Photo by Ann Marsden
The moment many thought might never come finally did on Friday, Feb. 7. At long last, the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra finally took their seats in Orchestra Hall following an exhausting 15-month lockout, the resignation of conductor Osmo Vänskä, a Grammy award, and the completion of its new building, the most distinguishing feature of which is a moat of bile so wide and deep that it once threatened to drown anyone in the vicinity who so much as whistled a note of music.
Luckily, it’s been a cold winter and most people enter Orchestra Hall through the skyway, so the bile-moat posed little danger to the throngs of patrons who were getting their first glimpse of the new building. The accordion guy was there. The familiar skyway-level ushers were there. In fact, the only indication that it wasn’t just another night at the symphony was an army of volunteers handing out green “Welcome home” hankies to be waved when the musicians took the stage.
That, and the fact that Orchestra Hall was full.
I was fortunate enough to be seated next to Ron Lund, the former board chair who is widely credited for breaking the lockout logjam over lunch at the Minneapolis Club. He, like me, seemed pleased with the hall’s comfy new seats and expanded legroom. “These are nice,” he said. “Not like the seats at the Guthrie. I can’t sit through a play over there. I don’t know what they were thinking.”
I asked him what he had done to resolve the orchestra stalemate that nobody else could, even George Mitchell. He took a deep breath and said, “The problem was that everyone was talking past each other,” as if that explained everything. To keep the conversation going, I observed that the definition of a successful negotiation used to be that everyone left the room equally disappointed, and that these days, people seem to think “negotiating” means issuing an ultimatum, digging their heels in, and waiting for the other guy to cave. He swatted me away by saying, “That’s what’s happened here—no one left the room happy.” Again, he said this as if all there was to resolving the lockout was coming up with a solution that everyone could disagree on.
The musicians did a European-style tune-up and exit. When they re-emerged onstage, everyone in the hall immediately stood up and cheered, dutifully waving their green hankies and hooting as if it were some sort of popular sporting event. The color of those hankies was either unfortunate or symbolic, since the lockout itself was all about the green, but no one seemed to care. Then conductor emeritus Stanislaw Skrowaczewski ambled out onto the podium and the hollering got louder.
Skrowaczewski is 180 years old, but doesn’t look a day over 120, so you can’t help but root for the guy to keep waving that baton as long as he can. As the crowd sat back down, Skrowaczewski raised his baton and led the orchestra in his own arrangement of “The Star Spangled Banner”—a quaintly patriotic gesture that used to be a regular part of performances in the 1970s—and then launched into his own arrangement of J.S. Bach’s creepy organ masterpiece, “Toccata and Fugue in D minor,” the very same piece he chose to conduct when Orchestra Hall opened in 1974.
It would be bad form to say anything negative about the orchestra’s opening performance after such a long hiatus. The fact that the musicians were onstage filling the hall with Bach, Strauss, and Beethoven was victory enough. Why pour salt on the wound by pointing out that the orchestra as it now exists is still very good, but it is not the same orchestra that won the Grammy for those Sibelius recordings? And why spoil the mood by mentioning that without Vänskä at the podium, something is still poignantly missing? The woman at intermission who shouted, “Bring back Osmo!” during comments by newly elected board chair Gordon Sprenger captured the mood perfectly. Yes, people are happy that the orchestra is back—but they’d be a lot happier if Osmo hadn’t left.
The challenge from here on out is figuring out a way to keep audiences interested and engaged in the new, not-exactly-improved Minnesota Orchestra. Vänskä himself will be guest-conducting a few concerts in the coming weeks and months—including performances of his Grammy-winning Sibelius symphonies and an evening with violinist Joshua Bell—but as exciting as those evenings will be, they will also put in stark relief what the orchestra is missing without him as a regular presence in the building.
The ironic good news, according to Ron Lund, is that by not playing for more than a year, the Minnesota Orchestra has gotten more exposure than it ever would have if it had been operating normally. “People are more aware than ever of this building and this orchestra,” he joked. “Now we just have to keep these seats full.”
And to reiterate: they are very nice seats. It would be a shame for no one to sit in them.