I was giving a pre-concert talk a few months back at the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and explaining in great detail a 12-tone piece - it's form, the background of the composer's approach and how the piece fits into an historical context, etc, etc.
One of the regular concert-goers walked up after the talk and said it was so interesting and illuminating, but in the end he just didn't like how the music made him feel.
Anne Midgette in the Washington Post writes about this phenomenon: "You have two extremes in classical music: on the one hand, the elaborate program note filled with facts and information about the piece, and on the other hand the blunted reaction of the listener after the fact: 'it sounds pretty.' "
How do you judge music? Is it the facts and figures that help the music come alive or do you prefer to simply let your ears determine if you like a piece or not? Or is it a combination of the two?
The Parker Quartet just returned from the first leg of their tour, playing shows in Bemidji and Souix Falls. They shared some of their thoughts with us about the trip and their performances. Read the quartet's first pre-tour entry
I also had a great time performing and teaching in both cities. Our experiences in Bemidji and Sioux Falls really hit home to me the power that music has to build a community. I could tell that our concert was an event that was on the community's radar, and it was wonderful to share the experience with everyone who attended. We also heard some really talented students play in both cities. I hope they keep classical music in their lives!
And now for the hardships of the trip, which thankfully were not numerous. In fact, the only real difficulty was the length of time spent in the car (4 1/2 hours to Bemidji, 6 1/2 hours to Sioux Falls, and 4 hours back to the Twin Cities). I learned some valuable lessons from this road trip, though. 1) You can never have too many snacks. If they're there, you will eat them all, and you'll still wish you had more. This first lesson is made more interesting by the discovery that, 2) during a road-trip through northern Minnesota in January, your car becomes a large, portable refrigerator. Beverages will stay cool, fruit will freeze before it can go bad...this fortuitously opens up a lot of options in the snack department. And finally, the most painful lesson. 3) Once you hit the Dakotas, if you have even the slightest urge to go to the bathroom, do so immediately at the first viable spot. Don't think that it's not so bad and that you can wait for the next one, because it will be far, and you may not make it...
What an interesting week it's been! On Tuesday, we recorded the Ravel Quartet for Fred Child, on Performance Today. On Wednesday we hit the road for our first concert ever in Bemidji, MN. The quartet took two cars - Dan and Jess with their new puppy, Bodie, and Karen and I in my car. Perhaps the most difficult part of this tour was the actual driving. From the Twin cities it was a little over 4 hours to Bemidji (google maps told us 5 and a half), and from Bemidji to Sioux Falls, it was a little over 7 hours, and from Sioux Falls back to St. Paul was around 4 hours.
Don't get me wrong - I really like to drive. Especially when I'm driving my own car. If this is the case, like it was for this trip, then packing is a lot easier too. Instead of cramming all my clothes, toiletries, suit, dress shoes, music-related stuff (music, music stand, CDs for sale etc.) and God knows what else into one small suitcase (adjusting for liquid regulations for TSA), I can just spread everything out in my car. And, especially with the flying situation the way it is these days, I am appreciating driving even more!
That being said, driving to all these places - all around Minnesota and the eastern part of South Dakota - in the middle of the winter is not something to be taken lightly! Weather was pretty bad - visibility was extremely poor for nearly half the trip. As a result, I am sure we missed a lot of the beauty of the landscape - as well as all the Paul Bunyan statues that I kept reading about. But oh well. It could have been worse. A LOT worse. It was just such a shame to be driving at barely 60 miles an hour when the speed limit was 75!
One of the most interesting things that I saw from the car on the road up to Bemidji was the ice houses on the lakes. Being the "land of 10,000 lakes," and, obviously, being extremely cold, I expected to see some ice fishing. What I didn't expect to see was what seemed to be whole fishing communities out on the lake! Instead of people swaddled up in 20 layers, fishing with a stick and with a metal bucket next to them, which was the image I had in my mind's eye, I saw what I first took to be many colorful port-a-pottys out on the frozen water - which turned out to be these 'shacks' where people build over and around the hole in the ice that they are fishing out of. Supposedly these 'shacks' can be quite elaborate - MTV Cribs, Minnesota ice shack episode anyone?
What was really fascinating about all this was that not only were there these ice shacks, but there seemed to be even roads, and on one lake, I saw what looked like a small river flowing in a crack about 5 feet across!
I am sure the whole experience is very safe, and that residents go out on the frozen ice all the time. Actually, thinking back on it now, I remember seeing these colorful "igloos" on Lake Calhoun last year. It's funny, tho - when we were driving from Bemiji to Sioux Falls, we stopped in Itasca State Park, which is the headwaters of the Mississipppi (something else I learned on this trip - I thought the Mississippi flowed out of the St. Lawrence River, or from somewhere in Canada, at least!). Someone said it was good luck to walk across the frozen Mississippi together, so the quartet made it its mission to do so - however, when I told my girlfriend, for whom this is her first Minnesota winter (or first time in the Midwest period!), she seemed extremely alarmed. Especially when I took a picture of a hole in the lake and sent it to her :)
Anyways, let's see. In my opinion, the concerts themselves went very well. They were very well attended (full house, with an overflow!!), and after both concerts, we got standing ovations. It is a known fact that it is much easier to hold and maintain an audience's interest, when the artists talk about the music beforehand. This breaks down the invisible barrier between the audience and performer, and creates a more intimate (and comfortable) environment for the listener. In this regard, we were very fortunate to have Steve Staruch, an announcer for MPR, touring with us! Steve, with his stories and personal anecdotes, and with his easygoing familiarity, set the tone for the evening (or afternoon, in Sioux Falls), warming up the crowd and preparing them to greet us and the music. Karen deconstructed the Stravinsky 3 Pieces, as well as the Concertino, for the audience, making it more accessible, and at the end of the concert, Steve mediated a question and answer session between us and the audience. A bit time consuming, but a great recipe for a successful evening of chamber music that is both informative, enlightening, and enjoyable!
To be honest, it being winter and all, I did not really get to see much of the towns. It was my first time in that part of Minnesota, and certainly my first time in the state of South Dakota! It would have been great to walk (or at least drive) around and take some pictures, buy some souvenirs, and get a feel of the local culture, but because it was so nasty outside, that opportunity never really presented itself. However, the taste of 'local culture' I was able to get was through talking to the residents of these two cities.
In Bemidji, I had the opportunity to coach a talented young cellist on the Saint Saens cello concerto. He was a junior in high school, and studying with Peter Howard, former principal cellist of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. He was extremely receptive to what I had to say, quick to adjust, and such a nice guy - none of the better-than-you attitude you get with a lot of high school students! Some of the audience members I talked to were such characters as well! I will not soon forget the man who approached me, talking about traveling, asking if I liked touring, etc. - then he said something like "I used to travel around the world myself, when I was around your age. Of course, my band was a lot bigger than yours... the U.S. Navy." Or the high school music teacher who was so enamored by our performance, especially by our Haydn, that she implored us to release some performances of our Haydn on Youtube, because "we are so isolated up here!" Or finally, the man who stated that Bemidji was one of the world's "best-kept secrets" - not only had we come to play here, but next week the Ahn Trio was coming, and a few months after that, Midori.
Sioux Falls was a slightly different experience. First of all, the weather was worse once we got there, so sightseeing was really out of the question. The masterclass we were to conduct was open to the public - this was by far the largest audience we'd had to come see us teach... ever! It was also unnerving because right before the class, I had become re-aquainted with an old friend of mine from high school! She had just finished graduate studies at Rice University, and gotten a job as associate principal viola of Sioux Fall Symphony this past September. This entailed her to teach at Augustana College as well - and here she was, after almost 6 years, listening to us teach a masterclass in front of a crowd of eager listeners! The man seated in front of me was filming the entire thing too on his camcorder - his family is going to have a recording of me dancing around stage instructing the students to play with no vibrato for eternity. Scary thought.
Funny story about the power of MPR's promoting skills. Immediately upon the completion of the class at Augustana, Kristi Booth, the regional director for MPR stood up, announcing the concert at 2pm and expressing her hopes to see everybody there. My friend leaned in to me and said "that's funny that she seems worried that people won't know about the concert. You guys have been on the radio, and they'e been announcing your concert, since, like, November."
Thinking back on it now, I don't know quite what i was expecting at these two places - I had resolved to be an informed tourist (googling these cities before we left), to keep an open mind, and most importantly, to be adaptable. Fortunately, I am happy to say that reality exceeded my expectations. First of all, the crowds were among the most diverse that I had ever seen in attendance at a chamber music concert. Not only were there the usual silver hairs in attendance, but I saw many high school and college age students, and especially in Sioux Falls, many young children, probably no older than middle school age. I certainly did not expect the level of reverence and concert etiquette that was on display! Not once, in any of the places, was there a cell phone ring, or even a watch alarm. No one clapped between movements. And despite the weather, not once was I ever distracted by hacking, whooping coughs, loud throat-clearing, or even the subtle-yet-not-so-subtle unwrapping of a cough drop. Audience members of Bemidji and Sioux Falls, give yourselves a round of applause, or at least a pat on the back, for being among one of my top 10 greatest audiences. We couldn't have done it without you.
Finally, my closing thoughts. At the beginning of this blog post, I touched briefly on the subject of acclimating; on becoming a real "Minnesotan." (or, to be more inclusive, a real "greater rural Mid-west area" resident). Driving for hours through the states of Minnesota, and North and South Dakota, I was surprised to to find myself feeling a real sense of belonging. How could you not feel at home when everybody around you is so friendly, so accepting, and so generous of their time and compliments?
The quartet moved to the Twin cities in the Fall of 2008. For me, this was after living in Boston for almost 10 years. Because of our intensive touring, and my puffed up sense of East Coast elitism, I didn't really get the sense that this was really "home" yet, even as recently as this past September. However, by traveling to these more out of the way communities, and sharing out gift of music with a reciprocating audience; this was the final step that made me feel most welcome, and a sign that I was an integral part of the community here.
A special thank you to Kristi Booth, regional manager for MPR, for all her hard work, and to Steve Staruch. This would not have been possible without you guys. And of course, to Minnesota Public Radio - please continue to support MPR! - one of the best classical stations in the United States, in my humble opinion.
As I think back on this trip, I don't quite remember things in a linear way, so I'm going to list the things that made impressions on me.
My first meal in Bemidji was at Hardees. I was pressed for time, I was hoping there was going to be a cute street full of interesting restaurants, but the closest thing I could find was Hardees. I am a vegetarian, so I had to be creative in ordering - I ordered the ¼ lb. burger topped with Portobello mushrooms and cheese€¦.hold the ¼ lb. burger, please. The cashier took $1.50 off, which I thought was very nice!
After never having seen an icehouse for fishing on the lake, I saw more than I can count.
We went to the headwaters of the Mississippi River - it's located about 40 minutes from Bemidji in Itasca State Park. I found it to be magical, especially with it being winter in a sparkling sort of way. It was so peaceful and seemed to be so well protected. It felt like an honor to be there.
It was awesome that the concerts were sold out!! It's so great to go out on stage when there's a full house. There was an excitement in the air that I think we were feeding off of and also giving back - it was a great exchange.
I loved meeting the students in both cities, at the master classes and after the concerts. They were so down to earth, sincere, and just seemed like they were there for such good reasons. The students we worked with were so receptive and musical, so it was exciting to share our thoughts with them. Some of the college students that came to the concert in Bemidji were great to talk with because they were telling us what it's like to live in Bemidji and then asking what our lifestyles are like, it was like a great cultural exchange.
It is amazing how little there is off of I-29 S from Fargo to Sioux Falls. It didn't help that there was intense fog and freezing rain the whole time, but it is really something to witness.
When we were doing a TV news interview, the person doing the interview thought our warm-up (us not playing together at all!) was what we wanted on the news! I hope she heard the difference when we actually started playing a piece together.
Bodie (Dan's and my four and a half month old Vizsla puppy) was mostly terrific. He's absolutely great in the car, which was helpful to find out, but we also found out that small hotel rooms effect dogs just like they do people - he got a little antsy in the hotel rooms sometimes. He did force us to get out and find some interesting parks, though.
Looking forward to Duluth!
So what I'm trying to say here is that it takes some time for me to properly encapsulate each trip we have. I can tell you floating thoughts in my head like I've never seen Winter more beautiful than on our drive to Bemidji; it made me realize that the concept of black and white in photography and art are not mimics of color but are as vivid and real as any shot of Spring. I can tell you that there are extremely talented youngins all over our country such as Sadie Hamrin who Karen and I had the privilege to work with. And, I can tell you that walking over the headwaters of the Mississippi River in the dead of a Minnesota winter at Itasca State Park is one of the most thrilling things I've ever done. But, the idea behind this blog is to communicate to you all the experiences I had on this trip through my very own eyes and that's exactly what's difficult. It needs to sink in for a while. It needs to sink and sink until that day comes where I'm sitting around with friends or family having a drink and somebody says something that triggers something in the pathways of my brain which leads me to say a word or two about that one time my quartet took a trip to Bemidji, Minnesota and Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Because when that moment comes it'll be straight, honest, and completely absorbed. Words trip me up sometimes. Maybe that's why music is for me.