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Osmo Vänskä /// Music Director

Recent Articles: Featured

Meet a Musician: R. Douglas Wright

Minnesota Orchestra member since: 1995
Position: Principal Trombone
Hometown: Hopewell, VA
Education: New England Conservatory; Boston University

In June, you’ll be one of four soloists from the Orchestra in James Stephenson’s Pillars, a concerto for low brass. What role did you have in this piece’s creation?
Jim and I have known each other ever since our freshman year at New England Conservatory. He was a terrific trumpet player back in those days and has since turned his considerable talents toward composition. We spent a lot of time playing music together throughout our college days in brass quintets and large ensembles. We even went on an orchestra tour together to Israel. So, there’s lots of history there. When Jim told me about a potential commission to write a low brass concerto, I got really excited and begged him to let us premier it. The concerto was to be in memory of Bill Zehfuss, the longtime principal trombonist of the Charleston Symphony, who had passed away several years prior, and the funding for the commission was being raised online. I sent word out to every trombonist and tuba player I know—all of us in the Orchestra’s low brass section helped spread the word. Many wonderful friends and family members of Bill’s and lots of low brass players chipped in to make this wonderful commission possible. Even a few non-low brass players chipped in.

What should the audience listen for during this piece?
In standard orchestral repertoire, the low brass section gets to play everything from beautiful, soft chorales to big, powerful climactic sections of symphonies, and just about everything in between, usually in a more supportive role. Jim really knows the sounds the low brass section is known for and he has done a terrific job of letting each member of the section shine individually as well as showing off what we can do together. We even get to play the melody!

What is particularly exciting about performing a concerto for low brass?
I find it gratifying and inspiring each and every time I get to play with my good friends in the low brass section. To get to do so out in front of the orchestra is a thrill! Since we rarely get the spotlight for more than a few measures at a time, I’m guessing that will present its own set of challenges. However, I anticipate that moving from the back row to the front of the stage for a week is going to be a lot of fun. It’s no doubt exciting for our viola section as well, who might appreciate the break from our bells aiming at the backs of their heads.

Tell us about a proud moment in your career?
I was extremely fortunate to have gotten the chance to perform with Leonard Bernstein as he conducted his next-to-last concert. The man was a musical giant and an inspiration unlike any other I’ve ever encountered. I still get chills thinking about what it was like to work with him. Kids, look him up on YouTube. You’ll be amazed!

What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career in music?
Pursuing a career in music is challenging, to say the least, because there are so many people who want to do it. It takes a lot of work and dedication, perseverance, and a bit of luck, and some good teachers—I had some great ones! Even then, it can be tough. However, if you are driven and passionate about music, I can think of nothing more gratifying than touching people’s lives through music.

What do you do when you are not performing?
I teach trombone at Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music in Evanston, Illinois. So, you’re liable to find me at the airport from time to time. I also enjoy throwing the football with my son when he’s home from college, watching my daughter play soccer, and walking through the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum with my wife. The air out there is amazing! 


Click here for more about R. Douglas Wright.

Click here for more about the world premiere performances of James Stephenson's Pillars.

"Sounds of the Cinema" - 2018 Symphony Ball

Thanks to the many community members and volunteers who generously invested their time, talents, energy, and financial support, the 2018 Symphony Ball was a spectacular success. More than 1,200 guests experienced the magic of music in the movies brought to life by your Minnesota Orchestra and special guest jeremy messersmith.

Take a look back at photos from Courtney Perry and Greg Helgeson.

 















Andrew Litton Prepares a June Triple Bill

By Dan Wascoe

When Andrew Litton returns to lead the Minnesota Orchestra June 1 and 2, he’ll bring to the podium three old friends—pieces he knows well but that seldom get performed in Orchestra Hall.

  • Belshazzar’s Feast by Sir William Walton (1902-1983) was last performed in Minneapolis 41 years ago (1977), with Henry Charles Smith conducting. Performed by orchestra and a full chorus (this year the Minnesota Chorale), it recounts the Biblical story of a disembodied hand writing a dire (and fatal) prophecy about a disrespectful king on a palace wall—giving birth to the phrase, “the writing on the wall.” Litton’s recording of the work with the Bournemouth Symphony in England won a Grammy in 1995.
  • Chichester Psalms by Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) was most recently performed by the Orchestra in 1999 under Eiji Oue. It, too, will feature Biblical lyrics sung by the chorale plus baritone Christopher Maltman. Its rhythms and harmonies recall those in Bernstein’s West Side Story, but the psalms quoted in the lyrics are sung in Hebrew, not New York-style English. The piece was commissioned for a 1965 performance in England’s Chichester Cathedral.
  • Fancy Free, also by Bernstein, was written for a ballet and evolved into the Broadway show On the Town. Segments were included in the soundtrack for Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. The piece was most recently performed by the Orchestra in 2009 under Mischa Santora.

For Litton, who was artistic director of the Orchestra’s Sommerfest programs from 2003 to 2017, choosing a program can hinge on factors such as the acoustics of a performance hall, special anniversaries (Bernstein’s 100th birthday this year), the capabilities of an orchestra, and the sensibilities of an audience.

Despite the Biblical roots of the Belshazzar and Chichester works, Litton said religiosity was not the basis of his programming decision. More telling was his familiarity with all three pieces, and his unabashed admiration for Bernstein. He added, however, that his experience with a piece doesn’t mean every performance he conducts will be identical.

Conducting is “a constant evolving experience” in which Litton tries to discover “what a composer meant to do—being true to the composer.” When learning an orchestral work, he may first play it on the piano, reflect silently for a while to “get the concept,” then listen to recordings, especially of performances conducted by the composer.

That still leaves room for variations and interpretation, he said: “The composer’s version is basically a blueprint.” The conductor’s role is akin to that of someone moving into an apartment; the structure remains from tenant to tenant but each might change the wallpaper.

Walton, a British composer, is “a tough sell in the United States,” he said, because his work is less known. Litton would like to change that, along with works of Edward Elgar.

That’s not necessary with Bernstein, perhaps the most well-known U.S. composer. As a youngster, Litton attended one of Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts in New York. The program included Respighi’s Pines of Rome, and Bernstein himself played piano.

“I became fascinated with him,” Litton said. He admired Bernstein’s animation, his “complete dedication to music,” and his desire to share that passion with his audiences. And because his compositions have endured, so will his legacy, Litton said, unlike those of many conductors who do not also write music.

Minneapolis, he said, is “renowned for inventive programs,” made possible by well-educated audiences. But he still found himself carefully planning Sommerfest performances because summer and winter programs are “very different.” Nothing too heavy in those warm, humid months.

To succeed with adventuresome programs, he said, a conductor must build and earn an audience’s trust—exposing them to new pieces in a way that is “not painful, or at least not for long. You don’t just clobber them over the head” with unfamiliar music. Similarly, a guest conductor must approach an orchestra “with caution.” If the musicians must learn a new or unfamiliar piece, for example, they might need more rehearsal time. Even then, “there are certain repertoires only (an in-house) music director should do” because he knows the abilities of the players and can help them “get to the finish line,” Litton said.

His 14 years of experience with Sommerfest leads him to believe that despite the rarity of the Walton/Bernstein program, “there are no challenges there” that its players can’t handle.

What should Minnesota audiences expect from the triple bill that Litton will conduct in June?

“Music is all so heartfelt and expressive” that he hopes listeners simply “sit down and forget about their day.”

He added, however, it might help to “read up on your Bible stories.”


Dan Wascoe is a retired reporter and columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and performs with vocalist Baibi Vegners as Nuance/a duo.