check in with retired Minnesota Orchestra cellist Mina Fisher, a member of the Orchestra from 1979 to 2012. Fisher is the Producing Artistic Director of the Bakken Trio, which this month presents the premiere of NADIA, Fisher’s original play about 20th-century composition teacher and renaissance woman Nadia Boulanger. We spoke with her about Boulanger, her new play and what else she’s been up to since retiring.

Who was Nadia Boulanger, and what led you to write a play about her?

Nadia was an organist at Paris’ La Madeleine, assistant to composer Gabriel Fauré, the first woman to conduct the Boston Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra and New York Philharmonic, Stravinsky’s editor, the first woman to lecture worldwide about music, a music critic, a composer/arranger, and a harmony and composition teacher to thousands of composers whose biographies mention “studied with Nadia Boulanger”—including Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Elliott Carter, Philip Glass, Astor Piazzolla and Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, to name a few. Composer Ned Rorem called her “the most influential teacher since Socrates.” 

After I left the Minnesota Orchestra and started a teaching studio, I began looking for wisdom from great teachers of the past to share with my own students, and I did a lot of reading and questioning about best teaching practices. The responses inevitably led to Nadia Boulanger. In writing NADIA, I wanted to explore the questions of who this very private person really was, and how she tenaciously overcame sexism in early 20th-century Paris to make an unparalleled impact on an entire century of musical thought.

How did you go about the researching and writing process?

Research was a challenge at first, since Nadia herself distrusted words and the press, and thought that out of context, words were dangerous. My first useful source was Léonie Rosenstiel’s biography about Nadia. But Nadia’s voice really began to emerge from scenes recounted to me by her students Professors David Grayson, Kenton Coe and Michael Conte. I was also lucky to interview former Minnesota Orchestra Music Director Stanislaw Skrowaczewski shortly before he died, and he told me upon first meeting Nadia in Paris: “She found the weakest chord of my composition, with one glance over my manuscript! I had been struggling with one measure, and just left it because I didn’t know how to solve that problem, and she found it immediately.” 

As a backbone to NADIA’s dialogue I used the Boulanger quotes collected by her student Don Campbell; my favorites are “Great Art Likes Chains!” and “There’s no place in the world of music for marshmallows!” I also pored through YouTube looking for interviews about her, and found great clips from Leonard Bernstein, Astor Piazzolla and Aaron Copland. 

What did you learn about Nadia that surprised you the most? 

What surprised me was how emotionally attached I got. I feel real anger on her behalf at Saint-Saëns, who was opposed to Nadia having a teaching position at the Paris Conservatoire, and quite miffed at Stravinsky, whom Nadia adored, but who in his autobiography barely mentions their friendship and her role in helping him escape to America during World War II, nor does he credit her great editing of his scores. 

Who all is involved in the play’s premiere?

Actress-singer Christina Baldwin will star as Nadia, but the backbone of the play is the music that energized Nadia—music of her mentor Fauré, of her sister Lili, of the “teacher of us all, Bach,” and what Nadia called her own “worthless songs.” The music is performed by the Bakken Trio’s violinist Stephanie Arado, Bakken Trio (and Minnesota Orchestra) cellist Pitnarry Shin, and pianist Michael Kim of the University of Minnesota. We were fortunate to get Steven Epp on board as director. 

What are some other projects you’ve taken up since retiring from the Orchestra?

Right away I started a truffle company, and for five years provided dark chocolate truffles to Orchestra Hall, the Ordway and Park Square Theater, and for Kowalski’s on Hennepin Avenue. I’ve always thought that places which have high-quality performances should have high-quality food in the lobby that matches the experience! 

What do you miss most about being a musician in the Minnesota Orchestra?

I particularly enjoyed the performance tours! I wish I could have played with the Orchestra in Cuba, and that I could take part in other upcoming tours. 

Mina Fisher’s NADIA will be performed by the Bakken Trio at MacPhail Center for Music (501 S. 2nd Street in Minneapolis) on September 17 and 18. Tickets and more information are available at

Targaryen, Lannister vie to become next Sommerfest Artistic Director

Various rulers of Westeros pursue Minnesota Orchestra conducting post

The Minnesota Orchestra has announced the slate of candidates for the newly-open position of Sommerfest Artistic Director—including Daenerys Targaryen, Euron Greyjoy, Cersei Lannister, Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish, Arya Stark, Tormund Giantsbane, and various other conductors and aspiring rulers from the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros.

“The Iron Podium is mine by birthright, and I shall have it through the power of fire, or by majority vote of the Sommerfest Artistic Director search committee after a suitable series of trial weeks,” said Targaryen. “So it is written in the scrolls: that the Mother of Dragons shall be the next artistic leader of Sommerfest.”

The position of Sommerfest Artistic Director came open at the end of Sommerfest 2017. Once the vacancy is filled, the Orchestra is likely to invite several of the runner-up candidates to return in future years as guest conductors. However, some industry observers believe that not every candidate would accept such an offer.

“Sooner would a nobleman of the House of Lannister become a squire at Winterfell, than would a Sommerfest Artistic Director candidate return as a mere guest conductor,” asserted a post on the widely-read blog “A Song of the Lark and Fire,” predicting that most of the finalists will instead move on to other opportunities in the distant outpost of Qarth, or perhaps Boston.

Though he is not pursuing the post of Sommerfest Artistic Director, claiming that he is too short to be seen from the back of the violin section, former Hand of the King Tyrion Lannister has offered to help mediate the process. “Surely we can strive for peaceful negotiations between Ser Kevin [Smith] and the candidates, rather than audition by combat,” he stated.

For a brief period in late May, rumors spread that the Orchestra’s next Sommerfest Artistic Director could come from within the ranks of the ensemble itself. The talk was scuttled when a MinnPost article pointed out that Associate Principal Oboe John Snow is not actually the same person as Jon Snow, the illegitimate son of the late Lord Ned Stark. Furthermore, John Snow was overheard stating that “Winter is coming”—a significant gaffe, given that a Sommerfest Artistic Director is expected to favor summer over winter.

“As everyone knows, Minnesotans are always very eager for winter to end and summer to come, for Sommerfest and other popular summer traditions such as the State Fair and I-35W construction,” said Cersei Lannister, who was eager to exploit Snow’s error. “What’s more, I hear that our season finale is coming up—which may narrow the list of Sommerfest Artistic Director candidates considerably.”

The events and characters portrayed above are strictly satirical. No dragons were harmed in the writing of this article.

Photo via @umnmusic on Instagram.

A Night on the Silk Road: A journey worth taking

Earlier this summer, our guest blogger Mandy Meisner attended the Minnesota Orchestra’s 2017 Symphony Ball, titled “A Night on the Silk Road.” Six weeks later, we’ve invited her to write about that evening of music, festivities and camaraderie—and reflect on what she calls “a respite from my usual route.”

We all choose a road to travel. Some of us are trailblazers, unafraid and gutsy, our paths laid with sheer grit, scorched and raw behind us. Others choose a way whose course is smooth and broad and clear, where great comfort will be offered in the surety of where it leads. For most of us, the journey will be somewhere in between. We find straggly trails among the bramble and meander about, hoping to find a direction that might lead us out of the wild.

On June 24, I was able to take a detour, and spend “A Night on the Silk Road” with the Minnesota Orchestra. Although Symphony Ball has been going on for 60 years, this was my first time and I went as a Partier, joining all of the after-dinner festivities. I did not know what to expect. I only knew that when I imagined the Silk Road, I imagined exotic lands and people. I thought of long, dusty stretches of earth that bore countless travelers, silent and weary under the sun. But at day’s end when the stars pricked through the black sky, perhaps these silent and weary travelers might gather around their fires to sing and dance, laugh and talk, their beautiful silk fabrics and unusual wares tucked safely away, smelling of sandalwood and jasmine.

My fellow Partiers and I waited in an alluring Orchestra Hall for other Ball attendees to arrive from the dinner and auction. Brightly-dressed performers moved in graceful arcs and flourishes off to my side. Vibrant flags stamped with the event logo hung in stately swags, and a giant elephant puppet towered amicably over guests as they posed for pictures and exalted their amusement. The diners came through the skyway doors in a rush of energy to quickly disperse throughout the Hall. Rosy-cheeked and wonderfully garbed, the women gathered in small enclaves, their diamonds and sequins and smiles all flashing with the same brilliance.

Patrons enjoying Symphony Ball in Orchestra Hall’s Roberta Mann Grand Foyer. Photo by Courtney Perry.

Mesmerized by these glamorous strangers, I walked among them, catching bits of conversation as the stream flowed by, and we entered the auditorium. We choose our own seats and sat under the weight of a celebratory haze, eager for the music. A giant, two-manned tiger puppet lumbered across the stage and we clapped with childish delight.  

And then the music began. The Silk Road Symphonic Fantasy is a curated medley, created especially for this year’s Symphony Ball, of works by various composers, meant to take listeners on a musical journey. The Orchestra did not disappoint. Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade was full of longing, haunting and painful with sparks of dazzling release, and a glimpse of the everyman, plodding through life in contentment. Saint-Saëns’ Sampson and Delilah was all that ill-fated lovers should be; lush and volatile, sensual and raw, the conflict and passion of the music hung on us like blankets of wet velvet. Tan Dun’s Crouching Tiger cello solo guts me completely. The journey continued, each piece emotionally full and stunning, the finale a rightful conclusion of triumphant victory, hard-won after a long, arduous journey.

The Orchestra takes the stage at Symphony Ball. Photo by Playatta.

Next was singer-writer-rapper Dessa, who joined the Orchestra to perform two of her original songs. Although I had never heard Dessa live, I’ve listened to her in interviews on MPR and have appreciated her ability to be true to herself and her creativity. This is perhaps the most challenging once you have success; yet she remains faithful to herself and her art form.  Her vocals that night are as inky as the midnight blue of her dress and the black sheen of her hair. Her music has gravity; it anchors us in the vastness.

When Dessa comes out again to perform later, she has changed into an even deeper-hued dress, shorter and simpler in cut. Without the Milky Way of the Orchestra, her band looks minuscule, stark on stage. We are all standing, Dessa comes to perch on a seat, the smallness now feeling like intimacy. Bell Toll starts with a few lone lines of music, strange and entrancing, then fills the space with primal beats and full accompaniment that make us sway into a blurry mass, her voice dripping like raw honey.

Dessa, second from left, and her band joined the Orchestra. Photo by Courtney Perry.

Afterward, though it is late, we all stay to mingle in our scarlet gowns and pearly smiles. We are tired and spent, dazed and overflowing. I am able to meet many new people—musicians and committee members, sponsors and volunteers. Their roles are different and equally crucial in making the event a success, and I can feel the pride and camaraderie around the orchestra as I chat with them. I have a brief and lovely encounter with Dessa, who is gracious to me, and to all the people waiting to meet her.

Dessa, center, with Mandy Meisner at right.

The night wanes and we are reluctant to go back to the road we normally tread; we are all still enjoying the detour. Eventually, we start to leave in slow procession, our arms were laden with prizes, our minds drunk from the music and the people and the atmosphere itself. I know I will return and hope to meet other newcomers next year. I’m convinced anyone would love it as much I have.

On my way out, the path brings me to people I haven’t seen for years and least expect to see. Such happenstance surprises me, and then I laugh at my surprise. For if there is one thing I felt at the Ball thanks to the tremendous effort and talents of others, it was that anything—absolutely anything—can happen during a night on the Silk Road.  

And that sometimes a detour is just the thing we need, to give us perseverance to stay the course.

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.

Meet the Audience - Sig and Marti Reckdahl

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!

Meet the Audience is an occasional feature profiling Minnesota Orchestra audience member stories. To recommend or share a story, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..



A Night at the Museum

Although I play viola in the Minnesota Orchestra, I also work in a wonderful museum—one of amazing historic musical treasures that I get to marvel at every day. I’m talking about the rare stringed instruments played by my colleagues. Assembled in front of you is a remarkable collection of violins, cellos and basses of antique vintage, a few of which date back to the late 1600s. (You might notice that I didn’t mention violas. More on that later.) The point is, much of the “lumber” you are listening to is of coveted Italian ancestry and centuries old.

The first name people think of when it comes to old Italian instruments is of course, Antonio Stradivari, still the gold standard in violin making. Although there aren’t currently any Strads in the Orchestra, until very recently, there was an even older violin, made in 1683 by Niccolo Amati, Stradivari’s likely mentor in the small village of Cremona. Think of that for a moment: a violin made two years before J.S. Bach was born, still in use today as a “work tool”! It was carried around every day in a nondescript case like everyone else’s, securely taken care of, for sure, but without any drama.

My interest in historic instruments is newfound. You see, even though I’ve played either the violin or viola since I was four years old, it always bothered me that I was so ignorant about the rarefied tools we wield to make music. I would posit that this is true for most string players. As performers, we focus so closely on our specialized skill set that we learn scant little about our tools, save for the basic information provided by the dealers who sold them to us.

Yes, the burden of acquiring an instrument falls to each musician. We aren’t required to buy the finest Italian antiques—in fact, there are many fine modern instruments out there that are infinitely more affordable. But the desire to play on the great old Italian-made treasures is fairly universal among us. Why? Because in the eyes and ears of both the players and the public, the old Italians are thought to have qualities of sound that just can’t be found anywhere else.

Many have tried to explain the mystery of the “Italian sound.” Speculation runs the gamut from secret components in the varnish to exotic ways the wood was treated. But I’m skeptical of these theories. Research confirms that makers all across Europe had access to the same sources of freshly-cut wood, free of mysterious additives, and the varnish ingredients used in Cremona were certainly available and in wide use by other fine makers as far away as London.

So what do I believe? That, simply put, the old Italian makers were supreme masters of a long tradition that originated in Italy and was perfected to high art as it was passed down from craftsman to apprentice in the tiny village of Cremona. Their singular success created a mystique that remains powerfully strong today.

To come back to the viola question, sadly, there are currently no vintage Italian violas in the Orchestra from that elite group of makers, due to scarcity: there simply weren’t as many violas made as there were violins and cellos (that’s a story for another day!). Nowadays, with demand high and supply low, vintage Italian violas often end up in the hands of investors and collectors who keep them locked away, unheard by the public. (Note to collectors: lend them out!)

The crown jewel of our string section is probably not one instrument but a collection: the amazing basses that make us the envy of the orchestral world. Acquired from a collector by Kenneth N. and Judy Dayton and Douglas W. and Louise Leatherdale, who donated them to the Orchestra in 2001, these basses represent a “Who’s Who” of the great Italian makers of the last four centuries. And in the hands of our skilled bass section, they contribute mightily to the Orchestra’s signature rich string sound.

So the next time you enjoy that lush, silky sound at Orchestra Hall, you’ll know why an evening with the Minnesota Orchestra is like a Night at the Museum—work for me, pleasure for you, precious for us all.

Touchdowns Beyond the End Zone

Photo: Osmo Vänskä perform Beethoven's Fifth at US Bank Stadium, © Travis Anderson 2016.

The day was Thursday, September 15: three days before the Minnesota Vikings home opener game against the Green Bay Packers at the new U.S. Bank Stadium. Late in the day I checked my email—and up popped a message from Kärsten Jensen, the Minnesota Orchestra’s events, personnel and volunteer manager, calling for more volunteers to help with the Orchestra’s performance at the halftime show for Sunday’s game. Volunteers were to report at the stadium for practice the next day, Friday, at 8 a.m. It would also require a good share of Saturday and, of course, game day.

I couldn’t resist. I didn’t know what was in store for me, but I thought, “Hey, why not, you’re 73! You go for it, girl!”

I reported at 8 a.m. on Friday and joined many others who were taking the day off work to participate in this experience. We were each assigned a duty. Mine was to be a stand person—to run a musician’s stand on and off the stage for the eight-minute halftime performance.

We all functioned by commands through headsets from a producer up in the patron boxes. When the call came, “Okay, stand carriers—GO!” I would pick up the music stand for “French Horn Player #2” and quickly traverse the field, step onto a tarp set up quickly by other volunteers, look for the correct marks for French Horn Player #2, set my stand down, then disappear to the 30-yard line, sit down and wait for the next command.

We practiced this from 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., over and over and over, to get everything set on the field in less than two minutes. It was fabulous to watch all the volunteers pull together, realize the importance of being quick and accurate, and be part of a team getting the job done!

Saturday came. Everyone had to report back to the stadium in the afternoon. We were joined by the Orchestra musicians this time as they, too, had to learn how to rapidly get on and off the field. They also wore headsets and were cued by the producer.

Tarps were laid out on the field, music stands came out, and percussion instruments were in huge carts that had to traverse the sidelines and lock into position. The Orchestra players and Osmo Vänskä had to come out, get set, and prepare to play in less than two minutes, too! We worked and worked on this until 10:30 p.m. when finally the producer announced, “GREAT job, everyone—we are under by 16 seconds. You can all go home!”

Sunday: Game Day. The performance team volunteers reported by opening kickoff, found ourselves under the stadium seating areas, and waited for the call to prep for the halftime show. Finally it was time. I reported to the U.S. Bank Tunnel, as did the musicians. We all turned on our headsets and waited for the signal. Would it work? We had certainly practiced enough!

Then it came: “All people ready. 1…2…3…4…5…GO!”

Out I went with my music stand for French Horn Player #2. By the time I got to the sidelines, the tarp volunteers had done their job. I set my stand down on the purple tapes marked “French Horn Player #2” and quickly moved to the 30-yard line. The Orchestra players were right behind, went to their marks, waited for the special car to bring Osmo out, and as soon as he stepped on to the podium, the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth was filling the stadium!

It was fabulous. The sound was overwhelming and the audience response was unbelievable! The Orchestra also accompanied The Steeles, who sang a tribute to Prince. The crowd went wild. Simply put, it was awesome! Finally the producer’s voice came across the headsets, “STRIKE!” and we all—musicians, volunteers, Osmo and The Steeles—removed everything from the field in less than two minutes. I went back to the U.S. Bank Tunnel, all smiles about what we just experienced.

The musicians were with us in the tunnel. I noticed French Horn Player #2 lingering there. “Hmm,” I thought, “I’m going to find out his name.” It was Brian Jensen. I introduced myself by saying I was the one who brought out his music stand. We had a good high five and asked another volunteer to take our picture.

Eleanor Zwiers and Brian Jensen

What a day! But it wasn’t over yet. After it was apparent that the Vikings were going to win, I decided to leave early and get a jump on the exiting crowd. I caught the Light Rail and headed for the Mall of America along with a train car full of Packers fans. We engaged in conversation about the game, and as we talked, the fans said, “What a halftime show!” I agreed.

They continued: “The Minnesota Orchestra was fabulous. I’m not a classical music fan, but they were great, and I think I’d come back to Minneapolis and go to Orchestra Hall to hear them again!”

I heard the same comments from several others.

So, everyone at the Orchestra, I think you really had a touchdown of your own here! By getting into this very special venue, our Orchestra really made an amazing and surprising impression. I think you won lots of new friends. And all of us—volunteers, musicians, Osmo—had an adventure we will never forget.

Eleanor Zwiers, Minnesota Orchestra Volunteer

Essay: Be It Resolved

Photo: Violinist Céline Leathead at the conclusion of a concert in 2015.

Making New Year’s resolutions is a rite of, well, each new year.

Recalling a report card’s line noting “room for improvement,” we resolve to do better, do more, do less, do anything to improve our lives—and maybe even the lives of those who put up with us. Often, this involves doughnuts (fewer), sit-ups (more), or a renewed (these are annual rites) commitment to being better organized. The possibilities are endless. But the goal of resolutions is the same: to follow something through to completion, to bring chaos into order, dissonance into harmony, Size 14 to Size 10.

Composers must have similar goals. How else to explain the way that pieces of music almost invariably end with a chord that resolves? With the movement of just a few tones, the final note resounds with the harmony of a long-sought goal achieved.

To put it another way, in less erudite example: Here in Minnesota, the vein of traditional hymn-singing still pulses. You may thus be familiar with hungry parishioners in a church basement singing the Doxology, and the way they invariably break into harmony as they reach the final word. “Ahhhh…” pours forth in an unresolved chord, and then—with the sort of hive mind subconsciousness that passes all understanding—resolves to a major tonic chord for that final “…men.”

After a moment’s satisfied reflection upon themselves, everyone eats. That’s resolution.

I’d be bluffing if I pretended to know music theory. So I’ll turn to the sages at Wikipedia for a definition of musical resolution. They tell me it’s “the move of a note or chord from dissonance (an unstable sound) to a consonance (a more final or stable sounding one).” Resolution, then, is a central component of music. And while we often sense what the final chord will be, the joy is in how we reach it.

If a piece is familiar, we can settle in, knowing that however far the harmonic journey from the home key, all will be resolved. The final rewarding chord will be an apt metaphor for the life skill of staying the course. And if a piece is new, we trust that it will end in a way that will let us exhale. For here’s the thing: Until a chord is resolved, it seems we can’t quite breathe with complete ease.

Granted, throughout a piece, there are smaller resolutions of dissonance to consonance—and these shallow breaths can create a wonderful tension. There is a trust factor at work. We trust we will be rewarded, trust that composers, however circuitous their journey through the scales, also seek a sense of completion. Sometimes they take us right up to the brink.

Igor Stravinsky was a master of the circuitous journey. The Rite of Spring is notorious for its dissonance, which Stravinsky keeps coming back to, until the final explosive, and yet resolved, chord. His Firebird Suite is slightly more hum-your-way-back-to-the-parking-ramp-friendly. And is there a better soundtrack for personal victory (size 10!) than the finale’s brassy chords and off-kilter drum beats? Yet he then backs down to a building series of unresolved chords that have us holding our breath until that final pristine conclusion. Feeling once again on solid ground, we exhale.

Maybe this is why we make resolutions. Even if our best intentions end up getting cast aside by St. Patrick’s Day, we have tried to bring order to chaos. We have sought to stay the course. We have tried. And trying counts—regardless of whether we attain the glorious heights of Bach or Beethoven, Tchaikovsky or Stravinsky.

Can I get an “Amen?”

The Promise of the Blank Slate

Last summer, my almost-six-year-old learned how to swim. I sat at the edge of the pool, watching as he was launched forward by the instructor and managed only a few dog paddles before he was pulled aside for extra help. He tried not to cry; I peeked from behind a shrub. Later, when he stumbled, shivering, into his Stormtrooper towel, the only thing between him and quitting was the post-lesson reward from his teacher, a piece of candy clutched wetly in his hand.

Learning is hard; without willing participants, impossible.

Playing clarinet in college, I had to virtually start over and relearn a host of things I had been doing wrong. It was miserable. I sounded like a beginner, and the joy of making music was gone. What a humiliating experience, after soaring through high school on golden wings, to admit that there was so much I didn’t know.

That admission is easier for a six-year-old, much harder for an adult. But it blazes the trail for learning. From my current perspective as a teacher, I see how differently things turn out for students who know they are not yet a finished product and those who think they have nothing to learn. As Socrates said, “the only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” Which is why, I suspect, so many private music instructors keep a box of tissues in their studios. The intimate relationship we have with our students is not unlike therapy: it involves breaking down bad habits, undoing patterns, returning to a “blank slate” stage until the rebuilding begins, to become the musician, and the person, the student wants to be.

Some of you may recognize my byline from the days of the Orchestra’s tour to Cuba in 2015: thrilled to go along as a substitute musician, I also wrote blog posts for MPR. Over the subsequent 18 months, I’ve thought a lot about what made those five days the revelation that they were to every single person involved. I believe we—Cubans, Americans, musicians, board, staff, cultural contingent, management—came into the situation as blank slates. We boarded a plane that had never flown that route, touched down in a country we had never seen and that had few traces of American influence, and spent the next 100-odd hours interacting with people who had been, up to that point, as distant and foreign to us as fairy tale characters. With no expectations, no yardsticks, no barometers, we were wide-eyed and open as six-year-olds. I believe it was the childlike innocence and vulnerability in our side-by-side rehearsal that made professional and student, Cuban and American, turn to each other with honest curiosity and a true desire for mutual learning.

At turning points in history, the arts can act as a messenger, sent ahead of the document signings, as a sign of goodwill and hope for our mutual futures. And because children are the most crucial recipients of that message, there is no better way to deliver it than through arts education. That is why, with the support of Osmo Vänskä, plans are underway for a Cuban American Youth Orchestra to launch in summer 2018, supported by our friends at Classical Movements, Inc., and presenting a national tour of both the U.S. and Cuba. After the final concert, free to the Cuban public and broadcast from Havana to the United States, it is our sincerest hope that the young people part ways with lifelong friendships and music in their hearts. Because the Minnesota Orchestra dared to dream big in 2015, those of us from that trip can promise, without reservation, that it will be something these students will never forget; we can hope, without fear, that music will help us all become the humanity we hope to be.


Bike to Orchestra Hall

This summer the Minnesota Orchestra is inviting the entire Twin Cities bicycling community to Bike to Orchestra Hall! Starting with the launch of Sommerfest 2016 on July 8th, show your bike helmet or gear at out Box Office when you bike to Orchestra Hall and get 50 percent off tickets to select concerts (see eligible concerts).

Minnesota Orchestra musician and staff bicyclists

Many of the Orchestra's musicians and staff are avid bicyclists who regularly ride to rehearsals, to concerts, to the office and just for fun! We're delighted to invite you to share the experience. Violist and Inside the Classics host Sam Bergman says: "I love gliding past clogged lanes of stopped cars and arriving at work refreshed and energized!"

Minnesota Orchestra musicians riding bike in Bemidji

When the Minnesota Orchestra performed in Bemidji, several musicians took their bikes along to take advantage of the beautiful scenery. (L to R) Ellen Dinwiddie Smith (horn), Chris Marshall (bassoon), Julie Gramolini Wiliams (oboe), Greg Williams (clarinet)

The OH+ (Orchestra Hall Plus) programming that we launched a year ago has extended the concert-going experience into the lobby and Target Atrium with activities, entertainment and refreshments. Now, the Bike to Orchestra Hall initiative looks beyond our walls, encouraging audience members to turn their trip to Orchestra Hall into an active outing. "It is a fabulous way to get some exercise and hear some great music! I like the fact that people can feel comfortable to come as they are...whether biking, walking or strolling around town" says horn player Ellen Dinwiddie Smith.

Minneapolis is routinely ranked among the top bike cities in the United States by sources as varied as Wired Magazine (#1), the U.S. Census Bureau (#2) and Forbes Magazine (#1). We at Orchestra Hall want to play our part (pun intended) by striving to be a bike-friendly destination. "Most of downtown is completely traversable for cyclists, and it is completely possible to get to Orchestra Hall without ever biking on a street that doesn't have a dedicated lane," says Bergman.

Right now, the Minnesota Orchestra is looking critically at its environmental footprint. One thing we are growing more aware of is the cost of transportation to and from Orchestra Hall. Encouraging audience members to shift the way they think about getting here is a first step toward "greening" our operations.

Bike racks at Orchestra Hall

Treble clef bike racks outside of our Stage Door along Marquette Avenue

As part of our effort to put out the welcome mat to the bike community, Orchestra Hall will be adding temporary bike racks for Sommerfest, and we also have plans in the works to install additional permanent racks. To plan your trip, see our map of bike lanes adjacent to Orchestra Hall, as well as prime bike rack locations within a couple of blocks.

Nice Ride bike sharing is another great option for a hassle-free excursion, with three stations within a block and a half of the Hall. Lockers are available in the ring corridor of the Auditorium for you to stow your helmets and other gear during the concert (ask an usher for assistance).

Never been to a Minnesota Orchestra concert before? Bass player and regular bicyclist David Williamson encourages you to come and try it out. He says "this is an acoustic, unamplified, completely handmade product. You can feel the sound and hear it in a way that is different which you may not have ever hear before." And to all members of the biking community, he says "Welcome to Orchestra Hall!"

If you are uncomfortable riding at night, we recommend one of our morning Coffee Concerts or a Matinee. Haven't been on a bike in years? Follow these tips from Momentum Mag before heading downtown!


Violists Megan Tam and Sam Bergman getting silly with their bikes.