Something you should read

Once a year or so I read something online that stops me in my tracks; not because it tells me something I didn’t know (which happens every 2 minutes or so), but because it forces me to think uncomfortable thoughts. This year’s winner was a post by Emily Hogstad, who has consistently provided, on her blog, the deepest and most insightful coverage of the War on the Northern Front (aka The Lockout) to be found anywhere. She recently took a break and visited Chicago, where she attended a CSO concert and found she really couldn’t escape after all:

I haven’t been to an orchestral concert since the Minnesota Orchestra lockout began. And accordingly, I felt completely disoriented. The audience was completely noncommittal. My fellow patrons weren’t talking about the orchestra or the repertoire or the soloist…or the CSO board or the CEO or the latest financials. Nobody waved to one another. Nobody hugged. Nobody laughed. Nobody cried. The manic electricity I’ve unconsciously grown used to in Minnesota was nowhere to be felt. It was a concert: one great big concert in a never-ending, centuries-long lineup of great big concerts.

The extraordinary had become routine.

Of necessity, maybe, but…

When the lights dimmed, there was a quiet faraway droning sound. It turned out to be applause. I joined in, distracted. In Minnesota, we whoop, we holler, we stamp. This sounded so meek, so anemic. So perfunctory. But – it’s normal. I had to remind myself: this is what people do when their orchestras aren’t in crisis. When they aren’t in danger of disintegrating before your very eyes. Heck, this is what we did, a couple years ago. I felt a churlish wave of homesickness. I only felt better once I looked up at the couple of familiar faces onstage.

I prepared myself to be blown away. But I – I wasn’t, and not by a long shot. I felt like everyone onstage was thinking of things like grocery lists and mortgage payments. Whether they left their curling irons plugged in. What they might cook for dinner tomorrow. Not whether the very future of the art of orchestral music was in their hands. They sounded like a disparate group of the greatest virtuosos on earth…and accordingly, they played as if they had nothing to prove. Then I thought: well, when you play so many concerts a year, how can you leave your soul on the stage every night? You can’t, can you? That’s nobody’s fault, is it? There are only so many times in a week you can tear your own heart out. Or even pretend to. But I missed the electricity. And the manic, sacred sense of purpose.

Polite applause again. A great orchestra – what a miracle! – and yet nobody really seemed to care, particularly.

…Well. That was The Great American Orchestra, right there. That was what we’re working to achieve, basically. That or something like it. A stable world-renowned orchestra. If I hadn’t had the last two years to look back on, maintaining a stable world-renowned orchestra would seem a noble, fulfilling goal. But in the second year of lockout, that alone seemed a dreadfully shallow, horribly useless thing to work for. Over the last year especially, we’ve been made aware of even more thrilling goals and achievements.

There needs to be more. Yes, a world-class orchestra as a starting point, but something else, in addition. The kind of commitment James brought to the stage, maybe. The kind of desperate affection the audience expresses in Minnesota. The kind of camaraderie that only happens in a fierce battle for high standards. The high-wire thrill and risk of self-governance? … I don’t know.


What is a great performance without a hugely committed audience to appreciate it? What kind of commitment is fair to expect or desire?

What exactly does commitment from a great orchestra look and sound like, and how realistic – and how healthy – is it to expect it every night?

Is every other orchestra and every other audience besides Minnesota’s now going to disappoint? Will I ever feel at home again anywhere else? … The thought I might not is going to haunt me now.

Deep down, am I grateful this lockout happened, so that I might learn these things – and meet these people – and have these experiences?

What do I really want to have?

Here is the paragraph I would insert my neat conclusion into, if I had one. But I don’t. I said at the beginning: I’m talking about thoughts and feelings I do not completely understand.

I sure don’t have the answers. But I don’t think anyone has better encapsulated the tension between artistic excellence – which entails absolute commitment by the artists – and the fact that excellence also requires the kind of institutional structure that tends to slowly erode that commitment over time. Or, in less pretentious language, working in an orchestra like the CSO, or Minnesota, or mine, means playing thousands of concerts over decades, most of them won’t be that special, and it’s really hard to throw oneself body and soul into every one in a way that the audience would notice and appreciate. But only orchestras like the CSO and Minnesota and mine – orchestras paying at least a living wage or perhaps somewhat more and offering job security to its artists, and thus needing to do lots and lots of concerts – will attract musicians of the caliber to be capable of excellent performances.

Back in 2009, I wrote something on the same topic in response to what Henry Fogel had written upon becoming associated with the New Hampshire Music Festival and its effort to replace many of their longest-tenured musicians with younger, more “committed” musicians. I don’t know if I still feel quite the same way, though:

(Henry wrote): We (NHMF CEO David Graham and Fogel) both believed that, with some obvious exceptions, the majority of concerts that we had been a part of were fine concerts. And we both believed that fine was a terrible word for describing a concert. A really good performance of anything should shake you to your roots. If it is a light classical work, you should almost not be able to resist getting up and dancing or singing. If it is a late Shostakovich symphony, you should be emotionally shaken to your core. Every performance should be a performance that matters–a performance that brings a specific, deeply felt interpretive point of view from the performers. Just rendering the notes on the page is not, in fact, making music.

This sounds pretty anodyne. But the more I thought about it, the more problematic it seemed. And I came to realize that Henry had fallen into Voltaire’s classic trap of making the excellent the enemy of the good – or perhaps even the enemy of the possible.

Is “fine” a “terrible word for describing a concert”? Do all concerts need to be “transcendent”? What happens when we make transcendent excellence the standard, not of aspiration, but of acceptability?

It’s not a standard that normal people apply to most things in their lives, after all. “Fine” is not a terrible word to describe a working relationship, or even a marriage. “Quite good” is not a damning criticism of a movie. “I had fun” is not a slam at a baseball game. “The best ever” is not a criterion most people use to decide whether or not they’ll go to a fireworks display on the Fourth of July.

There are two reasons why this is not only OK, but actually the way things have to be. First of all, people’s expectations are rarely that high for any experience – and, when they are, the experience invariably falls way short of the expectations.

I don’t go to a baseball game expecting to see Sandy Koufax face Willy Mays with the pennant on the line. I go expecting to see professional athletes perform at a very high level, and that’s what usually happens. I also expect to have fun with my son, down a good bratwurst or two, and generally enjoy the outing. Every so often I get to see a really great game, or a really amazing play, or a really exciting at-bat. But that’s a bonus. I go because I like to watch baseball, not because I expect to see something that fans will be talking about for years.

But I know what Emily means. I was up in Minnesota last month, playing with the Locked out Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra and Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, their former music director. It was an extraordinary experience on many levels. I had, for example, never walked on stage as part of an orchestra and been met with a standing ovation before even getting through the shell. But that happened to me twice up there. And Emily is right in writing that the audience was “hugely committed,” as was the orchestra – which, of course, sounded tremendous. The concert was An Event in ways that my orchestra’s concerts very seldom are. It’s a memory that I will hold for a long time.

And yet – I drove back to Milwaukee the next day and heard my own orchestra do the same Brahms second symphony when I got there. And I was very, very happy with what I heard. No standing ovations at the very start of the concert, of course. But my orchestra played extraordinarily well for Edo de Waart, our music director (and former Minnesota Orchestra MD), and – as is usually the case when he conducts us – there was no lack of commitment on the part of the musicians. Orchestra playing – orchestral music-making – doesn’t get much better than what I heard.

Maybe it’s just another example of not being able to have everything. I go sailing because I love sailing, but I don’t love every voyage. If I only got to sail once a year, that once would be a thrill – but I’d only get to do it once a year. Long-distance relationships are fueled, in part, by the desire that absence creates; it’s axiomatic that such relationships often end soon after couples are actually able to be together in the way they wished to be. As Oscar Wilde once said:

There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.

It does Emily great credit to be wrestling with the implications of that. I’m not sure it does me equal credit for simply accepting it.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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