Sunday, February 16, 2014

Out of This World: The Minnesota Orchestra

The Minnesota Orchestra is back at work in Orchestra Hall in downtown Minneapolis, filling the auditorium with its amazing sound.  I've listened to the MPR broadcasts the last two Friday evenings, but they could only give a close approximation to the actual live performance experience at the Hall.


When I wrote advertising copy for the Minnesota Orchestra, there were certain words I refused to use unless they were truly accurate.  One of those words was "virtuoso."  In marketing, it's common to pump up the description of something in order to capture a potential consumer's interest and marketing in classical music is no different.  But I rarely used "virtuoso," and then only for artists who had truly earned it.  Steven Isserlis is one of those artists.  Wow.

Steven Isserlis (From

Several years ago, Isserlis performed John Tavener's The Protecting Veil for Cello and Orchestra with the Minnesota Orchestra.  A profoundly spiritual piece of music, it challenges the listener and performers alike to listen closely to what's around, above, below and behind the notes.  Isserlis inhabited this music with his cello.  Wow.

So I was looking forward to hearing him perform Edward Elgar's Cello Concerto with the Minnesota Orchestra last night.

Elgar's Cello Concerto, completed and premiered in 1919, traverses the range of emotions that fill grief. Isserlis's muscular bowing in the first movement gave the sound weight, like the cold hard stone of anger in the stomach.  The lyrical theme does nothing, really, to lighten the mood, either. It is pure elegy. The second movement is like a race but not a foot race, a race with time itself.  I watched Isserlis's bowing wrist with fascination -- it never appeared to tense or lose control as he played insanely fast.  The third movement, a slow one, was like speaking for five minutes on one breath slowly.  The beginning of the last movement recalls the opening of the first and includes a cadenza for the soloist that leads into the body of the music that sounds almost defiant in its determination.

This concerto has mystified me for a long time.  But last night, suddenly, I got it.  It's like Brahms' Second Piano Concerto with its four movement structure, and like a symphony in form.  I could see the relationship of the orchestra and soloist as they played -- yes, there is a strong visual element to live performance that enhances and enriches the sonic experience.  Isserlis and his cello conversed with the orchestra, cajoled, complained, wailed and embraced it.  I heard lines I had not heard clearly before, and saw the soloist as part of the orchestra in sections.  The sound of the cello -- its timbre -- pierces in the higher register and pulls in the lower realms.  Isserlis commanded it masterfully, using his technique to illuminate the music.  Wow.

His solo bows afterward included the orchestra with his arms open wide.  He sat down again to play an encore, standing to speak -- to verbalize the joy of the moment playing again with the Minnesota Orchestra in Orchestra Hall, and complimenting the musicians -- before sitting again, laying his bow on the floor and playing his happy-sounding encore entirely in pizzicato.  Wow.  Thank you, Steven Isserlis for taking me on your Elgar journey with you.

Out of this World

The second half of the concert showcased the Minnesota Orchestra performing Gustav Holst's The Planets, conducted by Yan Pascal Tortelier (who also conducted the Elgar).  Elgar kept us earthbound with his cello concerto, but Holst takes us to the planets in our solar system by way of the astrological personalities of the planets.  If a listener also hears echoes of John Williams' score for the movie Star Wars at times, they are truly there as Williams was influenced by this work. 

Each movement is a tone poem of a planet beginning with the martial, dark and aggressive Mars.  Venus brings light, peace and romance in sound while Mercury scurries and leaps.  Jolly Jupiter dances and cartwheels right into the Grim Reaper of Saturn.  I found the Magician Uranus to be creepy and scary -- "Chuckie" kept popping into my mind, or the carnival in Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes.  Mystical Neptune filled the hall with ethereal sound from the woodwinds, xylophone, and the women of the Minnesota Chorale. 

Holst's work functions effectively as a concerto for orchestra, showing off dynamic range, different sections, ensemble discipline and control.  Tortelier conducted without a baton, something that always fascinates me.  Usually batonless means the conductor will use more of his body to communicate with the orchestra and Tortelier was no exception.  But he didn't distract from the music.

The Sound

With the infamous renovation of Orchestra Hall and the new lobby area, I was concerned the most about the acoustics in the hall.  I needn't have worried.  I heard no significant change in the acoustics.  I asked a musician post-concert what the musicians thought, and he said they'd thought it was just a little drier than it was, and they could definitely hear themselves better on stage.

The audience responded enthusiastically to the orchestra, Mr. Isserlis and Mr. Tortelier.  The standing ovations thundered and shrill whistles pierced the air as well as bravos.  I spotted President and CEO Michael Henson in the first balcony, now Balcony A.  I wondered what he thought about as he listened to the music.  Was he truly focused on the music or did his mind wander to other things?  When he surveyed the audience standing and cheering, did he understand why?  We cheered for the music and for the musicians on stage -- the sole reason I go to Orchestra Hall and I know there were many others who are the same.

After Renovation
With all due respect to Mr. Henson and the Board of Directors, I cannot say that their new lobby impressed me.  In fact, I really disliked the walls listing the names of donors of different fundraising campaigns -- one musician commented to me that the Building for the Future wall reminded him of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.  I didn't care about the different areas of the lobby that bore the names of donors.  I didn't care about the lobby enlargement, actually, and the cold space it has become.

Before Renovation (Credit: KSalfelder)
I recently learned what Maestro Stanislaw Skrowaczewski asked of the original architect of Orchestra Hall back in the early 1970's.  He wanted the auditorium to be like a "temple," the focus of the building, the primary purpose for people to be there and a jewel of acoustic excellence.  The lobby would be small to encourage the movement of people into the auditorium to listen to the music.  Orchestra Hall would be a temple of music for the people of the Twin Cities and Minnesota.  It was for 38 years.  I will do what I've always done when I've gone to concerts in Orchestra Hall -- arrive early for the pre-concert talk, then watch people come into the auditorium from my seat.

I LOVE the new restrooms!   



George (Jake) Jaquith said...

As alway, thank you for your dedication to great music and the people performing it. A long article in the NY Times from 2/16,2014 commented on the drama in the MOA,not only on the dramatic concerts. OSMO may have lost some points for being outspoken on HENSON, but the author in the Times defended him, saying that the music director has a moral responsibility to speak on behalf of the unanimous sentiments of the musicians that goes back to the vote of no confidence. His comment brought national attention again to failed administration and the need to change. The MOA will rue the day if Henson stays and Osmo is not invited back promptly.

Gina said...

Thanks for writing, George! Yes, I saw the NY Times article, too. I think there's an extremely strong case for bringing back Osmo. It may be more difficult to make a case for Henson's departure, from the Board's point of view. He's accomplished what was asked of him by Campbell and Davis. They're gone now, no longer on the Board at all. So what does the rest of the Board think of Henson? I'd guess that Henson has probably established some strong relationships with some of the Board members. Whether it's enough to keep him here, I don't know. I also suspect that the Board will do what they will do irrespective of what the community wants regarding Henson. Gina