Just A Building
11 Jul 2012
Inside the Classics

The opening weekend of Sommerfest is always a big event for the orchestra, and this Friday and Saturday will be no different, except for the fact that everything will, of course, be extremely different.

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Orchestra Hall is closed. It just took me almost a full minute to type that sentence. My hands really didn’t want to write those words. Which is ridiculous, because a) the hall is closed so that it can be made into a much better place to attend concerts, b) I never really felt all that attached to the lobby, which is primarily what’s being renovated, and c) it’s a building. The orchestra I love is not defined by the venue we play in, and we’ve been graced with perfectly nice alternate digs over at the U for the summer, and… and…

…and so why does this feel like that time when they imploded Veterans’ Stadium in Philadelphia to make way for the Phillies’ awesome new ballpark, and instead of cheering the demise of that decrepit hunk of concrete where I’d spent far too many hours as a kid moaning about what an awful place it was to watch baseball, I suddenly got this awful twinge in my chest like it was all my memories that were coming down in a cloud of dust?

It’s a funny thing, our relationship with spaces. It’s not just concert halls, or stadiums, or physical buildings of any kind. It’s that odd attachment we form to the places that feel like home to us -like that Caribou Coffee on the corner near your office that’s exactly like every other Caribou except that this one is yours. Or the nondescript park near your apartment that, truth be told, isn’t anything special, but it’s where you walked your dog nearly every day of his life, and so it’s yours.

Orchestra Hall is mine, every inch of it. I vividly remember the very first time I saw it, back in 1999, when my brother (then a Macalester sophomore) drove me across the river for my big audition. He pointed as we pulled up to Marquette Avenue, and said, “Well, there it is.”

“You’re kidding me,” I said. “What are the giant blue tubes for?”

“I think they stole those off a cruise ship,” he replied. “What do you care what they’re for? Go win this job!”

I remember the first time I walked out the stage door after following my brother’s instructions. I was walking on air, still incredulous that I’d just been offered a job with the Minnesota Orchestra, and for some reason, I noticed the ivy that grows up the hall’s brick exterior on the Marquette Avenue side. My new boss, principal viola Tom Turner, was walking with me, and he was smoking a cigarette and telling me that they needed me to start as soon as possible because the viola section was so short-staffed at the moment. I nodded, and glanced through the glass into the darkened lobby, wondering whether that carpet could really be quite as… busy as it had looked when I was peering in at it earlier in the day.

After Tom congratulated me again and walked off towards his car, I turned to face the downtown skyline and took a deep breath for the first time in hours. Then I turned back around, and stared at the facade of the hall until my brother arrived to pick me up. It was an unconventional look for a concert hall, sure – I could even see where some might call it something more derogatory than “unconventional” – but that didn’t matter. It was mine, and I couldn’t believe my luck.

During the last few weeks of this season, as our tireless staff and stage crew were loading entire offices into boxes for the move-out, a series of memos was issued to the musicians of the orchestra to remind us that, once the hall closed, it would really be closed until summer 2013, so we all needed to be gathering up our possessions from the various corners of the building where we might have squirreled them away over the years. Since we don’t have offices (and since we really do treat the hall as if it’s our second home,) this was a more complicated process than you might imagine. Our percussionists have an entire wing of the offstage area loaded with obscure instruments of all shapes and sizes. Years worth of cards, letters, photos, and other orchestra history are collected on oversize bulletin boards backstage. And then there are the lockers.

Of course we have lockers. This is why you rarely see us wondering around downtown Minneapolis in white tie and tails. (Actually, one of the badly needed aspects of the hall renovation will be the long-overdue expansion of the women’s locker room, which is less than half the size of the men’s, because orchestras in the 1960s were, by and large, sexist pigs.) We keep our various sets of “work clothes” in them, of course, but just like in high school, the lockers tend to accumulate a lot of other detritus over the years. And when you’re forced to carry all that lot home in a big bag and dump it out on your dining room table for inspection, well…

I’m not sure what that photo says about me, but you can blame Julie Williams for the chicken. It was a hilarious inside joke involving the St. Paul Saints and my unwillingness to dance under any circumstances, but I can’t remember the details. The chicken’s been in my locker since at least 2009.

What I was saddest to leave, though, wasn’t in my locker, but on it. I don’t know whether the women of the orchestra decorate their lockers, but plenty of the men do. Some of the additions are practical – violist Michael Adams was kind enough to install coat hooks on the outside of several of our locker doors – but most are personal. Principal trumpeter Manny Laureano’s locker sports an American flag and a trumpet. Principal horn Mike Gast’s proudly displays a Florida State Seminoles sticker. I’ve got an equality sticker from the Human Rights Campaign front and center on mine.

And I also have these three tiny newspaper headlines that were published in the Star Tribune twelve years ago, when I was new in town. The Twins, as you may recall, were a terrible ball club at that time, and during the 2000 season, they decided it would be a good idea to employ a starting pitcher named Sean Bergman. As it turned out, this was not a good idea at all, at least from the standpoint of a baseball team trying to win its games. Sean Bergman was not good at winning baseball games. But he was amazing at contributing to my locker, because his season so perfectly mirrored what I, a 24-year-old rookie in a major American orchestra, felt I was going through as I tried to keep up with the major leaguers who had foolishly allowed me to join their ranks.

I totally win at Locker.

I’ve never even considered adding anything else to that door.

Still and all, I know it’s just a building. When it reopens next summer, we’ll move back in like we never left, and start creating new memories to live alongside the ones we already have. But if I’m honest, I’ve been avoiding the heck out of the southern edge of downtown this summer. And I’ve only glanced at the Construction Blog our tech staff have launched (which is actually very cool and the rest of you should totally bookmark it.) I just have too much personal history in that one city block of glass and brick and concrete to be comfortable watching it come down.

<January 2020>

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