A Night on the Silk Road: A journey worth taking

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.

Mandy Meisner

Twin Cities-based Mandy Meisner considers being a guest blogger for the Minnesota Orchestra a dream gig—followed closely by blogging about really good food. A graduate of the Perpich Center for Arts Education, she has been writing for the Orchestra since 2016. She’s also a regular blogger on Fridley Patch and is published by several national syndicates. Above all, she believes in the power of stories and that we all have important ones to tell.