It’s the end of our second day in Minnesota, and in my exhausted state all I can think is, “These other composers are really nice.” Before you think that I’ve traded my New York aloofness for pure Midwestern kindheartedness, let me remind you that friendliness between young composers is not insignificant. Often music festivals and young composers’ concerts are tainted by an unspoken tension and competition that makes us sensitive types defensive and paranoid, and more often than not that keeps composers from learning from each other. My eight colleagues (Stephen Gorbos, Gregg Wramage, Kurt Erickson, Alejandro Rutty, Garrett Byrnes, Ashley Nail, Anna Clyne and Dan Visconti—Go Team!) are all so different and so talented that competition is unnecessary. I feel that we’re all partners in a grand adventure, and we all have a lot to learn from each other.
Aaron Kernis began by telling us that this week is “an extreme microcosm of the real orchestral world.” In his soft and gentle voice he told us harsh and terrifying stories (I’m exaggerating) about his experiences writing for the orchestra. He gave us a great deal of practical advice, reminding us, for example, not to get so swept away by the thrill of hearing one’s own work during rehearsals that we forget to listen to what’s not going so well. Up next: a string seminar by the orchestra’s fiery and frank concertmaster Jorja Fleezanis and Tom Turner, the soft-spoken (but no less frank) principal violist. Peering through her dark-rimmed glasses from under her dramatic two-toned hair, Jorja went through each of our violin parts and made detailed and wonderfully perceptive suggestions about everything from notation to expressive markings, at one point exclaiming, “You all have no idea how desperately we want to do what you want us to do. You just need to show us what you want.” I realize now that there’s no such thing as a small detail in an orchestra piece; even the little things can derail one’s work if they eat up even one minute of precious rehearsal time. The mood relaxed with the entrance of Michael Gast, the cowboy of the French horn, complete with alligator boots and a lilting southern drawl. After nonchalantly ripping through some insanely difficult passages, he encouraged us to learn about the horn by listening to the soundtrack to Rocky III, Prince’s latest album, and Nelson Riddle arrangements. Yeah—he was that cool.
My infatuation with Minnesota intensified at an opening dinner that night. I was seated next to an orchestra board member who looked like my mother but asked, “Missy, what do you think of Michael Torke’s newest work?” instead of “Missy, what have you done to your hair?” Really, what do they put in the water here?
I still have my neurotic questions about the place orchestral music holds in the modern musical landscape, but the place of the orchestra holds in the frigid Minnesota landscape is clear. The energy and enthusiasm of the players and musical director Osmo Vänskä seems to inspire that same enthusiasm in the community. At dinner tonight the Minnesota Orchestra’s recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was praised as an example of the orchestra’s expertise with “old” music. Vänskä, with the prophetic air that comes with a really great foreign accent, replied, “Let’s not talk about old or new music. It’s all just music.” Maybe this attitude is the key to the future of orchestral music. Now if I could only read this to you in a killer Finnish accent…