Letter of the day 10-8-2013

Minnesota Orchestra management has brought the issue from fiscal to philosophical

Jeffrey Richman, Oct. 8 2013

I attended the Locked Out Musician’s Concert, Osmo Vanska’s farewell, on Friday evening, October 4th, with my daughter Emma. We were already feeling the weight of the occasion when we heard Star Tribune columnist Kristin Tillotson’s prediction that Ted Mann Hall would likely slide into the river on a sea of tears. She was right.

Emma and her brother Sam are aspiring musicians. Emma is almost 16. She’s studied violin for close to 12 years. Sam is 13. He’s studied violin for 8 years. Between them, three orchestras, two string quartets, and an intense course of solo repertoire. They bug me for new bow hair, thrill at the acquisition of sheet music, refuse to leave the parked car until a piece of music has concluded and its details are established. They go to parties to sight read string quartets with friends.

The musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra are their heroes: their teachers, role models, sectional leaders, and their inspiration. We’ve waited at the stage door to congratulate anyone who had time to stop and talk about that evening’s musical agenda, say ‘hi’ to our conductor, Manny Laureano. Emma would hang a Jorja Fleezanis poster in her room, if there was one, or Tony Ross. Sam might swap his extra Burt Hara trading card in exchange for a rare Stanislaw Skrowaczewski special edition.

These young musicians need their heroes. Last year Emma and her MYS Symphony compatriots got to play in a side-by-side rehearsal with the Minnesota Orchestra. They worked on the finale of Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony. The “in” crowd refers to it as “Tchaik 4”. It was like a high school football squad getting a scrimmage with the Minnesota Vikings. (And don’t start with me about how bad the Vikings are. Those guys made it to the pros…their skills are undeniable. To an aspiring ball player, getting to run some plays with the major leaguers is a thrill not soon forgotten.) Just getting to play a game on their field is big news for a young squad. It’s the same for the musicians. The fact that the youth symphonies performed at Orchestra Hall, the locus of so many incredible performances, only added to their sense of legitimacy. They showed their pride donning tuxes and entering through the stage door. The first time Emma did it, she was in MYS Strings. She must have been 9. She was feeling apprehensive about finding her way, so I accompanied her. But the door monitor told me, only musicians.
Only musicians backstage. Funny how proud I felt being kicked out of there. Emma warmed up her instrument and played in Roger Frisch’s chair.

We’ve attended as many concerts as we could. Sometimes Emma would bring music to follow the violin part of the symphony. Once, when I couldn’t attend she had me drop her off at the hall and pick her up after. We would go to hear Sam Bergman and Sarah Hicks explain the music with their witty repartee, we watched the orchestra play the score to a Chaplin film, we checked out new music by guest composers and we heard soloists Joshua Bell, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and many others. We stayed late some nights to ask a question on a handheld mic. We shook Sir Neville Mariner’s hand.

Our young musicians need to visualize themselves in these seats. Or ones just like. They need a sense that when they’ve put in their 10,000 hours of rigorous technical study in music schools and conservatories, and gone to the depths of their souls to convey all the power and passion, all the love and despair, all the triumph and rejoicing in Bach and Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Dvorak, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, Ravel, and so many more, that their craft will be valued and they will have a role in the community and be compensated appropriately so that they too can live, build families and enjoy their days. And not be treated as a commodity that can be cast aside. You live in a home you worked to restore–a few blocks from the lake. Soon your kids will be starting college. You don’t like the sound of a 25% pay cut? Can’t you play a cheaper instrument? There should be caps–salary caps for people like you and Derek Jeter.

In the lobby on Friday night, someone carrying a camera asked if I had any thoughts I cared to convey. I related that I thought the management of the Minnesota Orchestra had brought the issue from fiscal to philosophical. Our orchestra is like a building on the historical registry. Or a national park. Should we let a bunch of bureaucrats tear down the Flat Iron Building? Or Taliesin? Do we really need those stupid redwoods? The beautiful thing about musicians is that they can play at a high level for a long time. Our orchestra is like an old growth forest. Or like a fine wine. Both of which should be tended, stewarded, but allowed to grow and mature organically. This management is a bunch of hackers who will be fine drinking box wine listening to Andre Rieu in their new stadium. And shame on the city and shame on the state for not stepping in and saying, no. No way are you putting a corporate campus, a golf course and a tract of McMansions in the Boundary Waters.

One time, in a moment of enthusiasm, I compared MYS Symphony, their highest group, to the Minnesota Orchestra. I had said that if you didn’t know it, you might mistake them for the pros. I’ve always regretted the hyperbole, especially since Ellen Dinwiddie Smith was in earshot. The fact is, although those teens are amazing, there’s no mistaking them for the Minnesota Orchestra–the Minnesota Orchestra who have toured the world and slapped critics awake, who have been nominated for Grammys and been sought out for collaborations by the world’s finest soloists and conductors, whose pianissimo can bring tears to your eyes.

Our music students are the future of classical music both on stage and in the audience. If the Minnesota Orchestra Corporation’s marketing department had been smarter they would have offered $10 seats for every concert to every youth symphony player and half price for their drivers. Bring up another generation of subscribers. But they don’t think like that. And now I hear that the increased fees to rent the hall will preclude many young players from performing there at all. Michael Henson and his board of directors have proven that they have no clue where their priorities should be. Like St. Exupery’s “grown ups” incapable of seeing what is truly important. At least more people are starting to understand that we don’t have to accept what Monsanto is trying to dish out. We can shop at the co-op–eat healthy food, support our farmers, and do something to benefit our planet, our community. Now we can get our music the same way.

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5 Responses to Letter of the day 10-8-2013

  1. Winston Kaehler says:

    The depth of feeling and wisdom that this crisis has brought forth are inspiring and wonderful. But we have to find ways of getting access to and bringing pressure to bear on those on the other side, who–despite some obvious cynicism–believe just as fervently in their cause as we do in ours. That also means building a much larger active constituency than we already have.

  2. Adele Binning says:

    Wonderful letter, Mr. Richman. I can only say thanks for taking the time to write it.

  3. Pingback: Today’s Letter | oboeinsight

  4. Terry says:

    Terrific letter, Mr. Richman! Thank you so much.

    “Marketing”? Did someone say “marketing”? Hey, folks, the November concerts by the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra, to be conducted by the 90-year-young Maestro Stanisław Skrowaczewski and featuring pianist Lydia Artymiw, are not sold out yet, so here’s your chance (especially if you missed the Osmo Farewell Concerts). After last weekend, we all are now well-aware that the orchestra is sounding as great as ever, maybe even better than that, so what’s keeping you? See you there!


  5. Eric Nilsson says:

    Shame on the “city,” shame on the “state”? How about “shame on us–on generations of us–on all of us, for allowing SPORTS to be worshipped with our time, our attention and our untold BILLIONS, which we can’t spend fast enough on stadia, multi-million dollar players, coaches, and mega-marketing, while we have relegated classical music to near oblivion. Whatever their shortcomings, and however much MN Orchestra board members might themselves spend on sports, at least they’ve also written out checks–and rather sizable ones, I would guess–to . . . the MN Orchestra. But where are we of the 99% in all of this? Only when Bach, Beethoven and Berg have more appeal than the Bucks, the Bosox and the Buccaneers (not to mention a raft of celebrities in the world of popular entertainment), can we expect top flight classical musicians to command the compensation that their art form and talent deserve. The lock-out exposes far more and far deeper trouble than “irresponsible management.”

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