September 1, 2017
Retired musician spotlight: Q&A with Mina Fisher
It’s our pleasure to check in with retired Minnesota Orchestra cellist Mina Fisher, a member of the Orchestra from 1979 to 2012. Fisher is the Producing Artistic Director of the Bakken Trio, which this month presents the premiere of NADIA, Fisher’s original play about 20th-century composition teacher and renaissance woman Nadia Boulanger. We spoke with her about Boulanger, her new play and what else she’s been up to since retiring.
Who was Nadia Boulanger, and what led you to write a play about her?
Nadia was an organist at Paris’ La Madeleine, assistant to composer Gabriel Fauré, the first woman to conduct the Boston Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra and New York Philharmonic, Stravinsky’s editor, the first woman to lecture worldwide about music, a music critic, a composer/arranger, and a harmony and composition teacher to thousands of composers whose biographies mention “studied with Nadia Boulanger”—including Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Elliott Carter, Philip Glass, Astor Piazzolla and Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, to name a few. Composer Ned Rorem called her “the most influential teacher since Socrates.”
After I left the Minnesota Orchestra and started a teaching studio, I began looking for wisdom from great teachers of the past to share with my own students, and I did a lot of reading and questioning about best teaching practices. The responses inevitably led to Nadia Boulanger. In writing NADIA, I wanted to explore the questions of who this very private person really was, and how she tenaciously overcame sexism in early 20th-century Paris to make an unparalleled impact on an entire century of musical thought.
How did you go about the researching and writing process?
Research was a challenge at first, since Nadia herself distrusted words and the press, and thought that out of context, words were dangerous. My first useful source was Léonie Rosenstiel’s biography about Nadia. But Nadia’s voice really began to emerge from scenes recounted to me by her students Professors David Grayson, Kenton Coe and Michael Conte. I was also lucky to interview former Minnesota Orchestra Music Director Stanislaw Skrowaczewski shortly before he died, and he told me upon first meeting Nadia in Paris: “She found the weakest chord of my composition, with one glance over my manuscript! I had been struggling with one measure, and just left it because I didn’t know how to solve that problem, and she found it immediately.”
As a backbone to NADIA’s dialogue I used the Boulanger quotes collected by her student Don Campbell; my favorites are “Great Art Likes Chains!” and “There’s no place in the world of music for marshmallows!” I also pored through YouTube looking for interviews about her, and found great clips from Leonard Bernstein, Astor Piazzolla and Aaron Copland.
What did you learn about Nadia that surprised you the most?
What surprised me was how emotionally attached I got. I feel real anger on her behalf at Saint-Saëns, who was opposed to Nadia having a teaching position at the Paris Conservatoire, and quite miffed at Stravinsky, whom Nadia adored, but who in his autobiography barely mentions their friendship and her role in helping him escape to America during World War II, nor does he credit her great editing of his scores.
Who all is involved in the play’s premiere?
Actress-singer Christina Baldwin will star as Nadia, but the backbone of the play is the music that energized Nadia—music of her mentor Fauré, of her sister Lili, of the “teacher of us all, Bach,” and what Nadia called her own “worthless songs.” The music is performed by the Bakken Trio’s violinist Stephanie Arado, Bakken Trio (and Minnesota Orchestra) cellist Pitnarry Shin, and pianist Michael Kim of the University of Minnesota. We were fortunate to get Steven Epp on board as director.
What are some other projects you’ve taken up since retiring from the Orchestra?
Right away I started a truffle company, and for five years provided dark chocolate truffles to Orchestra Hall, the Ordway and Park Square Theater, and for Kowalski’s on Hennepin Avenue. I’ve always thought that places which have high-quality performances should have high-quality food in the lobby that matches the experience!
What do you miss most about being a musician in the Minnesota Orchestra?
I particularly enjoyed the performance tours! I wish I could have played with the Orchestra in Cuba, and that I could take part in other upcoming tours.
Mina Fisher’s NADIA will be performed by the Bakken Trio at MacPhail Center for Music (501 S. 2nd Street in Minneapolis) on September 17 and 18. Tickets and more information are available at www.bakkentrio.org.