10 October 2013

Evading The MN Orch Question

The fact that I have not addressed the Minnesota Orchestra situation here says pretty much exactly what I would say without all the trouble of sitting down to write. However, I thought I might share some related stories that ought to be part of the public record about me and my work, and which will inevitably lead to some elaboration upon that opening sentence.

Early in elementary school (I don't remember exactly when, but quite early indeed), principal trumpet Manny Laureano made a visit to my school to give a talk about Pictures at an Exhibition and play the ubiquitous excerpt a few times. I've long since forgotten the content of the talk, but the sound of his trumpet in that gymnasium is something I've never forgotten, even if I'm not so sure it ever informed my own playing or hastened my later inclination towards brass instruments.

My college tuba teacher Ross Tolbert was the long-time principal tubist with the group and used to positively shower us with complimentary tickets. I once ran into him on my way into a rare concert at the St. Paul Cathedral and he insisted on rustling up a free ticket for me. I owe the bulk of my in-person orchestral listening experience to Ross and the orchestra, who, thanks to Osmo's arrival, were really hitting their stride around this time.

To this day, the most glowing classical-music bonafide on my resume is making the finals of the 2005 WAMSO Competition, which is the Minnesota Orchestra's young artist competition. Unfortunately, the aspect of this that has stuck with me the most is the opportunity I didn't have thanks to some good old fashioned U of MN politicking. At this time in history the U of MN Symphony Orchestra played a yearly "side-by-side" concert with many MNOrch players, and as a graduating super-senior and WAMSO finalist, I fully expected to be assigned to it for the first time. Unfortunately for me, my relationship with our orchestra conductor had been fractured years earlier over my involvement with the jazz ensembles when those commitments (made literally a year in advance for a special collaboration with the dance school) came into conflict with an opera to which he had hastily assigned me. When my friend Mike Werner returned from the side-by-side rehearsal, he told me that a group of players from the orchestra who had served as judges for the competition had come over to congratulate him thinking he was me. I felt bad for him to have been put in that situation, but worse that I had missed a significant chance to make some important connections, or at the very least to soak up some praise from some high-level classical players the likes of which I'd never have so good an opportunity to impress again. There's no guarantee that anything substantive would have come of any such connections, but having been denied the mere opportunity out of petty musico-stylistic politicking is one of several grievances for which I'll never forgive my alma mater. The conductor, against whom a resignation petition was once circulated during a rehearsal, didn't last much longer, but in my case, the damage was already done.

In January 2007, I took a sub list audition for MN Orch and several weeks later received a short, generic letter stating that I had been placed on the list. I assume my name can still be found somewhere towards the bitter end of that list, though obviously it hardly matters. Because I had been purchasing bare-bones ticket packages to the SPCO around this time, I would frequently get calls from fundraisers, who would announce themselves as "so-and-so calling from the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra." For about 3 seconds I would think it was a gig. Every time. It was miserable. Then again, MN Orch never even called me to ask for money.

I think I earned my way onto the list based on how I played that day, but in all honesty, the thought of performing with either of those groups did and still does frighten me just a bit. I've never known what to make of the fact that I'm the only U of MN tuba graduate I know who was never extended the invitation. I have tried to explain to jazz people many times that flashy bebop chops do not translate to orchestras of this quality, unless they exclusively play Berlioz, in which case I'm their man. I certainly don't have the right instrument to anchor a sizable orchestra by myself, though it is a supreme chamber orchestra axe, lying as it does right in the sweet spot between the big horn and the small horn as orchestra players tend to conceive of them. In other words, there is a role for me in orchestral music, but it's not the one that ever gets subbed out. Actually, I never once had a paying orchestra gig in Minnesota, not even as a ringer in a youth orchestra or anything like that. Conversely, within four months of moving to Southern California, I played two of them, two more than I'd had the rest of my life, without knowing anyone, handing out any business cards, or even having a Facebook page. I'm not sure if that says more about Southern California or the Twin Cities, but it didn't exactly make me sorry for leaving home.

As of today, everything floating around the blogosphere indicates that the Minnesota Orchestra is in dire jeopardy of ceasing to be the institution I knew it as, one which exposed me to the bulk of the live symphonic music I've experienced, and did so, especially after the arrival of Osmo, at an impeccably high level. This is something worth lamenting if it indeed comes to pass. It is, however, difficult for me to view these events in isolation, and in light of the larger national and international musical landscape, I am oddly ambivalent. I will say that I got sick and tired of seeing MN Orch players compete for and win McKnight Fellowships worth a fraction of their salaries while I and many freelance colleagues were passed over while grossing far less than the value of this grant in an entire year. I will also say that having my teaching methods called "crazy" by one MN Orch member with whom I shared a student was uncomfortable, if not entirely predictable. And though the ensemble has a wall full of ASCAP awards for adventurous programming, mainly that just makes it even harder to take the award seriously. Two of the very worst pieces of music I have ever heard in my life were token contemporary pieces on MN Orch programs, placeholder garbage by careerist hacks that, as many have pointed out, merely reinforce the traditionalist biases of rightly-suspicious blue-hairs.

There is now talk of would-be donors revising the Minnesota Orchestra out of their wills. I have yet to read an item detailing the fate for which all that money is now destined. It is without a doubt at this juncture a sum which could make some wonderful musical things happen in the Twin Cities if it were directed to the right places. The real questions, as always, are whether any such extra-institutional projects so much as smell like art to people with enough money to keep a will on file with their attorneys; indeed, whether these people have a nose for art at all, by any definition; and whether anyone at all in the Twin Cities would attend these performances if it meant they had to drive on surface streets, venture outside the Skyway system, or sit next to someone whose hair actually was dyed blue (you know, like in a hipster way).

So, I am ambivalent. I don't like to see people losing their jobs whether they are fellow musicians or not. I also would like to see the entire American orchestra world blown up and rebuilt into something functional and vital. Unfortunately, there's no reconciling those two things, and even more unfortunately, the former is always a much stronger likelihood than the latter. That's all I have to say about this for now. But do come back tomorrow.

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