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 28, 2004
When I began writing this blog, I had no idea that it would garner the attention it did, and I am deeply indebted to many people for making it a success. Among the countless folks who deserve a thank-you are the following:
- ArtsJournal's managing editor, Doug McLennan, conceived the idea for Road Trip and gave me free rein to do whatever I wanted with it. Doug has been my boss on the editorial side of this site for more than three years, and I couldn't ask for a better one. He is responsible for all of ArtsJournal's success, and none of the excellent AJ Blogs would exist without his dedication and tireless work ethic. Doug went out of his way to call attention to this blog throughout the tour, and his efforts made it one of ArtsJournal's most widely read features. I can't thank him enough.
- The public relations staff of the Minnesota Orchestra did not even flinch when I told them I'd be writing a daily tour diary for the world to read. They never once asked to preview what I was writing, and in fact, embraced the blog as just one more way of getting the word out about the orchestra. In the tightly controlled, top-down world of press management, this was a huge leap of faith on their part, and I am indebted to Gwen Pappas, our director of public affairs, for her encouragement and willingness to let me go my own way. Many orchestras run their publicity departments the way the Soviet government ran Pravda, and for a musician (especially a noted loudmouth like myself) to have been let completely off the leash on this tour is a testament to the professionalism and courage of our staff.
- Phil Kennicott, of the Washington Post, called me in Glasgow to chat about the blog, and subsequently produced the most flattering article I could have imagined on the front page of yesterday's Style section. The daily site traffic for Road Trip doubled as a result. Chris Pasles of the Los Angeles Times also interviewed me by phone, and is preparing a piece on ArtsJournal's blogs for his paper.
- Norman Lebrecht, the infamous author of Who Killed Classical Music? and The Maestro Myth, virtually took me under his wing while the orchestra was in London, inviting me on his BBC radio program, offering me a byline in his paper, the London Evening Standard, and insisting on meeting in person to chat about the music world and my place in it. To be quite honest, being friendly with Norman Lebrecht is a great way to make enemies in the classical music world, since he makes his living pointing out what he views as the constant failings of the industry, but he treated me with nothing but respect, and I consider myself extremely fortunate to have made his acquaintance.
- Over the course of the tour, I received literally hundreds of e-mails from readers. Some were from fans of the orchestra back home in Minnesota, some were from colleagues from other orchestras, some were from Joshua Bell groupies, and some were from critics, arts managers, and other industry bigwigs with whom I'd never thought I'd be exchanging pleasantries. I did my best to respond to as many e-mails as possible, and I apologize if you sent one which never received a reply. The direct response to this blog was on a scale which I hadn't dreamed of, and it was a great thrill to begin my days with a raft of communiques telling me how much people were enjoying my writing. Thanks to everyone who wrote.
- Finally, my colleagues in the Minnesota Orchestra must come in for a huge share of gratitude. Once word got around about what I was doing with my laptop computer, it would have been all too easy for everyone to clam up around me, or end every sentence with "Now, that better not show up in your little diary!" But no one did, and in fact, I received nothing but encouragement, even on the one or two occasions when I wrote something which may have displeased someone in authority. I can't imagine having a more fun-loving and professional group of co-workers, and I thank them all for the chance to be a part of this orchestra, and for their willingness to put up with my publishing bits of their lives on a public web site.
To end things, a disclaimer: this blog was far from a complete picture of everything that occurred on the Minnesota Orchestra's 2004 tour. No workplace can survive having its internal politics plastered all over the web, and I deliberately left out any reference to any backstage arguments, onstage disagreements, or individual musical shortcomings which may or may not have occurred over the course of the trip. The idea of this blog was to be an informative look at a symphony orchestra's inner workings, but it was by no means an all-inclusive look. The fact that, even with a certain level of self-censorship, I still managed to make a few people angry reinforces my conviction that this blog needed to end with the conclusion of the tour. An orchestra is simply too big and unwieldy an organization for one internal person to have it under constant written scrutiny, and I have far too much respect for my colleagues both on- and off-stage to cast myself in the role of orchestra biographer on a continuing basis.
That having been said, I've had a blast writing Road Trip, and I couldn't be happier with the way it turned out. Thanks for reading, and hopefully, I'll see you all at Orchestra Hall someday...
Thursday, February 26, 2004
Post-Game Wrap: Lahti
Thursday, February 26
Joshua Bell, violin
KERNIS Color Wheel
TCHAIKOVSKY Violin Concerto
PROKOFIEV Suite from Romeo & Juliet
Encores: Prokofiev, Heitzeg, Moskowski, Massenet, Vänskä
There are those who would say that it’s foolhardy to schedule back-to-back concerts in Scotland and Finland, that the odds of everything going right with the travel, the cargo, the instrument trunks, the time change, and the weather are just too slim. These cynics are unquestionably right, and we needed every ounce of good luck we could get today for this concert in Lahti to come off as planned.
We didn’t get many ounces. To begin with, our tour staff tried to streamline the travel process by negotiating with the airline to allow us to check in for our charter from Glasgow to Helsinki in the lobby of our hotel. Since we wouldn’t actually be going to our hotel in Finland until after the concert tonight, we filled in hotel registration cards at the same time. But the attempt to avoid lines at the airport with the early check-in was stymied when Glasgow turned out to have a less-than-efficient airport security apparatus, and it took forever to get all 130 members of the tour party through the checkpoint. By the time we actually boarded the plane, we were already 20 minutes behind schedule, on a day that had only a single hour of lag time built in.
The plane pulled out to taxi almost immediately, and I could almost hear our tour staff starting to breath sighs of relief, when suddenly, we turned around and headed back to the gate. The pilot explained cheerfully that we seemed to have a little fuel leak in the right engine, and he was just going to have engineering come and take a look at it. I’m sure we were all grateful for the precaution, but there were more than a few grumbles heard, since this was, in fact, the exact same charter plane that had carried much of the orchestra from Birmingham to Glasgow the day before, and on that flight, they had sat on the tarmac for an hour because one of the wings was loose.
Fortunately, there was nothing serious wrong in the engine, and within 15 minutes, we were taxiing again. I checked my watch: one hour behind schedule. Ten minutes later, we were in the air, and the pilot announced our flying time as two hours and thirty minutes, nearly a half hour less than originally scheduled. I have no idea how high this pilot flew our plane to catch the kind of tailwind necessary to shave a half-hour off of a 3-hour flight, but true to his word, we touched down in Helsinki only a half-hour behind schedule. We would need every minute of the made-up time, though, as the line at customs inched forward at a snail’s pace, and we straggled downstairs to the fleet of busses that would carry us the 110km to Lahti.
At this point, a number of problems were visible on the horizon. As I’ve mentioned before, I happen to be the current chair of our orchestra committee, which hashes through all legal, contract, and policy issues with our management, so all of these problems were of direct concern to me. The main problem was that it was now 5pm, and we had a touch-up rehearsal scheduled in Lahti at 6.30pm, but there was also a catered dinner waiting for us at the hall, for which each orchestra member had paid $22 in advance, because of there being no restaurants near the hall, and which, if we kept to the schedule, there would now be no time to eat. (To some people, who rarely eat before concerts, this wouldn’t have been a big deal, so long as we could get a refund on the meal, but for others, it seemed to make a lot more sense to cancel the rehearsal, since the repertoire was the same as last night, and actually seize the opportunity to take a breath and grab a bite before having to perform.) The second problem was that, with the plane having taken a while to unload, Osmo had departed on an earlier bus than I was on, and I had no way to ask him his plans. Meanwhile, several of my colleagues were wondering why I wasn’t yet asking anyone to cancel the rehearsal. The third problem was that delaying the concert, if it came to that, even by only 15 or 20 minutes, would be a major logistical difficulty, since Finland’s national radio network and Minnesota Public Radio would both be carrying it live. The third problem was that it was, by this time, snowing at a fairly good clip outside the Helsinki airport.
Our tour staff had begun working their cell phones from the busses, and before long, word came back to our bus that Osmo, who would know, was of the opinion that it would be only a 70-minute drive from Helsinki to Lahti, rather than the 90 minutes we had been quoted, and that, if we shortened the touch-up session to 15 minutes, we could have enough time to eat first, so long as we ate fast. This was good enough for me.
We rolled into the parking lot of the Sibeliustalo at 6.15pm on the nose. The hall staff were waiting for us outside in the snow, pointing the way into a large conference room just off the lobby, where a hot meal awaited us, complete with folded napkins, full place settings, and some of the best food any orchestra has ever eaten on tour. Most of the orchestra grabbed plates and loaded up, while the tour staff and percussion section made a beeline for the backstage, with less than half an hour to get the stage set for Color Wheel. Our advance crew had done yeomen’s work, rigging the entire building with the handwritten signs on pink index cards without which we would be lost in the catacombs of every new hall. By my watch, we were now again a full hour behind schedule, but no one was complaining. This wasn’t just any show. This would be the one concert that would define the entire tour forever in our memories, and the one show which would have a chance to make this trip a story we’d be talking about for years, rather than just another tour. No one wanted to ruin the chance of greatness by bitching about being hurried.
Nonetheless, as rehearsal time approached, I was tapped on the shoulder where I sat finishing my meal, and told that the percussion setup was simply not going to be done in time. Along with Richard Marshall, another violist and another member of our orchestra committee, I made my way to the stage, and checked in with our principal percussionist, Brian Mount, who was simultaneously carrying an armload of woodblocks up a flight of risers, shouting instructions to a colleague who was digging through a percussion trunk looking for God only knows what instrument, and trying to look at his watch. I showed him mine: 6.40pm, five minutes to go. He shook his head. “There’s just no way. I mean, we can get it set, maybe, but for the Kernis, we need time to warm up. Is there any way we can kill this rehearsal? It’s only 15 minutes anyway, and the warmup time might be more productive.” I promised to check with Osmo, and Richard and I crashed off in what we hoped was the direction of our conductor’s dressing room.
We found Osmo dealing wth some last-minute press – local reporters had been everywhere since we pulled up – and explained the situation. He grimaced at the thought of canceling rehearsal, and pointed out that the radio networks needed to get the sound levels set in any case. I asked how long the house would be willing to hold the hall before opening it t the audience. Osmo said, “They will hold it.” We agreed on delaying the rehearsal until 6.55, but keeping to our 15-minute plan, and Richard and I split up to relay the news to as many of our colleagues as we could locate. By this time, much of the audience had arrived, and was milling around in the beautiful wood lobby, as the hall staff scrambled to adjust to our newly changed plans, and the radio personnel got ready to take their levels on the fly. In the Minnesota Public Radio booth, our broadcast host, Brian Newhouse, began working on a new opening script which would let the home audience in on some of the pre-concert scramble.
At 6.55, I slipped into my chair just as the tuning A sounded, the first time I had held my instrument since Glasgow, 20 hours earlier. Osmo raised his hand for quiet, and said simply, “Well. Welcome to Lahti.” The orchestra stamped and clapped its approval, and then got down to business. We double-checked a tempo in the Kernis, and quickly played through the most rhythmically troublesome section of the piece (which comprises a full six pages of music,) trying to focus, but still a bit dazed from the pace of the day. Osmo, sensing that what we needed most was a chance to play, did not nitpick, or even stop to make requests, but instead responded to glaring mistakes with a simple glance to ascertain whether the offender knew what had been wrong, and was unlikely to do it again. Eight minutes later, we closed the Kernis, and Josh Bell hustled to the front of the stage for a bit of touch-up work on the Tchaikovsky. We hadn’t been following well in the last movement, and we tried a few spots until Josh and Osmo were both as satisfied as they had the time to be.
Finally, Osmo pulled out the stack of encores, and called for quiet. This is a nightly ritual on tour – we’re carrying five encores, each tailored to compliment whatever the last piece on the program might be that night. Osmo calls out the encore selection just before the concert each night, usually with three potential pieces on the slate. Tonight, he called for all five, which was a gutsy move, because every one of us on the stage knew how badly he wanted to get to the last one. The last encore was a traditional Finnish polka which he had himself arranged just for this tour, and he had told us that, when we played it in Lahti, the audience would go out of their minds. So to put it at the end of a set of five was taking a rather large risk of not getting the chance to play it, even before his friendly hometown crowd.
Within minutes of the end of the rehearsal, the hall was packed to the rafters. The stage crew scurried around making last-minute adjustments, and I nearly ran flat into MPR’s broadcast engineer, Preston Smith, as he came onstage to move some mics a few crucial centimeters. The musicians who hadn’t yet changed into their formalwear dashed off to do so, and the rest of us took a few minutes to breathe, warm up, and affix the “Lahti” lapel pins which had been placed on our music stands to our concert clothes.
At 7.28pm, stagehand Dave McKoskey strode through the stage left wing, calling “Onstage, please, ladies and gentlemen! Bergman, you too.” I gave him a smirk, and took my place. Two minutes later, the red light flicked silently on in the broadcast booth at the back of the hall, and the little town of Lahti was live on international air. A minute or two later, our concertmaster, Jorja Fleezanis, made her way to the front of the stage, and then, after we had tuned, it was Osmo’s turn.
I’ll admit, I expected a bigger crowd reaction to his appearance. But Osmo is no showman, and this was an audience that had known him for 18 years. They applauded him respectfully and warmly, but there were no whoops or cheers. The applause ceased the moment he turned towards us, and with a vicious stab of the baton, Color Wheel was underway.
As I’ve said, the Kernis is not an easy way to begin a concert, either for an orchestra or an audience, but we were playing with a fire which I hadn’t seen since the first days of the tour, and the audience seemed to trust Osmo enough to come along for the ride. At the end of the first page of the piece, there is a ridiculously difficult passage pitting the two oboes against the trumpet in a rhythmic battle royal: it was handled with ease. Two pages later, the violas have a brief but rhythmically important section solo which sets the pulse for the next section of the piece, and I very nearly missed the cue when I made the mistake of looking ahead in my music. Just in time, I saw my principal’s head bob, and caught what I needed to play in time.
The piece dipped and rolled for 25 minutes before racing to a dead stop on a high glissando in the strings, by which time I could feel beads of sweat rolling down my cheeks. I have no idea whether the majority of the audience liked what they’d heard, but they seemed to recognize how hard it had been for us to play, and applauded warmly.
Next up was the Tchaikovsky, and Josh Bell seemed to have caught some of the excitement, as well. I would imagine that it would be very difficult to be a soloist in this position: you’ve been on the road, playing the same piece, for three weeks, and tonight, on the last night of the tour, you’ll be performing in a small snowy town after over five hours of travel. Furthermore, you are not a member of the orchestra, so you have none of the sentimental connections to this town shared by the others on stage. As a soloist, you are very much a hired gun, and you must create your own inspiration. There aren’t many musicians who can handle that aspect of the job well, but Josh was unfazed, kicking his energy into high gear from his first entrance, and keeping the audience enthralled. The Tchaikovsky has one of the most exciting and crowd-pleasing endings of any concerto in the repertoire, and when we ripped through the final chord, a chorus of cheers came up from the crowd.
On Josh's third curtain call, a bouquet of flowers followed him out from the wing. This had happened at nearly every tour stop, and we've all seen it a thousand times: a backstage worker, usually a attractive young lady, strides out to present the bouquet, and accepts a peck on the cheek from the soloist. Only in this case, the presenter was a man. Not just a man, but a large, burly gentleman with an aggressive-looking beard and the general air of a weightlifter. Josh, hearing the bouquet approaching, turned for the embrace, saw who he was about to lean into, and just managed to stifle a laugh. He accepted the bouquet graciously, then turned to the viola section to make a face at Richard Marshall, who was encouraging him to give the guy a kiss. Two curtain calls later, Josh played his encore from The Red Violin, which brought the house down anew.
Backstage for intermission, everyone seemed to be operating on fast-forward. Our crack personnel manager, Julie Haight, was dealing with a second violinist who was suffering from food poisoning from a hamburger she'd eaten before leaving Scotland; musicians were standing in clusters, talking excitedly about the acoustics of the hall, and the general chaos of the day; and principal cellist Tony Ross was running around whispering a secret plan into as many ears as he could find. As Tony turned to walk away from a group of violists he had been letting in on the plot, someone called out, "Wait! What key?" "Key of G," responded Tony. "So first note's a D, okay? Watch for my signal." Realizing that this plan was likely to cause consternation in the broadcast booth, I dashed off to find someone who could go tell Brian Newhouse what was up.
Back onstage, the Prokofiev sizzled. It wasn't our cleanest performance of the tour by a long shot, but whereas some of our recent shows had suffered slightly from the brutal fatigue we were all feeling, this performance had the air of a football team driving for the goal line with the clock down under two minutes. My back was screaming at me from three weeks of substandard chairs and constant travel, and others in the orchestra were surely feeling their own personal ailments as well, but on the final show of the run, there's nothing left to lose, and everyone was playing with their foot hard on the accelerator. The center section of Romeo & Juliet - where duels are fought, combatants are killed, and revenge is sworn - sounded, from my chair, like it was being performed in hell, with the brass lashing away at the star-cross'd lovers from behind, and the strings building their frantic scrubbing to a fever pitch, all at a tempo faster than any we'd ever attempted before.
When Osmo quietly closed his fist behind his chest to signal the final cutoff of "Juliet's Death," (the final movement in our suite,) I held my breath, waiting for the reaction. There was a full five seconds of silence, and then, the room erupted. The look on Osmo's face was one of pure pride, and he brought us to our feet with a flourish. We stood, looking out into the faces of the people whose conductor we had appropriated, and marveled at what had been accomplished in this little town. Twenty years before, Lahti had been a struggling timber town with a decent but small local orchestra playing in a run-down concert hall. Tonight, a major American orchestra stood in one of the world's great concert halls in that same town, stood where the members of the now-internationally-renowned Sinfonia Lahti stand every week, and not a single person on the stage would have wanted to be anywhere else.
After five curtain calls, we played our first encore, the Prokofiev March, which led to a renewed chorus of cheers. Two bows later, Osmo mounted the podium for the next encore, and then turned to address the crowd. First in Finnish, and then in English, he eloquently dedicated Steve Heitzeg's Wounded Field to the memory of our orchestra's beloved benefactor, Ken Dayton, without whom the Minnesota Orchestra would never have lasted the 101 seasons it has. Ken's widow, Judy, who is herself a power on our board, had flown to Finland for the concert, and I saw several musicians turn and catch her eye before we began the slow, soft melody of Steve's piece. The piece ends as it begins, with the violas resolving the last chord into a G major sigh, and the crowd waited a full ten seconds before breaking the silence.
By the time we began the Moskowski, our third encore, it seemed fairly clear that, while the audience was enjoying every minute, we weren't going to get through all five of our unannounced pieces. When the final pizzicatto of the Serenata sounded, and Osmo walked offstage, the applause was still loud, but then, someone backstage mistakenly brought the house lights up and the stage lights down, the universal signal for the audience to leave, and the clapping rapidly began to die out.
This was the moment when the Minnesota Orchestra did something which would have gotten us ripped to shreds by the press in, say, New York, but which not one of us will ever regret. Knowing how badly Osmo wanted to play the polka for his hometown crowd, we began stamping our feet, exhorting the audience to keep their applause going. The crowd was undoubtedly taken aback - an orchestra flogging the audience for another encore? - but they were agreeable sorts, and so Osmo took the stage once more, and we made short work of encore #4, the Massenet Aragonaise. This time, the applause swelled on its own, as the crowd had undoubtedly realized that there was something else to come, and in short order, Osmo reappeared, grinned mischievously at the orchestra, and pointed at principal oboe Basil Reeve, who played what sounds for all the world like a tuning A for the orchestra. The crowd murmured, and settled back into their seats. Osmo flipped his baton, and the strings began several bars of what sounds, actually, a lot like tuning - sawing away at open strings - before the first violins crept out of the mass of sound with a rising sixteenth-note line that builds to a climax, and then jumps downward into Osmo's polka.
The place went crazy. I kid you not. The audience roared with laughter, and immediately began enthusiastically clapping along in time. When we reached the difficult middle section, where the trumpets and strings must play the fast-moving melody, the crowd clapped faster, egging us on. And when we reached the last line of the piece, where the music stops dead, and the clarinet plays a soft cuckoo call before the orchestra buries him in a fortissimo resolution, the roomful of Finns hooted and cackled and cheered like nothing we'd ever heard. I must confess, I felt tears come to my eyes as Osmo brought us to our feet, and I was far from the only one. (One colleague later confessed that she had teared up several times during the encores, so moved was she by the excitement of both orchestra and audience.)
Osmo got one more bow, although we were out of encores, and this time, Tony Ross checked to be sure that the maestro wasn't looking at him, and then gave the signal he had told us all about at intermission. As one, the orchestra began to play an improvised version of "Happy Birthday," which caused Osmo to wheel around and stare, then laugh. Our music director would turn 51 at midnight, and being an orchestra that doesn't go in much for formality, we just had to let the world know. (This type of thing, which we've done before for our conuctor laureate, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, is not always popular in our front office, since the birthday song is copyrighted, and requires a royalty payment, especially when broadcast on radio, but no one's ever told us not to do it, so there you are.) The audience cheered the birthday boy one last time, and this time, on his way offstage, Osmo grabbed concertmaster Jorja Fleezanis's arm and led her off the stage, signalling that we were finally through for the evening.
This wrap-up has had quite a different tone than the majority of this blog, I realize, and as I reread what I've written, I fear that it sounds a bit over-the-top. Unfortunately, I couldn't have written it any other way. The fact is, orchestras don't often get the chance to really bring a tour to a rousing conclusion - the final concert is usually in just one more randomly selected city, and has little to distinguish it from all the others on the trip. Most tours end with a whimper, not a bang. In Lahti, we got the chance to end our trip on the highest of high notes, with a performance which probably meant more to Osmo than all the other concerts combined. The energy that was mustered for this show was something I've never seen in a professional orchestra, and to be a part of such an evening is too profound an experience to sum up in any sort of clinical style.
I said in my first post to this blog that expectations for this tour were screaming high. That sort of pressure can make for great results, but it rarely makes for a fun working environment. Somehow, though, on this tour, our orchestra stared down the expectations, and never lost our ability to enjoy ourselves onstage. That's a rare thing in this business, and I'm too proud to have been a part of it to bother with false modesty at this stage. Whether the sheaf of glowing reviews and breathless feature articles will translate into renewed success at home, I have no idea. Whether a successful tour can really vault an orchestra into the upper echelons of the critical rankings, I wouldn't presume to predict. But after three exhilirating weeks on the road, I can say one thing with absolute conviction:
I am a musician in the Minnesota Orchestra. And there is nothing in this world that I'd rather be.
Live Concert Alert!
Tonight's tour-ending concert is being broadcast live throughout Finland, and also throughout the Upper Midwest on the classical music stations of Minnesota Public Radio. (That's KSJN 99.5fm in the Twin Cities, and if you live outstate, or in Iowa, Wisconsin, the Michigan UP, or either Dakota, you can find your local affiliate here.) MPR will also webcast the concert through their site: you'll need the RealAudio player, and you can catch the webcast from anywhere in the world here.
Showtime is 7.30pm in Finland, so for you statesiders, tune in at 12.30pm Eastern/11.30am Central. The program is the same as Glasgow, below, and we're expecting a very special night. So tune in, if you've got a moment, and let me know your impressions of the concert, and how they stack up against what I've written.
Wednesday, February 25, 2004
The reviews of our London concert are out, and most are quite complimentary. The Times, in particular, seems to have us slated for big things in the near future. But the most interesting critical reaction to this particular show came from Andrew Clark, of the Financial Times, and Andrew Clements, of The Guardian. These are both reviewers for whom I have great respect, so I run this comparison only by way of pointing out once again the different ways in which two people can hear the same concert.
Speaking of the Beethoven which opened the evening, Clements wrote that the performance "bristled with energy and displayed a muscular, finely honed ensemble," adding that Osmo is "an exemplary Beethoven conductor; it's hard to think of anyone better at present." But Clark got nothing whatsoever out of the same performance: "[T]he sound had a dull uniformity, deprived of colour, sweetness, brilliance, bloom." (Clark also added a side shot at American orchestras in general, saying, in effect, that we're all technique and not a lot of musical soul.)
As for the Bartok in the concert's second half, the two Andrews again diverged in their assessment. Clark found the orchestra transformed from the Beethoven: "The woodwinds, this orchestra's glory, came into their own. A collective personality emerged - more refined, more eloquently expressive in the big tutti. Vänskä created the space for Bluebeard's rooms to make their individual impact, without compromising the cumulative shape of the whole or the dramatic presence of the soloists." Clements didn't hate the performance, but found it somewhat unsatisfying, noting that "this was a starkly dramatic account that could have benefited from a slightly weightier orchestral sound so that the great climaxes could flower more opulently."
There are musicians who would throw up their hands at such a pair of reviews, and swear never to pick up another newspaper, since there's clearly no pleasing these critics. Me, I love this kind of split decision, since it just proves what we've always known: music is not quantifiable in any sort of concrete sense, and a performance that might delight one listener could well infuriate another. Watching a couple of critics publish at cross purposes, like two competing weathermen with opposite forecasts, is just gravy...
Tuesday, February 24, 2004
Post-Game Wrap: Birmingham
Tuesday, February 24
Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Joshua Bell, violin
BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 4
TCHAIKOVSKY Violin Concerto
PROKOFIEV Suite from Romeo & Juliet
The bulletin board backstage at The House That Simon Rattle Built sports a clipping from The Guardian, from October of last year, detailing the now-infamous concert at which conductor Sakari Oramo, fed up with the excessive audience noise during the first half of the evening’s performance of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, stepped to the podium with a microphone in hand, and proceeded to castigate the crowd for its coughing, crinkling, dropping, and shifting. According the The Guardian, the rest of the performance went off in complete, pin-drop silence.
It must have been an awkward moment for the Birmingham concertgoers, who were only just getting used to Oramo’s presence, anyway. The talented Finn replaced Sir Simon Rattle at the helm of the CBSO with the orchestra already firmly established as one of the best in Britain, and standing in for a legend is no easy task, especially when that legend used his influence to secure funding for one of the finest concert halls in the world, a hall which you are now using to berate your customers. But any number of conductors and musicians have dreamed of actually seizing the opportunity to tell a noisy audience to pipe down, and most concertgoers are as annoyed by the din as the folks on stage, so Oramo’s outburst actually garnered him some applause, and the thanks of a grateful classical music world for reminding audiences everywhere that their cough drops do not have a part in any musical score.
That having been said, I cannot personally picture a badly behaved Birmingham crowd, because ours was exemplary last night. In fact, nearly everything about our Birmingham concert was an unadulterated pleasure, from the near-perfect acoustics of the aforementioned hall, to the smiles on the faces of the concertgoers close enough to see Osmo raise his eyebrows mischievously at a tricky turnaround in the Tchaikovsky, to the simple sense of achievement I felt when we were able to nail three different passages in the Beethoven which had never quite come together before.
If there was a downside to the night, it was that I was just barely awake enough to enjoy it. We’re in the home stretch now, and the constant travel is wearing far more heavily than it did a week ago. Add in the fact that my instrument is now well and truly out of adjustment from being hauled around two continents and various weather systems, and I can’t claim that last night was my personal best performance of the tour, what with all the adjustments I was trying to make to compensate for the fact that my relatively low-end Canadian viola has decided that it no longer wishes to sound F-sharps or G-naturals. But I played well enough to be able to enjoy myself, and though I clearly wasn’t the only one who was fatigued, the concert, our longest and most taxing of the tour, came off well.
It’s interesting to consider how each of our performances must sound to an audience which has no choice but to take the concert as a single event, rather than as one in a series. To those of us in the orchestra, every night is measured not on its own merits, but against what we’ve done on every previous night, as well as against the larger knowledge of what we’re capable of producing. This is why, when you compliment a musician on a concert, you frequently get a grimace and a deflection in return. It’s not that we don’t appreciate the sound that you hear – it’s just that we’re also hearing tiny errors that have been bugging us for weeks, and that have grown in our minds to represent all of our shortcomings, and it’s hard for us to believe that you can’t hear them from the audience, even though you usually can’t.
On a tour, the upshot of this divergence of viewpoints is that we can be completely exhausted during a performance, and from our point of view, we might sound it, but to the audience, which didn’t hear how much energy we had in New York and Vienna, there’s no sense that we’re lacking flair, so long as we maintain a certain level of competence and commitment to the sound. It’s something like a pitcher who starts a game with a full head of steam, then gradually winds down in the later innings. A good pitcher can be just as effective in the 7th, 8th, and 9th innings as he was in the first, but he’s probably not going to be throwing the dominating fastball he had in the early going, and with every pitch, he’ll need to reach a little deeper into his bag of tricks to keep fooling the batters. Tours are the same way: sheer energy and talent might get you through the first week or so, but as the end approaches, you need all your wits about you to keep things together.
Our wits go up against the audiences in Osmo’s two previous professional homes to end the tour, beginning tonight in Glasgow, Scotland. When I awoke this morning, in my Birmingham hotel room, I honestly didn’t know if I was going to have the energy to make it. But now, typing this entry on a high-speed train running north through the Scottish countryside, with a brilliant blue sky overhead and snow-covered mountains everywhere on the horizon, I feel like I could play anything demanded of me. And that’s a good thing, because tonight, Color Wheel returns to the program…
I've been getting tons of great response to the post below on American arts coverage in the age of condolidated media, and I'll try to get to some additional points soon. But I wanted to make one correction to the original post, after hearing from Claude Peck, the arts editor at the Minneapolis Star Tribune. I wrote that "the reviews of our concerts don’t even appear in the arts section most weeks, but are instead sandwiched into some back page of the metro news, wherever space can be found." Claude dropped me a line to point out that his paper has a special designated page for reviews, which happens to run in Metro, but that the page is always in the same place, and that it is anything but hidden.
He's absolutely right, and I actually wasn't thinking about his paper when I wrote the original line. I was referring to the St. Paul Pioneer Press's habit of sticking reviews in between weather forecast maps and half-page ads for lingerie sales. My apologies for unfairly implicating Mr. Peck.
Monday, February 23, 2004
Attention Must Be Paid. Sometimes. I Guess.
The media attention we’ve garnered on this trip has been truly astounding, and while my experience with these things is somewhat limited, I’m relatively sure that we’re receiving more coverage than would generally be considered normal for an American orchestra on tour. On one level, this is a wonderful thing for us, since attention is usually scant for American bands that fall outside the outdated “Big Five” orchestral ranking so beloved by American critics. But on another level, having press around to report on our every move is a very unfamiliar thing for most musicians, and many of us have been unsure of exactly how to react.
Some of the uncertainty probably stems from the relationship, or lack of one, that artists and musicians have with their local media in the U.S. To the extent that American newspapers bother to cover the arts at all, most are content to send a critic around to various events, when such events are convenient, and occasionally to run some piece of puffery which often seems to have been written straight out of an official press release from the subject of the piece. (Lest I offend the many fine American arts reporters whose work I regularly cull for the front page of ArtsJournal, I should stress that there are, of course, many exceptions to this rule, and many fine writers covering various cultural beats. But I think that few people in the journalism business would deny that the arts have been terribly devalued in the press in recent years, and most arts sections now sport cute little names like “Xpress” or “Scene,” which reflect their full embrace of all things pop, and their general disdain for any serious cultural discussion.)
The upshot of this dumbing down of the arts press is that most orchestra musicians have little to no contact with their local cultural reporters, and the vast majority could probably not pick the critic who reviews their concerts out of a police lineup. Only maybe half of musicians bother to read the reviews, anyway, since so often, most papers will spare only a few paragraphs for such elitist claptrap, and even a well-constructed column is always in danger of being brutalized for space by some overzealous editor who has to make room for the latest installment of the five-part series on Janet Jackson’s Super Boob.
In Minneapolis/St. Paul, the reviews of our concerts don’t even appear in the arts section most weeks, but are instead sandwiched into some back page of the metro news, wherever space can be found. One of our two local papers frequently runs reviews in the print editions which never manage to make it to their web site, and that same paper has faced so many budget cutbacks from its corporate parent that it can no longer afford a full-time music critic, and sends various freelancers to our shows, except for the weeks when, inexplicably, they don’t send anyone. Our alternative newsweekly, which I praised in my last entry, and which may just be the best paper of its type in the nation, doesn’t actually cover classical music at all, and has never, to my knowledge, published an article about either our ensemble or the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, which performs across the river.
So you can understand the confusion we’ve experienced on this tour, with reporters seemingly everywhere, and feature articles appearing almost daily in papers across Europe. Our public affairs office worked overtime getting ready for this tour, and a large part of the credit for the extra attention probably goes to them. (An example: A few weeks ago, we were told that the Barbican Centre had only managed to sell 400 tickets for our London show, which was a shock to everyone, since the Barbican had requested the specific program we were slated to perform, and Osmo is normally a guaranteed sellout there. Then, with a significant push from our PR folks, articles began appearing in various London papers talking up the significance of this tour, and when we took the stage at the Barbican, the place was nearly full.)
Osmo’s presence at the helm also ups the media ante, since everyone in Europe is decidedly eager to see what he can do with an American orchestra, after so much critical success with his ensembles in Finland and Scotland. I’ve noticed that many Europeans, particularly critics, tend to view American orchestras as lazy, overpaid beasts ruled with an iron fist by the musicians’ union, so they are partially curious to see if Osmo can overcome The System. Since there is no System, this is a damned silly reason to pay attention to a tour, but I’ve given up trying to explain the truth of how American orchestras function, even to Americans, so if the myth is getting people into the hall, I say more power to the myth.
Modesty aside, this blog seems to have garnered a fair amount of attention, as well, and I’ve been hearing from a great many journalists who are following the tour much more closely than they otherwise would have as a result of being able to get a daily update from the inside. This was completely unexpected by me, and frankly, I suspect that it may be making our PR people a bit nervous, since I have something of a reputation as an opinionated loudmouth within the orchestra. However, I don’t seem to have gotten myself into any actual trouble, as yet, so I’m thrilled if I’ve managed to play a small part in increasing the visibility of the orchestra.
The next step, of course, will be to try to keep the interest in our activities going after the high-profile tour has ended, and we’re settled back into our home base. As I mentioned, American critics, even the good ones, love to rank symphony orchestras, and as silly as such rankings are (since most critics don’t get to hear more than one or two orchestras on anything approaching a regular basis,) there is a great deal of hay to be made by cracking the top of such lists. The San Francisco Symphony is a notable example of an ensemble which used a combination of excellent playing and excellent PR in the 1990s to force their way into the front of the critical mind, and obviously, we’d love to be the next band to do it.
Dealing with the media is always a strange balancing act in this business, since many musicians believe that what we do is too serious and important for us to stoop to bowing and scraping at the journalistic altar. But as coverage of our particular art form continues to dwindle, it seems more important than ever to sell what we do to the public, and short of taking out insanely expensive ads on television, newspapers are still the best way to do that. When it comes right down to it, you can’t sell tickets if no one knows who you are and why they should care, so, as unfamiliar and uncomfortable as this new media crush has been for some of the musicians on this tour, it may yet serve us well in the long run.
Radio Free Minnesota
Back home, Minneapolis's excellent alternative newsweekly, City Pages, has published a story about a local radio station which, in an age when the medium is almost completely corporate-controlled and managed by focus group data, allows its DJs to pick their own music according to their own tastes, and to babble on about why exactly they like it. And here's the kicker: the station in question plays nothing but classical music.
I'm posting the link because I'm a longtime fan of Classical 89.3's style, programming, and staff, and it is the only public radio station to which I regularly contribute money. Around the U.S., classical radio has been increasingly relegated to off hours and overnights, and what little does get played is frequently "lite classics" and crossover junk. Station managers all tell the same story - listeners, they say, just don't care to hear full symphonies and complex song cycles in today's hectic world. But "Classical 89.3 keeps a silent bond with its listeners: Here is something I love. Here is why others have loved it. And here's why I hope you'll love it, too."
Sounds like a fairly decent mission statement for the whole classical music industry, doesn't it?
Sunday, February 22, 2004
Post-Game Wrap: London
Sunday, February 22
Barbican Centre, London
Ildiko Komlosi, mezzo-soprano
Michele Kalmandi, baritone
BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 4
BARTOK Duke Bluebeard's Castle
Encores: Heitzeg, Moskowski
Sometimes, you can feel the quiet power in a room before you even walk in, and last night was one of those nights. Before we even took the stage at the Barbican, we knew that the audience would contain nearly a dozen critics and arts writers, various luminaries from the London music scene, and countless friends and associates of our new British-born orchestra president, Tony Woodcock. All this for a concert featuring an hour-long piece which we hadn't played since Vienna.
The Barbican is a modern hall, full of sharp corners and straight lines, which translates into a sound which is tremendously crisp and clear to the audience, but which can be awfully dangerous for works like the Beethoven. The classic repertoire depends on precision and crisp reactions, and in a hall where sound bounces without being blown into a roar, an orchestra that isn't up to the task can be exposed quickly. The upside, of course, is that you don't wind up with a Beethoven symphony that sounds like a Strauss tone poem because of all the echo you might get in another hall, and knowing our music director, I suspect he prefers to have us performing in a hall where we are truly responsible for our own sound.
Subtleties of different concert halls are fascinating to me, mainly because, if we're doing our job, the people listening shouldn't notice that we're having to think about the acoustic. The audience is listening to the big picture, and we're working to create an understandable canvas, but the tiny muscle movements and mental adjustments required dictate that we must spend an inordinate amount of our time and effort on the seemingly insignificant details of our instruments and our surroundings. It's a bit like the paintings of George Seurat - huge, beautiful depictions of idyllic scenes, all created from tiny dots dabbed on the canvas one at a time. The artist obsesses over the dots, and considers each one carefully, but he does so in the hope that, if he does his job correctly, the people who view the finished painting will be only marginally aware that there are dots. The curse of being a musician instead of a painter, of course, is that we can't actually step back from the canvas to view the final product as the audience will view it. And so we wait, and hope that the ten critics in attendance last night saw something that looked to them like a finished work of art.
Post-Game Wrap: Leeds
Saturday, February 21
Town Hall, Leeds (UK)
Joshua Bell, violin
KERNIS Musica Celestis
TCHAIKOVSKY Violin Concerto
PROKOFIEV: Romeo & Juliet
Encores: Prokofiev, Massenet, Vänskä
On the back wall of the Leeds Town Hall, a motto is emblazoned, just at more or less exactly the point where you'd put a motto if you wanted the 9th chair violist to be able to have it in his sightline throughout the concert. The words read, "Industry overcomes all things." This is a hard statement with which to argue, and yet, after having spent an evening attempting to play an orchestral concert there with some degree of professionalism, I am prepared to submit that industry cannot, in fact, overcome Town Hall.
Before you begin to think me unduly harsh, allow me to qualify that statement. Leeds Town Hall is a beautiful building, and a fine architectural representation of its Yorkshire surroundings. The colors inside are bright but not too bright, the decorations are uplifting but civic-minded, and the whole place has a cozy, friendly, Northern English feel to it. Unfortunately, it is not a concert hall, and no amount of tinkering can change that fact. I have spent several hours now in an attempt to find the best way to describe the acoustic in Town Hall, and I have come to the conclusion that mere descriptors cannot do justice to its barnlike sound and echo-chamber bounce. Therefore, I will be resorting to metaphor. Take your pick of the following:
- Playing at Town Hall is like performing on the inside of a giant SuperBall.
- Playing at Town Hall is like performing inside of a whale whose inner cavity has been tiled with bathtubs.
- Playing at Town Hall is not unlike standing in the middle of a hurricane and attempting to gently reverse the direction of the wind by blowing through a straw.
It's a Big Loud Room, is what I'm saying here, and Big Loud Rooms (hereafter referred to as BLRs) are probably the hardest places for an orchestra to play, since we depend on our ability to hear each other to stay together. The overall sound of an orchestra playing in a BLR can actually be quite effective from the audience's point of view, since the acoustic can obscure some minor mishaps which might stick out in a drier space, but from the perspective of a single musician, it can be just terrifying. Throughout our performance in Leeds, I had the constant sensation of simultaneously not being able to hear anyone else in the string section, and feeling as if every bow I drew across the string sounded like a gunshot.
This is one of those situations that you have no choice but to play through, and we did, of course, but it's interesting to observe how different musicians handle the same situation. Faced with the prospect of creating a mountain of sound with very little effort, some players (mainly those sitting near the front of the stage) embrace the acoustical defect and make the most of it by playing with even more confidence than usual, and assuming that any inaccuracies that result from the inability to communicate across the stage will be masked by the reverberations. Others (mainly those of us whose seats are squirreled away in the back of our respective sections) take the opposite approach, cutting our sound way back, and trying to come as close to technical accuracy as possible using a combination of visual cues and mental subdivision of the beats. In order to actually have a successful performance in a BLR, I believe you need a mix of both approaches, with the winds, string principals, and percussionists prepared to lead with confidence, and the brass, section strings, and conductor (yes, the conductor) hanging to the rear of the assault, prepared to turn on a dime if the situation calls for it. Tempos, dynamics, and various other technical aspects of performance can easily go right out the window in a BLR, and if everyone is just blasting away, you can have a situation of too many generals and not enough soldiers. Playing in a 100-piece ensemble is always a balancing act, and a BLR just adds to the feeling that you could fall off the tightrope at any moment.
All that having been said, I would be remiss if I forgot to mention how absolutely wonderful our audience was at Town Hall. In sharp contrast to the German stoicism with which we've been faced for the last couple of weeks, this audience was all smiles from the start, and at the end of the evening, those sitting in the boxes and the choral balcony behind us pounded their feet on the wooden flooring to call Osmo back for endless curtain calls. Enthusiastic audience reactions are the norm in the entertainment world these days, of course, and many critics have decried the phenomenon of the automatic standing ovation, but on a night like we had in Leeds, where every measure of every piece was a struggle, it means a lot to have an audience stomping and cheering your efforts at the end of the night. Especially in a Big Loud Room.
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...
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.
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 -->
| THE SKED ||
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)
| PRESS ROOM ||
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
| RELEVANCIES ||
The official web site. C'mon, buy a ticket. We need the money.
The Virtual Tour
The orchestra's European tour in multimedia, for students and teachers.
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.
Minneapolis Star Tribune
Strib reporter Kristin Tillotson will be jetting around Europe with us for a few tour stops.
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.
| IRRELEVANCIES ||
Other Stuff I Like...
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.
OTHER AJ BLOGS ||
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