Here There Be Gnomes
6 Apr 2011
Inside the Classics

The orchestra’s on the road for a few days this week, playing concerts in Dawson and Brainerd, Minnesota, under the confident baton of associate conductor Courtney Lewis. We make outstate trips like this on a pretty regular basis – we play several times a year at the College of St. Benedict in the central part of the state, and nearly always work in three or four trips to other far-flung Minnesota towns as well. In the decade-plus that I’ve been a member, the orchestra’s played in Jackson, Worthington, Willmar, Windom, Brainerd, Bemidji, Perham, Hibbing, St. Joseph, Monticello, Owatonna, Cokato, Grand Rapids, St. Cloud, Winona, Fargo (not technically in Minnesota, but close enough,) and probably a few others I’ve forgotten. Next fall, we’re even launching a new program that will see us take up temporary residence in an outstate locale for an entire week – Grand Rapids is up first.

I’ve written before about the experience of touring to small Midwestern towns (general summation: I love it,) and this trip got off to a great start last night in Dawson, where the audience looked bigger than the town’s population and Courtney did a truly admirable job of holding things together on an unfamiliar stage and keeping the energy level high throughout a pretty taxing program. (He’s also conducting Tchaikovsky’s 6th without a score, which is quite a feat for a conductor who hasn’t yet turned 30.)

Still, for some of my colleagues – the handful who signed up to play this year’s WAMSO Kinder Konzerts last summer – this particular tour is a scheduling nightmare. “Kinders,” as we call them, are quick-hit concerts for the preschool set, and the musicians who sign up put on four rapid-fire concerts in a 3-hour period, with groups of kids, teachers and parents rotating in and out. There are roughly 12 of these quadruple-concert days scattered throughout our winter season, usually no more than one per week. But this week, Kinders were scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, meaning that several orchestra musicians played four Kinders yesterday morning, drove three hours west to Dawson, played the evening concert here, then drove all the way back to Minneapolis while the rest of us crashed in a hotel in Willmar. As I type this, they’re warming up for another round of Kinders, and oh, yeah, the orchestra has a concert in Brainerd (2-1/2 hours from Orchestra Hall) tonight. I’m a Kinder Konzert regular, but fortunately for me, this year’s ensemble had no viola part, so I’m spared the extra 300 miles or so of travel on this trip.

I am, however, eschewing the official tour bus and driving myself and fellow violist Megan Tam from stop to stop, as I always do on outstate tours. This is partly because traveling on a bus always makes me feel like I’m back in junior high, but mostly because I find that the rest of the orchestra is less than receptive when I want to stop constantly on our way to wherever and take pictures of the giant animal statuary and roadside weirdness that seems to be just everywhere in Minnesota. Speaking of which…

Intriguing, no? This is the entrance to a roadside park on the outskirts of Dawson. The other side of this display contains a rough map of the park, and a carefully crafted tall tale of how Dawson came to be a city of gnomes. The signage on the cafe across the street makes it clear that gnomes are welcome there, but most of the gnomes seem pretty happy to stay in their little park most of the time.

Let it never be said that a small town cannot commit to a public art project in a decidedly big way:

Every gnome represents a Dawson resident of note.

There are more than thirty all told, and new gnomes seem to be added every year.

This one is called "Maestro."

Y'know, in case they want to have a game.

And as if the gnomes weren’t enough to make the drive from Minneapolis totally worth it, I nearly steered my car into a ditch a block from our concert venue when Megan spotted this utterly brilliant sign for a local salon.

This is a level of snark one does not usually expect from a town of fewer than 2000 souls.

Someone else in the orchestra pointed out that, between being gnome-infested and possibly also concealing Sweeney Todd’s secret lair, one could construe Dawson to be something of a creepy little burg. I suppose. But if you ask me, there’s something admirable about places that still adhere to the old canard that in a small town, you’ve gotta make your own fun.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to the land of Talking Paul Bunyan and Marge Gunderson. This state just never stops entertaining…

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