SISU! A Call for Heroes

When asked which of his symphonies was his favorite, Beethoven replied “Eroica.” Beethoven named his Symphony No. 3 “Eroica,” meaning “heroic.” He perhaps favored this piece because it is one of a handful of the most revolutionary, transformative, empowering pieces ever written.

In Eroica, Beethoven personalized music. Music was no longer simply an entertainment, or even a brilliantly constructed sound artifact. It transcended sound and became a statement from the composer about himself and about the human condition. It was one of the moments in musical history that impacted world history, ushering in the Romantic era with a bold, full-blown proclamation of the intrinsic value, heroism, and purpose of the artist and the individual.  In his PBS program, Keeping Score, Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas concludes,

The Eroica explores what it means to be human. In facing his own demons and choosing to continue making music, to continue living, Beethoven embraced the heroic in everyman and, ultimately, in himself.

Eroica is an apt double-bookend for the double-lockout of the Minnesota Orchestra and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. It was one of the last things heard before both Orchestras were locked out when the SPCO played it, followed a couple weeks later by their gripping performance of Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen, his tragic deconstruction of Eroica, mourning WW II’s destruction of German musical institutions. That SPCO performance resonates as one of the greatest Eroicas I have ever heard, despite, or perhaps because of, being performed in the face of the looming lockouts. In between Eroicas, the locked out musicians of both orchestras performed lots of music with powerful symbolic meaning (Sibelius Finlandia and Vals Triste), irreplaceable cultural touchstones (Handel’s Messiah, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony), and moments of sheer, compelling beauty (Bruckner and Sibelius Symphonies, Mozart Clarinet Concerto). But something about Eroica refuses to be silenced and serves as a perfect triumphant return to music making. It’s entirely appropriate and significant that this magnificent, heroic work marked the return of the Minnesota Orchestra to the Orchestra Hall stage.

Like Beethoven’s personification of heroism in Eroica, the conductors, musicians, and audiences of the Minnesota Orchestra personalized music throughout the lockout in the face of seemingly unsurmountable odds through their courageous perseverance in performing music and reaching people to maintain and advance the artistic, educational, and societal missions of the Minnesota Orchestra.

On Friday, February 7, it was great to see and hear the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra at Orchestra Hall again, but the end of the lockout does not equal an end to challenges facing the orchestra. The sounds from the stage were generally good. Heroism was present, but more the heroism of battle survivors gathering to raise a torn and bloodied flag. Skrowaczewski inspired with his energy, interpretation, and historical involvement with the orchestra. But the concert was more a celebration of the end of the lockout and return to music-making, than a convincing return of the orchestra in top form. Something was missing. In walking around the lobby, it was clear nerves were still rubbed raw. Board members, musicians, and management milled about, but attempts at mingling were often strained, thwarted, rebuffed, or avoided. Only 55 of the 89 musicians on stage were regular members of the orchestra, and despite the capable play of 34 substitute musicians, it was made patently clear the players of the Minnesota Orchestra are not easily replaceable cogs. The sheer joy and shimmering virtuosity the orchestra had attained before the lockout and in transcendent lockout concerts were not quite there, and it can’t be blamed on altered acoustics. There used to be an ineffable synergy that made Vänskä and his full cadre of players add up to more than the sum of their individual, world-class parts. Healing has to happen, and it will take heroic efforts from all sides to reattain that greatness.

Heroism has been evidenced in the way the musicians had endured tremendous hardships and persevered through the lockout, in how a wide variety of community action groups came together and donated hours of passionate effort and thousands of dollars to work to end the lockout, and in the actions of the Board members who came to the bargaining table and cooperated to hammer out the agreement that finally ended the lockout. More heroism is needed if the Minnesota Orchestra is to survive and recover from damage that’s been done, remain a potent and vital core of our cultural life, and hopefully return to past glories. We all need to raise and answer “A Call for Heroes.”

That call was answered with resounding shouts March 27-29 when Osmo Vänskä returned to conduct sold-out concerts celebrating the orchestra’s recent Grammy win with performances of Sibelius Symphonies 1 and 4. Audiences were treated to the fullest complement of the orchestra’s musicians since the lockout, with many musicians returning just for this concert from commitments the lockout had forced them to make elsewhere around the globe. The performances were spectacularly gripping, moving, virtuosic, and heroic, from Vänskä and every individual performer on stage. The heroic audience that stood by and supported the players through the lockout voiced their support through a ragged cry of ‘Osmo!” followed by a good five minutes of unison hand clapping to an empty stage anticipating the reunion of Vänskä and the orchestra. Many waved Finnish flags, or wore the blue and white colors of the flag as a call to rehire Vänskä, and green scarves, hankies, and lapel pins in support of the musicians. The heroic actions of the audience, orchestra, and Vänskä transcended flag-waving enthusiasm in an embodiment of the Finnish ideal of Sisu. According to Wikipedia:

Sisu is a Finnish word generally meaning determination, bravery, and resilience. However, the word is widely considered to lack a proper translation into any other language. Sisu is about taking action against the odds and displaying courage and resoluteness in the face of adversity.

Heroism kept hope and music alive during the lockouts. Conductors almost never risk careers and engagements by embroiling themselves in labor disputes, but past and present conductors of the Minnesota Orchestra have spoken and acted with unprecedented unanimity and unwavering opposition to the tactics and goals of the MOA’s lockout of the musicians. Musicians endured a 16 month fight for the orchestra’s future, suffering lost salaries, health benefits, security, homes, and even lost the certainty a job worth performing would remain. Audience members, community action groups, bloggers, and some members of the MOA board have, often at high personal cost, stood up to say and do what was needed to end the lockout and begin the healing.

Though we all have to work to get past this, numerous mistakes were made by the MOA leadership. The musicians and community don’t need the MOA wallowing in perpetual hand-wringing and penitential sack-cloth and ashes, but these mistakes must be acknowledged and redressed if there is to be any hope for the future. True repentance is needed in its literal biblical meaning of “turning away from the evil that was done and taking a new path.” The MOA should not waste time or energy denying mistakes were made. They should not excuse harms done, regardless of any good intentions that may have paved the roads to Hell that hurt many people, deprived audiences of an orchestral season, and threatened the very existence of the orchestra. Neither “I was only following orders,” nor “I only did what I was hired to do,” nor “It’s just about the money” are acceptable exonerations. The MOA must lead and they must rebuild burnt bridges. Under new MOA Board Chair Gordon Sprenger’s leadership, the MOA has come a long way.

Human relations primer

Sprenger took the most important heroic first step was when the word, “sorry,” was finally uttered in his opening remarks to the orchestra after the lockout. It meant an awful lot to the musicians to hear that. It was not an all-encompassing repudiation of all that had gone before, or even a promise of specific actions or changed directions. It was just a very human and humane thing to say, to acknowledge hurt had been taken and hardships had been endured. In response to this step and what has followed, “thank you,” best wishes, and support are due to Mr. Sprenger. Sprenger’s second heroic decision ended Michael Henson’s tenure with the orchestra. This was heroic, especially considering the board decisions that initially put Henson and his policies in place, followed by unflagging support of Henson and his views from many Board members past the end of the lockout. This action had tangible costs to the MOA when, in protest of Henson’s removal, a group of eight Board members resigned, taking their money with them, on the eve of Osmo’s return to conduct the Orchestra celebrating their Grammy win. The third courageous decision and action was convincing the board to ask for Osmo’s return as Music Director, coupled with negotiating a meaningful return package with Vänskä. Even though to many this seemed the only rational and feasible choice for this time and situation, every facet of the process had to take heroic diplomacy from all parties to make it possible.

Next needed step: The MOA must reexamine and revamp their governance structure. Good starting points might be to seek and invite answers from outside their ranks. This most critically includes orchestral musicians, but also requires engagement of the community. Read, reflect on, and act on suggestions from Bill Eddins’ brilliant Something Old, New, Borrowed, and Blue State, and apply SOSPCO’s thoughtful Guiding Principles to the Minnesota Orchestra situation. Invite community representatives to the table from Save our Symphony Minnesota and Orchestrate Excellence, or from the public at large. Formalize ways for the musicians and community to have meaningful partnership roles on the Minnesota Orchestra Board.

A recommended further step is to pull out all the stops to find a way to complete the Minnesota Orchestra’s historically important recordings of the Sibelius Symphony cycle. If this can’t be accomplished, it will go down as one of most tragic losses to posterity of the 16 month lockout. Invite back key musicians who have left the orchestra to participate in the recording sessions. Give BIS whatever assurances and technical assistance they need to bring them back to record. Mount an aggressive fund raising appeal dedicated to completing these recordings, buoyed by the recent Grammy win together with the palpable audience enthusiasm for what happens when Vänskä conducts Sibelius with the Minnesota Orchestra.

We are truly “all in this together,” so it’s no longer about who “wins,” it’s about who leads in a compelling fashion. We need solid leadership from the CEO and from the podium, and we need involvement from the community. Neither Henson’s departure nor Vänskä’s return provides a magic cure. Remarkable leadership, artistic insight, meaningful gestures of conciliation to players and public, and an effective game plan for the future are needed. Vänskä has proven his leadership through taking the orchestra to great heights. His return makes it more likely that great players on leave, together with disillusioned former supporters, may consider coming back. That sort of leadership also has to arise on the MOA Board and in the front office.

Back in December of 2012, Emily Hogstad posted my guest blog, “What can one person do?” on her amazing Song of the Lark site. The blog concluded with a list of things one person could to to affect positive change in the face of the lockout. Musicians, conductors, audiences, and members of the MOA Board have already shown heroism, ranging from glimmers to shining beacons. We need to keep it coming. Here’s my post-lockout revised one-person heroic to-do list, intended for all parties to apply as it fits their situation, to help the Minnesota Orchestra recover and thrive.

1) Say you’re sorry. If you think anyone has suffered hurt or perceived slights from your words or actions, this applies to you.
2) Don’t bear grudges. This applies to everyone.
3) Keep informed. Read current and back postings from dedicated and informed local sources: The Song of the Lark, Mask of the Flower Prince, Sticks and Drones, Save Our Symphony Minnesota, Orchestrate Excellence, Low Rumblings, or their respective Facebook or other social media pages.
4) Get to know a musician, board member, staff person, other concert goers.
5) Pitch in. Contribute to the Minnesota Orchestra and let them know what they’ve done to inspire you to get back on board as a supporter. Volunteer as an usher. Donate to music education initiatives. Vote for that referendum that keep the arts from being cut in your school district. Help commission a new composition.
6) Participate. GO TO CONCERTS!!! Join YPSCA, FOMO, Young Musicians of MinnesotaSOSMN, Orchestrate Excellence, Minnesota Citizens for the Arts. Dust off your old instrument and join a community orchestra.  Write a letter to an editor or legislator.  Go to Arts Advocacy Day at the Capitol.
7) Spread the good news. Treat some friends to a concert. Share a link about a performance you really liked or are looking forward to. Write a blog!
8) Be patient, with firm, optimistic views of what the future can hold.
9) Be heroic.

The ultimate answer out of this mess is in the original definition of “Symphony” — Sounding together “in an agreement or concord of sound.” Many players in orchestras may not get along personally, but they put it aside to perform together so spectacular music can happen. It’s time for all parties to get to business and work in symphony, following the spirit and example of the players and the music.
“Three Heroic Symphonies, One Dangerous False Premise, and a Solution Defined.”


About rolferd

Bassist in OboeBass!, "The World's only professional oboe/bass duo!" We also present educational programs for all ages as "Pages of Music with Rolf and Carrie." I also teach bass at Gustavus Adolphus College. The "low rumblings" generated here are my personal views and no implication is made they reflect the official views of my duo or my college affiliations. I'm concerned about climate change. The Keeling Curve was at 315.38 ppm CO2 when I was born. Last year it peaked just over 415. Too much change to be acceptable in a lifetime. Let's do something about it!
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2 Responses to SISU! A Call for Heroes

  1. Sarah Schmalenberger says:

    Thank you for composing such a thoughtful and thought-provoking essay

  2. rolferd says:

    Thanks for your kind words, Sarah! I should also site someone who’s really good at provoking thoughts. Back in January, blogger Scott Chamberlain of “Mask of the Flower Prince” posted this definition of “Sisu” of his FB page that got me thinking “Sisu” goes well with “Eroica.”

    “Sisu” is one of those words that falls into the category of “if you have to ask I can’t explain.” It generally means something like steely determination, perseverance, or guts… with a dash of chutzpah thrown in. More broadly, it’s the unique quality that has gotten the Finns through 42 wars with Russia, having lost them all, still saying “So, that’s all you got?”

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