17 Oct 2011
Inside the Classics

Well, it’s been a long week on the road, the orchestra is just now settling back into our homes in the Cities after our Common Chords residency up north in Grand Rapids (Sarah wrote about it earlier in the week,) and I’m just going to go ahead and call this one: I had a better Saturday night than you did.

It was our last day in Grand Rapids, and by Saturday morning, most of us were feeling as if we’d been well and truly adopted. It seemed like the entire town either had tickets to our four full orchestra concerts, or had kids whose classrooms had been visited by our chamber groups, or just wanted to talk to us about their own musical experiences. They sought us out in art galleries, coffee shops, and the Judy Garland Museum (which is awesome, by the way,) to tell us how much they appreciated our being there, and we assured them that the feeling was more than mutual.

Our Friday night Inside the Classics program had gone off without a hitch, as had the two concerts Courtney conducted for students and families. Saturday night was the big finale, a full-length classical concert with works by Mozart, Ravel, and Copland on the first half, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade, featuring Erin on yet another massive concertmaster solo. The hall was packed, the audience was hugely responsive all night long, and Sarah was called back for three noisy curtain calls before she raised her hands to stop the applause.

Sarah told the audience that we had one more unscheduled piece to play for them, and they roared their approval. She picked up her baton, and the brass growled out the opening chords of Sibelius’s Finlandia. There was a murmur of familiarity in the crowd – there are a lot of Finns living up on The Range, and they probably assumed that was why we were playing it. They were half right.

There’s a section of Finlandia, towards the end of the piece, where the rousing fanfares fade away into a soft tremolo in the strings, and the orchestra plays the hymn tune Sibelius wrote to honor his nation, a tune so famous that many Finns consider it their true (if unofficial) national anthem. It goes like this:

(I know, I should have found a Finnish version. But it’s Cantus!)

Of course, we weren’t traveling with a chorus, and Finlandia is usually played without one, so the audience looked perplexed when Sarah turned toward them with a few bars to go before the hymn section, holding three fingers in the air. Then there were two fingers, then one.

As Sarah’s last finger vanished and the orchestra slipped into pianissimo, four well-dressed teen girls in the second and third rows rose confidently to their feet, and began to sing the hymn in three-part harmony. Within a few seconds, four boys several rows further back stood and joined them. Suddenly, there were teenagers popping up all over the room, growing the choir moment by moment as their parents, teachers, friends, and neighbors gaped in astonishment. By the end of the first stanza, the choir was leading the way, the orchestra following along in their considerable wake, and I could see people in tears all over the room. (Some of those people were holding instruments.)

The more they sang, the more confident our cameo choir became, and by the end of the second verse, they were pumping out so much sound that we actually had to raise our volume to support them. And when they sang their last notes and sat down as one, turning things back over to us for the final fanfare, the crowd erupted around them, nearly drowning us out for several bars. One of the girls who had been the first to stand and sing had the widest grin I’ve ever seen plastered across her face as we hammered the final triumphant chords. I wanted to smile back at her, but I was too busy trying to figure out how I was going to blink away the tears welling up in my eyes before my stand partner saw them.

It hadn’t just happened, of course. Our amazing Outreach Coordinator, Mele Willis, who was the driving force behind the entire Common Chords week in Grand Rapids, had floated the idea of getting the high school choir involved in the show somehow, and had figured out a way of getting a few musicians and Sarah out to work with the kids, teach them the hymn tune, and drill them in when they’d need to be ready to sing it. Our Finnish trombonist, Kari Sundström, was tasked with giving them the locker room speech, explaining just how much this tune means to the Finnish people and just how full their hearts and throats would need to be on Saturday night. Everyone involved – kids, teachers, and musicians – was sworn to total secrecy, and since there was no way to arrange for the kids to rehearse with the full orchestra without tipping off every one of their parents that something was up, they sang it with us for the very first time in the concert.

Music is supposed to be cathartic, but when you do it for a living, it can be easy to forget how rewarding that catharsis can be. On Saturday night, those kids reminded all of us, and hopefully, we gave them an experience to remember in return. We’ve done a lot of concerts in rural Minnesota communities in the dozen years that I’ve been with this orchestra, and they’ve all been special in one way or another. But I’ve never experienced anything like what just happened in Grand Rapids this past week, and in talking with other members of the band, it was pretty clear that everyone felt the same way.

<October 2019>

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