The Many Skills of an Orchestra’s Music Director

A recent attendance of a rehearsal of the Minnesota Orchestra highlighted for this amateur music-lover the many skills required of an accomplished music director of  a major symphony orchestra. The Minnesota Orchestra’s Osmo Vanskä is such a music director [1] Below is his photograph while conducting.

First, he or she needs to have a thorough knowledge of the wealth of orchestral works in order to help plan an orchestra’s season.

Second, for a specific concert, the music director needs to be intimately familiar with the works on that concert’s program and retrieve or develop how he or she will interpret and conduct each piece, including facial and body movements.

Third, he or she must be able to communicate verbally (in English, for the Minnesota Orchestra) what he wants from each section of the Orchestra. This should be done with all humility and graciousness. At the rehearsal I attended, Vanskä said,”Thank you,” to the Orchestra at the completion of the rehearsal of one of the pieces for the upcoming concerts.

Fourth, at the performance of the pieces at a concert, he or she must be able to have a “stage presence” and bring all of this together for the audience’s enjoyment. When I have attended this orchestra’s concerts, I always have been amazed at Vanskä’s ability by facial and arm gestures and, I assume, by facial expressions I cannot see from the audience, to lead the orchestra in marvelous performances.

The work I heard for 75 minutes of the rehearsal was Tapiola (19 minutes concert performance time) by Jean Sibelius. This is a tone poem capturing the beauty, mystery and magic of the Scandinavian forest and portraying Tapio, the animating forest spirit mentioned throughout the Kalevala, a Finnish epic poem. In the score Sibelius added this preface: “Widespread they stand, the Northland’s dusky forests, Ancient, mysterious, brooding savage dreams; Within them dwells the forest’s mighty God, And wood-sprites in the gloom weave magic secrets.” [2]

It must be mentioned that Finnish-born Vanskä is“renowned internationally for his compelling interpretations of the standard, contemporary and Nordic repertoires and  has led the Orchestra on five major European tours, as well as an August 2018 visit to London’s BBC Proms, and on historic tours to Cuba in 2015 and South Africa in 2018.  In addition, he has led the Orchestra in its award-winning recordings of the complete Sibelius and Beethoven symphonies and the upcoming completion of the recording of the 10 symphonies of Mahler.

As someone who has been on three church mission trips to Cuba and is a close follower and commentator on the U.S. pursuit of normalizing relations with Cuba under President Obama and the unfortunate retreat from those policies by the Trump Administration, I especially was thrilled by the Orchestra’s trip to the island in 2015. [3]   I similarly was thrilled by the Orchestra’s trip to South Africa in 2018, especially after I had seen and heard Mandela at a special program in London’s Westminster Hall in 2001 and by also having visited Cape Town and Robben Island.[4]

Vanskä started his professional musical career as a clarinetist. I fondly recall his beautiful performance of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto at a benefit concert for displaced Syrians that was organized by some of the Orchestra’s musicians.[5]

In December 2018, the Orchestra announced that Vanskä, now 65 years old,  will leave the Orchestra when his current contract expires in 2022. He said, “I feel at this moment, more than ever in my life, that the Minnesota Orchestra is my own orchestra. And that’s a great feeling. What we have achieved, especially since the lockout, is something very special.”[6]

I join the many Orchestra listeners and patrons in saying he will be sorely missed and difficult to replace.

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[1] Suggestions of other skills of music directors are invited from those who know more about orchestras.

[2] Minn. Orchestra, Program (April 25-27, 2019).

[3] See these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBAMinnesota Orchestra To Go to Cuba (February 13, 2015); Minnesota Orchestra Goes to Cuba This Week! (May 11, 2015); Minnesota Orchestra’s Trip to Cuba Garners National Recognition (Dec. 17, 2016).

[4]  See List of Posts to dwcommentaries—Topical—South Africa & Mandela. See also these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Minnesota Orchestra Celebrates the Life of Nelson Mandela ((July 24, 2018); Minnesota Orchestra’s “Celebrating Mandela at 100” Concert (July 29, 2018); Inspirations for Minnesota Orchestra’s South African Tour (Aug. 14, 2018); Minnesota Orchestra’s Concert in South Africa (Cape Town), (Aug. 15, 2018); Minnesota Orchestra’s Other Activities in Cape Town, South Africa (Aug. 16, 2018); Minnesota Orchestra in South Africa (Durban), (Aug. 18, 2018); Minnesota Orchestra in South Africa (Pretoria), (Aug. 20, 2018); Minnesota Orchestra in South Africa (Soweto), (Aug. 24, 2018); Minnesota Singer’s Celebration of Minnesota Orchestra’s Concert in Soweto, (Aug. 29, 2018); Minnesota Orchestra in South Africa (Johannesburg), (Aug. 25, 2018). See also Celebrating the Rhodes Scholarships’ Centennial, (June 21,, 2003); Nelson Mandela Makes Connection with Cecil Rhodes (May 20, 2018). Minnesota Public Television  (tpt) has produced a television program about the Orchestra’s South African tour: Music for Mandela: Minnesota Orchestra in South Africa.The first showing of this program is May 5, 2019, 10:00 p.m. (CDT) on tpt’s Twin Cities station (Channel 2).

[5] Successful Benefit Concert for Displaced Syrians, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 7, 2016).

[6] Ross, Conductor Osmo Vanskä to exit Minnesota Orchestra when contract expires, StarTribune (Dec. 8, 2018).

 

Minnesota Orchestra in South Africa (Durban)

On Sunday afternoon, August 12, the Minnesota Orchestra headed to Durban City Hall for a quick touch-up rehearsal and early evening concert, its second on its South African tour.[1]  Here are photographs of the Orchestra in the auditorium and of the exterior of the City Hall.

 

 

The following discusses that concert, the Orchestra’s interactions with local music students and a 1999 speech in Durban by Nelson Mandela.

The Durban Concert

The announced program for the concert was the same as in Cape Town two days before as covered in a prior post.

The concert, however, began with a three-song set from the Clermont Choir, which was founded in 1992 and specializes in many different genres of music with a focus on choral, classical and African indigenous music and which was conducted by Brian Msizi Mnyandu. Based in Durban, the group has 60 members, most of whom reside in the metropolitan area. The choir had the audience clapping and cheering while Orchestra members looked on, standing at the back and sides of the house. Below is a photograph of the Choir.

 

During the intermission, an Orchestra staffer spoke with a group of 24 students from Inanda Seminary, one of South Africa’s oldest schools for girls. Founded in 1853, the school is based in Inanda, a township about 15 miles northwest of Durban. Students Philasande and Zamakhosi shared their excitement about the event—the first orchestra concert they and their classmates had ever attended. Zamakhosi said the singing by soprano Goitsemang Lehoybe’s of Harmonia Ubuntu by South African composer Bongoni Ndodana-Breen was beautiful. “Hearing that kind of singing was new to me—I’ve never heard someone sing like that!”

For the encore, the Orchestra once again performed “Shosholoza,” a South African miners’ song that has become the unofficial national anthem. As was the case in Cape Town, the crowd didn’t recognize it at first. But once the Minnesota musicians started singing, the crowd, including the students from Inanda Seminary, went crazy, singing along and dancing in the aisles.

After the concert as the Orchestra members were getting ready to leave, the Inanda girls sang their own version of “Shosholoza” at the front of the stage.

Minnesota and South African Musicians’ Interactions

While in Durban, some of the Orchestra’s wind players attended a rehearsal of the provincial KwaZulu-Natal Youth Wind Band.  Its Conductor Russell Scott led the band in the “Jupiter” movement from Holst’s The Planets, as well as an African piece called Patta, Patta (“Touch, Touch”) that he arranged for wind ensemble. Following a performance by a Minnesota wind ensemble, the Minnesotans and  students broke into small sections to get to the nitty-gritty of their instruments and parts.

In a separate practice room, tuba player Jason Tanksley met with six young tuba and euphonium players to play some of Holst’s The Planets. “You don’t have to play it too loudly,” he said. “Try it pianissimo.

Associate Principal Percussionist Kevin Watkins met with student percussionists to discuss the art of timpani playing. “It’s good to practice singing the notes to learn the pitches,” he said. “If you get your ear really close to the timpani, you can hear the pitch perfectly.”

In another session, Andrew Chappell, the Orchestra’s Bass Trombone player, coached breathing to fellow trombonists from the KwaZulu Natal Youth Wind Band. “Try to hear and feel how the breath relates to the sound,” he advised. “The better the breath, the better the sound. And eventually, forget about the breathing and just think ‘I am taking in my sound and letting out my sound.’” With more playing, the students improved, and Chappell said, “You should feel that you made your statement.”

Some of the Orchestra members also engaged with music students at the Durban Music School. An 18-year-old trumpet player, Palesa Ndlela, asked Manny Laureano, the Orchestra’s Principal Trumpet, how she could improve her embouchure (the way trumpet players position their lips on the mouthpiece). Then Manny and fellow trumpeter Robert Dorer closed their eyes and listened to Palesa play an arpeggio.  She then was told to play louder. She did, and the new instruction from Manny was to “sit up from your chair like you are standing.” After doing this and playing the arpeggio again, the next command was to take a much deeper breath. She did. This time the tone was brighter, fuller and fine. She and the other students burst into happy laughter. Manny concluded this little session with this comment: “We just fixed your embouchure.”

Then Lauriano demonstrated his rich, full tone in a haunting solo, which he said was “a basic way” of playing. He then played the tune again in the manner of a French trumpeter and asked the students what was different the second way. One of them, Thabo Sikhakhane, a 19-year-old, said the French-way had vibrato. Manny added, “There are many, many different languages that we speak when we play. And depending on who the conductor is, [he or she] might want a different language. Music is language, and trumpet is our tongue.”

City of Durban

Durban is a city in a metropolitan area of 3.4 million (approximately the same population of the Twin Cities Metropolitan Area). Durban sits  on the country’s southeast coast on the Indian Ocean with the country’s busiest port. Because of its beaches and warm, subtropical climate it is a major tourist site.  Its City Hall, the site of the concert, is a  quintessential example of Edwardian Neo-baroque architecture that was completed in 1910 and was considered very bold in its design at the time.

Mandela’s Speech

On April 16, 1999, the City of Durban gave Mandela its “Freedom “award. Here are excerpts from his acceptance speech.[2]

“It is . . .[the whole South African nation] who overcame the divisions of centuries, by reaching out to one another. In so doing they have made our country a symbol to the world of renewed hope, of the possibility of the peaceful resolution of even the most intractable conflicts. It is they who mandated our representatives to write a constitution which embodied the noble ideals of unity in diversity, and tolerance and respect for all our cultures and religions.”

“Today, this busiest port of Africa, this haven for investors and holiday makers alike, is home to part of the souls of many nations and cultures, precious threads in the rich diversity of our African nation.”

“As much as Durban is associated with hospitality and diversity, it is also remembered as a place of immense suffering, war and sadness.”

“For was it not here that the indigenous peoples fought bravely against military invasion by colonizing forces? And here where the first concerted attempt at group-area segregation emerged during the 1870’s, long before apartheid? And here that some of the cruelest acts of savagery were enacted, like the Durban by-laws requiring Africans to be dipped with their belongings in a disinfectant tank on entering the city?”

“And yet out of this ferment great leaders emerged who helped shape the world’s understanding of human development. Those who revere freedom and human dignity around the world know of this city and region because of Mahatma Gandhi and Chief Albert Luthuli.”

“Many organizations which laid the foundation stones of South Africa’s vibrant democracy, including my own organization, the African National Congress, have drawn sustenance from the soil of KwaZulu-Natal.”

When we visited KwaZulu-Natal in 1990, as the opening of the prison doors and the unbanning of organizations signaled the beginning of our transition to democracy, this province was gripped in bloody violence. There were many who believed that the call to throw weapons into the sea would never be answered.”

“But since then immense progress has been made, thanks to the efforts of people from across the political spectrum. Although many of us take it for granted, the way in which political violence subsided and communal co-operation increased will be remembered as one of the success stories of our democracy.”

“We should pay tribute to all those who have worked so hard at achieving peace. But even though there has been much progress, the task will only be complete when every citizen can feel safe in bed at night; in exercising the right to vote; and in being able to express opinions freely.”

“As we approach South Africa’s second democratic election, we should all be concerned to eradicate the remaining pockets of violence. And we should give no space to those who would like to see the province plunged back into political violence, in order to hold back progress. All people of influence – political leaders from every party; traditional leaders; religious and community leaders – all of us have an obligation to ensure a climate of tolerance. We must emerge from this election, whatever our differences, more united as a nation and therefore strengthened in our capacity to bring about even more change than we have already achieved.”

“Many people have been skeptical of our capacity to realize the ideal of a rainbow nation. It is true that South Africa was often brought to the brink of destruction because of differences. But let us re-affirm this one thing here today; it is not our diversity which divides us; it is not our ethnicity, or religion or culture that divides us. Since we have achieved our freedom, there can only be one division amongst us; between those who cherish democracy and those who do not!”

“As freedom loving people, we want to see our country prosper and provide basic services to all. For our freedom can never be complete or our democracy stable unless the basic needs of our people are met. We have seen the stability that development brings. And in turn we know that peace is the most powerful weapon that any community or nation can have for development.”

“As we rebuild our country, we should remain vigilant against the enemies of development and democracy, even if they come from within our own ranks. Violence will not bring us closer to our objectives”.

“All of us should ask ourselves the question; have I done everything in my power to bring about lasting peace and prosperity in my city and my country?”

“And when we are satisfied with our answer, we should ask that question of our constituencies. Let us enjoin them to work together with the police in freeing our society of criminals and mischief makers. Let us ask them to behave in an exemplary fashion, that would make Gandhiji and Chief Luthuli proud.”

“Let us live up to the expectations which the world has of us, as a nation which has rekindled hope for reconciliation and peaceful resolution of differences.”

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[1] Minn. Orchestra, Concert in Durban South Africa (Aug.12, 2018); Minn. Orchestra, Durban/Aug 12.  See generally MPRnews, Minnesota Orchestra; Startribune.com/orchestra.

[2] Nelson Mandela Foundation, Speech by President Mandela on receiving the Freedom of Durban (April 16, 1999).

Minnesota Orchestra Celebrates the Life of Nelson Mandela

In the Summer of 2018 the Minnesota Orchestra is producing a multifaceted celebration of the life of Nelson Mandela.[1]

It started with a July 20 concert entitled “Celebrating Mandela at 100” at its home Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis.

The next day, July 21, was the free International Day of Music in and near Orchestra Hall with many African and local musicians. That night the Orchestra presented a ticketed concert in the Hall.

On July 31 Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the famous South African vocal group, will sing their songs at Orchestra Hall.

August 8 through 18 will find the Orchestra in South Africa for concerts in Cape Town, Durban, Pretoria, Soweto and Johannesburg. This will be the first U.S. professional orchestra to visit the country. The concert in Soweto on August 17 will be recorded and broadcast the same day in Minnesota by Minnesota Public Radio.

Future posts will discuss at least some of these concerts and events. Previous posts have touched on various aspects of Mandela’s life and Barack Obama’s Nelson Mandela Lecture in Johannesburg on July 17, 2018.[2]

As an U.S. and Minnesota citizen and admirer of Mandela and the Orchestra, I am proud that our Orchestra is engaging in such an energetic enterprise.

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[1] Minnesota Orchestra, Program;: Sommerfest 2018 at 22-28,31, 37-41; Ross, Minnesota Orchestra previews South African tour: ‘Music became a weapon against apartheid,’  StarTribune at B1, B6 (July 22, 2018).

[2] Posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Obama: “Renewing the Mandela Legacy and Promoting Active Citizenship in a Changing World” (July 19, 2018); Nelson Mandela Was Inspired by Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution (May 18, 2018); Nelson Mandel Makes Connection with Cecil Rhodes  (May 20, 2018); Celebrating the Rhodes Scholarships’ Centennial (June 21, 2011).