Q: How much is the sight of Prince, sporting a feel-good freak flag freedom of ‘76 afro and blowing kisses to the crowd at midnight Saturday at a packed-to-the-airplane-hangar-rafters Paisley Park Studios worth? How much, to bear witness to the great little love god dancing, flowing, feinting, conducting, and playing with as good a funk-rock-blues-big band that has ever torched the planet, and whose healing molten funk flies in stark contrast to so much of the news feed of the day? How much? How much to hear him climax to “Purple Rain,” and preach the power of “Real music by real musicians, y’all!” as about a thousand of us purple sheep danced and made love?
A: After intermission at the Minnesota Orchestra musicians’ concert Friday night at the Ted Mann Concert Hall, principal trombonist Doug Wright took to the microphone to thank the audience for coming, for their donations and support during the yearlong lockout of the orchestra that ultimately led to last week’s breakdown of contract talks and the resignation of Music Director Osmo Vänskä.
“There’s no one more disappointed in the events earlier this week than we are,” said Wright, after the orchestra had turned in soul-stirring readings of Beethoven. “I want to assure you all that we did everything we could to avert this tragedy, and to keep a great orchestra here in Minnesota. Unfortunately, we were not successful. We’re going to keep working on it, but for tonight we’re going to set all of that aside. Tonight is about music. I can’t tell you how therapeutic it is for all of us on the stage to come together, come to you folks tonight. It helps us feel joy, it helps us feel sorrow, it helps us to feel. And we know that’s the same for you.”
Yes, please. Money matters be damned, the beleaguered but bad-ass orchestra then went into Mozart’s Concerto No. 27, written during the last year of the composer’s life. “When the year 1791 began, Mozart’s career seemed to be halted, his financial affairs were in disarray, and he was sunk in a serious depression,” read the concert program notes. “The composer and pianist who not so many years earlier had scarcely been able to keep up with public demand for compositions and concerts now paid the rent by writing music for ballroom dances and as background for waxworks.”
Hundreds of years later, on the first chilly autumn night of 2013, Mozart’s last notes rang and sang through the University of Minnesota concert hall as something of a clarion call to modern-day musicians who have been made to feel the squeeze of unstable careers, and as a reminder that their true riches and rewards must come from the music itself, no matter how much the world has devalued live music and musicians, which is what happened with the orchestra lockout and the silencing of so many elite musicians.
Historically, musicians have been among the most disposable of workers, starting with the court musicians of the Middle Ages. “The rich are often still signing our paychecks, they just aren’t giving us a room in the palace anymore,” writes David Hahn of MusiciansWages.com. “While court musicians were the highest paid musicians of their day, it was also one of the least stable jobs. Nobility were notoriously poor financial planners and it was not uncommon for courts to layoff all of their musicians at once without any warning.”
Such is the ages-old plight of the working musician. (Not for nothing were a couple of twentysomething orchestra fans and members of the World Socialist Web Site standing outside Ted Mann Friday night, distributing copies of their story “The Minnesota Orchestra lockout and the defense of culture in the US”). Still, over the weekend, as I traveled from concert hall to pub, club, and Paisley Park Studios, I chewed on a single question – “How much is live music worth?” – and, time and again, as player after player after player delivered sounds and performances that originated and erupted from deep within, I came up with the obvious answer: Priceless.
There was Vanska, the great maestro and his swan song, lurching, cajoling, imploring and guiding his troops in the expert playing of centuries-old music that has been the soundtrack of innumerable individual and collective people’s revolutions and evolutions.
Explosive. Expressive. Timeless. Urgent. Classic. What’s that worth? A tuppence? A letter grade? A Facebook like?
Or what about the bowing musicians, or the standing ovations, or the sight of pianist Emanuel Ax gazing up lovingly at his conductor, their matching tufts of white hair and balding heads suggesting an old world brotherhood in sacred song? Or, Ax playing his glistening Steinway grand piano with a heaven-sent feel and touch, his jowls billowing as he pounded and caressed the keys, spellbinding the room with sonic fairy dust and low-burn rapture.
Or the sight of music lovers at Ted Mann, perched in the box seats abutting the stage, holding their heads in their hands, studying, refueling, praying, wondering, dreaming, weeping, smiling, and listening, deeply, to cascades of sound, played with great drama and exuberance, great passion and dynamics, and super exquisite use of space, silence and ancient mysticism.
What’s that worth? Or what about the sound of songwriter Martin Devaney, who overcame a year of gut-wrenching and personal heartbreak to take to the Cedar Cultural Center stage just up the road from Ted Mann Friday night, and who, as the gobsmacked orchestra survivors strolled down Riverside Avenue to the strains of an Octoberfestive accordion player on the busk, delivered a grittily moving and romantic CD release party for his sixth independently-released CD, “House Of Rust.”
“You guys care about guitars being in tune?” Devaney asked his gathered friends and followers, as he tuned up his Telecaster, then lurched through a mature, confident set made up of one cool rock-pop song after another.
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
In that moment, Devaney was the epitome of the independent musician: laying it all on the line, playing with his friends and screaming for his supper, drink tickets, and a few more downloads. One of the true believers, in other words, a romantic for sure, who sings his guts out not for money but for magic, and because it’s what he was born to do. And if you’re looking for a better seat of the revolution, as led by a bunch of underworked and underpaid independent musicians who operate out of something Billy Bragg calls “a socialism of the heart,” you could do worse than Palmer’s Bar on the West Bank, where the Devaney after-party attracted a gang of musicians and songwriters, who drank and danced into the wee hours to the very swinging Drew Peterson and Friends, whose melodic rock was worth, according to the tip jar early Saturday morning, about 20 bucks.
Then there was the incomparable Prince and his bands, tearing it up yet again at Paisley like some latter day incarnation of Parliament Funkadelic and Jimi’s Jehovah’s Witnesses, with Prince time and again proving that Minnesota’s greatest conductor is still in the house, and that no government shut down or musician lockout can squelch the power of live music. For a $50 donation, the dearly beloved gathered to hear Prince deliver the hits and a smattering of dance-party favorites, with the only thing missing, given the times we’re living through, being “Money Don’t Matter Tonight.” Maybe next weekend. Maybe tonight …