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ARCHIVE: Minnesota Orchestra (January 2021)

Originally published 1/15/21

This evening was a live concert by the Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vanska. Included in the program was Mozart’s bassoon concerto with principal bassoon Fei Xie. The Minnesota Orchestra has a distinguished history of great bassoon players. When I was there, Benjamin Kamins was assistant to Jonathan Miller. Fei Xie is a worthy successor. He studied with Kamins at Rice and played principal bassoon in the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra and guest principal with the Houston Symphony, then principal of the Baltimore Symphony before Minnesota. He is an example of the excellent musicians who make up the Houston orchestras. (Another is Seth Morris, now principal flute of the MET Orchestra.) The influence of Kamins and opera was evident in Xie’s lyrical style. You could call it vocal bocal. The first movement was joyful and brilliant, he sustained the line over rests in the slow movement and danced effortlessly in the last. His cadenzas were brilliant. The Minnesota Orchestra gave a lively and attentive accompaniment.

The program ended with Symphony No. 1 by Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a noted black musician who was a contemporary of Mozart and Beethoven. Before the performance, associate concertmaster Suzie Park related some of the history of the composer and explained the importance of diversity, equality, and diversity in classical music. While these are worthy, if not yet fully realized points, I question whether this piece is the best means to that end. Saint-Georges’ place in history does not lie in compositions such as this, but in his interactions as a first-rate violinist and conductor with the top composers of his time. His outstanding musicianship and intelligence is not expressed in this piece. While there is an inventive syncopation in the first theme of the first movement, the Andante is woefully predictable and well, boring. The Allegro assai finale is energetic but not very inventive, except for an interesting syncopated figure in the first violins. Even given some deficiencies, the work was played excellently.

This leads to the question: why program this music? Does this really demonstrate diversity and the inclusion of composers of color? As with successful people of the time, the portraits of Saint-Georges show a man dressed in a white wig and elegant clothes. In most, he appears light complexioned, even white. Only one shows a handsome man with somewhat dark skin. This is not unusual, given that many portraits of Beethoven are not historically accurate. While that is an outward depiction of this person, what of the inward expression? Could his desire for acceptance in a prejudiced society have informed his compositions? This was the case with Felix Mendelssohn, who was conflicted about his Jewish heritage. Would this first symphony have been more interesting had he not followed a desire for conformity? If that is the case, how is programming a piece such as this a step forward?

I am wholly in favor of classical music broadening its circle of inclusion. But it is only recently that diverse composers have taken (not simply been given) the opportunity to be themselves as expressed in their music. If classical music is to change, and change it must, it must look to the present, not the past. Include in our programs the music of racial and ethnic minorities, women, and any underrepresented people(s). The metric should be the talent of expression.

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