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Mary Ann Feldman, longtime MN Orchestra program annotator and speaker, dies at 85

Unofficially, she was also for many years the chief “idea person” at Orchestra Hall. It was she who conceived the notion of a summer festival devoted to the music and personalities of Vienna. The result was the orchestra’s popular Sommerfest.

Minnesota Orchestra
Mary Ann Feldman wrote erudite and witty program notes for the Minnesota Orchestra for 33 years while serving as the orchestra’s principal speaker.
Photo by Courtney Perry

Mary Ann Feldman once said that talking about music was “the happiest thing” she did, and then she quickly added, “If talking burned calories, I’d be a sylph-like woman today.”

Mary Ann died Monday morning of complications from Alzheimer’s disease, an illness she had suffered from for more than a decade. She had lived the past four years at the Waters on 50th, an assisted-living facility in Minneapolis. She was 85. She was perhaps the best known and most prolific advocate for classical music the Twin Cities has ever known.

A gifted writer, speaker, educator, historian, dog-lover and avid mountain climber, she wrote erudite and witty program notes for the Minnesota Orchestra for 33 years while serving as the orchestra’s principal speaker, which meant giving 60 speeches a year, some of them on radio and television but most of them in the form of pre-concert talks at Orchestra Hall, a format she pioneered. Unofficially, she was also for many years the chief “idea person” at Orchestra Hall. It was she who conceived the notion of a summer festival devoted to the music and personalities of Vienna, an idea she suggested in a letter to the conductor Leonard Slatkin. The result was the orchestra’s popular Sommerfest, which recently celebrated its 38th season.

‘Everyone calls me by my first name’

To her many friends, Feldman was generous, irreverent, intrepid, loyal, highly opinionated, driven and, as many will attest, a stylish dresser. Her writing style, like her speech, was deeply informed – she earned a Ph.D. in music history from the University of Minnesota – but always accessible, rather like the woman herself. “Everyone calls me by my first name,” she once told me. “It’s never ‘Dr.’ or ‘Ms.’ They call me up. They send me Christmas cards. They stop me in supermarkets. I was riding my bike one time at 6 a.m., and I stopped at a restaurant to buy a muffin. My hair was in pin curlers. I was feeling very anonymous. The guy behind the counter shouts, ‘Hey, Mary Ann Feldman!’”

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A bike ride at 6 a.m. was not an unusual occurrence in the life of this woman, who seemed to get along on less sleep than the rest of us. Normally, she rose at 4 a.m. She would read the morning paper – every word of the Star Tribune, she claimed — then would play the piano for 45 minutes. At around 7, when her husband, Harold, had begun to move about the house, she would start the day’s writing, perhaps a speech or maybe an essay for the program book. Even if she were writing about a Schubert symphony she had heard many times, she tried to approach the work as if she were hearing it – and thinking about it – for the first time because she knew that the majority of her listeners – or readers – were hearing the work live for the first time.

Mary Ann Feldman circa late 1960s
Courtesy of the Minnesota Orchestra
Mary Ann Feldman circa late 1960s
As always, music was her energizer, her spark plug. At the age of 2, growing up in the Frogtown section of St. Paul, where her father ran a small restaurant, Mary Ann would start to cry whenever her parents or an aunt sang “Red Wing” (“Oh the moon shines bright on pretty Red Wing …”) She first heard a live orchestra at the age of 8 — Dimitri Mitropoulos conducting the Minneapolis Symphony in a youth concert.

Many years later, her mother inquired about an envelope she found in the attic of the family home. Inside were three cigarette butts. “Ma, don’t throw those out,” Mary Ann hollered. “They were Fritz Reiner’s cigarette butts.” She had picked them up in an ashtray backstage at Northrop Auditorium while standing in line to get an autograph from the famed Hungarian conductor.

Later, as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota, where she studied English and music history, she wrote reviews for the Minnesota Daily using the name V.I. Olin. Even though at least two women during this period, the 1950s, had made it into the upper ranks of journalism writing music criticism – Claudia Cassidy in Chicago and Harriet Johnson in New York – Mary Ann figured there was some advantage to being gender-neutral. “I thought people might not take a ‘girl’ seriously doing that kind of writing,” she said.

A blow for equality at the Cosmos Club

Some years later – in 1972 – while attending a symposium on music criticism in Washington, D.C., she struck a blow for gender equality at the all-male preserve known as the Cosmos Club. On at least one occasion she followed the rules, entering the facility via the back door in order to drink a martini with the composer and critic Virgil Thomson, who was a club member.

“One night it got to me,” she said, “and I went through the revolving door in the front. A gentleman with a Southern accent came up to me and said, ‘M’am, are you not aware of the rules of this club?’ I said, ‘Sir, I am very aware of them. I’m here on a project funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, which is supported by taxpayers, and I’m an American taxpayer, and I’m walking through the front door of the Cosmos Club.’”

The policy changed that year, and now women can even stay overnight there. “There was a young woman in our group of critics, very gifted,” Mary Ann said. “She used to smoke pot in the ladies’ room. One time, when I walked in there, I said to her, ‘Is that pot?’ She said ‘Yup.’ I said, ‘This is great. We can’t walk through the front door, but we can smoke pot in the ladies’ room.’”

Mary Ann Feldman, right, with composer Aaron Copland circa early 1970s.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Orchestra
Mary Ann Feldman, right, with composer Aaron Copland circa early 1970s.
Earlier, on graduating from the University of Minnesota, Mary Ann received a Woodrow Wilson scholarship and was accepted at three schools for graduate study: Harvard, Berkeley and Columbia in New York City. She chose Columbia because she wanted to study with Paul Henry Lang, a specialist in 18th-century music, a big interest of hers, and also because she wanted to take advantage of the wealth of musical performances the city offered.

Looking back, she thought she made a wise choice. New York was where she met her husband-to-be, a young computer technician, Harold Feldman. Among the many musical events she attended, one of them has become the stuff of legend: the premiere at Town Hall of “Desert” by the avant-garde composer Edgard Varese. There were boos as well as cheers. Halfway through the performance, an old man in the second row got up, pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket, waved it like a white flag and stomped up the aisle.

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“It was an event,” she recalled. “That’s what should always happen at a musical performance. There should be some kind of emotional reaction. If only people would react at concerts instead of writing us letters a week later.”

A short stint on Wall Street

After receiving her M.A. from Columbia, she accepted the least likely of the 13 job offers she got, a position with an investment firm on Wall Street. “I didn’t know the difference between a stock and a bond,” she said, “but then I thought, what a lark, to learn something completely different from music.” She spent two years re-writing reports on security analysis and then prepared to resume work on her Ph.D. in music history at Columbia as an path to an academic career. But soon thereafter, Harold Feldman, by then her husband, was transferred by his employer, Univac, to Minneapolis, and Mary Ann accompanied him.

Mary Ann Feldman circa the 1990s
Courtesy of the Minnesota Orchestra
Mary Ann Feldman circa the 1990s
“The fact is, I really wanted to finish the Ph.D. at Columbia and teach,” she said with a touch of remorse. “It was another age back then, another view of marriage. In those days, the wife followed the husband.”

Back in Minneapolis, she taught humanities for a few years at the University of Minnesota, and then, in 1966, she applied for — and won —- the job of program annotator for the then-Minneapolis Symphony, replacing Paul Ivory, who had suffered a heart attack. For her first season’s work, 1966-67, writing notes for every program, she was paid $700.

The job grew. She was asked to write funding proposals, then to do radio commentary for broadcasts. By the time Orchestra Hall opened, in 1974, she was editor of the program book. She even took charge of the youth concerts for a year. She was a constant presence during Sommerfest, feeding Slatkin programming ideas, and during the final nine years of the Metropolitan Opera tour – seven productions each spring at Northrop Auditorium – she served as “opera coordinator,” which meant giving 30 speeches a year promoting the Met throughout the Upper Midwest.

A ‘peak experience’: Annapurna

Word of her expertise and unflagging energy began to circulate in the orchestra world. In 1979 the Boston Symphony offered her a job similar to what she was doing in Minnesota. She turned it down. It wasn’t the right time for her to move, she said. In 1983 she received her doctorate from the university and that year she climbed the Himalayas as part of Star Tribune columnist Jim Klobuchar’s mountain-trekking group. She called it her “peak experience”: resting in a sleeping bag near the top of Annapurna while the group listened to a recording Klobuchar had brought with him of Richard Strauss’ “Alpine Symphony.”

“I’ll never forget listening to that music, dropping off to sleep, then waking up,” she said. “We had slogged up this muddy path in the rain, I went to this doorway, stepped outside and fell 3 feet into a yak pit full of mud. But there was Annapurna, one of the great mountains of the world, and the sun had just come up.”

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In 1999 Mary Ann retired from her several jobs at Orchestra Hall in order to devote herself to chronicling the orchestra’s history, putting its archive in order and conducting nearly 100 interviews on videotape of key people, all in preparation for the organization’s centennial in 2003. (Harold Feldman died of dementia in 2016.)

Mary Ann Feldman in 2009
Photo by Ann Marsden
Mary Ann Feldman in 2009
She was discouraged, she said at the time, about how conservative audiences had become. “I told this to Skrowaczewski,” she said, referring to the orchestra’s former music director. “I said, ‘Stan, you wouldn’t believe the things that Edo de Waart couldn’t do that you could do.’ Edo came here thinking that because Minneapolis is the home of the Walker Art Center and a lot of experimental theater, audiences would be receptive to bold contemporary programming. Well, they’re not. It took him only a year to find out that the progressive image we have of audiences here is PR, not reality.”

Changing audiences

Concertgoing as a regular part of one’s lifestyle had been largely wiped out for an entire generation – people in their 40s and 50s – due to dwindling arts education and people’s focus on their careers, she felt. She was more optimistic about the younger generation.

“They’re reacting against the yuppified values of the ’80s and ’90s,” she said. “It’s because they’re impoverished, and their expenses are lower. They often have jobs that are beneath their education. They have grim prospects. What’s going to make them feel rich? The arts. Going to the theater and concerts, having a life in the arts will compensate for the fact that they don’t live in fancy houses. I really believe that.”

She recalled a concert on a Sunday night during Sommerfest in the late ’90s. Skrowaczewski was conducting Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. A large percentage of the audience looked to be under 30.

“I sat next to a young woman, maybe 19 or 20.” Mary Ann said. “She was blind. She listened intently. I felt I was hearing the Beethoven Ninth, with her, for the first time. Near the end, when the ‘Ode to Joy’ finally breaks through, like sun hitting the peak of the Matterhorn, a smile came over her face that was not to be believed. It was beatific, and I just wept.”