Music-lover Bill Halverson reflects on a lifetime of listening, how each concert holds the promise of magic, and one of the most memorable displays of “piano wizardry” he ever encountered.
By Dr. Bill Halverson
Anyone who knows me well knows that I am a passionate fan of classical music in general and the Minnesota Orchestra in particular. Wherever I am, whether at home or abroad, I try to stay informed about opportunities to hear live performances of classical music.
As a result of this passion, through the years I have had the privilege of hearing the music that I love performed by orchestras, chamber ensembles, choirs, and virtuoso solo performers in many of the greatest concert venues in the United States and Europe. As I write these words, my head is swimming with memories of concerts that I have attended at Vienna’s Musikverein, London’s Royal Albert Hall, Bergen’s Grieghallen and the opera houses in Budapest and Prague—plus, of course, many venues here in the USA. I heard Pavarotti at the Met, Van Cliburn at the Kennedy Center and most of America's greatest orchestras—including the Baltimore Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, the National Symphony – perform in their home venues. I once had the thrill of singing in the choir as the Atlanta Symphony performed the Beethoven Ninth under the baton of Robert Shaw.
How did this all come about? I was not born into a musical family. The only thing approaching serious music that I heard as a child was the hymn-singing in the little country church that my family attended. So what happened?
Love at First Sight
I attribute my love for classical and choral music in general to my experience as a student at Augsburg College (now Augsburg University) during the 1940s. As a freshman, I took a course in Music Appreciation, never dreaming that what I learned would change my life. It was my introduction to classical music, and for me it was love at first sight. I remember to this day—more than 70 years later—many of the works to which we were introduced in that course. They included compositions by Palestrina, Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Debussy, Grieg, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich. I had no idea at that time what life held in store for me, but I knew for sure that it would include a lot of classical music. It was nourishment for my soul, and I could not live without it.
I first heard the Minnesota Orchestra—which was then called the Minneapolis Symphony—when I was in college. The conductor was Antal Doráti. I don't remember anything that they played, but I remember the thrill of sitting in that big concert hall (Northrop Auditorium) and hearing this magnificent orchestra creating sounds that I had so recently learned to love.
In the Presence of Genius
The most memorable concert from those bygone days, however, occurred a few years later, during the 1960s. I was on the faculty at Augsburg at that time, and the concert on that Friday evening was one of just three Minneapolis Symphony concerts that my late wife and I were able to attend that year. We had read in a newspaper article preceding the concert that it would feature a performance by a brilliant young pianist who had recently been tapped by Leonard Bernstein, conductor of the New York Philharmonic, to substitute for an ailing Glenn Gould in a performance of the Franz Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1. That young pianist would now play the Liszt concerto with the Minneapolis Symphony. His name was André Watts.
Imagine the scene. The orchestra has just played the opener and it is time for the featured concerto. The door opens and a tall, slender, handsome young man walks onto the stage. How young he looks! And with good reason: he is just 17 years old. He bows—somewhat awkwardly, as I recall—then sits down at the piano. The mood is hushed as the conductor raises his baton. The orchestra plays a few bars, then the piano enters with a flourish. And the young man at the piano? He leans over the keyboard, he caresses the keys, he plays that piano as if it were an extension of himself. I remember sitting there with tears running down my cheeks, for I knew that I was in the presence of genius. That performance remains to this day one of the most memorable displays of piano wizardry that I have ever experienced.
We Open our Souls
Why am I a fan of the Minnesota Orchestra? First and foremost, I think, because each concert holds the promise of magical moments such as the one I have just described. We who attend symphony concerts approach each performance with a sense of expectancy. We open our hearts, we open our souls, we invite the orchestra to nourish us, to enrich us, to surprise us.
We who live in this area are so fortunate to have an orchestra that is capable of doing this. To be sure, they don't take us to the mountain top at every concert. Fortunately! If they did, we would soon begin to take the mountain top for granted. It would cease to be special. But they always nourish us, and sometimes—often when we least expect it—they thrill us.
We are also fortunate to have a venue like Orchestra Hall in which to hear our orchestra. It is beautiful to look at, the acoustics are excellent, and I love the sense of excitement and anticipation that it engenders as each concert is about to begin. For true music lovers, Orchestra Hall is like a sanctuary, a place where we expect to receive a blessing – and we are rarely disappointed.
I am keenly aware that these riches—this marvelous orchestra, this wonderful venue, these thrilling programs—have not come about by accident. We who enjoy these things today are the beneficiaries of the generous gifts of thousands of devoted music-lovers who preceded us.
I cannot repay them, but I can do my part, small though it may be, to help ensure that these treasures will still be here to enrich the lives of those who will come after us. Charitable giving is planting trees whose fruit we will not eat and in whose shade we will not sit. I look forward to planting a few trees in the time that remains to me.
Dr. Bill Halverson is Associate Dean Emeritus in the Office of Academic Affairs at The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio. He is regarded as one of America's leading authorities on the life and work of Edvard Grieg. His translations of Grieg's writings and of books about Grieg and his music are major sources of information in the English-speaking world about Norway's greatest composer.