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Minnesota Orchestra 2004 European Tour
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Join us for re-Broadcast/Webcast of the final stop on the Europe 2004 tour, Friday, February 27, 8 pm CT.

Sam Bergman  
Sam Bergman

From center stage

Postcard from London
The Minnesota Orchestra is in the home stretch of its three-week tour of Europe. Violist Sam Bergman's latest postcard from the road comes from London.

Tours can become a blur after a while, and given the choice, I always prefer to save the English-speaking countries on the docket for the end of the trip, when it will be possible to cope even when tired and not have to worry about ordering food in a language I don't speak. So the UK was a welcome sight, after nearly two weeks of stumbling vaguely about in German-speaking lands, sounding (I'm sure) like a 3-year-old struggling to find the right words.

London is a thrilling town for any American orchestra to play. Londoners tend to be somewhat ashamed of the Barbican Centre, their main concert hall, because of its dry acoustics and pedestrian look. But the audiences here are tremendous, and with nearly a dozen English-language newspapers in town, the critical reaction here will be a crucial measure of the success of our tour.

Before arriving in London, we played a concert in the city of Leeds, in the northern section of England known as Yorkshire, which I had previously known about only as the setting for The Secret Garden, one of my favorite books as a child. The chance to experience such out-of-the-way cities as Leeds is one of my favorite aspects of touring, since I've always preferred the charms of such places to the really huge metropolises like New York and Berlin.

On Tuesday, we move on to Birmingham, which became a significant musical center in the 1980s and '90s, when Sir Simon Rattle brought the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra to international fame. The city responded by constructing one of the most beautiful and acoustically stunning concert halls in Europe, and playing there is always a thrill. After Birmingham, we move on to Osmo Vänskä 's other musical homes to wind up the tour: Glasgow, Scotland, where he was principal conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra until last year; and Lahti, Finland, where he made his name as the director of Sinfonia Lahti. It's a homecoming for Osmo, but an introduction for us, and we're all looking forward to it.


Postcard from Cologne
The Minnesota Orchestra is continuing its 3-week tour of Europe with stops in five German cities. Violist Sam Bergman's latest dispatch comes from the city of Cologne.

Just as a visitor to America might experience a bit of culture shock upon traveling from, say, Cincinnati to New York to Baltimore, so we are finding ourselves having to rapidly adjust to the changing surroundings of Germany's various urban centers. This week, our tour stops are coming at us in rapid-fire fashion, after a relatively leisurely first week in New York and Vienna. On Sunday, we flew to Frankfurt to begin the German leg of our trip, playing a concert at the Alte Oper. Frankfurt is not what you necessarily think of when thinking of a German city—in fact, to me, it has always looked and felt an awful lot like Dallas, Texas. It's a financial center, filled with towering skyscrapers, bustling businessmen, and wide modern streets which are clogged with cars during the business day, and virtually abandoned at night.

Frankfurt's concert hall fits its outsized style, as well. The Alte Oper is huge and cavernous, but strangely, it does not seem to be a particularly resonant space, at least as nearly as I could tell from the stage. Having been nicely spoiled by playing in the magnificent Musikverein last weekend, it was a serious adjustment to now be playing in a hall where we could barely hear each other. But the audience was appreciative, if not demonstrative, and it was probably important for us to remember that not every hall we will be playing on this tour can be as special as the one in Vienna.

But if Vienna's Musikverein is the glittering jewel of concert halls, Berlin's Philharmonie, where we stopped on Monday, is the quiet master of the craft. The Philharmonie contains none of the ornate decoration and gold-plated statuary of Vienna, and in fact, you would never know at a glance that it seats more than 2000 people, but it may well be the finest concert hall in the world. It is certainly my favorite hall to play in, and many of my colleagues in the orchestra agree. From the stage, everything feels cozy and warm, and the sound swirls around you in waves, allowing even players in remote corners of the stage setup to hear every other instrument and section. From the audience, the performers appear to be far closer and more accessible than in most halls, and acoustically speaking, there really isn't a single bad seat in the house. This is a major accomplishment, since any acoustician can tell you that to build a concert hall with a truly grand sound, you either have to be a visionary and get fairly lucky, or keep the capacity under 1500. Berliners know what a prize they have in the Philharmonie, and they pack the house for nightly concerts, not only by their own Berlin Philharmonic (the youngest orchestra in Europe, and arguably the best in the world,) but by countless other local and touring ensembles. Our Berlin crowd was more enthusiastic as any we've had on this tour, and we did our best to rise to their level of expectation. They responded with cheers and whistles at the end of the evening, and gave Osmo Vänskä and our soloist, Joshua Bell, repeated curtain calls.

We'd barely had time to bask in the afterglow of the Berlin concert when we arose the next morning to head for the nearly-twin cities of Cologne and Düsseldorf. Here we find a bit of a respite from this week's grueling tour schedule, in that we get to spend a whopping two nights in the same hotel in Cologne. But tonight's concert required a 90-minute round trip bus ride to Düsseldorf in addition to the four hours we'd spent getting to Cologne, so the danger of fatigue was high. Fortunately, we were buoyed by a change of repertoire and the chance to play on a stage where we were seated close enough to really hear each other, and the concert was a rousing success, beginning and ending with beautiful, sweeping works for strings only.

Wednesday night, we'll play Cologne's beautiful Philharmonie, located just down the street from our hotel on the banks of the Rhein River, and Thursday, we'll head for Stuttgart, there to wrap up the German leg of our tour. The UK is up next, with Finland on deck...


Postcard from Vienna

The second stop on the Minnesota Orchestra's international tour is Vienna. The Minnesotans perform two concerts in the fabled Musikverein, on February 12 & 13. Violist Sam Bergman sent MPR this postcard following the first concert.

Funny thing about performing in Vienna. In one sense, it's the city at the heart of all Western musical tradition, the town which could be said, without hyperbole, to be the living, beating heart of the orchestral world. But in another sense, it is the home of the ultimate trial by fire for any visiting orchestra. To perform in Vienna is to test your mettle against the most knowledgeable, opinionated, and judgmental audience on the planet. I've often said that a smart audience is always a good thing, and I stand by that statement, but an audience becomes fairly intimidating when you start to suspect that they know more than you do about the pieces you're performing.

The Musikverein itself contributes a lot to that sense of old wisdom and indirect intimidation. This is a classic old music hall, seating less than 1,500 people, but with a quickly blooming acoustic that threatens to swallow the whole city in its warm embrace. From the stage, you could swear that the worst orchestra on earth could not possibly sound bad in this hall, and if you close your eyes while you play, it's easy to get lost in the possibilities of such marvelous sound. But when you open your eyes again, and see the ornate carvings and gold-plated statuary that ring the entire room, you begin to feel like the court musicians of old Europe must have felt: happy for the employment, but overwhelmed by the unfamiliar wealth and grandeur with which you are surrounded.

Adding to the pressure this evening was our program, which featured Beethoven's 4th Symphony, which I've always counted as one of the composer's most difficult orchestral works. To perform Beethoven in Vienna is a bold move, since this is an audience which regularly hears Beethoven from the greatest orchestras in the world, but Osmo is never one to shy away from a challenge. It's hard to judge from the stage how a particular concert is going, since each musician can only hear a portion of the overall orchestral sound, but I can say with some certainty that, while there may be other orchestras more expert at performing Beethoven than we, no orchestra has ever worked any harder than we did on tonight's program. When the concert ended, after a 60-minute performance of Bartok's Duke Bluebeard's Castle, our efforts were rewarded by the stoic Viennese concertgoers, and we were called back for two encores.

It's a tough town, Vienna. If you're a musician, there might not be a tougher one. But the respect they have in this city for the music to which we in the orchestra have dedicated our lives is deep and sincere, and to feel the approval of such an audience is worth all the work of pleasing them.


Postcard from New York

The Minnesota Orchestra performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City, the first stop on the ensemble's 20-day, 12-city tour. Much is at stake for the orchestra on this trip, as new music director Osmo Vänskä and his 98 musicians attempt to show the world that they belong in the same breath as orchestras like the Boston Symphony, Vienna Philharmonic, and Cleveland Orchestra. Minnesota Orchestra violist Sam Bergman is sending MPR periodic reports from the road.

For better or for worse, New York is the epicenter of American culture, and no major orchestra dares ignore its pull for long. The country's most well-known and successful orchestras (Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Chicago, among others) make multiple pilgrimages to the city every year, and those of us in what is frequently (and infuriatingly) referred to as the "second tier" battle budgets and scheduling difficulties every year to try to squeeze in a visit. This is the third time the Minnesota Orchestra has traveled to the legendary stage of Carnegie Hall since I joined the viola section in February 2000, and our first trip under the baton of Osmo Vänskä. (Side note: Traditional etiquette would suggest that I should refer to our music director in print as Maestro Vänskä , but trust me, he would just hate that, so for the purposes of these dispatches, he will be known simply as Osmo.)

The power of the New York concert is strange and multi-faceted, as is the city's grip on our national consciousness as a whole. After all, doesn't it sometimes seem as if every little thing that happens in the Big Apple somehow winds up in newscasts and daily papers in Minneapolis and St. Paul? On a pragmatic level, this makes no sense: no one in Minnesota should have any earthly reason to care that New Yorkers are being blanketed under an unthinkable 6 inches (6 inches!) of snow, or that the latest hot new Soho club is featuring a dance floor covered with six feet of soap suds. And yet, the allure of America's largest city is so powerful that people across the country have become used to taking whatever happens there quite seriously. The fact that New York is the home base for nearly all of our national media outlets only adds to the general belief that success in New York is somehow worth more than success in any other city.

To be honest, I've never quite bought into the New York mystique (maybe it has something to do with having grown up near Boston and Philadelphia, both of which take somewhat dim views of the place,) but as a musician, I would be a fool to ignore or disdain the power of a page full of positive New York reviews. At a time when many news organizations barely cover the arts at all, The New York Times maintains a full stable of critics, and provides long-form reviews that are all but extinct elsewhere in the U.S. Furthermore, the sheer size and scope of the potential New York audience is such that getting your orchestra's name in print here is a far more effective advertising tool than it could ever be in a small or mid-sized city.

New York is also a global city, and its audiences experienced and opinionated. As an artist, this is both exhilarating and terrifying. A small screw-up which might go unnoticed in, say, Denver, is very likely to be noticed and commented upon by concertgoers here. But an intelligent and passionate audience is always the best kind, and despite the occasional brickbats that can be hurled by such a crowd, the rewards of playing a fine concert at Carnegie Hall are immediate and long-lasting. Hopefully, we're in line for some of those rewards tonight.

Sam Bergman is also writing a daily weblog for ArtsJournal.com during the tour, which can be found at http://www.artsjournal.com/roadtrip/


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