Fluffly snowflakes like tufts of cotton drifted through the air last night as we drove downtown slowly to the Minneapolis Convention Center. A wintry scene worthy of the evening’s music from Finland, it added to the excited anticipation that accompanied us. The concert, a celebration of the Minnesota Orchestra’s Grammy nomination for their Sibelius CD, came together under the auspices of benefactor Judy Dayton and Minneapolis Mayor R. T. Rybak. The music, above all, reigned this evening. The music and Osmo Vänskä’s reunion with the band he’s worked so hard, with the musicians, to attain the summit of excellence.
The Convention Center’s 2200 plus-seat auditorium filled steadily, every seat sold, despite the weather. Of course, there were latecomers, excused by the weather. These special concerts put on by the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra bring them together with their public, the music lovers who miss them and their music-making. Although the contract negotiations clouded the horizon, Mayor Rybak and Judy Dayton, in their welcome to the evening, made clear that they were all about the music, the Grammy nomination, and the celebration. Anticipation charged the air.
The audience greeted Osmo Vänskä with a boisterously joyful standing ovation. While appreciative, it was clear he wanted to get on with the music. The music. Welcome home, Maestro.
Jean Sibelius’ music is Finland’s national treasure that it has shared so generously with the rest of the world, and the Second Symphony celebrates Finland’s national character in the face of the Russian occupier. As I watched and listened, I was struck by the electric concentration on stage, the emotion so thick in the air it touched our faces. These orchestra musicians play at the top of their game, and Vänskä knows exactly how to guide and support them. They watch him with a laser intensity. The Second Symphony is one of the most well known of Sibelius’ works, a journey through sorrow to triumph. I was on that journey with the musicians, but I felt something else, too – a relief that this conductor and these orchestra musicians were back together again. When they are working together, the music transcends worldly boundaries. The music.
I had hoped to see Minnesota Orchestral Association executive management and Board members at the concert, but as far as I could see, none attended. That’s sad. If they had attended, maybe they would have seen, maybe they would have finally comprehended, what artistic excellence is really about, and it’s not about money. I continue to be astounded by their behavior and close-mindedness, their intractability and inability to admit that perhaps the for-profit business model does not work for a non-profit orchestral institution. If they had attended this concert, they would have had the opportunity to observe how crucial the working relationships are among the musicians and conductor, how important their audience is to them, and music performance is not comparable to meeting financial goals. I wish executive management and the Board members were as open to learning and growing as the musicians and conductor are whom they serve.
As on the Grammy-nominated CD, the Sibelius Fifth Symphony filled the second half. When I listen to this symphony, I hear the natural world, the landscape of Finland, the forests, lakes, the snows of Lapland, and the spirit within. I have a memory connected with this symphony, a memory of standing on a bluff in Helsinki overlooking the harbor entrance and Baltic Sea on a chilly September afternoon with a fierce wind blowing off the sea. The color of the sky, a mother-of-pearl gray, reflected in water suddenly erased for me the horizon, and I had a startling sense of a massive expanse, the universe in that one moment and place. That is the Fifth Symphony for me. The music.
I also found myself thinking of Evan Quinn in Helsinki in the third Perceval novel, and his response to that city, to the countryside he visits, and to the sea for a guy who grew up on nearly landlocked Minnesota. He identifies with this place because it reminds him so strongly of home. I thought about the third novel, Perceval in Love, and how its story has never left me even though I have not worked on it for several years as life and other concerns have demanded my attention. As I listened to the Sibelius, I felt a renewed commitment to the third novel, and to finishing Evan Quinn’s story as it plays out over the five novels of the series. Once again, I wondered how the artistic survival of the Minnesota Orchestra could be insured so that Evan could lead an orchestra worthy of that survival.
The Fifth Symphony ends with silence punctuated by six chords that make it clear silence does not prevail, no, the music prevails. The audience rose to their feet in a cheering ovation that want on for several minutes. The Maestro and the Musicians gave us a surprise, a fitting encore to a Sibelius evening: Finlandia. A statement of musical nationalism – a musical nose-thumbing aimed at the Russians at the time of its composition – this music made clear the ferocious dedication to artistic excellence these musicians and conductor possess. You cannot possibly ignore the disciplined ensemble, the precision, the dynamic control, and the incredible sound of this orchestra now – the embodiment of artistic excellence. It saddens me that the very people who needed to hear it were not there last night.
The electric atmosphere in the auditorium, the joy of seeing these artists together again on stage doing what they do best, the music, left me with a transcendent high that no drug could ever match. An altered state of consciousness based on the power of emotion. Live concert performance – no CD can ever come close to it, but I’m still glad that I own the Grammy-nominated Sibelius CD by the Minnesota Orchestra with Osmo Vänskä. Do you….?