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“So I got my lyric sheets up here because I tend to forget lyrics,” Bobby McFerrin said Saturday night at Orchestra Hall pointing to a music stand in front of him. “I don’t sing words all that often. It’s unfamiliar territory.”
No McFerrin, Grammy-winning vocalist extraordinaire, usually sings wordless sounds. On Saturday, he sang lots of words, mostly from spirituals, a couple of famous rock hits and a couple of made-up songs on the spot – and he did spot-on conversational impressions of Truman Capote and John Wayne.
In short, this was probably the most conventional musical performance McFerrin has given in the Twin Cities. Not that it was ordinary. It was special – like most McFerrin performances.
He’d always wanted to borrow a page from the playbook of his father, opera singer Robert McFerrin, who in 1957 recorded an album of, what were then known as, Negro spirituals. Last year, Bobby released “spirityouall,” his collection of spirituals, including several his father had recorded as well as a few McFerrin originals. Material from that album dominated Saturday’s repertoire.
Backed by five splendid, simpatico musicians and his daughter Madison on vocals, McFerrin, 64, gave his interpretations of “Swing Low” (slow and minimalist), “Joshua” (with a hot-jazz groove) and “Glory” (which started nice and easy and then boom-choka-locka transformed into a tent revival).
“25.15” was a gospel-blues stomp, drawing inspiration from Psalm 25, verse 15. “Rest/ Yes, Indeed” started like James Brown and ended up like a front-porch gospel hoedown.
Throughout the evening, McFerrin gave ample opportunities for solos by his musicians, most notably keyboardist/accordionist Gil Goldstein, guitarist Armand Hirsch and guitarist/violinist/mandolinist David Mansfield. Madison McFerrin also was featured on a version of Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t Worry Bout a Thing.”
But the emotional highlights of the 130-minute performance were when McFerrin went off script – improvising a song about a kid named “Joey” in the front row, improvising a verse about late-arriving concertgoers, dueting on “Whole World” with three women from the audience (one of whom is pro, Judi Donaghy, and one of whom, Ariella, sounded like one), spontaneously breaking into Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way” and then doing it Broadway-style, and answering questions from fans as an encore (and accommodating a request to sing the falsetto-dominated“The Star Spangled Banner”).
The 10-minute Q&A was a disarmingly intimate touch in a usually formal setting, not that McFerrin was very formal in his jeans and untucked dress shirt.
Here are some highlights of the Q&A:
* What do you think of the remodeled Orchestra Hall? He didn’t really have an opinion but talked about players in the violin section in the past could only hear other violinists.
* What advice do you have for a 6-year-old? “Dream really big – and act as if you’re already in it.”
* What is your current dream? To sing backup for James Taylor and then he broke into “Fire and Rain.”
* What’s the best thing about having your daughter Madison sing in your group? “I get to watch her grow onstage.” He added that she’s graduating from Berklee College of Music next month.
*Why don’t you sing your huge hit “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” anymore? “I haven’t done it in concert since November 1988. By the time you’d heard it, I’d sung it 300 trillion times.”
* Is there any way to get you to conduct the Minnesota Orchestra? “Just call my management. I’d love to. The whole time I was here, I worked over in St. Paul,” he said referring to his five-year stint in the ‘90s as creative chair of St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.
Burt Hara, the principal clarinetist, has resigned from the Minnesota Orchestra. Hara had led the clarinet section in Minnesota since 1987 until he took a position as associate principal with the Los Angeles Philharmonic last May. He grew up in California.
Orchestra musicians apply for a year's leave of absence when they go to another ensemble, in case they wish to return. For example, Hara took a position as principal with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1996 and returned to Minnesota after a year.
Hara, 51, had requested, and was granted, a one-year extension from Minnesota in February. He told the orchestra at the time that he expected to make a decision sooner than 2015. He notified the orchestra this week and the players were informed on Thursday.
When he took the L.A. position last May, Hara said he was looking forward to working with conductor Gustavo Dudamel, the charismatic leader of the Philharmonic. "It's time to look to the next chapter," he said at the time.
In a letter to musicians, Hara said he decided not to return because he believes "the current leadership does not have the vision to restore the Orchestra to its place among the great orchestras of the world."
In a statement, the orchestra said: "Burt Hara is an outstanding clarinetist and we thank him for his many years of service and contributions in Minnesota. He will be greatly missed. We wish him and his family the very best on their new lives in southern California."
Orchestra spokesperson Gwen Pappas said that of eight musicians who requested leaves of absence in 2012-13, four have elected to return to the orchestra -- Ken Freed, David Pharris, Robert Dorer and Tim Zavadil. Three still have time left on their leaves -- Tom Turner, Michael Gast and Peter McGuire. Gina diBello resigned to take a position with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Stephanie Arado left outright for a teaching position at Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan.
Jill Gardner as Tosca in a still from Boston Lyric Opera. Photo by Jeffrey Dunn.
For its third season of outdoor, summertime opera, Mill City Summer Opera has chosen to stage "Tosca," the Puccini tearjerker, with Jill Gardner in the title role. Artistic director David Lefkowich will direct a staging set in the 1940s, and Brian DeMaris will be the show's music director.
Other cast members include Jake Gardner (Scarpia) and Dinyar Vania (Cavaradossi).
As usual, Mill City will stage the opera outdoors in the Mill City Museum's Ruin Courtyard. The past two seasons ("Pagliacci" and "The Barber of Seville") have mostly sold out, so this is a hot ticket. Tickets to the opening night are on sale now; tickets for six scheduled performances July 12-22, go on sale in mid-May at 612-875-5544, or the opera's website.
Lewis will depart the Minnesota Orchestra after his current contract ends this summer. He will conduct Mahler here on June 12 and will lead two Sommerfest concerts before leaving, said Gwen Pappas, orchestra spokesperson.
His New York post begins in the 2014-15 season, it was announced by the Philharmonic on Feb. 26. Lewis and associate conductor Case Scaglione will assist Alan Gilbert, music director, as well as guest conductors, and will lead educational events and Young People's Concerts.
“We discovered Courtney Lewis after an extensive audition process, and he emerged as a very promising future colleague as our next Assistant Conductor,” said Gilbert in a statement.
Lewis, 29 and born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, made his subscription debut with Minnesota Orchestra with a fully staged production of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel during the 2011–12 season.
He has also served as a Dudamel Fellow with the Los Angeles Philharmonic; he made his debut there in the fall of 2011.
Mr. Lewis is the founder and music director of Boston’s Discovery Ensemble, a chamber orchestra dedicated not only to giving concerts of contemporary and established repertoire but also to bringing live music into the least privileged parts of Boston with workshops in local schools.
Musicians performed Friday at Orchestra Hall./Photos David Joles
The weekend of events at the Minnesota Orchestra proves that healing takes time. Yes, Orchestra Hall was sold out Friday and nearly so on Saturday. And let it be stated unequivocally: everyone was glad to see the musicians back on stage making music in their house.
However, it was easy to see the divisions that linger from the 16-month lockout. Save Our Symphony Minnesota had distributed bright green “Homer Hankies” and patrons waved them furiously inside the hall. Green was the color of the musicians’ buttons, posters, t-shirts, posters and lawn signs during the lockout. This seemed an unmistakable gesture of support for the musicians and at the same time a reminder to the board and administration that they are being watched.
When Gordon Sprenger, the newly elected board chairman, took the stage at intermission with musician Douglas Wright, he was immediately met on Friday night with a few shouts of “Bring Back Osmo!” referring to the former music director Osmo Vanska. On Saturday night, the crowd was more raucous and emphatic with its challenge to Sprenger. In both cases, Sprenger acknowledged the sentiment but made no commitment other than to say, “We’re on it.”
There was at least one shout Saturday of “Fire Henson,” which reveals a deeper drama that is taking place within the organization. The unstated tension that exists between Vanska and CEO Michael Henson came out into the open when Vanska told MPR music host Brian Newhouse in a conversation Saturday that he feels Henson should resign. The statement became public and by the end of the night, Sprenger – who likely had hoped he’d get a chance to preach harmony and collaboration on this first weekend – found himself issuing a statement saying he was disappointed that Vanska had gone public with his opinions. Those comments will have an impact on delicate negotiations that were already going on within the board.
A contingent of fans who supported the musicians during the lockout feel Henson was the villain in the long lockout and want him fired. In large measure, they are drawing on popular support for Vanska (which is undeniably deep and substantial) as a lever to get Henson out the door – based on the notion that the price for Vanska’s return would be Henson’s departure. Vanska’s statement Saturday removed any doubts of where his head is at, even though he did not state it in "Him or Me" terms.
The board, however, clearly does not enjoy having the thinly veiled conflict (actually Osmo removed the veil) between its two most-public figures being turned into an ultimatum. This isn’t said to discount the validity or the sincerity of the opposition, only to state a fact of nonprofit leadership and human nature. The board is made up of volunteers who give large amounts of money to the orchestra, who endured 18 months under the critical public microscope and are now being told, “Fire this guy and hire this guy.”
Supporters of the musicians could legitimately respond, “Tough bounce, you deserve it for what you put your musicians through.”
And with those dynamics, the Minnesota Orchestra appears to be an institution at war with itself. How do you move forward under those circumstances?
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