Tag Archives: Classical Music

Thank you, Osmo

Osmo Vanska (courtesy HarrisonParrott)

In the summer of 2007 when I began research for the third Perceval novel, Perceval in Love, I developed research questions about Helsinki and Finland. The beginning of the third novel, I decided, would be in Helsinki, with a rustic side trip somewhere out in the country one weekend. I wondered if Osmo Vanska would be willing to help me. A native Finn, the Music Director of the Minnesota Orchestra had lived in Helsinki and performed with the Helsinki Philharmonic as their co-principal clarinetist. I asked my friend, Julie, who was the musicians’ personnel manager at the time, and she helped me arrange an interview with Osmo through his Executive Assistant. In preparation, I narrowed my Finland questions down to those I could not otherwise find through reading and websites, e.g. details that only someone who’d lived there would know. I also spent a lot of time researching Finlandia Hall in Helsinki where Evan Quinn would conduct. The internet can be an amazing research tool, but nothing like talking to a person who knows the place intimately.

I sent my list of questions the week before my scheduled interview to give Osmo an idea of what I needed. The day of the interview, I remained calm until I was approaching the stage door at Orchestra Hall in downtown Minneapolis. It doesn’t matter whom I’m interviewing, I am always nervous. I checked in at the stage door and since I already knew where the Conductor’s Suite was, I was sent on my way. Osmo’s Executive Assistant, Michael Pelton, was waiting for me, and ushered me into the office, introducing me.

Osmo came out from behind his desk, windows looking out on a portion of Peavey Plaza behind him, and extended his hand. I remember telling him that I’d just heard a recording he’d done on the clarinet, a clarinet quartet by Bernhard Crusell. I confessed that I’d not heard of the composer before, but that I’d loved the music and the performance. He was dressed for summer in casual khaki, olive green shirt and sandals. We settled on the white sofa facing the desk and I gave Osmo an idea of the Perceval series — the protagonist Evan Quinn who is a young orchestra conductor and music director of the Minneapolis State Symphony (formerly Minnesota Orchestra) — and that the third novel begins in Helsinki. I’m glad I sent him the questions the week before. He was totally prepared and full of lots of really good details and tidbits about Helsinki, Finlandia Hall, the countryside in Finland. I knew already that Minnesota reminded him a lot of Finland, and hearing him describe Finland, I could understand why. He suggested places for Evan and his girlfriend to spend a weekend, to spend a romantic afternoon, hotels in Helsinki Evan would most likely stay at (with a side story about Sibelius and one particular hotel — I hadn’t known Sibelius liked to drink), places where Evan could run, the layout of Finlandia Hall and especially the conductor’s dressing room and if the stage door opened in or out.

Helsinki, Finland

I told Osmo about my 24-hour visit to Helsinki on my way to Russia (then Soviet Union) and my impressions of the city because I would be drawing on my own experience as well. We had talked for almost 50 minutes, and I’d requested only 30 minutes. I learned long ago, however, that if an interviewee wants to talk, let them. I was about to wrap it up, however, when Osmo interrupted me with a comment about concert programming. I had included Evan’s all Brahms programs with the Helsinki Philharmonic in the material I’d sent Osmo the week before. He told me that he could understand the reason I’d used the order of the symphonies that I had, but he said there was a more accepted order based on their timings. He then got up and retrieved a thick blue hardcover book that contained the timings of music performed on symphonic programs. I can see the book in my mind, but for the life of me, I can’t recall its title. Osmo showed me the timings and then rearranged the programs for Evan’s concerts. Osmo’s concern that I get the concert programming right surprised and moved me.

When I stood to leave, I had one last question, an important question for any interviewer to ask. Could I follow up with him if I had any additional questions? He nodded with a smile and said that I should work through his Executive Assistant, email him with any additional questions. As I left his office, I found a crowd of people waiting to talk to him — both musicians and staff. A few weeks later, as I began work on Perceval in Love, I had more questions for Osmo, this time how to say certain things in Finnish. He responded much faster than I expected, giving me exactly what I needed.

I completed the first draft of Perceval in Love in June 2020. When I look at the Finland chapters now, Osmo is everywhere. So I gave him a cameo appearance in the Finland chapters. Thank you, Osmo!

(courtesy Lisa-Marie Mazzucco)

Music 101: Reblog from Interlude

Janet Horvath, cellist and formerly of the Minnesota Orchestra, has begun a series over at Interlude called “Music 101.” She plans to help people coming to classical music for the first time understand what they need to know and what they don’t. When I’m asked about listening to classical music, I have to agree with Janet. In reality, you really don’t need to know anything. Just open your ears and hearts and listen.

Here’s the link to the first installment of Music 101: https://interlude.hk/music-101-a-foray-into-understanding-classical-music/?utm_source=mailpoet&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Newsletter_29_Apr_2022


Live Music Again

A cab driver told me a couple weeks ago that the increase in traffic congestion meant we were returning to “normal” after enduring lockdowns, masks, social distancing, vaccination hesitators, and an increase in body weight from stress eating. I laughed. He thinks the pandemic is over, I thought to myself. It’s not. We are hanging on by our fingertips. The Delta variant has shown us just how fragile our defense has been, although people who are vaccinated completely fare much better than those who aren’t. No, a sign of a return to some semblance of normality is the return to concert halls of symphony orchestras, and the musicians on stage are no longer sitting six feet apart.

About the time I listened to that cab driver extol the increase in traffic, my friend J emailed me with the offer of a ticket to a Minnesota Orchestra concert on Friday, July 30. After checking the program and conductor, I jumped at the opportunity to be one of approximately 900 people (in an auditorium that seats a little over 1800) to attend the live orchestra concert. Of course, COVID protocols were still in place — I received an email Health screening a day before the concert asking me to attest that I did not have any COVID symptoms and to wear a mask at the concert. I’m more than happy to wear a mask anywhere because I tend not to trust strangers in public places.

I was excited to attend a Minnesota Orchestra live concert after months of watching concerts on TPT public television or listening on Classical MPR radio. J picked me up and we headed to downtown Minneapolis, parked in the ramp across the street from the concert hall, and strolled into the lobby where we found people congregating around the bars, standing around talking, and enjoying the pleasant weather on Peavey Plaza. Minnesota Orchestra musicians dressed in concert attire mingled among the people both in the lobby and on the plaza. A musical appetizer drew people in the Atrium concert space off the lobby. We kept running into people and musicians that we knew. A common comment was “So happy to be here tonight to hear live music!” But the crowd was definitely thinner than before the pandemic. The joy, however, was palpable.

Conductor Ken-David Masur (Photo: Beth Ross Buckley)

The concert would be broadcast live on TPT (Twin Cities Public Television) so we were in our seats 15 minutes early watching the orchestra musicians settle into their seats. The concert would be hosted by Sarah Hicks, the MO’s Principal Conductor of Live at Orchestra Hall. Attending a concert that’s also being broadcast live was a new experience for me. There were breaks in the flow of the concert to accommodate the broadcast and Sarah Hicks’ introductions. Sometimes we heard her, sometimes we didn’t. We did hear the male voice from off stage saying “Maestro!” whenever the music could continue.

Guest conductor Ken-David Masur led a rousing opening of Summon the Heroes by John Williams written for the 1996 Summer Olympics. The principal trumpet soared. The acoustics in the Hall made me feel as if I were inside the music itself. In fact, my feeling during the piece was of relief. My hometown band was back. Yes, some of their faces wore masks, but they were sitting closer together, and there were more of them on stage. And with this concert, the musicians honored frontline workers in the neighborhood of Orchestra Hall — those people in jobs considered essential as well as medical professionals. Some of these frontline workers were in attendance, listening to this music live.

The concert program sampled American composers. Three of the works I’d never heard before: Amy Beach’s Gaelic Symphony (first movement), Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s Sinfonietta No. 2 (2 movements), and William Grant Still’s Second Symphony (one movement). I especially enjoyed Perkinson’s music — the quiet lyricism of the first movement we heard, and the pizzicato humor in the second movement. Pianist Jon Kimura Parker (also the Orchestra’s creative partner for summer programming) dazzled with his solo performance of William Hirtz’s Wizard of Oz Fantasy for solo piano. I’d forgotten how lovely some of the melodies are in that movie. The themes brought back fun memories of watching the movie in black and white as a child and the first time I saw it in color as an adult.

Two works dear to my heart highlighted the concert for me, although we heard only one movement from one of them. Samuel Barber’s Essay No. 1 for orchestra begins in the cellos and basses with a simple motif that threads its way through each section of the orchestra in the 8-minutes of what I think of a dramatic sorrow. During the forte fortissimos, this orchestra produced waves of sound that washed over me. Their ensemble playing never ceases to astonish me — the precision and discipline of it. The pandemic certainly hadn’t affected their dedication to excellence. Barber is one of my favorite American composers, and the Essay No. 1 is a wonderful introduction to his unique musical voice.

Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Marin Alsop conductor

The concert ended with pizzazz, jazz, singable melodies and flash. The first movement of George Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F major with Parker again as piano soloist. I thought the tempo was a bit slow for this concerto — not much flash — and there were times that Masur let the orchestra play too loud, drowning out the piano. The conductor’s job when accompanying a soloist is not only to follow the composer’s wishes in the score but to balance dynamics so that the soloist can always be heard.

National Youth Orchestra of USA, Michael Tilson Thomas conductor, Jean-Yves Thibaudet piano (a very relaxed Michael Tilson Thomas — the kids are great!)

The Minnesota Orchestra played magnificently throughout this concert, and we left feeling we’d been given a sample of what was to come in the new season beginning in September. Live music is back.

Why Music Makes You Cry

Thanks to Frances Wilson at the Interlude blog for this essay on how music stirs human emotions. Enjoy!

Just this afternoon at the beginning of Bruckner’s 8th Symphony, I got the tingles.

Happy Birthday, Beethoven!

This year on December 16, Ludwig van Beethoven celebrates his 250th birthday. That’s a lot of candles on the cake. If he were alive to blow them out. His music, however, is very much alive and well. And I’ve been thinking about his music the last few weeks, as I’ve turned to it more and more during this year of pandemic, civil unrest, important election, and climate change weather.

When did I first hear Beethoven’s music? I don’t know, really. I think it was in the background of my childhood probably from the beginning. But I do recall the first time I heard his symphonies as specifically Beethoven’s symphonies. I think it was either the summer between 9th and 10th grades or between 10th and 11th grades. My piano teacher generously loaned me her complete set of Beethoven symphony recordings on 78 rpm vinyl records for the summer. Fortunately, our summer house had a record player that could play those records; and being summer, with open doors and windows, I could play them as loud as I wanted. I could not tell you now how many times I listened to them all, but I’m certain it was more than ten times. The first two symphonies are full of sunshine, youth, and optimism before Beethoven decided to go off in his own direction, different from everything that had come before. He began his Third Symphony with two loud chords. Heaven forbid! The Fourth is full of humor and slyness. And of course, the Fifth, which made me laugh out loud the first time I heard it and still makes me laugh. So full of Sturm und Drang!

The first time I heard the Fifth Symphony in a live orchestra concert was in Vienna, Austria at the Musikverein with the Vienna Philharmonic. It was on a big national holiday, and I managed to get a seat way in the back of the balcony. The Austrian President was in attendance as well as other government officials. I wondered if hearing Beethoven in Vienna would be a different, special experience compared with hearing him in concert in America. He had lived and worked in Vienna. You can walk around Vienna in the First District and note the number of decorative signs on buildings that announce Beethoven had lived there and composed such and such there. He had been well known in the city, and it was still possible when I was a student there, to hear stories about Beethoven. But I still wondered what the music would be like performed there. Well, I remember it being crisp, with that opening phrase in the Fifth Symphony demanding everyone’s attention. (Yes, I did giggle.) It said, “Listen to me. Now. I want your undivided attention.” Then Beethoven takes the listener on a journey through determination, a pleasant lilting stroll from shadow to sunshine (2nd movement), a five-minute scherzo of heroic music followed by one of the most amazing crescendoes in music that crosses the bridge of the scherzo to the triumphal joy of the final movement. I remember getting goosebumps when that crescendo began, and I realized that there really is nothing like Beethoven live in concert. Anywhere.

I have walked along the path in Heiligenstadt where Beethoven walked, inspired by the nature that he saw all around him to compose his pastoral Sixth Symphony. Then he turns his attention to the universe, that which is larger than any one life, in his last three symphonies. Again, he breaks rules right and left of musical composition, and especially with his final, Ninth, symphony, the Choral Symphony. I have this delightful memory of sitting in a half-filled movie theater watching Immortal Beloved, the movie about Beethoven’s mysterious love affair late in his life, when a scene of Beethoven’s nephew Karl, who lived with him, sitting in a cafe with a friend, telling his friend about his uncle’s obsession with a melody that was driving Karl crazy. And he sings the melody of the famous “Ode to Joy” that is in the final movement of the Ninth Symphony. He sings it with derision, though, and I laughed. It amazed me that I was the only one in the theater who got the joke.

To play Beethoven’s music is to spend time inside his beautiful soul. During my college years, I played some of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, and to this day they are favorites. I came late to his string quartets, and I’m still a student. His piano trios are especially sublime, and I am partial to the “Archduke.” I attended a performance of Fidelio, his only opera, at the State Opera in Vienna, and it’s the only Beethoven music that hasn’t filled me with awe. And believe it or not, I’ve not listened to his Missa Solemnis. I guess I’m holding that for a future moment of discovery.

After all this music, you’d think I’d have read a biography of Beethoven a long time ago, right? But no. I don’t know why. I know the general outline of his life, I have a copy of the Heiligenstadt Testament, and I heard my share of Beethoven stories when I was a music student in Vienna. But it wasn’t until yesterday that I began reading a biography of Beethoven, Thayer’s Life of Beethoven. It’s considered the definitive biography, the work that everyone else cites. I decided that I needed to celebrate his 250th by learning more about the man himself. Not the myth.

And maybe when I’ve finished reading the biography, it will be time to listen to his Missa Solemnis.