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Emily Liz

Something Old, Something New: Some Reflections on the Minnesota Orchestra's Inside the Classics Project [1/2]

November 15, 2011 at 5:22 PM

It's a warm night for November in Minneapolis, but I'm wearing tights, and I'm in a bus shelter, and I'm getting very cold. I remember I've forgotten something important, something I was stupid to forget, so I take the bus up the street to Target. I don't know the store, but it's big and it has escalators, so I assume it has what I need. It doesn't. So I go outside again. My feet are throbbing in my cheap heels. I have a fleeting guilty thought of how vain I am, that I'm forcing body parts into painful positions on the off-chance that some strangers I'll never meet again might find elongated legs aesthetically attractive. Adding credence to the thought of vanity is the dawning realization that although yes, I am a very small girl, I am not a size 1 girl; the secondhand dress I was so proud of finding at the thrift shop is beginning to feel more and more like a whalebone corset. I struggle to take a breath; my body forces me to yawn instead. I glance up and down Nicollet Mall and see a Walgreens. So I cross the street and wander up and down the aisles. Finally I find what I need. I pay and leave and sit down in the shelter again. I worry I'm sitting on my skirt, that I will stand up and find that the black fabric that has been so carefully ironed is now crushed. I feel a flash of frustration; if I'm going to wear a too-tight outfit, I want it to look spectacular, dammit. I shift my weight on the tulle. As I do, my stomach starts making strange noises it hadn't made before I buttoned up the dress. I wonder idly how this bodes for the quieter moments of the concert I'm about to attend. I wonder if anyone else will hear me, if they'll guess that the noises are from the too-tight dress, if they'll think me vain. Am I vain? A kind-looking woman steps inside the shelter; she speaks pleasantly to the man standing next to her, then takes out her phone and screams that she'll be home in a minute, that she's waiting for the bus, and that's she's fine, except she's cold, very cold! She quits the call suddenly without saying good-bye. A little girl runs between us and starts to cry. Buses come and go. Mine is late. I hop aboard and sway down the street. People speak in a buzz of languages I can't identify, much less understand. I pull the cord for a stop; at the next corner the back door doesn't open. I bang at it a little; everybody looks at me with raised eyebrows, except the driver, who doesn't see me at all. I sigh and stand back from the door. At the next stop I get off and sit for a moment on the edge of a fountain that has been drained for the winter. I see the hall in the distance; it's further away than I want it to be, but it's not worth waiting twenty minutes for the bus in the other direction. A man comes by and tries to sell me a rose. I tell him no thank you. This is an unwelcome reminder that appearances are deceptive; despite the seemingly expensive dress and musical tastes, I have no money. (Tomorrow afternoon I will have to scrounge through my purse to find a few dollars' worth of coins to pay a parking garage fee I forgot I owed.) I finally bundle up against the wind and set off for Orchestra Hall. Once I get inside I limp through the lobby and down the stairs. I get into the restroom and try to steady myself. It's hard; my ankles are wobbling. I soak my hands in very hot water.

When the auditorium doors open and I take my seat, my mind is still buzzing with inconsequential thoughts. Judging by the fragments of lighthearted chit-chat I hear all around me, so is everyone else's. The only discussion of the music is coming from an elderly woman behind me who is reading the program notes to her companion slowly, in a loud voice. A little after eight o' clock, the house lights go down and the orchestra tunes.

But the rites and rituals of a traditional orchestral concert end there. A violist, brandishing a microphone instead of a viola, and a conductor - a stylish young female conductor - come out onto the stage. She ascends the podium and raises her arms to cue the orchestra. The lights go dark, and darker, and darker. The first aching strains of the third movement of Shostakovich's fifth symphony emanate into the hall.

"I’ve often thought that one of the best ways to take the measure of an artist is to observe how he reacts to circumstances beyond his control," the violist says. "How does he respond to hardship, to success, to criticism, and how are those responses reflected in his work? When an artist finds himself in a place that is nakedly hostile to Art, how does he defend himself? Does he become a rebel, speaking truth to power and risking his freedom or even his life? Does he flee to the safety of art that challenges nothing and acquiesces to the powerful? Or does he carve some more complicated middle path, and leave it up to history to sort out his legacy?"

The blackness of the hall, the music, and the words transport me to a different place. Thoughts about the dress and the heels and the tulle and the (lack of) money and the cold and the pain and the bus and every other inconvenience I've suffered on this long, long day of travel suddenly vanish. Physically, I may be in Minneapolis's Orchestra Hall, at one of the Minnesota Orchestra's Inside the Classics shows on Shostakovich five, but mentally, I'm in the Soviet Union of the 1930s.

Despite my exhaustion, I don't get to sleep until well past one o' clock that night. I'm unable to get certain notes of the symphony, or the violist's terrifying suggestions of what those notes might mean, out of my mind. This is music at its most engaging, I think to myself, lying on the hotel bed and looking out at the Minneapolis skyline, all lit up in the crisp November night. This is a new way of doing an old thing. And if my experience as a listener is any indication, it just might be working.

I started reading the Minnesota Orchestra blog, Inside the Classics, sometime in 2009. I feel safe in saying that it's one of the most engaging in the classical music world. It's written by two big musical personalities, Orchestra violist and former ArtsJournal news editor Sam Bergman and Principal Pops and Presentations Conductor Sarah Hicks, both of whom bring their own unique and eloquent voices to the virtual table. Entries are wide-ranging in both tone and subject matter. To give a little taste of what they write about, a few of the eighty-odd tags on their blog include elitism, loud brass instruments, musical dorkery, musician humor, new music, philosophical musings, stirring the pot, the long-suffering audience, things that make us look lame and snooty, and Sam as neurotic freak.

Three times a year Sam and Sarah (as they call each other on the blog and onstage) get together with the orchestra to give what they call "a show about a concert." Last year they covered Dvorák's seventh symphony, Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe and La Valse, and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. I'd read about these concerts in the promotional booklets the Orchestra sends out every year and thought they looked interesting, but - and here's a shocker - it turns out that when you're a disabled young person caught up in the cogs of the worst economic downtown since the Great Depression, you tend to not have a lot of money to go see concerts, much less concerts in other cities. However, when a review that I wrote about the Minnesota Orchestra for last summer became the subject of a flattering entry of Bergman's (gotta love the echo chamber!), I decided I wanted to do whatever I could to get to Minneapolis and meet him and see what he does in-person. (Okay, so clearly I come to this subject with some bias, especially since [in the interest of full responsible journalistic disclosure and all that jazz] I've met Bergman a few times since then, and I took a violin lesson from him in October, and I think he's a good guy. But in my opinion, writers who think themselves free of bias are deluding themselves, especially when they're writing about the incestuous world of classical music, where everyone knows someone who knows someone who knows someone else. If the alternative to bias means not getting to know the most interesting people in our art, I'll choose the bias any day, thanks. If you feel this invalidates everything I'm about to say, you're totally free to quit reading. Anyway.)

Long story short, this March I was finally able to make the trip to Minneapolis for an Inside the Classics show on Ravel, and I had a blast. The show's first half consists of Sam and Sarah having a dialogue about the composer, elements that influenced him and his work, and the form and structure of the piece in question, with the orchestra supplying samples of it and other related works to put it into perspective. (This portion of the show is similar to what Michael Tilson Thomas does in the San Francisco Symphony's gripping PBS series Keeping Score. If you haven't seen that show yet, you must. In fact, you have my permission to stop reading this and watch an episode. You're welcome.) After intermission, Bergman puts away the microphone and heads back to his seat in the viola section, Hicks ascends the podium, and the orchestra blazes through a full uninterrupted performance of the work. Cue wild whoops and hollers from the appreciative audience. Last season's concerts featured informal Q&A sessions after each show, and it's the easiest thing in the world to wait around afterward and say hi and engage them in a quick conversation about what you like (or don't like) about what they're doing.

(Sam and Sarah sell the ItC concept on Youtube. Look, classical musicians have finally figured out how to upload videos! Go us!)

I think shows like these tend to succeed or stumble based on two things: the quality of the writing and the charisma of the host(s). Bergman and Hicks leap over both hurdles with flying colors. They're smart, funny, and sophisticated; they know how to appeal to seasoned concertgoers without ever talking down to newcomers; they have chemistry to burn. One or the other could easily hold the stage alone, but together they conquer it. They both are a real inspiration to this writer who loves music, and who is trying her best to figure out how exactly one field can inspire the other: put another way, how to use words to discuss a wordless art form. When I see Sam and Sarah taking their bows after the first half of the concert is over, and then look around me at a 2500-seat auditorium filled to the brim with a crowd much younger and more engaged than the hoity-toity moribund one stereotypically associated with orchestral music, I feel all sorts of questions percolating in my brain. How exactly have they built up such a loyal audience? What have they done right (because obviously they're doing a lot of things right)? Why does so much orchestral music have the reputation of being so irrelevant and incomprehensible since, framed correctly, it's clearly not? How can we share it with people who are interested in it but hesitant to set foot in a hall? How can we fulfill audiences' thirsts for knowledge - thirsts that sometimes they didn't even know they had? Where do new technologies and new traditions fit into the picture?

I'm a dork; I've always been a dork; I've never really stopped to think about any of these things before, because if there's an orchestra concert and I'm in town and I have the money, I go to it, no questions asked. But not everyone is as fortunate as me; not everyone has six years of private music lessons and a summer at chamber music camp under their belt; not everyone has a family supportive of musical endeavors; not everyone has kind engaging musician friends who are willing to drop everything to discuss what they love and loathe about their art. So, if the vast majority of orchestral audiences don't have those advantages to stoke their love of music, how can we reach them and serve them and deepen our connection with them? The whole Inside the Classics project - the blog and the concert series both - encourages me to ask these hugely important questions. I'm well aware they're ancient chestnuts to a lot of people who make their living in the arts, but they're new and exciting to me. And I'm finding it fascinating to watch the members of the Minnesota Orchestra attempt to answer them.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on November 17, 2011 at 5:18 PM
This kind of concert sounds like it would be really effective and helpful. There are educational concerts for children -- I like the idea of educational concerts for adults. And by educational, I simply mean that you have some expert voices who can communicate extremely well and relate why the music is so brilliant and captivating to them, but without talking down to their audience. Frankly, I don't believe in talking down to anyone whom your are educating, be it children or adults. Thanks for bringing this to us, Emily Liz! I think that orchestras could learn from programs like these.

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