Finances are stable (for now), the musicians and music director have new contracts and leadership has won accolades for reinvigorating the organization. Now the Minnesota Orchestra has set about rebuilding an ensemble depleted by retirements and a few defections during the 16-month lockout that ended in February 2014. There are 76 musicians, with a commitment to go to 84 in 2016-17 and 88 by 2020.
Five players have been hired in key roles over the past year. Susie Park, first associate concertmaster, was on the historic trip to Cuba and takes her seat next to concertmaster Erin Keefe when the classical subscription season opens Thursday. Principal bass Kristen Bruya was on that tour also, after coming from Toronto. Her partner, Andrew Chappell, is the new bass trombone. Second violinist Cecilia Belcher actually started last fall and played in a string quartet during the orchestra’s residency in Detroit Lakes, Minn., last week. Rui (pronounced “Ray”) Du was just appointed assistant concertmaster in September. He was with the Baltimore Symphony.
The new musicians sat down and discussed their impressions of the Minnesota Orchestra, life in the Twin Cities, their favorite conductors and composers.
Why did you choose Minnesota? Were you scared by the lockout?
Du: Minnesota Orchestra is one of the most prestigious orchestras in the world. They have a rich recording history. I was not scared by the lockout.
Belcher: I totally agree. The reputation of this orchestra is great. When auditions came up, I said yes. I had subbed here a few years ago and remember being blown away by the sound. The week I auditioned I was subbing and said to myself, “I have to be a part of this orchestra.”
Park: I was subbing the week Osmo [Vänskä, the music director] came back for Sibelius’ Symphonies 1 and 4. It was overwhelming and the commitment felt so palpable. I was very fortunate to be part of that.
Chappell: I had subbed here in 2012, the second time for two weeks in the spring and someone said they were going to have an audition.
Bruya: There was no trepidation at all.
Besides Vänskä, do you have a favorite conductor you have worked with?
Bruya: I tell ya, [conductor laureate] Stan Skrowaczewski is an incredible person to work with — his history and incredible experience. That’s a guy I will carry with me.
Belcher: It’s hard to choose one but I worked with James Levine.
Park: Simon Rattle. Each time he was so inspiring. He’s so easy and charismatic, he invites you and encourages you to bring out your best — just with his eyes. Yehudi Menuhin is also a remarkable musician and human being.
Du: I have a hero. I liked watching [Leonard] Bernstein conducting on YouTube. His communication with musicians and audiences was pretty great.
Chappell: Michael Tilson Thomas is a strong leader. You work with someone when you’re young and they make an impression.
How about composers?
Bruya: Prokofiev. He has bass lines you can really dig into. Beethoven, because there’s so much energy.
Belcher: Playing Beethoven symphonies is amazing, being part of that energy.
Chappell: Prokofiev has neat lines, unusually close harmonies, which for me are fun. You get to the soul of the instrument in another way.
Park: I’d have to take Beethoven. Mahler, too, with the extreme expressions, the universal sound world. Everyone gets to play in Mahler and that makes it fun.
Du: If I had to say one, Beethoven. Beethoven and Mozart.
Do you have a favorite Twin Cities spot?
Chappell: We just moved near Lake Nokomis. The bike trails.
Bruya: Yes. Nokomis. I love to jog. And have you ever been to the Minnehaha Falls dog park? Even if you don’t have a dog, just go there to walk around. You can get down along the river and walk up into the woods.
Belcher: Lake Calhoun. Walking around Lake Calhoun, that’s my thing. And walking to restaurants in Uptown.
Du: I just moved here. The Asian restaurant on Nicollet by Loring Park is very good.
Park: I just barely moved in, too. I have enjoyed the Vietnamese restaurants. There’s some solid Vietnamese food here.
Do you have hobbies?
Park: I make bags, clothing, jewelry, crafty stuff.
Du: I like cooking. Creating something. Also, I like to eat.
Belcher: I enjoy cooking, swimming. I just joined the Y.
Bruya: Bikram yoga.
Park (interjects): She’s a really good roller skater, she wears the whole outfit.
Bruya: And cook and bake.
Chappell: Climbing, biking, walking the dog. Staying alive. I do love baseball. I’m from San Francisco so I’m a Giants fan.
What’s the most unusual venue you remember?
Chappell: In Houston, I had to play in a Renaissance Festival gig and I wore tights and was paid nothing. Four and half hours on both Saturday and Sunday. It was brutal.
Bruya: In Nashville, I played in a large horse barn. We had to walk through, and the people were on the other end. It was definitely unusual.
Belcher: One venue I loved — it was so different — was the Proms. You see [Royal Albert Hall] from the outside, it’s gorgeous and you get inside and it’s an arena. I loved people standing in front like we were rock stars.
Du: As a student at Tanglewood, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra on stage, playing with the students. It was very amazing.
Bruya: Can I change mine? I’d say the Queen Mary II, with the New World Symphony, sailing from Fort Lauderdale to Miami. We went out to international waters.
Park: The Manaus Opera House in Brazil. It’s an old European opera house right in the middle of the Amazon rain forest. It was 1,000 percent humidity. I was wiping down my instrument all the time.
What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?
Chappell: The coolest thing was doing a ballet in Toronto. I played the role of Hamlet, in the music part of it. Me and a string quartet and a piano. I took a solo bow and I thought, “This is never going to happen again.”
Belcher: I am grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given and I always keep looking for something new. It keeps me dreaming.
Park: Cuba was pretty good — playing the trio at the ambassador’s residence. But I agree, I keep looking forward.
Bruya: Getting a job in this orchestra. I’m still pinching myself.
Du: Being a musician in the Minnesota Orchestra.