One evening six years ago, Minnesota Orchestra principal cellist Tony Ross was sitting in a church, waiting for a concert featuring his wife to begin.
“A lady sitting further down the pew recognizes me,” he recalls. “And she says, ‘Oh, you’re that angry cello player!’ ”
Ross smiles broadly at the recollection, but there was little to smile about at the time.
The Minnesota Orchestra was in the throes of a ruinous, 16-month labor dispute, and he and his wife were scrabbling for freelance jobs to pay bills and put food on the table.
So where did the “angry cello player” label come from?
Ross smiles again.
“I’d been on TV a bunch talking about the lockout, and at one point I’d debated one of our board members,” he says. “And I may have appeared a little bit angry.”
That anger is history now. The lockout is over, and Ross himself has every reason to be feeling positive, having emerged as a leader in the Minnesota Orchestra’s rebound. He recently celebrated three decades with the ensemble, which opens its 2019-20 season Thursday, and his 60th birthday is being marked Sunday by a special chamber concert with Ross as guest soloist.
In a sense, that brings his professional life full circle. Thirty years ago, when Ross first came to the Twin Cities, his wife, Beth Rapier (also a cellist), already had a job in the orchestra.
As a freelancer new to town, however, Ross relied heavily on chamber music gigs and solo recitals to build a foothold in the Minnesota classical community.
“And it was beautiful,” he remembers. “The city really embraced me, I got plenty of work. The Twin Cities were a happening place for the arts even then.”
A year later a sixth-chair spot opened in the orchestra’s cello section. Ross won it. Two years later the principal cello retired, and he won that, too.
It was a rapid rise to prominence, but one that didn’t surprise Burt Hara, the orchestra’s principal clarinet then.
“Tony has a real presence as a section leader, and there was quite a significant change in the cello sound when he took it over,” said Hara, who left during the lockout to join the Los Angeles Philharmonic. “I think he was encouraging people not just to blend in, but to really give their own input to the section.”
That’s a view Ross himself agrees with. Leading a cello section is about fostering individuality, not forcing slavish imitation, he says.
“It’s like cooking a stew — to make a really compelling sound takes different ingredients. If you put 10 Tony Rosses playing together, it probably wouldn’t sound very good.”
Knowing what Osmo wants
Osmo Vänskä has worked with Ross since he took over as the Minnesota Orchestra’s music director 16 years ago. Quick reflexes and decisiveness are the qualities that make Ross an outstanding section leader, he says.
“Sometimes with orchestras you get delays and hesitations when the conductor signals the musicians to play. That never happens with Tony. When I beat, I am really sure that Tony is reacting, and he always knows what I want.”
The admiration is mutual. Ross credits the Finnish conductor for making major changes to the way the orchestra sounds — “a very chiseled and focused sound that you rarely hear in a symphony orchestra,” he says. “You hear the lines each section is playing clearer. Osmo helps us illuminate the score more.
“He’s a very demanding and stubborn conductor, and both those things I admire in him.”
Vänskä also emphasizes the crucial leadership role Ross played both during and immediately after the lockout.
“He worked hours and hours to ensure the whole organization could start again, and was a really strong influence as we planned for the future.”
Ross headed the players’ artistic committee as the orchestra emerged from its near-death experience. He still winces when he looks back on the 16-month standoff between musicians and management.
“It was incredibly traumatic, nobody will ever forget it,” he says. “We lost some very fine players to other orchestras, and some people lost their houses.”
He recalls a grim period when he sat his family down one evening, and put to them a stark proposition.
“We were at the dinner table with our two kids, who were 21 and 16 at the time, and we asked them: Should we sell our house or my cello?
“And they said, “Are you kidding? Sell the house.’ ”
The resolution of the lockout in January 2014 meant Ross kept both house and cello. But the future still looked unpredictable, and he came within a hair’s breadth of quitting Minnesota for Chicago.
“I was offered a job at the Lyric Opera, just two hours from where I was raised in Kalamazoo, Michigan. They had a job for my wife, too, so it was a very compelling offer.”
In the end, he turned it down.
“I rolled the dice, and decided to stay and help the orchestra here rebuild. It was a decision I will never regret.”
And why should he? Since committing to the Minnesota Orchestra’s future in 2014, Ross has seen it re-emerge triumphantly as an international force in classical music, with tours to Cuba and South Africa.
He is on the search committee to find a new music director when Vänskä steps down in three years’ time — “a huge unknown which is very exciting,” he says.
‘The definition of love’
Ross’ chamber music commitments continue to flourish, too. Last year Accordo, a group he founded with St. Paul Chamber Orchestra violinist Steven Copes, marked its 10th-anniversary season.
And on Sunday the Chamber Music Society of Minnesota, where Ross performs frequently, is mounting a concert in honor of his 60th birthday.
For that special occasion Ross has been allowed to make some particularly personal choices.
“We’re playing Schubert’s String Quintet, one of the greatest chamber pieces ever written,” he says. “I started playing it at 13 with my brother and three other kids in Kalamazoo, and I think we spent a whole year on the first movement.”
Ross will play the first cello part Sunday, and he did not take long in deciding who should play the second.
“I really wanted to play that piece with my wife Beth,” he says.
“The second theme of the first movement is presented by the two cellos, and it really is the definition of love. I don’t want to ever play that music with anyone else if I can help it.”
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com.