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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 21, 2004

    Road Trip On The Air

    I just have a moment before dashing off to tonight's touch-up rehearsal in Leeds for the following bit of shameless self-promotion. Much to my surprise, I'll be appearing as a guest tomorrow on Norman Lebrecht's BBC Radio program, Lebrecht Live, which is devoted to discussions of the issues surrounding the classical music industry. The show airs at 5.45pm GMT, which is 12.45pm on the East Coast of the US. In the UK, the show can be heard on BBC Radio 3, and those of you back stateside can listen to it live online at the BBC website.

    posted by sbergman @ 11:49 am | Permanent link
Friday, February 20, 2004
    Post-Game Wrap: Stuttgart

    Thursday, February 19
    Liederhalle, Stuttgart
    Joshua Bell, violin


    The Program:
    KERNIS Musica Celestis
    TCHAIKOVSKY Violin Concerto
    PROKOFIEV: Romeo & Juliet
    Encores: Prokofiev, Massenet, Vänskä

    We really are on a roll now, it seems. The Stuttgart concert, which could easily have been mailed in, given the exhausted state of most of the orchestra, went off beautifully, at least as nearly as we could tell from the stage, and with several highly complimentary reviews now cluttering our message board backstage, everyone is feeling as if some of the initial pressure of this tour has been lifted from our shoulders. We have yet to see a bad review, or even a lukewarm one, and when you're playing different halls with unfamiliar audiences each night, positive feedback can be powerful stuff.

    Our 30-minute touch-up rehearsals, which are held each night an hour before showtime, are also becoming markedly less stressful and more productive. Orchestras on tour rarely have the time or energy for full rehearsals, and since we're performing more or less the same repertoire every night for three weeks, 2-hour work sessions could actually be counterproductive and energy-sapping. So the touch-ups are mainly a chance for us to run over a few select spots that might not have gone well the night before, and sometimes to test out new ideas concerning how certain passages ought to be played.

    When the tour started, we had a couple of 90-minute rehearsals on the repertoire which we hadn't seen terribly recently, and both of those sessions were fairly intense and even combative, as everyone struggled to get reacquainted with a huge sheaf of music in only a couple of days time. But now, two weeks in, we've fallen into a comfortable rhythm in the touch-ups, with Osmo controlling the action for about 2/3 of the time, and various principals and even the occasional section player making requests for the last 1/3.

    We've all settled down a bit from the early concerts, but I see the most noticable change in Osmo himself. It rarely occurs to musicians that conductors must feel the same pressures that we do, and in considerably greater measure. But if the expectations were high for this orchestra on this tour, they were stratospheric for Osmo, who is being asked to prove his reputation on a global stage with an American orchestra, in the very first year of his tenure with us. Now, Osmo is not the type of conductor who buckles in the face of pressure, and he's been more or less rock solid on the podium throughout the trip. But where his demeanor in the early rehearsals was fairly stern and even a bit domineering, we now see him cracking jokes and trading quips with the musicians during the evening touch-ups. Last night, when principal cellist Tony Ross sought to clarify a section of the Kernis which had been a bit of a mess in Düsseldorf, Osmo allowed that it had been his mistake, and said that he would do it better next time. Tony, not convinced that he understood what we should be looking for, mentioned that he thought he'd seen an extra beat the last time around. Osmo grinned widely, turned directly toward Tony, and loudly declared, "Yes! There was an extra beat. Thank you so much for pointing this out. And have I mentioned that your solo pizzicato last night was a bit loud?" The whole orchestra broke up laughing, and the offending passage went off without a hitch in the concert.

    We're now through our 5-city/5-concert/5-day stretch, and today we have a full day to ourselves in Stuttgart, before heading for the UK tomorrow morning. As Stuttgart is a fairly quiet town, most of us seem to be taking advantage of the opportunity to catch up on sleep, and some of us (yours truly included) are hauling out bottles of Woolite for some emergency laundering in our hotel sinks. (Seriously: do you own three weeks worth of underwear and socks? I didn't think so.) Hey, no one said orchestra life was all glamour and drunkenness...

    posted by sbergman @ 9:45 am | Permanent link
    More on the Jewish Composer Controversy

    I’ve been getting some feedback on Wednesday’s post concerning my reaction to seeing Aaron Kernis described in an Austrian newspaper as “the Jewish composer.” (By the way, I still don’t have a link to the story, but just for the sake of documentation, the name of the newspaper is Giessener Allgemeine Zeitung.) Most of the e-mail I got was of the “tsk, tsk, what a world we live in” variety, but I heard from a couple of people who felt that I took the description the wrong way, applying my own biases about Germans and Austrians to an innocuous media report. Paul Ledwon, an American cellist who lived in Germany for a number of years, put it best: “I'm inclined to think that people who don't know Germans and Austrians are more prejudiced than the people they disparage.  Granted, I only met educated people there, but they are more horrified by racism than most people in the states.”


    I don’t actually agree with this line of reasoning. While I believe that most Germans and Austrians are duly ashamed of the role their respective nations played in the Holocaust, there is very clear and persistent evidence that anti-Semitism is still a shockingly pervasive phenomenon here, much more so than it is in the U.S. Just to draw a quick parallel: I lived for a couple of years in Birmingham, Alabama, the site of some of the worst scenes of the black civil rights movement in America. Bull Connor’s fire hoses, the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, and Governor George Wallace’s “segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” speech all occurred in what is now known as the Magic City, and a starkly terrifying reminder of those times lives in the downtown civil rights district, where visitors can walk through an idyllic park past cast-iron sculptures of some of the unspeakable horrors inflicted on Southern blacks. Most educated Alabamians are appropriately ashamed of this aspect of their state’s history, and no one would even think of talking about a return to segregation. But the old divisions are still there in every aspect of Birmingham life, and you cannot go a day in the city without being forced to confront the racial divide that still exists and will exist for generations to come. Most of the racist slogans are in code now, and many of the issues are more complex than a basic argument over equal rights, but no one who’s ever lived in Alabama could deny that there is still a powerful undercurrent of racial hatred there, even if it lies dormant in most of the populace.


    It’s not a perfect comparison, of course, and I don’t mean to suggest that, just because the American south still has confederate flags everywhere, that Austrians must still want to kill masses of Jewish people. That’s not my point at all. But I think it’s dangerous to make excuses for a culture where one’s Jewishness is still the first thing that gets written about in a newspaper review of a work of classical music. To me, the way in which the paper covered the performance suggests an obsession with the racial subject that should absolutely set off alarm bells for anyone who knows the history of this part of the world. That’s just my opinion, and I’ll let the subject drop now, but I felt it was important enough to revisit. Music and musicians were deeply affected by the Holocaust (for a more in-depth portrait, read Martin Goldsmith’s excellent biography of his parents, The Inextinguishable Symphony,) and seeing that review made a lot of people in the orchestra, and not just Jewish ones, sit up and take notice.

    posted by sbergman @ 9:31 am | Permanent link
Thursday, February 19, 2004
    Not A Real Post-Game Wrap: Cologne

    Wednesday, February 18
    Kölner Philharmonie, Cologne
    Joshua Bell, violin


    The Program:
    KERNIS Color Wheel
    TCHAIKOVSKY Violin Concerto
    PROKOFIEV: Romeo & Juliet
    Encores: Prokofiev, Massenet


    Crazy days, my friends, crazy days. I don’t know where you are as you read this, or what you may be doing today, but I can guarantee that wherever you are and whatever you are doing isn’t as bizarre and wonderful as the things I’ve been doing.


    The halfway point of a tour is a dangerous thing. Usually, by this time, about a third of the orchestra is sick, another third is just exhausted, and the last third is getting its second wind. On this trip, it’s just our luck that the midway point happened to fall in the city of Cologne, just as the Rheinland’s legendary Karneval kicks off. Fortunately for all of us, our concert at the city’s beautiful (and not a little bit futuristic) Philharmonie occurred before the madness began, and for the record, it may have been our best concert of the tour so far. But I’ve spent a lot of time talking about concerts on this blog, and while that’s certainly the main reason we’re out here on the road, there’s more to touring, and Cologne is the perfect place to talk about the other side of the experience.


    The thing about Cologne is, it’s a beautiful and intoxicating city under any circumstances. It was my favorite stop on our last tour, and I’m sure it will be my favorite on this one as well. It’s a huge city that manages to feel like a small village whenever you need it to, but also contains all the amenities you would expect packed close within walking distance of wherever you happen to be. The cathedral that dominates the entire metropolis is an archaeological wonder as well as a convenient landmark, and as one of the few cities in Germany which wasn’t completely wiped off the map during World War II, it has a stunning and uniquely old-German look throughout.


    Karneval – it’s a pre-Lent festival, technically, basically a cross between Mardi Gras and Hallowe’en, only with less nudity (it’s cold in February) and the candy replaced with bratwursts, schnapps, and beer - officially kicked off this morning, as we were due to leave Cologne for Stuttgart. Realizing this, several orchestra members decided to forego the planned four-hour bus ride for a later trip on one of Germany’s famously efficient high-speed trains. With time to kill, I headed out into the teeming mass of costumed humanity with bass player Dave Williamson and principal violist Tom Turner, who is not only an excellent musician, but happens to be fluent in German as well. (My own German skills are more or less limited to the ability to order food, and even then, I often get hung up when confronted with questions about condiments.)


    Almost immediately, we were swept up in a wave of drunken revelers (this was at 11am, just or the record,) and carried past the cathedral and down one of the main pedestrian malls of Cologne. Midtown Manhattan on a prime shopping day has never been this choked with people, and even New Orleans would be hard-put to match the sheer size and scope of the Karneval crowd. Nearly every group of partiers we passed was dressed to match each other: a gaggle of New York and Chicago “policemen” streamed past a troupe of women wearing clown suits and fright wigs, and six men wearing fake buttocks jostled briefly with a devil and five other men dressed as glasses of beer. Many of the revelers (especially the men) wore “Schapps belts,” which could hold a couple of dozen tiny bottles of variously flavored alcohol. Music was everywhere, blasting from loudspeakers as well as from the throats of the people around us, with everything from German pop songs to old folk tunes to a bizarre German version of “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain” audible within a single block.


    Keep in mind, this is a party that had begun only three hours before, and was scheduled to run for five days. It would have been an almost frightening level of chaos if not for the extreme good behavior of every single person we saw. Even in the midst of all the drunkenness and hysteria, we passed perfectly orderly (if unusually festive) lines of people waiting to get into some of the city’s more exclusive dance clubs, and when a line of real police officers (identifiable by the lack of beer in their hands) needed to make their way up a packed street, the crowd parted (slightly) to allow them through. There was one slightly scary moment, when we came upon a man in a sailor suit so staggeringly drunk as to appear to be on the verge of alcohol poisoning, but after watching for a moment or so, we realized that he was only playing the part of an excessive drinker, so as to give his friends, who were dressed as doctors and paramedics, a prop with which to work. (The fact that he was drinking excessively while playing this part was a particularly delicious irony.)


    There is, I think, a perception on the part of some observers that an orchestra on tour is basically a very expensive summer camp for adults, with concerts squeezed in around a heavy schedule of socializing and partying. This perception is wrong – in fact, we barely have time to see most of the cities we visit, between traveling, rehearsing, and performing – but as musicians, even classical ones, we do love a good party, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least give you a taste of what we do with our down time. Touring is frequently a running battle between your own fatigue and your desire to make the most of the trip, and to tell the truth, I got only three hours sleep last night, so you could make an argument that I had no business spending the morning and part of the afternoon at Karneval, especially seeing as we have another concert to play tonight, but you know what? There are times when caution and logic are just not applicable, and Karneval is clearly one of them. Sleep is for the weak.
    posted by sbergman @ 9:29 am | Permanent link
Wednesday, February 18, 2004
    Post-Game Wrap: Düsseldorf

    Tuesday, February 17
    Tonhalle, Düsseldorf
    Joshua Bell, violin

    The Program:
    KERNIS Musica Celestis
    TCHAIKOVSKY Violin Concerto
    BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 4
    Encore: Heitzeg

    Just as you can never tell when an orchestra will suddenly, for no good reason, have a collective off night, you can also never be sure of when an unexpectedly good performance will hit you between the eyes. If you'd asked me, before yesterday's concert in Düsseldorf, whether we had even a chance at a successful night, I would have laughed. There seemed to be so many elements stacked against us, and yet, for whatever reason, we rose to the occasion.

    The first element in Düsseldorf is always the concert hall. The Tonhalle is quite striking, visually, with an all-wood design, a conical ceiling that gives the whole room something of an observatory look, and every seat located quite close to the stage. However, this is probably the dryest hall we will play on the tour, and everyone in the orchestra remembers it from previous trips. Sound seems to die six feet in front of the stage in Düsseldorf, and the loudest, most resonant chord can dissipate so quickly that you feel as if you're performing in an airlock.

    Another complicating factor of this performance, which I mentioned yesterday, was travel fatigue. We spent four hours getting from Berlin to our hotel in Cologne, and then almost immediately hopped on a bus for Düsseldorf, with no rehearsal scheduled before the show. It's not an overwhelming amount of travel for one day, but when you've already been on the road for over a week, it's difficult to gather the energy for a concert after 5-1/2 hours of sitting on your butt in various conveyances.

    On top of that, this was the first time we would play Musica Celestis on the tour, and we had rehearsed it for a grand total of 25 minutes - 15 minutes three weeks ago in Minneapolis, and 10 more on Monday night in Berlin. It's not a wildly difficult piece, but it's not easy either, scored for strings alone and featuring complex bow techniques and awkward unison passagework. Frankly, I expected it to be a disaster. Add in the more conventional difficulty of the Beethoven, and I was quite worried that this could turn out to be a "throwaway" concert: the type of performance where you chalk it up in the loss column early on, and start looking ahead to the next show.

    But it didn't happen that way. Instead of being a mess, the Kernis, for the most part, was tender and light, showcasing Osmo's trademark dynamic extremes far more effectively than  had anticipated. At the end of the piece, Tom Turner played through a terrifyingly soft and exposed viola solo as if it were the easiest thing in the world, and the whole enterprise sighed its way to a flickering conclusion. As the applause began, I heard one of the other section violists turn to his stand partner and say "This is gonna be a good night."

    After Josh Bell had whipped the crowd into the usual frenzy, the Beethoven seemed almost anticlimactic, but we plowed through it with abandon, and a pleasant side effect of a dry hall - the ability to hear accurately from most points on the stage - came into play. Ever since we began rehearsing this symphony a month ago, Osmo has been flogging us to stop trying to listen to everything, and just feel the pulse of the music. This is a very difficult thing for most classical musicians, who have been taught to respect melody above rhythm, but in Düsseldorf, I felt like we finally got it. Phrases turned and twirled effortlessly, and even the furious last movement felt lighter and easier than I remembered. The audience, while decidedly stoic, seemed to very much enjoy the show, and I even saw a few of the more observant concertgoers allow themselves a smirk in the first movement, when Osmo leaned into the viola section and indicated for us to hammer away at top volume on a tricky little bit of counterpoint.

    There are certain stops on any tour where you expect to enjoy yourself. But when you have a good night at a concert in which you were fully expecting to be merely going through the motions, it's awfully rejuvenating. Today, back in Cologne, we have the day to ourselves, free to explore the city, which is in the midst of the annual Carneval celebration, until tonight's concert. I intend to make the most of it...

    posted by sbergman @ 3:46 am | Permanent link
    Quick Hits...

    Two quick items of note:

    • Chrys Wu has responded in record time to my request for a translation of the Russian word dostayava, and the minute I read it, I realized that I should have been able to get this one on my own. The word means "enough," which Chrys speculated would be an appropriate thing to call out after a long plane flight. However, I see to remember John Tartaglia once telling me that he came up with the cheer after being forced to play Tchaik 4 endlessly on some tour, and this makes me think that the "enough" probably refers primarily to the music, and secondarily to the travel. In any case, many thanks to Chrys, and I promise that I'll stop blogging about this silly cheer now.
    • The reviews are starting to roll in from our Vienna and Frankfurt performances, and so far, everything has been very complimentary. (You can find a link to the London Telegraph's review of the Musikverein shows in the What They're Saying section on the right-hand sidebar, and if you happen to read German, which I don't, you can see a review of the Frankfurt concert here.) However, a review translated by our tour staff from a regional Austrian paper, while full of praise for the orchestra, contained a description of composer Aaron Kernis that immediately sent up red flags. (I don't have a link to this story at the moment, but I'm working to find one.) In discussing our performance of Color Wheel, the critic described Aaron not as "the well-known composer," or "the American composer," or even "the native of Philadelphia," but as "the Jewish composer Aaron Jay Kernis." Now, personally, I didn't know that Aaron was Jewish, and I have no idea of how devout he may or may not be. For all I know, his entire personal identity may be wrapped up in that singular fact about his life. But the point is, I don't know whether this is true, and neither does the critic who described him thusly. Perhaps I'm simply missing an important element of Austrian literary culture, but given the country's reputation and recent history, I don't think I am. Despite the sound of my name, I'm not Jewish myself, but reading that descriptor gave me a quick chill, nonetheless.
    posted by sbergman @ 3:17 am | Permanent link
Tuesday, February 17, 2004
    Pointless Errata

    I am reliably informed by Dave Kamminga, who would know, that I misquoted the lyrics to the Official Minnesota Orchestra Airplane Cheer in my previous post on the subject. I am inclined to believe him, despite his known tendency to make things up. The correct lyrics (still sung to the first phrase of the second theme of the finale of Tchaik 4) are as follows: "La-bee-da-bee-da, dostayava (Hey!)"

    Despite having studied Russian for four years in high school, I have no earthly idea what dostayava means, nor am I likely to devote a great deal of time to finding out. If anyone out there knows, drop me a line.

    Oh, and to the class at San Diego State which wanted to know whether they could borrow the cheer for their trip to Guthenburg: you have Dave's blessing.

    posted by sbergman @ 5:49 pm | Permanent link
    Post-Game Wrap: Berlin

    Monday, February 16
    Philharmonie, Berlin
    Joshua Bell, violin

    The Program:

    STRAVINSKY Symphonies of Wind Instruments

    TCHAIKOVSKY Violin Concerto

    PROKOFIEV Suite from Romeo & Juliet

    Encores: Prokofiev, Massenet


    It's possible, I suppose, that I could be convinced that the Philharmonie is not the greatest concert hall on the face of the Earth. But I doubt it. This is a 2,200-seat hall that looks, feels, and plays like an 800-seat recital theater, and for those not familiar with the science of acoustics, that is a very good thing. The trouble with most large-scale concert halls, even the great ones, is that you're trying to fill a very large space with sound, without amplification and without compromising the quality of that sound for anyone. On top of that, you need to be sure that the musicians can hear each other on stage, that the sound of an audience member's cough will not echo like a gunshot, and that you don't mistake volume for quality. Designing such a hall is a thankless task, and there are precious few that actually manage to achieve something approaching perfection. Berlin's Philharmonie is the best of them.


    Indulge me in a brief physical description of the place. Like many European halls, the stage is at the bottom of a large bowl, with the seats sloping up and away from the performers in all directions. Directly above the stage are several movable panels suspended from the ceiling, which act as sound reflectors and insure that even the ticket-buyers in the cheap seats get a fantastic mix of music. Nearly 1/3 of the seats in the hall are actually behind the orchestra, and conductors and soloists must remember to acknowledge this section of the crowd when they perform here. The overall feel of the Philharmonie is exceedingly cozy, even onstage, where the orchestra sits on mechanically operated risers which can rise and fall to meet the needs of whatever ensemble is using them. This feature, among other benefits, means that even those of us in the very back of the lower string sections can hear the individual sounds being produced by players nearly 50 feet away from us on the other side of the stage. It is, in other words, heaven.


    That having been said, there was an anxious moment early on in the performance. The Tchaikovsky concerto begins with a low, sweet melody in the first violins, answered by pulsing chords in the lower strings, eventually moving into a slowly intensifying passage driven by rhythmic eighth notes in the cellos and basses. This is not difficult music, nor is it loud or physically demanding, so it is not a place where you expect any sort of mishap. But this is exactly the type of spot where the musical gods like to intervene, and so, last night, as our principal cellist, Tony Ross, began to lead his section into the rhythmic drama, his C-string decided it had had enough of this tour, and snapped.


    When this sort of thing happens to a soloist, the concert usually halts for a moment, and the instrument is handed back through the orchestra for restringing offstage, and the soloist will usually continue with an instrument borrowed from a member of the accompanying band. The violinist Midori once famously broke several strings in a single performance, and managed to swap fiddles with both the concertmaster and associate concertmaster of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, eventually receiving her own restrung violin back, all without stopping the show or (reportedly) missing a note.


    But when a member of the orchestra breaks a string, the show must go on, even when the broken string belongs to a principal player and key ensemble leader. Usually, the player remains on stage, and either plays as much as possible on three strings, or quietly restrings the instrument (if a replacement is immediately available onstage) and jumps back into the fray. But unfortunately for Tony, the Tchaikovsky is also filled with long, soft passages in which only the solo violin is playing, and the sight and sound of a cellist cranking his pegs and tossing bits of wire around the stage would have been distracting, to say the least. The piece is also filled with notes that can only be played on the C-string, making the 3-string faking option unrealistic. Tony handled it as best he could, making a brief attempt to unwind the string, and then turning to oh-so-carefully swap instruments with the player behind him. But no one on the stage was carrying a C-string on them, so at the end of the first movement, the section player holding the C-less cello hurried offstage to restring it, and the rest of the section shifted quietly forward to fill the gap. It sounds like a lot of activity, but in fact, it was handled so quietly and professionally that Josh Bell, standing less than ten feet from Tony's chair, didn't even notice that anything was amiss until the first movement had ended. This is far from a rare occurrence, of course, and orchestras handle such things similarly every day, but it's another of those little aspects of a performance which people wonder about, so I thought I'd share.


    I'm still adjusting to my new seat in the back of the section, so it was difficult for me to assess how the concert was going while we were playing. I can say that there was a definite energy that we may have lacked in Frankfurt, for one reason or another, and that the viola section solo that we've been struggling with since way back at Carnegie Hall was spot-on. I can also say that, at the end of the evening, we were treated to one of the more enthusiastic reactions we've had from an audience on this tour. Berliners, for some reason, always seem much less jaded and aloof than concertgoers in other musical centers, and we heard a few whoops and whistles amidst the applause, which swelled noticably each time Osmo took the stage for another curtain call. Since we've still yet to see any newspaper reviews from Vienna or Frankfurt, the audience is our only independent gauge of how things are going, and Berlin has given us a definite lift.


    We're more or less at the midway point of the tour now, and fatigue is starting to become the rule rather than the exception. Today, we'll fly from Berlin to Cologne, hop a bus to Düsseldorf, play a concert, and head back to the hotel in Cologne. It's one of the most exhausting days of the trip, and we're changing up repertoire as well, including the addition of a piece (Aaron Kernis's Musica Celestis) which we have barely rehearsed, and which involves some brutally intricate string playing. Keeping a cool head will be paramount, and if things don't go well, a sense of perspective will be necessary as well.


    All of which is just to say that the next blog entry may be a bit late. Hang with me - I'll get something up as soon as I'm awake enough to type...

    posted by sbergman @ 3:08 am | Permanent link
Monday, February 16, 2004
    We Are Strange People...

    It occurred to me this morning, during our flight from Frankfurt to Berlin, that I hadn't yet spent any time on this blog discussing the bizarre and wonderful traditions our orchestra has developed for touring over the years. Every orchestra has its quirks and oddities - back when I was with the Alabama Symphony, I distinctly remember regular tour gatherings at 2am for cheap wine and hot Krispy Kremes, for instance - but some of the things the Minnesota Orchestra has become used to are decidedly strange, even by the standards of professional musicians.

    Let's take plane flights as our example for the day, seeing as we're taking quite a few of them this week. Some time in the distant past, a violist named John Tartaglia may or may not have been the one to start a tradition of an orchestra cheer upon the landing of a tour flight. This is no ordinary cheer, either: the moment the wheels of the plane touch the tarmac, whoever is leading the cheer (with Tartaglia now retired, the duties usually fall to our fourth horn player, Dave Kamminga) cries out a series of nonsense syllables set to the first line of an old Russian folk tune. (The tune is actually the same one Tchaikovsky used for the second theme of the finale to his 4th symphony.) In Dave's hands, the nonsense syllables sound like "Lah-ba-da-ba-dah do svyedanya," and the entire orchestra immediately responds with a lusty "Hey!" It's ridiculous, of course, but it's fun, too, and it breaks the monotony of the constant flights.

    Now, this exercise would be all well and good if the orchestra traveled only by charter on our tours. But the fact is, most of our flights are commercial, and there are therefore usually a fair number of non-orchestra personnel on board. To describe the reaction of these lay-flyers to one hundred voices shouting "Hey!" as startled is a vast understatement. In fact, I was once sitting next to a sweet old English gentlemen who seemed to think that we were about to hijack the plane. So, y'know, that's all sort of an added bonus of the cheer.

    It's also worth pointing out that many children of orchestra musicians do their first major traveling in the course of accompanying their parent(s) on one of our tours, and so they all know the cheer as well. In fact, the daughter of our principal and assistant principal cellist came on several tours before ever flying on a non-tour-related plane, and was stunned to discover that people on normal plane flights do not sing Russian folk songs and shout lustily when they land. We in the orchestra consider this fact to be a major child-rearing accomplishment.

    posted by sbergman @ 7:46 am | Permanent link
    Post-Game Wrap: Frankfurt

    Sunday, February 15

    Alte Oper, Frankfurt

    Joshua Bell, violin


    The Program:

    STRAVINSKY Symphonies of Wind Instruments

    TCHAIKOVSKY Violin Concerto

    PROKOFIEV Suite from Romeo & Juliet

    Encores: Prokofiev, Massenet


    When you’re only staying in a town for 18 hours, it’s hard to get much of a grip on the local situation in the best of circumstances. When things start going wrong on such a quick stopover, nerves start to fray and the fatigue of the overall tour can catch up with you fairly quickly. It can also make for some awfully fun tour stories.


    Frankfurt is a strange city, by European standards. Wildly modern, full of towering skyscrapers and impatient businessmen, it looks, in fact, more like an American city than anything I’m used to seeing in Germany. The streets are uncommonly wide (about the size of those in downtown Minneapolis, in fact,) and like so many mid-sized American metropolises, the downtown area appears to be completely abandoned once the working day is over. We arrived on a Sunday afternoon, and were immediately informed by a woman named Angelique, who was riding on our bus from the airport to the hotel for no apparent reason, that “everything in Frankfurt is closed on Sunday.” This fact did not stop her from regaling us with an extensive description of all of Frankfurt’s many attractions over the bus’s PA system, however. Angelique was quite enthusiastic about Frankfurt, and would become visibly excited while describing, say, the view from the observation deck of the Mains Tower, only to conclude with a wistful, “Of course, this is closed on Sunday. But perhaps you can visit it the next time you are here.”


    Our hotel, located practically across the street from the Alte Oper, was breathtaking. Newly built and clearly designed to appeal to American tourists, it features brightly colored pop art on the walls of the California fusion-style restaurant, rooms which look out onto a beautiful park, as well as onto the cavernous lobby, and elevators made entirely of glass. As I type this entry, I am sitting in the lobby, enjoying the gentle bubbling of a marble fountain beside me, with the branches of a lovely copper-sculpted tree stretching out above my head. We were all duly impressed upon our arrival, and Angelique assured us that we would be very happy at this hotel, which was a good thing, since it was the only thing in Frankfurt which does not close on Sundays.


    Unfortunately, new hotels being what they are, there are bound to be a few bugs yet to be worked out. For one, those beautiful glass elevators turned out not to be what you would call fully functional. In fact, of the three elevators available to us, no more than one worked at any given time, and that one would routinely go racing past us as we stood helplessly on our respective floors, punching furiously at the “down” button. Now, for all I know, this is perfectly ordinary elevator behavior: after all, since you can’t usually see the inner workings of the apparatus, the cars could be doing any number of things in those shafts that we aren’t aware of. In fact, I’m willing to go so far as to concede that there might be a perfectly good reason for an empty elevator on its way from the 4th floor to the lobby to fail to stop on the 3rd floor. But when you’re consistently waiting ten minutes or more for an elevator to pick you up and move you 40 feet downwards, you quickly become profoundly uninterested in the algorithms involved in elevator prioritization.


    Another interesting monkey wrench in the system emerged shortly after we arrived, when approximately 50% of the orchestra discovered that the card-keys to our rooms didn’t work. This is a minor problem of course, easily corrected by taking the elevator back to the lobby and… oh. Stupid elevators.


    As I mentioned, everything in Frankfurt is closed on Sundays, or so we had been repeatedly told, and so, with only a couple of hours of lag time between check-in and the concert, most of the orchestra chose to eat at the hotel restaurant, which, as I mentioned, is lovely. Unfortunately, it was also closed when many of us arrived. Not that anyone working there felt the need to divulge this information, of course. In fact, we were all very courteously seated, brought baskets of bread and bottles of mineral water, and handed colorful menus full of the type of mixed-metaphor dishes favored by Californians in the early ‘90s, New Yorkers in the late ‘90s, and Bobby Flay. This was all fine, and everyone placed their orders, and sat back to wait. And wait. And wait. About 45 minutes later, it became clear that the restaurant had only just this minute opened, and the chef had just this second arrived. By this time, we had only slightly more than forty minutes before we were due across the street for a rehearsal. But no matter: the food eventually arrived, and was good, in that weird California fusion way, and most of us didn’t get lost in the park on our frantic dash to the Alte Oper after we finished eating. (It’s also worth mentioning that, as it turns out, everything in Frankfurt is not closed on Sundays, and those of our tour party smart enough to venture out of the hotel in search of food did much better than those of us who had believed Angelique.)


    Things didn’t get any less strange at the concert. The Alte Oper is a huge concert hall, with thousands of seats receding back from the stage, seemingly all the way to the horizon, and a ceiling that must be fifty feet high, at least. In a hall like this, you naturally expect an echo chamber, with sound bouncing off of every conceivable flat surface, but in fact, this one was as dry as a bone. Coming from the Musikverein, which is going to make an unflattering comparison for almost any other performance space, it felt like each section of the orchestra was playing in a separate soundproofed closet.


    Adding to my own acoustical confusion was the fact that I had moved back three stands in the viola section since our last concert. Like most American orchestras, our non-titled strings (this means everyone but the principals, associate principals, etc.) participate in a system of revolving seating, wherein we rotate every couple of weeks so as to ensure that no one is stuck for their entire career in a cramped chair at the back of the section, with no ability to hear what’s going on at the front. In our section, this means that a section violist will sit everywhere from fourth chair to eleventh over the course of the season. It’s a good system, but when we go on tour, there is obviously no way to reasonably continue revolving, so we are fixed for the duration in whatever chairs we were in when we started playing the tour repertoire. For this tour, I was to be fixed in the 9th chair (the outside chair of the fifth stand,) but when our principal, Tom Turner, had a family emergency and had to miss the first week of the trip, I was vaulted up to third chair in order to fill in the gap. This was fine with me, since you can hear nearly the whole orchestra from the third chair, but when Tom returned to us last night in Frankfurt, I was sent back to the fifth stand, which is something like being moved from first base to left field and then being asked to call the balls and strikes.


    To anyone who has never spent time playing in an orchestra, this probably sounds strange. After all, the second and fifth stands of violas are no more than 15 feet apart on the stage, and with the stands so tightly grouped, you might expect the sound to be generally the same throughout the section. It isn’t. In fact, the best way to describe the audible difference between what I heard on Friday night and what I heard on Sunday is to give you an exercise to do. If you have a really good stereo, put on a recording of a Beethoven symphony (or whatever) and listen to it for a few minutes, standing just off to the left of the left speaker. Done that? Good. Now, play the same recording again, but this time, make the following adjustments:


    1. Stand behind the speakers.
    2. Move the subwoofer behind you. (This is the bass section, directly over your shoulder.)
    3. Get a friend to stand ten feet behind you and off to your right, and have this friend play some loud trumpet solos while the symphony is playing.


    That should give you a basic idea. And now you also likely have an understanding of why one might not want to spend one’s entire career in that particular chair. More importantly, you probably have a better understanding of why orchestras sometimes don’t sound together, even when you in the audience can hear quite clearly that they’re not together, and have begun to wonder why they aren’t fixing it. The answer is, they probably can’t hear it. This is why we have a conductor, of course, but with 100 players on stage, each with a unique sound in her/his ear, it’s easy for things to get weird, particularly in a dry hall. I’m not complaining, understand – I’ve known since the age of seven that it’s hard to hear things in an orchestra, and I chose to make my career in one anyway – but it occurred to me last night that the average concertgoer (and probably many critics, as well) are completely unaware of such nuances.


    In any case, we’re off to Berlin this morning, which should make for yet another major shift in sound quality, since the Philharmonie is one of the most spectacular halls ever built. We’re also playing the same program for a second night in a row, which doesn’t happen often on tour, and is always a welcome relief. And I can’t be sure, of course, but I have it on fairly good authority that the elevators in our Berlin hotel are quite efficient, and that many things in the city are open on Mondays.

    posted by sbergman @ 3:38 am | Permanent link
Sunday, February 15, 2004
    You Mean People Are Reading This?

    I've just got time for a quick entry, as I wait for the bus to take us to the Vienna airport, and I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge all of the great response I've been getting since this blog went live a week ago. When Doug McLennan, ArtsJournal's managing editor and my boss for the last three years, first proposed the idea of a tour blog to me, I thought it sounded like fun, but I had no concept of just how many influential people would wind up reading it. I've heard from critics, musicians, and orchestra managers around the world, and most of them have been quite complimentary. I've also heard from old friends, relatives of various Minnesota Orchestra members, and general music fans just enjoying the vicarious ride. I even got a chance to meet one reader at Carnegie Hall, when she came up to the stage to say hello and swap stories of life in Minnesota.

    Many people have asked whether this blog will be continuing once the orchestra returns home, and I felt that I should clarify that point. The blog is purely temporary, for a couple of reasons. One is that I work as a news editor for ArtsJournal's front page, and I'm very happy in that position. I would hate for my integrity as an editor to be compromised by a simultaneous presence on what amounts to our online op-ed page. The other (and more significant) reason for ending the blog once we're all back stateside is that I happen to be the chair of our orchestra members' committee at the moment. This means that I am in charge of dealing with all contractual issues and conflicts between musicians and management which arise at any given time, and that I am frequently called upon to be the official spokesman for the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra. As such, I tend to be privy to a great deal of information which I would be in no position to share with a wider readership, and I would hate to find myself in a situation where I was not being honest with either my colleagues or my readers. On tour, there is very little committee work to be done, so it seemed safe enough to agree to a temporary gig, but it will indeed end there. I think it would be a wonderful idea for an orchestra musician to write a full-time blog about the business, but I am certain that I am not the musician who ought to be doing it at the moment.

    In any case, my profound thanks to everyone reading the blog, and espcially to anyone who's dropped me a line to express their appreciation, or to offer an opinion, or even just to correct my spelling. I hope you'll all stay with me for the next two weeks, and I promise to keep it interesting!

    posted by sbergman @ 2:35 am | 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:

Search RT


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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