One of the motivating forces behind many of the items on my 101 list is the general idea of taking full advantage of all local offerings before longing to travel and see sights that other cities/countries hold; aka, “Things I Really Should See In The City That I Haven’t Yet Made The Time To Explore”. Certainly a lot of personal growth and expanded awareness occurs as a result of experiencing places and situations beyond one’s “normal” worldview – and I am definitely a fan of such travel. But there is also something to be said for maximizing opportunities that are in one’s own “backyard” – and I crafted this “101” plan in part to help get me out of routines and nudge me to encounter local new and novel happenings.
I have been a fan of classical music for the majority of my life. (Indeed, the original introduction to this post was a page-long narrative of that tale – but after I reviewed that story I realized it was more a telling of my past than a connection to the present, so I chose to replace the intro to this post with the content you just read in the opening paragraph. But, if you are curious about the backstory to this 101 item and want to read about it, you can do so here.) I attended community orchestra concerts in my youth, and professional symphony performances in my high school and college years. But when I began working full time, those musical outings fell by the wayside. Now, one could make the case that I was busier as a working professional than I was a high school/college student – and certainly there is some truth to that statement. However, it’s also true that for my entire professional career, I have worked within six city blocks of the home of the Minnesota Symphony Orchestra. (And for ten of those years, I worked literally across the street from Orchestra Hall.) So really, I had no reason to not attend a concert, save apathy (and laziness).
So two years ago I started to make plans to go to a Minnesota Orchestra performance. But then, things got complicated…
First, Orchestra Hall shut down for renovation just as I was starting to review the orchestra’s performance schedule – so item #46 on the 101 list was delayed a year. Then, once Orchestra Hall re-opened for business, the orchestra went on strike for fifteen months. (Long story short: It was a labor/wage issue between the orchestra board and the orchestra musicians. [If you want to read official reports about the event, this article provides a nice, quick summary.]) [And disclaimer/clarification: The orchestra called the situation a lockout, not a strike. I don’t know the difference between the two…]Either way, yikes. I began to wonder if I would be able to complete this 101 task by my self-appointed deadline. Happily, the orchestra board and the orchestra musicians were able to reach a middle ground (though neither side seems overly pleased with the compromise – but again, that’s another tale for another day), but when I looked at the schedule and tried to secure tickets for a concert, I found that every evening and weekend event was already sold out. (Apparently the year-plus orchestral absence created a pent-up demand for their live music.) Starting to feel a little frustrated, I explored an unlikely opportunity: young people’s concerts.
The orchestra offers concerts for “schools, homeschools and families looking for an outstanding arts experience that is both educational and engaging.” A lovely side benefit of these concerts is that they are cheap! (One ticket to attend a Young People’s Concert costs just $6.25, whereas a regular symphony ticket costs anywhere from $25-$85 [or more], plus a $6 processing fee!) Now, attending a Young People’s Concert also meant that I would have to take a day off of work (as the concerts are offered mid-day on Mondays through Thursdays), and that I would be experiencing the orchestra in the presence of hundreds of children (versus adults), but these were both concessions I was wiling to make. So, on an overcast spring day, I stood in line with a bevy of high-energy kids, and made my way into the newly renovated Orchestra Hall.
As I walked through the glass doors into the airy lobby, the very first thought that came into my mind was how stunning the remodeled space looked, and how welcoming it felt. A sleek architectural design, replete with modern slate-gray floors and brushed chrome accents, blended artfully with light natural wood. Making my way inside the auditorium itself, I saw that geometric sound panels lined the ceiling. While I’m confident these items were chosen for the wonderful acoustics they provided, a nice “side benefit” to the panels is that they lended a slightly “funky” feel to the orchestral space. (Note: “Funky” is used here in a positive context.)
(I wanted to take more pictures of the other areas of Orchestra Hall, but my phone/camera decided to seize up just as I left the auditorium to snap more images. So, if you want to see the other areas of the newly renovated space, you will need to visit the photo gallery on this MPR blog site.) [P.S. My phone is fine now. Just required a hard restart.]
I took a chair in a first-tier balcony section at stage left, about fifty feet (or so) away from the orchestra. As the audience started to fill seats on the main floor, I noticed that most of the students looked to be anywhere from 4th through 8th grade. A few moments later the musicians began to trickle onto the stage, and I saw not one, but two female bassists! (Of 6 total.) And one of these women occupied First Chair! I loved it. (Though I will admit that as I watched the bassists play, I felt an ache in my heart – literally. Clearly I miss the joy of making music with an orchestra.)
Five minutes later, the conductor walked on stage – and at this point I noticed that the main audience section was barely halfway full. I felt disappointed. These concerts are a tremendous opportunity to expose kids to an amazing, world-class cultural experience – and local schools aren’t taking advantage of it. (For a variety of reasons, I’m sure; but still. It made me sad.) The conductor explained that the piece the orchestra was going to play is called “The Rite of Spring” (“Le Sacre du Printemps” in French) by a man named Stravinsky – and that originally, the piece was a collaboration between the music composer Stravinsky and a dancer/choreographer named Nijinsky. (I didn’t know this!) To better explain the backstory to the creation of “The Rite of Spring”, the conductor introduced Lauren Stringer, an author and storyteller, who wrote a children’s book titled, “When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky: Two Artists, Their Ballet, and One Extraordinary Riot.” Ms. Stringer read her book aloud to the audience while select illustrations from the text projected on a huge screen above the stage. Additionally, a piano accompanied the reading and added small passages of happy, heavy, confused, or suspenseful music as appropriate (based on the content of the text). It was a true multi-media experience, and the kids seemed really engaged by it. (So was I!)
During the ten-minute reading of the book, the kids and I all learned that this work (both the music and the dance went with it) was quite radical for the time when it debuted – so much so that the first performance of this piece was “boo’d” by a sizeable section of the audience. In fact, these individuals felt so upset by this work that they threw hats/gloves/coats/boots at the orchestra, and rioted in the streets after the performance. Holy buckets!
But – an equally strong portion of the audience loved the new direction this piece headed; so much so that they rioted against the symphony patrons who were rioting against the orchestra! Oy…
After the present-day kids got all amped up on the notion of past patrons throwing shoes onto an orchestra stage and engaging in vandalism and violence after a performance, the conductor resumed control of the microphone and explained that “The Rite of Spring” is sometimes called “Scenes From Pagan Russia”, because it celebrates the gods in nature that control the changing seasons. (At least, according to Russian paganism.) The conductor further explained that “The Rite” is one body of music that is separated into two parts, and each section is 15 minutes long. The first section of the work represents the awakening of spring. In this portion, a group of people dance slowly and quietly to represent the thaw of winter. Then an old wise woman takes the stage and “predicts” the arrival of spring. Upon her prediction, a group of young girls dance to represent the unfolding of spring – and when they are done, an old wise man takes the stage and bends down to kiss the earth in gratitude. Then everyone dances in a big group celebration.
Once we received a briefing on what occurs visually in the piece (e.g., when the piece is played with a dance troupe [which did not take place in this outing; this was strictly an orchestral performance]), the conductor stepped onto his platform, and the music began. I really enjoyed knowing the story behind the music – it helped me “follow along” with the orchestra and the emotions they infused into the piece.
As the orchestra played, a two-person camera crew live-streamed the performance to the huge overhead screen where the story illustrations had displayed earlier – so everyone in the audience could see close ups of various musicians performing in real-time. I have never experienced anything like this before – it was super cool.
(An interesting and new-to-me fact: Several of the musicians wore ear plugs. I understand this for the percussion and trumpet sections [and for the people who sit immediately in front of these areas] – but is ear protection necessary for a flute player? A bassoonist? And yet, these musicians [and several others] wore plugs. This seemed rather strange…)
That being said, the orchestra gave a very lively performance. The “Rite” is a very energetic piece, with many contrasts: loud and soft, fast and slow, excited and relaxed – an ample offering of changes and variety to help keep the attention of children.
Precisely fifteen minutes later, the first movement ended. Immediately the conductor picked up his microphone and walked us through the plot line of section #2 – which is as follows:
Night has now fallen in the forest. A handful of people are in the forest, and they are very frightened. But soon, a group of young girls appear, and a lone girl dances in thanks for the gods blessing them all with spring (which alleviates the fear of the original crowd). Sadly, though, the young girl dances herself to death. (Though the word “death” was never used by the conductor. Rather, he explained that “the girl’s life force is returned to the earth”.) And apparently that’s how the whole production ends. Kind of a downer.
But I didn’t have much time to get depressed, because the orchestra members immediately put their instruments up to their chins/chests/mouths and began playing the second movement. As I sat listening, a few random thoughts entered my mind:
- If I were in the original audience when this piece debuted, I probably would have occupied the “I don’t like it” camp. I prefer ‘classic’ to ‘modern’ things – be it food, music, dance, fashion, interior design, painting, sculpture, or any other form of artistic expression.
- I recently saw a news article explaining how basketball coaches experience a workout right along with their players during a game, because of all the jumping/arm waving/yelling the coaches do throughout the match. As I watched the conductor move with crazy levels of vigor and enthusiasm, I wondered: if a basketball coach and an orchestra conductor went head-to-head, who would the better “athlete” turn out to be?
Another 15 minutes later, the final portion of this performance drew to a close. The audience applauded the conductor, then the orchestra, then the author/storyteller, then the conductor again, then finally the orchestra again. After the conductor and author/storyteller exited the stage, the orchestra members began to pack up their music and walk away as they were ready. This seemed an odd ending to the event: no curtain drawing to a close, everything exposed for everyone to see. Kind of like learning how the sausage is made – it erodes some of the “magic” of the experience. (FYI, that’s just an expression. I don’t eat sausage.) But the final element to the closing actions that made me laugh was an announcement that came on over the PA: “We will now be clearing out the auditorium from the back. Please stay seated until your row is released, and walk to your bus in a single-file line.” Ah, if only all concerts were released in such an orderly fashion…
All in all, this outing was a cool experience – but also a sad and painful one. I didn’t realize how much of a void not playing in an orchestra has left in my life until I found myself literally on the verge of tears within moments of the first movement beginning; as I watched bows and fingers articulate in perfect unison I ached to hold an instrument and play along. It hurt. So I don’t know if my heart can take another performance. Honestly.