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Vänskä/Henson issues resurface as Orchestra Hall re-opens; big doings at the Walker

orchestra
Photo by John Whiting
Fans throughout Saturday's audience greet musicians by waving green handkerchiefs that were provided by Save Our Symphony MN.

Just because the long Minnesota Orchestra lockout is over, the musicians are back at work, the season has begun, the board has a new chair in former Allina CEO Gordon Sprenger, and the accordion guy is in the skyway does not mean things are ducky at Orchestra Hall. On both nights of the first homecoming weekend, when Sprenger came on stage after intermission to greet the sold-out house, he was met with shouts of “Bring back Osmo!” Meanwhile, former artistic director Osmo Vänskä, who resigned last October, tossed an unexpected grenade.

Talking with Classical MPR’s Brian Newhouse on Saturday, Vänskä said, “For any healing to begin at the orchestra, [CEO] Michael Henson must go.” According to MPR, Newhouse confirmed that Vänskä was speaking for the record, after which the story went live. Sprenger later expressed surprise that “Osmo chose to register his comments with the news media when those conversations belong with the Orchestral Association.” 

Let’s trace the evolution of Sprenger’s public responses to the Osmo question. Last week he told MPR, “The board will now turn its attention with appropriate deliberation to examining this whole issue of artistic leadership.” At Friday’s concert, he responded to cries of “Bring back Osmo!” with “We appreciate that, we understand that and we are addressing that.” On Saturday, Sprenger had barely said, “Thank you” to the crowd’s welcoming applause before the “Osmo!” chorus began. “I understand,” he said, “and we are on top of it.” During a pause following Sprenger’s call for us to “fill this hall week after week,” a lone voice rang out, “With Osmo!” The crowd roared.

Sprenger has a letter from attorney Lee Henderson, hand-delivered a week before the homecoming concerts, that includes a summary of responses to Henderson’s Feb. 1 “Bring back Osmo Vänskä” op-ed in the Strib. Henderson reported that “approximately 2,500 people responded favorably … in just four days.” More than 99 percent supported Vänskä's return as music director; 40 percent specifically said they would not make financial contributions to MOA unless he returns as music director. In addition, 20 percent stated they want Michael Hensen terminated; 10 percent that they will not make financial contributions to MOA until Henson is terminated, even if Vänskä returns. As of Feb. 6, Henderson had collected more than 350 pages of emails and comments.

On the Henson question – and for many musicians and orchestra supporters, it’s as pressing as the Osmo question – Sprenger’s public comments to date have been words of praise for his “very good, outstanding leadership.” Blogger Scott Chamberlain replied with an open letter to Sprenger and a measured, point-by-point “case for removing Michael Henson.” Far blunter blogger Norman Lebrecht wrote, “Osmo’s right. [Henson] must go. Out of orchestral management altogether.” The coming weeks will tell the tale.

We can and should celebrate the musicians’ return, and the reopening of Orchestra Hall with a full-length program of classical music: maestro Stanislaw Skrowaczewski’s own arrangement of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, Strauss’ vivid tone poem “Don Juan” and Beethoven’s majestic “Eroica” symphony. Nothing compares to sitting in Orchestra Hall beneath that dazzling sculpture of a ceiling, in the glorious sound and powerful physical presence of live music performed by gifted musicians. (And, we might add, in brand-new, super-comfy seats with good legroom.) The Ted Mann is a lovely hall, and we’re glad the musicians continued to perform there during the lockout. But it was good to be back at Orchestra Hall for the audience as well as the musicians. And we support what Sprenger suggested: Buy tickets. Go. Fill the place.

After Saturday’s concert, in the grand new lobby where many of the musicians went to greet fans and friends, principal trumpet Manny Laureano described with awe and wonder what he saw and experienced near the end of the second movement of the Beethoven: Skrowaczewski slowing a phrase, stretching it, pulling the notes “like so much taffy” – and wiping tears from his eyes. We all owe a great deal to Maestro Skrowaczewski. The original Orchestra Hall was his baby, and he opened it in 1974. How perfect that he was here to reopen the renovated space. 

conducting
Photo by John Whiting
The orchestra was conducted by Stanislaw Skrowaczewski.

His 90th birthday will be celebrated later this month with a concert of world premiere compositions (including one by Skrowaczewski, written for cellist Lynn Harrell), arrangements by Skrowaczewski, narration by the Guthrie’s Joe Dowling and more. Presented by the Chamber Music Society of Minnesota, originally scheduled for Bethel Great Hall on Feb. 22, the concert has been rescheduled for 4 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 23, and moved to Orchestra Hall. Tickets are still available and affordable: $25 general, $20 student, $15 student. FMI and tickets.

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The stars have aligned for an event you won’t want to miss if you’re a fan of indie icon Sufjan Stevens, celebrated American artist Jim Hodges, getting your hands on highly anticipated new music before everyone else, and artsy connections. Friday’s Walker After Hours preview party, which conveniently falls on Valentine’s Day, has it all.

Let’s start with Stevens. He’s a member of a musical collaborative with rapper Serengeti and composer/producer Son Lux that used to be called S/S/S and has been renamed Sisyphus, in honor of the shimmering, stainless-steel-clad boulders on the Walker’s lawn created by Hodges. Sisyphus just recorded its first self-titled album, co-commissioned by the SPCO’s Liquid Music Series and the Walker. The music was inspired by the work of Hodges, whose exhibition “Give More Than You Take,” the first comprehensive survey of his 25-year career, opens Friday. What started out as an EP turned into an LP (Stevens told Pitchfork there was a “wellspring” of “mad ideas”) whose official release date is March 18, but 50 limited-edition copies will be in the Walker’s gift shop on Friday. We’ve heard it. We like it. The music is beats and raps, layers and luminous beauty. Read about it here and listen to the single “Calm Down.” (Language alert: It’s not as rough as a lot of rap, but it has blue moments, so let’s not turn it on at the day-care center.)

Photo by John Ciambriello
Sisyphus, from left to right: Son Lux, Serengeti, Sufjan Stevens

Stevens, Serengeti and Son Lux have never before performed live, but they will at After Hours, though no one can say what they will perform or for how long. (The Walker is calling it a “cameo appearance.”) Following their own sold-out Thursday-night concert at the Walker, Olga Bell and Angel Deradoorian will DJ sets of dance music. So if you’re at the Walker Friday night, you can see the Jim Hodges show on opening night, hear Olga Bell, hear Sisyphus, grab an album, and someday tell your grandchildren you were there. Well, who knows? FMI and tickets.

If you want to know more about the art and the music, there’s an opening-day dialogue with Hodges and Sisyphus at the Walker on Saturday afternoon at 2 p.m. This is officially part of the Composer Conversation Series presented by the Walker, Liquid Music, MPR and the American Composers Forum. It seems everyone is in on the Hodges/Sisyphus act. Collaboration is good. FMI and tickets.

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The cats are coming back. The Internet Cat Video Festival returns to the Walker’s Open Field on Aug. 14, 2014. You may recall it was at the Fair last year, while the Walker’s bricks were being worked on. That’s done, so the cat videos (and the whole crazy experience) will once more be free.

Is Jon Hamm as handsome in person as he is on TV? You can see for yourself – if you’re invited to the “Mad Men”-themed fundraiser for Sen. Al Franken on Feb. 21, hosted by Sam and Sylvia Kaplan. Or, if you’re not invited (don’t feel bad, neither are we), you can go here, make a donation, and maybe win a chance to be there. If you’re from out of state, your travel and accommodations will be paid for. (Hmmm – if the winner lives in Minneapolis, will parking be covered?)

Courtesy of the Spring Art Crawl
Chris Faust’s “View of St. Paul from the C.N.W. Liftbridge”

St. Paul photographer Chris Faust’s “View of St. Paul from the C.N.W. Liftbridge” is the winner of the poster competition for the Spring 2014 Art Crawl. You’ll see it on all Spring Art Crawl posters and postcards. We love everything about it: the stillness, the composition, the way the rails pull you in, the fact that you can almost hear the nighttime sounds of the city on the other side of the river.

Our picks for the week

Tonight at Wayzata Central Middle SchoolBest-selling novelist Anna Quindlen reads from her latest, “Still Life With Bread Crumbs.” After the reading, Quindlen will answer questions and sign books; you can buy your copy there. Sponsored by the Bookcase of Wayzata. 305 Vicksburg Lane North. Free and open to the public.

Wednesday at the U’s Humphrey CenterNOMMO African American Author Series: Kevin Young. Winner of the American Book Award, finalist for the National Book Award, poet Kevin Young has been hailed as “one of the most talented poets in the United States.” Drawing inspiration from the blues and the history of black America, he has written seven acclaimed books of poetry. His first book of literary and cultural criticism, “The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness,” won the 2012 Graywolf Nonfiction Prize. The NOMMO series is presented by the Givens Foundation for African American Literature. 7 p.m., 301 9th Ave. S. Free and open to the public; reservations are requested.

Wednesday at the DakotaDionne Farris and Russell Gunn. Grammy winner Farris is known as an R&B singer and former member of Arrested Development; she’s featured on their hit single “Tennessee.” Grammy-nominated trumpeter/multi-instrumentalist Gunn fused hip-hop and jazz in his four-volume “Ethnomusicology” series. Their new live album, “Dionne Get Your Gunn,” is, in his words, “the Dionne Farris songbook with arrangements by yours truly.” Meaning more jazz grooves. 7 and 9 p.m. FMI and tickets ($32).

kurt elling
Photo by Anna Webber
Kurt Elling will be at the Dakota on Thursday.

Thursday at the Dakota: Kurt Elling. If you’ve been paying attention to the Dakota’s calendar, you’ve noticed that the club is presenting a stellar line-up of prominent jazz vocalists over the next several weeks: Gregory Porter on Feb; 16; Cécile McLorin Salvant on March 9; Steve Tyrell in April; Cassandra Wilson in May. It begins Thursday with Kurt Elling, and there’s no better place to start. A Grammy winner, multiple Grammy nominee, winner of too many readers’ and critics’ polls to count, Elling is one of the hardest-working, most satisfying singers out there, possessing a rich, resonant baritone with a four-octave range (over which he seems to have complete control), storytelling and scatting skills, and the ability to write complex, poetic lyrics (vocalese) to impossibly difficult improvised jazz solos. Here he is singing “Nature Boy” with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. He’ll be at the Dakota with Xavier Davis on piano, Clark Sommers on bass, John Mclean on guitar and Kendrick Scott on drums. Elling is billing these sets as Valentines shows. If you’re looking for someone to sing  a romantic ballad or two, he’s the guy. 7 and 9 p.m. FMI and tickets ($40/$25). 

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Comments (2)

Henson

Henson is an architect of a detailed plan to reduce the quality of the orchestra and turn Orchestra Hall into what largely amounts to a "pops" facility. This plan included a lockout of one of the finest orchestras in the world, a planned public relations campaign to undermine the musicians' position, and even buying up in advance website URL's likely to be used by any organized movement to protest the plan. This was a premeditated assault on the quality of the orchestra.

Regardless of Vanska's return, it is clear that Henson must go. Vanska is correct.

Conversely, it would be near suicide for the board to attempt to go forward with any conductor besides Vanska. What conductor of quality would want to walk into the existing situation. Stability, quality and dedication will be needed to promote the healing that needs to occur. Vanska is the only choice.

MOA's intent

I have no inside information, but it seems like the reason the MOA decided to settle with the musicians was that they were about to lose control of the hall, by not fulfilling the terms of the lease. The orchestra's recent success (favorable national reviews, successful recordings, the Grammy award) was, from the MOA's point of view, just a costly accident that impeded their plan to downgrade the orchestra, divert fundraising efforts to the hall, and ultimately use that hall for other purposes..

So far I've seen nothing to indicate that this isn't true or that the MOA has changed its direction.

If the MOA wants people like me to start contributing again, they'll have to demonstrate a commitment to a very different plan. If they still want to go ahead with pops concerts and 'Orchestra Lite', I can't stop them, but I think it would be a big mistake to overlook the very obvious level of support for the current Minnesota Orchestra.