When Orchestral Lightning Strikes
9 Mar 2011

The Minnesota Orchestra's performance of Sibelius's Kullervo on March 1, 2010, was described by Alex Ross in The New Yorker "as the kind you hear once or twice a decade." Here, Minnesota Orchestra violist Sam Bergman describes the impact such pronouncements have on the players. And on Minnesota.

For an orchestra musician, coming to New York to perform at Carnegie Hall is one of those seminal experiences that tell you that you've made the big time, that all those hours spent huddled in your practice room over the years have paid off. And if your performance manages to garner a positive review or two from the press, you carry home with you a bit of that New York sheen that so entrances audiences from coast to coast.

So last March, when the Minnesota Orchestra brought a performance of Beethoven's Große Fuge and Sibelius's choral symphony, Kullervo, to the Carnegie Hall stage, we were hopeful. We've been enjoying an extended run of pretty good national and international press since Osmo Vänskä became our Music Director back in 2003, and for an orchestra that lives and works in a part of the country that, quite frankly, most of you East Coast folks studiously ignore, that's been a hard-fought victory. And this program, which featured Finland's spectacular YL Male Voice Choir in the Sibelius, was designed to punch our reputation up another notch by simultaneously playing to our strengths and showing that we can pull off convincing interpretations of very difficult and lesser-known works.

As it turned out, this plan worked, and worked better than we could ever have hoped. The concert struck a positive nerve with The New York Times, and a couple of weeks later, the esteemed Alex Ross sent our marketing department into PR heaven when he declared in The New Yorker that we had sounded, on that one night in March, "like the greatest orchestra in the world." (Think that quote's made an appearance in one or two of our brochures this season?)

But honestly? When we reached the point that the Minnesota press was interviewing the New York press just to ask them to say one more time that the Big Apple thinks we're awesome, we all needed to take a deep breath.

Don't get me wrong—the fact that the media capital of the US was paying positive attention to our orchestra is a great thing, and I don't mean to make light of it. But when I heard Alex Ross talking to Minnesota Public Radio about us, the most important thing I heard him say was, "An orchestra is only as good as its last performance."

Good reviews can sometimes drive musicians battier than bad ones, just because of the pressure of living up to the hype the next night, next week, next month, etc. In fact, as soon as that oh-so-flattering New Yorker piece was posted backstage at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis, our rehearsals became rife with gallows humor. Pretty much every audible mistake that was made in rehearsal for weeks afterward was followed immediately by several of us turning to our stand partners and gravely intoning, "The greatest orchestra in the world."

And now here we are, headed back to New York almost exactly one year removed from the Carnegie Hall performance that earned us such raves. Pressure's on. Ross was right: We're only as good as our last performance, and now, we're only as good as our next one.

—Sam Bergman is a violist with the Minnesota Orchestra, and the co-creator and host of the orchestra's Inside the Classics series. Along with conductor Sarah Hicks, he blogs at

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