Hell’s Coldest Day

This may come as a shock to many people but…. the classical music world is very strange. Case in point – this weekend, which found me the one place I was pretty sure I would never be again, and though it was a balmy 64 degrees in Minnesota it was certainly the coldest day in the history of hell.

A few months ago I was minding my own business on a bright, sunny day, and my phone rang. It was my manager. Or more to the point it seemed like it was my manager, but he was laughing so hard he couldn’t get a word out. I was rather unsure how to take his fit of hilarity until he managed to choke out the following question: “How would you like to conduct the Minnesota Orchestra?”

Many things ran though my mind at this point, including the following options:

  1. After 20 years of dealing with me the poor bastard has finally lost his mind.
  2. I didn’t remember walking into a blue police box and being delivered into an alternate universe. (Note to self – be on the lookout for mobile trashcans screaming “EXTERMINATE!”)
  3. I should look around for the cameras because this is obviously a pilot for a new reality show.

Once my brain had slowed down, and his laughter had subsided to a manageable level, the truth came out – yes, the Minnesota Orchestra had called and would like for me to conduct their free concert at the Lake Harriet bandshell.

At this point I should back up. About 2 1/2 years ago I published a blog titled The Sinking of the Minnesota. I knew when I hit the publish button that it might cause some waves, and that’s exactly what happened. I heard through the grapevine that the King Under the Mountain, HeDaCam, was … well, displeased. At that point I pretty much gave up any illusion of standing in front of the Minnesota Orchestra ever again. But I have a personal motto, one of my favorite lines from Divina Comedia

The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.

The ensuing two years were not pretty, watching the war raging over the future of the M.O. I would occasionally contribute but I have no illusion as to what group carried the vast majority of the battle. Once the settlement finally came I felt a little empty, glad that the orchestra was back but also wondering if it had all been worth it.

And then that call came. There was no question whether I would say yes, of course. Which meant that yesterday I found myself conducting the Minnesota Orchestra, in public, in front of thousands of people. Lake Harriet is a beautiful setting in Minneapolis, a wonderful place to see a concert, and we had a large an enthusiastic crowd. I was delighted to see friends, family, and acquaintances in the audience, but I was happiest to have the opportunity to make music with this orchestra that was full of so many friends and colleagues. Yes, we’re all a little older, with a little more gray hair, but it was wonderful. For me, it was closure. I finally feel like this sad chapter in the history of this great orchestra is over. Those of you on Crackbo…… uhhh…… FaceBook, should wander over to the Minnesota Orchestra page for some great photos.

So, what have we learned? We have learned that these venerable cultural institutions make a great impact in the society, but perhaps it takes an event like the lockout for that impact to be truly appreciated. Because of the last two years many folks have found a voice. Two bloggers in particular have come on the scene – Emily at Song of the Lark has taken it upon herself to be an advocate for musicians everywhere. I get the distinct impression she doesn’t like secrets. Scott at Mask of the Flower Prince has emerged as an highly insightful analyzer of music and the music industry. But I am perhaps happiest to see the advocacy of young Ms. Emily Green and her organization – Young Musicians of Minnesota. She is putting paid to the lie that the next generation doesn’t care.

Most importantly, I detect a sea change at the Minnesota Orchestra. The musicians I talked to were downright enthusiastic about the direction the institution was heading in. They have a person dedicated to inclusivity in their new board chair Gordon Sprenger. One of his first moves was to bring in Kevin Smith as interim President & CEO. He’s someone familiar with the Minnesota scene from his stint at the Minnesota Opera, and he has the trust of the musicians. And now the musicians themselves are engaged. They have taken responsibility in many areas of the organization, and there is a palpable sense that everyone realizes that the traditional balkanization of symphony structures cannot remain in place. This feels real.

The M.O. opens their 2014-15 season next week with Mahler’s Resurrection symphony. Somehow I doubt that is a programming coincidence. I wish them the best of luck. Perhaps the lessons learned here will serve as a guidepost for other orchestras in this hemisphere (yes, thinking of our colleagues in Atlanta). Thanks to all of you this orchestra is back.

9 thoughts on “Hell’s Coldest Day”

  1. Thank you for your words. I attended yesterday’s concert, and was very happy to be there as a volunteer for the MO. One point of amusement for me was the wind whipping your score–making it impossible for you to use it. (It’s a good thing that you are very familiar with that score!) I noticed that your blog has been “quiet” as of late, and I wondered if and when you would weigh in on Atlanta. I can understand your reticence to do so if there are any possible “repercussions”–given your comments made about our own debacle here. One great thing about the lockout here in MN, is the increased level of audience engagement, and more interaction between musicians and their “fans”. We at SOS MN are actively involved in helping SOS Atlanta build momentum to end their lockout. Music will reign supreme, with or without the bean counters.

  2. Wonderful post, Bill and comments from all…..And yes, two steps ahead in Minnesota, and one step back in Atlanta…..plus a summer of stress in the Metropolitan Opera negotiations…..The one sure truth in all of this is that we must all discern truth, and then speak truth to power….thanks to all who are doing so, and with such courage and conviction! NONE of the positive outcomes would have transpired without the hard work of musicians!

  3. II was not able to attend the concert yesterday although I would have liked to. I am an avid supporter of the musicians and I would have loved to see you conduct them! I remember your first blog 2 1/2 years ago and the awful feeling I had in the pit of my stomach, not so much for myself, but for the musican I am partnered with. I am thankful for all those that have been a strong voice for the musicians and have gotten to meet and love so many new people. Thanks to you as well for your outspoken and courageous voice!

  4. Bill, Love your writing! So happy you conducted the Symphony (hopefully also in future performances}. That’s where I first heard you conduct years ago when you were an assistant conductor. Minneapolis needs you back in town!

  5. Looking forward to a return engagement, Bill. Sorry to hear that you haven’t read my blog or everything that I wrote regarding governance structure at the MOA. Hope you’ll have some time soon to check it out! :-) Gina

  6. I agree with Patricia Okaya. And also, your points about the Orchestra taking ownership along with their own ENTHUSIASM is the BEST POSSIBLE WORLD I can think of to quote. No. Wait! There is another one…Leonard Bernstein’s best compliment was to call someone A MENSCH! Which is certainly how I feel about you. The concert was moving on SO many levels yesterday, and the excitement and concentration of all was palpable. You could FEEL people’s attention. So please, take your TOTAL TAOIST self on down the road to future successes and know that a lot of us here would certainly like to see you back in front of our treasured Orchestra. TRULY. An orchestra that I know you love and for which you truly risked. Thank you.

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