December 16, 2020
Friday Night Lights
By guest blogger Mandy Meisner
On a Friday evening last month, with my household odds-and-ends attended to, I put on some warm comfortable clothes to participate as a super fan in a favorite Friday night event: listening to a Minnesota Orchestra concert.
I have listened to concert broadcasts from my home many times, always over the radio, usually in the dark while sipping a glass of wine. Having the music wash over me with no other stimuli or people around always felt intimate, like having a conversation with an old friend. Tonight, I would be watching the concert in a different way, on television, live on TPT.
Eight months into the pandemic, I am still grappling between what was and what is. For me, it is a mixed bag of loss and fatigue, gratitude and searching for silver linings. I am never sure what I will pull out for the day—but as the broadcast starts with the familiar sight of Orchestra Hall, albeit empty of audiences, I know I’m in a silver linings evening.
Sarah Hicks, a familiar face as the conductor of the Live at Orchestra Hall series, starts out the evening. The large microphone, timbre of her voice and easy handoffs to other segments feel nostalgic in the way classic TV shows of yesteryear ran their course. Here she introduces us to first to William Eddins, the conductor for Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1, who joins her on set. They both don masks and he speaks about the Beethoven. William’s energy on camera is jovial and his love of the music shines through.
Next, we visit Eleanor Alberga, the composer of the first piece, String Quartet No. 2. With a beautiful indigo scarf draped around her, she speaks of her Jamaican and British heritage, her cadence is calm and deliberate as she talks about how her piece is built on the first few notes.
When Alberga’s piece plays, I am taken aback from the smooth sounding composer I just heard to the contrast of the energetic discord of her music. I can see the musicians up close, bodies swaying, their eyes aflame as their fingers pluck out long lines of pizzicato. At one point, I can see the hairs start to fray on violinist Natsuki Kumagai’s bow. While there are phrases of longing which the cello leads for a time, the whole piece is an agitation. It speaks of discontentment and challenge, strength and purpose, a timely reflection of my emotional underpinnings during this pandemic.
Being able to visually see Melissa Ousley work feels like a VIP pass: the headphones, the microphone, watching the way her face moves as she talks about music humanizes her in a way I don’t normally have access to when only listening.
The next segment introduces us to the new Principal Harp, Marguerite Lynn Williams, who will be heavily featured in Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro for Harp, Flute, Clarinet and String Quartet. Marguerite shares how thrilled she is to be playing something so beautiful as her debut piece.
Her foreshadowing does not disappoint. Immediately, the Ravel immerses us in lush ethereal beauty, like sinking into a steamy bath at the end of a long day, the music a soulful respite from our daily burdens. At first, it is strange to see whole faces of the woodwind musicians, who have to play without their now-normal masks, even stranger to recognize I have missed hearing their voices. Marguerite is spellbinding. The lines of her black mask cut a sharp contrast through her hair, her expressive eyes are the only competition to the graceful physicality of her arms and fingers. It is a debut to remember.
I am excited about the last piece, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1. While it is a pared-down orchestra, it is still a full orchestra under those iconic cubes—back home where they belong. To see this rightness on stage is moving.
William Eddins walks on to the stage, his eyes glittering beneath his mask. His movements are graceful and refined. The discipline and thoughtfulness of his conducting allows the music to unfold from the strong, clean statements of the first movement, to a pensive middle, and the playful and bright finish.
The Orchestra ends one last time with what I have been watching all night but still cannot get used to: bowing in stoic unison to an empty hall. I miss listening to the Minnesota Orchestra surrounded by a throng of people. Yet even though I could not see the other audience goers, I knew as I sat on my couch that I was connected to thousands of others across the state and beyond who were also riveted for the night.
As credits rolled, I thought about this new way of listening. I started out convinced this would not be as enjoyable as a pure aural experience. The kind I knew. But like many parts of our lives today, we must open ourselves up to a new way of being if we are to receive all the beauty that is still out there. So, until we are able to meet again at Orchestra Hall, I hope you too take great solace in this simple and powerful gift.
The music goes on.
View the archived video stream of the November 20 concert (free registration required).
Mandy Meisner has been a guest blogger for the Minnesota Orchestra since 2016. A graduate of the Perpich Center for Arts Education, she grew up swooning over the Orchestra’s music and loves writing about their performances. She is also a regular blogger on Fridley Patch where she currently writes about local politics and is published by several national syndicates. She lives in the Twin Cites area.