Mary Ann Feldman didn’t step onstage with an instrument or a baton. She commanded Orchestra Hall with words.
For decades, Feldman gave smart, funny pre-concert talks that, like the program notes she wrote for 33 years, introduced Minnesota Orchestra audiences to classical music with elegance and enthusiasm, depicting its history and extolling its pleasures.
She was an expert, with a Ph.D. in musicology. But she spoke and wrote about music like a friend might, letting you in on its secrets.
“Her pre-concert lectures informed, enthused and amused her listeners — making her a star who audiences associated in importance with the work of the musicians and, to some extent, our conductors,” said Dick Cisek, former orchestra CEO. “She was, for many years, the voice of the Minnesota Orchestra.”
Feldman, the orchestra’s beloved writer, speaker and historian, died Monday after a decadelong struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. She was 85.
From 1966 to 2000, she served as the orchestra’s program annotator — the longest tenure in that position for any U.S. orchestra. Her role as a voice of the orchestra extended backstage, colleagues said, where she dreamed up big ideas, helped pick the perfect concerto and invited co-workers and famous composers over for a meal. She was known as a brilliant character. A champion matchmaker.
“She was truly a remarkable, remarkable person. It was probably Mary Ann, more than anybody, who held things together,” said conductor Leonard Slatkin, who founded the orchestra’s Sommerfest. “She outlasted executive directors and artistic administrators and music directors.” It was Feldman who came up with the idea of making the orchestra’s summer programming Vienna-themed, said Slatkin, now music director laureate of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. “It struck a chord with everyone.”
“She made everyone feel special,” Slatkin said. “The same way that a few performers can make an audience feel that somehow they’re playing just for you? Mary Ann made people feel like she was speaking to her or him.”
Born in St. Paul, where her parents ran a small restaurant, Mary Ann Janisch was in third grade when she first heard her orchestra play. Then called the Minneapolis Symphony, it performed at the old St. Paul Auditorium, with Dimitri Mitropoulos conducting. She learned from him how to make an entrance, Feldman told music critic and friend Michael Anthony in 1994.
“He used to just whip onto the stage. It was always ‘Allegro.’ Sometimes I say to myself, ‘If nothing else, walk out there fast.’ It gets my adrenalin going, and it says to the people, ‘Here she comes.’ ”
At the University of Minnesota, she wrote music reviews for the Minnesota Daily under the cheeky pseudonym V.I. Olin, or violin. In 1966, after earning a master’s degree from Columbia University in New York City and marrying Harold Feldman, she started writing program notes for the Minneapolis Symphony — a gig that paid $700 a season. Her program notes plucked fascinating details from composers’ stories, pointed out movements’ distinct personalities and described, in gorgeous detail, a haunting three-note motif or the “lavish flowering” of a main theme.
Her piece on Beethoven’s Concerto No. 4 in G major, began with the observation that when Beethoven departed for Vienna in 1792, Mozart had been dead for only a year. “In hindsight,” she wrote, “it is hard not to imagine that destiny was compensating for the cruel loss of Mozart by sending this young lion of a pianist to the imperial city, then the musical crossroads of the world.”
“She was one of the most gifted storytellers I’ve ever known,” said Karl Reichert, the orchestra’s former director of public affairs. “And in classical music, that’s not an easy thing to do. I admired her ability to take the most complicated piece and make it accessible.”
Feldman spent her time reading, researching and absorbing. Then she shut a cubicle-panel-turned-makeshift-door, hanging on it a “do not disturb” sign and clacking out a near-perfect draft on her electric typewriter. (“She hated what she called ‘puters,’ ” Reichert said.) She sprinkled humor into her pieces, and would “even have ways of hinting, with composers of years past, at their naughty sides.”
She hated writing, or at least claimed to. But she adored talking — especially about music.
“If you could lose weight by talking, I’d be a sylph-like woman,” she once said.
Feldman was the first person to give preconcert talks at Orchestra Hall, upon its opening in 1974. Wearing bright, smart suits and her hair in a French twist, she gave some 60 speeches a year, hosting Coffee Concerts and Young People’s Concerts, illuminating classical music for all kinds of audiences. She had star power, effervescence, a “kind of combination of Mary Tyler Moore and Marlo Thomas,” as Slatkin put it. And she used it to advocate for music’s power to change lives.
She often reminded her fellow staffers that “excellent is not enough,” Reichert said. “You can have this first-rate orchestra performing on all the world’s stages, but if it’s not accessible, or the audience doesn’t relate, it’s not enough. She wanted to make sure everyone could embrace it — whether they were third-graders or a subscription concertgoer.”
In 1999, when she retired — kind of — the program book was filled with tributes. Writing from London, Sir Neville Marriner, who was music director here from 1979 to 1986, said: “I am convinced that your beguiling dress sense influenced the Friday morning audience to the orchestra’s advantage, and your articulate appreciation of the orchestral repertoire infected both the initiates and the sophisticates in their midst.”
Feldman was grand and vivacious offstage, too, telling tales from her own life. There was the time she served superstar composer Aaron Copland chicken soup and a collection of poems by Carl Sandburg. “In the mail two weeks later came two pages of the manuscript of his ‘Connotations for Orchestra,’ which he composed for the 125th anniversary of the New York Philharmonic,” she said. “It’s a treasured possession.”
She loved the outdoors, once climbing in the Himalayas with a group organized by Star Tribune columnist Jim Klobuchar. But she found nature everywhere, including near the Wayzata home she and her husband shared, post-retirement, with a dog named for former concertmaster Jorja Fleezanis. She’d dubbed the small lake out back “Mozart Marsh,” said Sandi Brown, a friend and former co-worker.
“She’d say, 'Sandi, I saw the most beautiful bird out here today,' ” Brown said. “This love of nature accompanied this love of music. Somehow they were connected.”
A funeral mass will be held 11 a.m. Feb. 26 at Lumen Christi Catholic Community in St. Paul, with a visitation at 10 a.m., followed by burial at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis.