Last weekend was a big opening weekend for classical music in the Twin Cities. On Friday, the Minnesota Orchestra played their season premiere in Orchestra Hall. On Saturday, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra played theirs at the Ordway Concert Hall. On Sunday afternoon, the great tenor Lawrence Brownlee opened the Schubert Club’s International Artist Series, also at the Concert Hall, in recital with pianist Myra Huang.
All the concerts were performed live at the venues where they were originally scheduled to take place. All the audiences stayed home, watching livestreams on what’s now blanket-termed our “devices”: computers, laptops, tablets, smart TVs.
We did not dress up. We did not walk through the door to Orchestra Hall or the Ordway, make our way through a crowd, greet friends, maybe order drinks for intermission, show our tickets to ushers, find our seats, page through printed programs and look around to see who else was there. We did not share chair arms with strangers. We did not experience the proximity of a thousand other people, or two thousand, the excitement of the lights going down, the sudden quiet, the roar of applause as the musicians walked onto the stage.
We heard the musicians walk onto the stage. Their footsteps echoed loudly in the otherwise empty concert halls. Let’s hope we never get used to that sound.
Is it OK to say that all three concerts were glorious? They were. After such a long absence – longer than six months – the musicians sounded wonderful. It was good to see their faces again, or parts of their faces. Most wore masks.
Both orchestras were smaller than usual. The Minnesota Orchestra began with Mozart’s somber, formal Serenade in C minor and just eight musicians, a wind octet. Jessie Montgomery’s joyous “Strum,” part of the orchestra’s commitment to program more music by Black composers, was performed by a complement of 25 musicians, the largest we’ll see until it’s safe for more. Same for Tchaikovsky’s Serenade in C major, which ended the program with profound beauty. That waltz! Reaching back to Mozart, the Tchaikovsky tied the concert with a bow.
In between, in a prerecorded segment, Osmo Vänskä told us a bit about what’s kept him going in the nine months since he last led an orchestra: yoga, long walks, saunas and playing music with his wife, Erin Keefe, the orchestra’s concertmaster.
The SPCO, which earlier announced it would have no guest artists (or artistic partners) for the 2020-21 season, brought in Canadian superstar Stewart Goodyear for a night of music old and brand new: an arrangement for piano quartet of Beethoven’s “Marcia funebre” from the “Eroica” symphony; the world premiere of an SPCO-commissioned work for solo trumpet by young Black composer Tyson Davis, featuring SPCO trumpeter Lynn Erickson alone on stage; Goodyear’s first-ever live performance of his own demanding Piano Quartet; and Brahms’ first Piano Quartet, written for Clara Schumann. It was a night of excellence and surprises.
The Schubert Club presents several series each year, so Sunday afternoon’s concert wasn’t the official 2020-21 season opener; that happened two weekends ago at St. Anthony United Church of Christ, with the Pacifica Quartet. Three out of five of the Schubert Club’s series feature guest artists. Lawrence Brownlee lives in Florida, Myra Huang in New York. If they’re livestreaming anyway, does it really matter where they perform? Barry Kempton, the Schubert Club’s artistic and executive director, believes it does. He’s right. These concerts may stream globally, but setting them in St. Paul makes them special to us, the local audience.
We can’t say enough in praise of Brownlee and Huang. The in-demand Brownlee has been performing many virtual and prerecorded concerts and seemed totally at home facing the Ordway’s empty seats. He even juggled the program order, moving an aria from Kurt Weill’s “Street Scene” to the second half and singing instead a set of four spirituals arranged by Jacqueline B. Hairston. Huang was the perfect accompanist, her playing precise, responsive, and filled with emotional depth and lyricism.
Brownlee’s recital included more spirituals than classical arias. He also performed five spirituals arranged by Damien Sneed and John Daniels Carter’s “Cantata,” which comprises five spirituals. His interpretations of “All Night All Day” (“angels watching over me, my lord”) and Carter’s fiery arrangement of “Ride On King Jesus” (“King Jesus rides a milk-white horse/No man can a-hinder me”) were sung with the force of conviction. “Ride On King Jesus” officially ended the concert, and had Brownlee sung it live and in person before a full concert hall, everyone in the audience would have been on their feet screaming.
Was that all? It wasn’t. Brownlee and Huang stayed on stage for an encore, “The Nearness of You.” That old Hoagy Carmichael song most of us know became, in that moment, a pungent mixture of longing and hope, promise and loss.
All of these concerts were made available for free. Minnesota Orchestra’s season premiere – and its five upcoming livestreams – will be available on demand for the duration of this season, including summer 2021. The SPCO’s season opener is not yet part of its free concert library; we’ll let you know if and when that happens. Brownlee and Huang’s recital will remain available on demand through Wednesday, Nov. 4. (Pacifica Quartet is up for another two weeks.)
What was manifestly clear in all three performances was how much the musicians want to perform for us, stay engaged with us and continue to bring their artistry to us. In these terrifying, deflating, constantly shifting times, these organizations are trying so hard. They are literally giving us everything they have. We can take it, for free. Those of us with the means should reach into our own pockets and do what we can to ensure that next year at this time, and beyond, they’re still around.