Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Minnesota Orchestra: A Concert to Remember

Renee Jones Schneider/Star Tribune

Last Thursday night, a symphony orchestra’s audience transformed that orchestra into a rock star.  When the musicians filed onto the stage, the entire audience stood and cheered, clapping hands above heads, whistling, shouting “Bravo!” and whooping.  At first, the musicians appeared caught in the headlight of the emotion.  Some cried.

Despite being locked out by management and the Board, the Minnesota Orchestra Musicians launched the 2012-13 season by setting up their own gala opening concert at the Minneapolis Convention Center Auditorium.  Only one concert, actually, but what a stunner.  The Convention Center’s Auditorium does not even come close to the acoustics of Orchestra Hall, but the Orchestra transcended that issue and made the place their own.  Conductor Emeritus Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, also greeted with a thunderous standing ovation, conducted the usual opening for a new season, the national anthem.  Then Principal Cellist Tony Ross strode on stage to both orchestral and audience applause.

The two works on the program have a strong connection to protest.  First was Antonin Dvořák’s Cello Concerto, a passionate piece full of Czech melodies and rhythms.  In 1968 when the Soviet Red Army invaded Czechoslovakia, Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich was in London, according to his wife, Galina Vishnevskaya in her autobiography Galina, scheduled to perform the Dvořák Cello Concerto with the USSR State Symphony Orchestra as part of a Festival of Soviet Art.  Czechs in London demonstrated against the concert and Russians playing Czech music.  They did not understand at all the power of music to bring people together until they heard Rostropovich’s performance.  With it, the great Russian cellist showed the Czech’s in London and in Czechoslovakia that, as a human being, he stood with the world against the Soviet invasion of their country.  Tony Ross made the concerto his own last night, playing with such warmth and passionate precision to remind us what it means to stand up for what we know is right in our hearts.  His colleagues matched his artistic excellence, giving him a powerful accompaniment. 

Renee Jones Schneider/Star Tribune

The second work, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, stands as a monument for free artistic expression in the face of political oppression.  Shostakovich had been denounced for his opera Lady MacBeth of Mtensk, and needed to compose a work that would return him to Stalin’s good graces.  The Fifth Symphony achieved that goal on the surface, while also giving audiences music with acerbic bite and Mahlerian tragedy that mirrored the emotions of the first Russian audiences in 1937.  Shostakovich never talked much about what his music meant, insisting that audiences could understand it without his help.  For the Minnesota Orchestra to perform this symphony, under the baton of a conductor who knew Shostakovich, at a time in which they have been locked out from their normal jobs made for a powerful musical protest against the treatment they have received in the last six months.

After the concert, a friend remarked to me that she’d never been to a concert where the audience greeted the orchestra musicians’ entrance with such enthusiastic cheering and applause.  I’d never seen it before, either.  Rare it is, also, for an entire orchestra to applaud for an audience.  We’ve seen them applaud and tap their bows on their music stands for conductors they like, soloists they admire.  But for an entire orchestra to put down instruments and clap their hands for their audience?  Rare and moving, and it happened more than once at Thursday evening’s concert.

If The Minnesota Orchestral Association’s Management and the Board of Directors truly believe in the Minnesota Orchestra and in sustaining the Orchestra’s current level of artistic excellence, where were they Thursday night?

MN Orchestra/Greg Helgeson

 Some may question the importance of a labor dispute involving musicians and a symphony orchestra, and relegate classical music to a luxury that most people can’t afford or understand.  They are entitled to that opinion, of course.  But I would ask them what their favorite movie soundtrack is, or perhaps what music was played at their wedding, or if they’d been to a funeral recently, what music they had heard there.  Classical music infuses our life with the sound of emotion.  It is what we turned to in 2001 to grieve 9/11 and to find comfort.  Companies use it in their advertising – one popular excerpt has been used in multiple TV commercials: the Dies Irae from Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem.  Classical music provides the emotional background in movies.  Studies have shown a marked improvement in IQ for young children exposed to classical music as babies and toddlers, especially Mozart’s music.  Studying classical music exercises the brain to think on several different levels at once, to look at situations from different angles, and to improve memory, enhancing creative problem solving.

Music deepens our humanity, opens hearts and minds to creativity, compassion, kindness and cooperation.  What would our lives be like without the sounds and rhythms of classical music?

Please think for a few minutes.  What’s the music in your favorite movie?  Respond in the comment section…..


Daughter Number Three said...

Thank you for the great information on the music played at the concert and for the emotional description of the connection between musicians and audience. I think this is better coverage of the event than any I've seen.

Gina said...

Thanks, Pat. Emily, over at the Song of the Lark blog wrote a very long post about last Thursday evening's concert that went into more personal detail but still captured what occurred. She listened more to what people were saying around her. I was looking for management and Board members. Saw only one, two rows ahead of us, a very important one that Emily also mentions. By her very presence at the concert, she cast shame on all the other Board members.

Ryan said...

Enjoyed this blog, as well as Emily's. It's a shame I had to miss the concert -- I'm a UMN Musicology student taking my MA exam tomorrow, and I was at home studying the night away. :(

Incidentally, my favorite film soundtrack is the score to Gladiator by Hans Zimmer, and my pick for this year's best soundtrack to a video game (too many favorites otherwise) is the score to Journey by Austin Wintory. I think we'd do well to leave the term "classical" behind, as Wintory demonstrates that there is plenty of inspiration to be found in a solo cello in the 21st century.

Gina said...

Thanks, Ryan. I hope the exam went well!

I remember enjoying the music in "Gladiator" a lot. I've heard more and more video game music on MPR and have found it very interesting. Bach found extraordinary inspiration in solo cello too!

Thanks for taking the time to comment!