Day One in Minnesota: Meet the Cast and the Band

At the ripe old age of 26 and three-quarters (as of April 1—thanks, I know), I have gotten lazy. I just can’t pull a fourteen-hour working Saturday like I used to. The promise made to us during the 9 a.m. introduction to the Minnesota Orchestra Readings Sessions and Composer Institute (or, as I have often heard it, the “Minnesota Thing”) was that we would leave in six days tired but happy.

I’m tired and happy now. I just got back from the Orchestra’s concert tonight, which included Osvaldo Golijov’s Three Songs, with Dawn Upshaw, and Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. At intermission I counted more than one clump of clearly high school-aged students, and the audience reception at the end reminded me of a rock concert, complete with—and this is no joke—banners in the balcony: We (heart) brass. The greying of American orchestral audiences seems to be delayed in Minneapolis, at least for tonight.

After the concert, we got a special invite to meet Dawn Upshaw backstage, ushered by Aaron Jay Kernis and Beth Cowart, the Institute’s co-directors. It was a great end to a marathon of various happenings that started this morning. After our breakfast meet-and-greet with Aaron and Beth, the Orchestra’s artistic planning associate, we launched (and lurched) right into our first working meetings: sessions with members of the orchestra to discuss our pieces. Jorja Fleezanis and Tom Turner, the orchestra’s beloved concertmistress and principal violist, came prepared with pages of notes and lots of pointed questions. “Is this a computer program issue, or a composer issue?” for example. Notation topped the list of concerns, closely followed by issues of style and articulation. Jorja would demonstrate our passages with ease, leading us to the option that worked best, and sometimes to one we hadn’t considered. Their work was so thorough, we went long overtime into lunch. Time well spent—every bug we found saved us precious orchestra rehearsal minutes.

I’m finding that one of the best thing about participating in this program, now finely-tuned in its fifth year, is finding the—well, bizarre!—embracement of the experience by the entire organization. I’ve had plenty of readings in my life, and more than a few have been disasters. Snarky conductors, weary players, entire percussion sections (players AND instruments) completely missing. This one, from the first minute, seems to be coming from a different place entirely, mostly because the organizers have been listening to members of the orchestra simply by getting them involved. By bringing them in with composers, face-to-face, and working out that bowing or that impossible fingering combo on the spot, we got them on our side this morning. We need some allies on stage this week!

I didn’t find every seminar with the players (which are spread evenly throughout the week) to be equally positive. Orchestral musicians, who spend a lot of time looking at a lot of music over the course of a year, have to sound very good to keep their jobs. Working on music that aids their cause is a joy, no doubt, even among the most jaded. But the pressure placed on precision might lead to some narrow thinking in terms of what they want to see. As professionals, they will do their best to make anything sound good. But when they feel that they are fighting against the notes (or the double-tongueing or the tremolos) they begin to feel resentful. Sometimes, we had to answer for more than our own faults today.

Tomorrow: It’s Business. No, literally. Copyrights, licensing, contracts, with Jim Kendrick, Lyn Liston, and Fran Richard, all well-versed in the language. Today was exhausting, but we managed a good start—we somehow also squeezed in meeting with the American Composers Forum at their annual board meeting and got to know the music of three of our colleagues in a composer-to-composer session.

Oh, and you heard it here first: Yes, Ms. Upshaw was indeed cold when she had to sing the last 20 minutes of Kaija Saariaho’s opera, L’amour de loin, soaking wet. But thankfully, due to some offstage gymnastics on her part, the risk of electrocution was minimized.

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