Hello there readers!
News flash: life as a musician is busy. Over the summer I thought I would have just oodles of time to write, but most of my time was absorbed by practicing, rehearsals, and performances at the Bay View Summer Music Festival in northern Michigan! I thought certainly once school picked up I would have a more regular schedule, or perhaps some time on the weekends to write, but free time was still hard to come by.
Fortunately, as a musician busyness = success. Since my last post, I attended the aforementioned chamber music festival, took my first professional audition for the a major orchestra, played the odd gig around CCM, toured for a week with the U.S. Air Force Band of Flight, and got in the Christmas spirit by playing Christmas carols with horn ensembles in Dayton and Cincinnati. This, in addition to my duties as a student and the occasional social interaction, left me very little time. Now, however, I am on break and there is really no excuse for me not to be writing, so here I am!
It’s time I introduce the Minnesota Orchestra, which I had the absolute pleasure of visiting last May. Much like Chicago, Minnesota and I have a long history. Although I never lived there, much of my family lives in Minnesota now or has in the past. Every summer while I was growing up, my family visited a beautiful lake in northern Minnesota called Elbow Lake (funny name, I know). We would visit around the same time every July along with several other families who had children close to the ages of my sister and myself. As a result, everyone in my age group became close, and we still keep up occasionally today (thank you, Facebook).
I have always loved the culture of the people in Minnesota. The people are polite, down-to-earth, and hospitable. My experience with the Minnesota Orchestra horn section proved to be no different. Professor Gardner first introduced the project to the section when subbing with them last winter, and they were very receptive to the idea. I contacted several members of the horn section, all of whom were enthusiastic about the project and readily offered suggestions for travel, lessons, concert dates, and housing. Ellen Dinwiddie Smith (third horn) graciously opened her home to me, and allowed me to stay there for a few nights. Michael Gast (principal horn) offered immediately to set up a lunch with the section that would allow me to interview them and learn more about their history and musical ideas. I was overwhelmed by their kindness and enthusiasm. This was exactly what I had been hoping for in this project! After a volley of emails with the section members, I was scheduled to attend a rehearsal, interview the section over lunch, attend two concerts, and take lessons with Michael Gast, Ellen Dinwiddie Smith, and Brian Jensen (second horn).
I departed from the Cincinnati airport (which is actually in Kentucky – go figure.) on Thursday, May 26th. It was my first time dealing with long-term parking by myself. Admittedly I was quite nervous about leaving my car outside, exposed to the elements and numerous bandits that were sure to break into my car and steal valuable things like my air freshener and ten year-old radio. As soon as my shuttle reached the airport I became extremely paranoid that I had not locked my car or even closed all of my doors, and was already plotting ways to jump my car when it was most certainly dead upon my return. Apart from teaching me a great deal about horn playing, this project is exposing me to the frenzy of traveling. As a musician, this is certainly something I will have to get used to.
Mark Smith (Ellen’s husband) picked me up from the airport and took me to Orchestra Hall where the orchestra was rehearsing. As soon as I sat in the balcony to listen, I was finally able to relax. Everything was organized, and I was now free to observe and learn. The rehearsal began with a fascinating trumpet concerto by Finnish composer Jukka Linkola, performed by Finnish soloist Jouko Harjanne. Mr. Harjanne played exquisitely. His embouchure was perfect and the highest notes floated effortlessly from his instrument. I was entranced by his musicality in the performance of this concerto which featured everything from jazzy, rhythmic acrobatics to sweeping, lyrical melodies. After a short break, the orchestra returned to rehearse Gustav Mahler’s sixth symphony. Originally, the section had planned to get me onstage during the rehearsal from an inside perspective. In the end this proved impossible, and now I could see why. Even for Mahler, who is famous for thick instrumentation, this proved to be a packed stage. The symphony features:
- 4 flutes
- 4 oboes
- 5 clarinets (Eb, A, Bb, and bass)
- 4 bassoons
- 1 contrabassoon
- 8 – count ‘em 8 horns (9 with an assistant)
- 6 trumpets
- 4 trombones
- 1 tuba
- 2 timpani
- Offstage bells and cowbells
- Bass drum
- Snare drum
- Tam-tam (a type of gong)
- At least two celesta (a dreamy keyboard instrument – think Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy)
- 2 harps
…In addition to a full string section, and of course, a giant hammer (more about that later). Needless to say, there was hardly room for me onstage. There was hardly room for the orchestra! As I listened to the rehearsal of the sweeping, dramatic music of Mahler, the vast grandeur of the symphony seemed to be worth the tight space. Hearing a recording of Mahler is magnificent, but only hearing it live can deliver the full effect of his music.
The rehearsal progressed much the same as the ones I have experienced myself. Maestro Osmo Vänska made comments and suggestions here and there, shaping phrases and textures and gesturing animatedly to convey his musical ideas. Maestro Allen Tinkham of the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra once told us that professional orchestras have the same problems that youth orchestras do – they just fix them more quickly. Observing the Minnesota Orchestra, this certainly seemed to be true. The orchestra was flexible, quickly adhering to Maestro Vänska’s input while performing with their own musical style and expression. Adaptability and musicality are crucial in the professional orchestra.
The most unusual thing to me (which really was not unusual at all) was the orchestra’s casual attire. When I am sitting in a beautiful hall listening to professional musicians, I am accustomed to seeing tuxedoes and concert black. To see these musicians rehearsing in Orchestra Hall in jeans was a new experience for me – not that I should have expected anything different! It added a new reality to the professional orchestra for me. As a student musician, it is easy to idolize these performers and the performance career in general. To see the musicians dressed informally, producing the same beautiful music, made it easier for me to picture myself on that stage – an exciting prospect, to be sure!
At one point during the rehearsal, everyone suddenly and inexplicably lifted bows and instruments into the air. Michael Gast explained to me later that this was an old tradition. If someone loudly dropped music or equipment during a rehearsal, the other musicians wanted to prove that they had not been the cause of the disturbance. This tradition is maintained humorously today. It made me happy to see these sorts of inside jokes and camaraderie within the orchestra. This companionship is certainly evidenced in the cohesive blend of sounds in the orchestra, as well as the closeness of the members of the horn section, which I experienced firsthand at lunch afterward.
Stay tuned for my next entry featuring an interview with the Minnesota Orchestra horn section – coming soon! (I promise!)