April 21, 2020
A Strange New World
By Guest Blogger Mandy Meisner
Just six weeks ago, I was at a new brewery in Fridley attending a common event for me: a local fundraiser. Housed in a beautiful historical building that manufactured Navy ship guns during World War II, a large crowd sipped beer, paraded their dogs and laughed together. Minnesota had recently confirmed its first case of coronavirus, and the new public health protocols were just starting to roll out. Amidst the festivities, deep down we all knew things were about to change significantly. We felt the tug of the unknown pulling at us. But in that moment, life was still recognizable.
I kept looking at the time. I had an important date that I didn’t want to miss.
Earlier in the week, it was announced that the Minnesota Orchestra would be cancelling its remaining March concerts due to the outbreak of COVID-19. I had tickets for the Orchestra’s concert the following evening, and was planning to bring a friend who had never listened to Rachmaninoff. I had looked forward to introducing it to her, since I love being part of someone’s first experience with our Orchestra. The sad but inevitable announcement came with a silver lining, though: the March 13 concert would still be performed for a live radio broadcast, but without an in-person audience.
With my designated concert night cancelled, I invited a friend who had never heard the Minnesota Orchestra to join me in listening to the broadcast. I hurried from the fundraiser to her house, determined to catch the Rachmaninoff. Gone were my usual lovely rituals of a visit to Orchestra Hall—selecting the perfect dress, watching people from all walks of life mingle together in the grand marble lobby, communing in the auditorium below the suspended white cubes. Instead we plopped on a couch in our jeans, holding a glass of wine and listened to the music pump through a home device, as commentary by Minnesota Public Radio’s Melissa Ousley melted in between the spaces.
Listening to a live radio performance with a friend was a different experience for me. Normally, I listen alone, preferably in the dark where it feels like an intimate conversation. With a friend, the silence was broken with the comings and goings of her household. In this way, we drank up the music in large gulps as life unfolded around us.
What can I say about the Rachmaninoff piano concerto except that is was exquisite? Languid stretches of beautiful phrasing intermixed with brilliant technique and thrilling dynamics. It was for the Rachmaninoff that I bought my ticket in the first place, and I was pleased I could still listen to it live.
The Shostakovich Symphony No. 7 runs nearly 70 minutes long, and the music was a drastic change from the gentle loveliness of Rachmaninoff. Shostakovich pummeled us with rhythmic charges and strange musical statements from a leader in battle, full of determination and angst.
The performance concluded with Melissa Ousley describing a familiar scene: The Orchestra in full dress, their faces beaming on stage after creating something beautiful for their audience. And then they did something unfamiliar and poignant. I sat on the couch and along with all the others across the miles—who I knew were out there listening in cars, or home offices, or living rooms—and we listened to the unthinkable with stricken hearts as we faced a very different future together.
For the Minnesota Orchestra clapped and hooted their love to an empty hall.
Since the evening of that concert, life has changed dramatically as we face the biggest public health epidemic in our generation. We can’t engage in our normal activities, and many of us are unsure about our jobs. The world has seemingly stopped. As a bona fide extrovert forced to be alone, I find myself worried, struggling and readjusting to our new normal.
As organizations and businesses adapt to stay connected with us, I have been enamored with the Minnesota Orchestra At Home series. Gone are the formal tails and grand hall; instead we get a glimpse into home studies and living rooms, of favorite sweatshirts and casual ponytails, as the Minnesota Orchestra musicians play from their homes to ours. It is intimate and charming and needed.
I have been introduced to pets and mothers-in-law and shown parts of a musician’s life I would not have been privy to before. Things like, how a percussionist practices (Brian Mount), original composition work (Pamela Arnstein) and one of my favorites, Anthony Ross playing Somewhere Over the Rainbow in the beloved space of the Minnesota Dance Theatre as his daughter, a ballerina, glides across an empty studio.
These are the morsels that will help stave off complete starvation. And although I am thankful to continue to have some connection and access to Minnesota Orchestra music, I cannot wait until Orchestra Hall re-opens, and I can once again sit below those suspended white cubes alongside two thousand others who sigh in unison, utterly enraptured in a shared moment of beauty.
And the Orchestra takes their final bow to a packed house.