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Road Trip
Sam Bergman on tour with the Minnesota Orchestra...

Road Trip chronicled the European tour of the Minnesota Orchestra (Feb 9-16, 2004) through the eyes of one of the orchestra's violists - Sam Bergman. The blog generated lots of interest, and was written about in The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. Sam was also invited on the BBC to talk about the tour and also wrote a piece about the orchestra's performance in London for the London Evening Standard. 

Saturday, February 7, 2004

    And the Crowd Goes Wild...

    Orchestras have a connection to our hometown audiences which I've always thought was somewhat unique in the performing arts sphere. Unlike a theater troupe, or a dance company, or even a string quartet, we perform a new program every week, allowing our most loyal concertgoers to see us on a very regular basis without having to listen to something they've already heard. This regular attendance seems to impart a very measurable sense of community ownership to our audience: in much the same fashion that a sports team is felt by its fans to be "theirs," rather than simply the property of the team owner, our subscribers and regular attenders can claim a sort of ownership by acclamation.

    I bring this up because, last night, we played our final "home" concert before heading out on tour, and throughout the evening, I was reminded of the role that an audience can play in sending an orchestra out the door on a ridiculously high note. Truth be told, it wasn't the best concert we'd played in the last few weeks from a technical point of view - there were a few careless mistakes, and several moments when it just didn't feel as if the whole orchestra was locked into a single pulse - but Osmo was visibly fired up for this send-off show, and we, by extension, played with an energy that must have been palpable from every part of the hall. Josh Bell's rendition of the Tchaikovsky concerto had all the flair and mischievous potency for which he is known, and the Prokofiev... well, it sizzled throughout with anger and passion, which is the only way I've ever liked that particular piece.

    Even Aaron Kernis's Color Wheel showed improvement from previous days, although in a somewhat roundabout way: from where I sit (on the second stand of violas, at the moment,) it sounded less precise than it had at our last concert, but I was almost certain that the reason for the sloppiness was that many of us were now comfortable enough with our own parts to actually be hearing the whole piece for the first time. Whereas, in previous performances, we were desperately sawing through the fiendishly difficult notes in front of our own eyes, while vaguely hoping that we might match up with our colleagues, we're now at the point of actually being able to play the notes and listen at the same time. In other words, we could hear that we weren't together in certain places, but our minds simply didn't have time to react to the problem often enough. The next step, of course, is to be able to react instantly to what we hear, and adjust our own parts accordingly. I expect that the evolution of our skill in performing Color Wheel will be a theme to which this blog will return frequently throughout the tour.

    But I've digressed. We were talking about audiences. As I say, last night's concert pulsed with energy, and a large part of that energy came directly from the people who had packed the hall. (Our ticket sales in recent years have been decidedly disappointing, due in large part to some questionable programming and marketing strategies, but this week, all of our concerts sold out our 2,450-seat hall.) Our Friday night crowd has always been a fiercely loyal and reliable one, and last night, it seemed as if everyone in the place was determined to send us off in style. There were cheers and whistles throughout the night, which is saying something for a Midwestern crowd, and at the end of the concert, my eyes locked on a couple of our regulars in the front row, who were standing and gazing up at the stage, literally shouting good luck to the musicians within earshot. Our audiences, loyal and intelligent though they may be, are notoriously quick to dash for the door as the final bows are taken, but on this night, I saw nary a soul making for the exits as we plowed through two high-energy encores, and stood for a total of seven bows.

    When you play nearly 200 concerts a year, it can be difficult to remember that you're supposed to make each one feel like a special event. As hard as we try to give our all every time we step on stage, there are obviously concerts that end up feeling, well, routine. (As Osmo said at a post-concert reception last night, speaking of the Romeo & Juliet suite, "It is a hard thing to die every night, twice, even if we know we must.") I know from experience that, on the road, that necessary passion can be even harder to conjure up after several hours on a plane. But the reaction we got last night from our home crowd reminded me that, in a very tangible sense, this tour is as much about their pride of ownership as it is about our pride of performance. We represent not only ourselves, but our city and our fans. And if that seems like an overstatement of the situation, so be it. Minnesotans are an awfully proud bunch, and if they're proud of us at the moment, well then, a bit of overstatement is the least we can offer in return.

    posted by sbergman @ 9:49 am | Permanent link
Friday, February 6, 2004
    The Real Heroes

    One of our local critics has a send-off piece ready to roll for Sunday's editions of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and he has wisely chosen to focus his attention on the unsung heroes of any orchestra tour: the stage crew. Over the next three weeks, according to the story, our crew will move "100 musicians plus staff members, spouses, four stage hands, a doctor, a massage therapist and 7 tons of cargo in and out of concert halls while traveling about 7,000 miles." (Yes, fellow orchestra musicians, he said a massage therapist, and if you want the inside scoop on how exactly we managed to swing that little luxury item, drop me an e-mail, because it might just work on your next tour.) Those seven tons of cargo are in nearly 100 different boxes and trunks, and they are overseen by one of the very best crews in the business. In the thick of the tour, I strongly suspect that I will not remember to mention them nearly as often as I should, so I wanted to name them right up front. Our stage manager, Tim Eickholt, is an industry legend who not only designs and builds all our instrument trunks himself, but also makes batons as a sideline. He is assisted by Gail Reich and Dave McKoskey, the former of whom is never so exhausted that she doesn't have the energy to smile at everyone who crosses her path, and the latter of whom has spent more hours than he probably cares to remember lecturing me about my incomplete knowledge of hockey.

    Stagehands, people. They're what makes the world go 'round.

    posted by sbergman @ 5:21 pm | Permanent link
    Final Prep

    Minneapolis, Minnesota: 47 hours to departure

    You never really feel ready for a tour. That's the first thing you need to know, and the easiest thing for those of us in a touring orchestra to forget as we're getting ready for one. Because it doesn't seem like it ought to be that way, right? Before embarking on a major trip to the great musical capitols of Europe, you'd think we'd spend a few weeks buckled down, working our tails off to be sure that we're in the best performance shape of our lives before getting on the first plane.

    And truth be told, we do. In fact, as I write these words, the Minnesota Orchestra is at the end of a grueling three-week set of concerts here in Minneapolis, featuring all the repertoire we'll be taking along on the tour. But somehow, no matter how many extra rehearsals we have, and no matter how many hours we spend going over and over our parts, I can still feel my breath catch in my throat when I think of having to perform this rep in New York and Vienna, only a few days from now.

    A sizable portion of the responsibility (note: responsibility, not blame) for that unprepared feeling could probably be laid at the feet of one Aaron Jay Kernis. Aaron is our orchestra's New Music Advisor (we can't call him a resident composer, since he lives in New York, but it's more or less the same thing,) and for this tour, we're taking along two of his pieces: Musica celestis, a lush, beautiful work for strings; and Color Wheel, a massive and bombastic concerto for symphony orchestra, originally commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra. I happen to love Aaron's music, and Musica celestis was the first piece I ever played with the Minnesota Orchestra, but I would be lying if I said that his stuff didn't have a tendency to be unreasonably difficult to play. In fact, Color Wheel is so difficult that we spent more than 50% of our total rehearsal time this past week working on it, and for all I know, it may sound fantastic from the audience, but most of us on the stage still don't have a very clear idea of what's going on in any given measure. Earlier in the week, I asked our music director, Osmo Vänskä, whether he could follow it, and he replied, "Some parts, I follow well. But sometimes, I just have to give the beat, and hope that someone, somewhere in the orchestra, knows what to do with it." I'm not saying that any of this is Aaron's fault, you understand - after all, Beethoven and Strauss were frequently harangued by musicians claiming that their latest pieces were unplayable, and we whip through most of those same works without a second thought today - but it does bring added stress to a tour when you're not entirely certain that you really know the ins and outs of the piece you're about to perform.

    Still, as our departure date approaches, I'm finally beginning to feel like I know what will be required of us over the next few weeks. Much of the advance press we've been getting has been billing this tour as something of a coming-out party for the orchestra and its new music director, and Andrew Clark went so far as to call it "a concerted push for promotion to the orchestral super league." To be honest, I'm not sure what the orchestral super-league is, and the constant futile attempt to rank symphony orchestras is one of my least favorite critical devices, but I like Clark's thinking. Before writing his article, he spent a weekend in Minneapolis, getting to know the city and the orchestra, and decided that he was watching an ensemble on the rise, a band that could soon be seen to be on a par with orchestras like Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Cleveland. I have no earthly idea if he's right about that, but it's a frighteningly seductive thought. We all want our hard work to mean something, and at a time when so many North American orchestras are facing uncertain futures, it's tempting to imagine this tour not just as a stand-alone event, but as the beginning of some grand future.

    Still, I'd feel a hell of a lot better if I could just get through the 17th page of Color Wheel without tripping over myself...

    posted by sbergman @ 1:48 pm | Permanent link

ROADTRIP archives

About Sam Bergman
I'm a violist, mostly. A writer, sometimes. There's more (a lot more,) but that's really all you absolutely need to know to understand this blog... More

About RoadTrip
Road Trip chronicled the European tour of the Minnesota Orchestra (Feb 9-27, 2004) through the eyes of one of the orchestra's violists - Sam Bergman. The blog generated lots of interest, and was written about in The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. Sam was also invited on the BBC to talk about the tour and also wrote a piece about the orchestra's performance in London for the London Evening Standard. You can see all of the blogs entries by going here. More

About This Tour
From Feb. 8 to 27, The Minnesota Orchestra will be on tour. First stop is Carnegie Hall, then on to 11 European cities. To see the complete list of soloists, venues and repertoire, click here --> More

Write Me:

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Minnesota Orchestra
Tour Concert Schedule
February 9-26, 2004

2/9 - New York
2/12 - Vienna
2/13 - Vienna
2/15 - Frankfurt
2/16 - Berlin
2/17 - Düsseldorf
2/18 - Cologne
2/19 - Stuttgart
2/21 - Leeds (England)
2/22 - London
2/24 - Birmingham
2/25 - Glasgow (Scotland)
2/26 - Lahti (Finland)


What They're Saying...

Complete Set of Translated Tour Reviews - courtesy Minnesota Orchestra

Fascinating Notes - Washington Post 02/27/04

Osmo, Master of Beethoven - The Guardian (UK) 02/25/04

That Same Old American Sound - Financial Times 02/24/04

In Waiting No More - The Times of London 02/24/04


Minnesota Orchestra
The official web site. C'mon, buy a ticket. We need the money. More

The Virtual Tour
The orchestra's European tour in multimedia, for students and teachers. More

Minnesota Public Radio
They'll be broadcasting the final concert of the tour live from Lahti, Finland, and webcasting it from their site. I'll also be writing brief virtual postcards for the MPR site throughout the tour. More

Minneapolis Star Tribune
Strib reporter Kristin Tillotson will be jetting around Europe with us for a few tour stops. More

St. Paul Pioneer Press
The PiPress's intrepid arts editor Matt Peiken is tagging along, too, and experience suggests that he will have a unique take on things. More


Other Stuff I Like...

eighth blackbird.
If classical music needs saving, and I'm not saying it does, these six musicians are the ones to do it. I'm biased, since they're old friends, but it's a fact that there aren't a lot of contemporary music ensembles out there with serious chops and a dead-on sense of what makes music exciting. If there were any justice in the world, 8BB would be as well-known as the Emerson Quartet.

The Mischke Broadcast.
Every weeknight at 10, T.D. Mischke takes to the airwaves of KSTP-AM, and radio is worthwhile again. The only unique voice on an otherwise worthless right-wing talk station, Mischke is a legend in the Twin Cities, capable of comforting an elderly cancer patient in one breath, and launching into an improvised song about the dangers of Black & Decker toasters in the next. The station airs a live stream, and you can catch Mischke from 10pm to midnight Central Time.

Eddie From Ohio.
Greatest band on the planet. Truly. If orchestra concerts were half as fun as EFO's live shows, we'd be beating off ticket-buyers with a stick.

St. Paul Saints.
The Twin Cities' "other" baseball team has gotten endless media attention for its gimmickry and quirky ownership group (which includes Bill Murray and Mike Veeck.) But in their decade of existence, the Saints have brought a love of the summer game back to thousands of Minnesotans who had despaired of ever again seeing a double play turned outdoors. Every musician's gotta have an addiction of some sort, and the Saints are mine.



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