Backstage Pass: Estonian National Symphony with a stranger, by accident

Tuesday, February 6, 2018 - 2:17pm

This weekend it was my turn to meet a stranger at a concert.

In my defense, I didn’t sign up to do that. About a week ago, I had signed up to review the Estonian National Symphony concert at Hill Auditorium. I have always been a fan of conductor Neeme Järvi, particularly his recordings of the Sibelius symphonies and his performance of Pärt’s “Cantus for Benjamin Britten” from the BBC Proms. When emailing for my press ticket to the event, I assumed that I would be sitting in an upper balcony somewhere, presumably far away from the ticket-paying audience.

After arriving at the concert, however, I was seated in a mostly empty row next to an elderly woman. I prepared as I usually do for a review, reading through the program with a pen and circling a couple of ideas that I might want to refer to later. After about five minutes of circling and reading, the woman next to me asked me what I was doing. Was I at this concert for a class, she asked?

I briefly explained that I was a writer for The Michigan Daily. I tried to start a light conversation, asking if she was a fan of Järvi as I was. After talking for a bit the lights went down and the concert began.

First on the program was Heino Eller’s “Homeland Tune,” the fifth movement from his “Five Pieces for String Orchestra.” Eller, I learned, is one of Estonia’s more famous composers, having been Arvo Pärt’s primary composition teacher. Järvi entered the stage to tremendous applause, obviously enjoying the cheers of a friendly crowd. He began the first piece almost immediately, the applause of the audience fading suddenly into the calm, chordal opening of “Homeland Tune.” While this piece was definitely not the most adventurous work on the program, it was a pleasant six-minute opening to the concert. The orchestra responded brilliantly to Järvi’s every move — the crescendos and decrescendos reaching incredibly expressive levels of subtlety. I found myself being drawn into a lull throughout the piece, easily losing myself in the fabric of the work.

Next was Brahms’s “Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor,” a tricky but rewarding piece. It opened with a long introduction from the orchestra, the winds and brass having entered the stage after the first performance. Garrick Ohlsson, the piano soloist for the evening, demonstrated his interpretative ability during the slower portions of the first movement. The slower passages were captivating; Ohlsson’s ability to give repeated phrases new meanings was incredible. The cadenza in the second movement was absolutely stunning. At one point, it felt as if time itself was slowing down. The third movement was seamless too, the energy from the opening passages seeming to fade over the entire movement into the slow ending.

Ohlsson’s performance was met with almost instantaneous applause. As a quick encore, he played Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in C-sharp, Op. 3 No. 2.” This most famous of all Rachmaninoff’s preludes was neither too rushed nor too slow, Ohlsson’s incredibly engaging way of playing repeated pieces breathing new life into the work. This was met with two more rounds of applause, the audience begging for another encore.

During the intermission, I talked with the woman sitting to my right. She is an alumni of both the undergraduate and graduate programs here at the University and has been living in Ann Arbor ever since. We talked a bit about the University Musical Society and the tremendous growth it underwent while she lived in Ann Arbor.

She explained that she was from the Detroit area and that she had gone home to study the week before finals her freshman year. The night before her final, as she prepared to go to sleep, her dad came to ask her where her final was the next morning. After explaining that her final was in Haven Hall, her dad had unbelievable news: Haven Hall had burned down earlier that night! The next day, after arriving back on campus, she learned that it was true. Haven Hall was destroyed in a fire on Jun. 6, 1950. She took her final in Hill Auditorium, leaning on clipboards in the first rows of the audience as her professor paced the stage.

At this point, it was time for the second half of the program to begin, and though I had many questions about the fire and her experiences at the University, I turned and applauded as the orchestra re-entered the stage. This was Eduard Tubin’s “Symphony No. 5 in B Minor,” a roaring work for full orchestra featuring two timpanists placed on opposite ends of the back portion of the stage. Tubin is another composer who I was not familiar with, though I soon learned that he was another famous Estonian composer. He had fled the Soviet Union in 1944 and resided in Sweden for most of his life. This work was full of quick, aggressive passages — particularly in the brass. The biting sound of the bass trombone and the muted rotary valve flugelhorns was quite frightening, as were the thundering sounds of two timpanis playing loudly in unison. It was a captivating, almost frenetic work, and it demonstrated the orchestra’s ability to navigate fast music with ease.

As the second round of applause began, the woman sitting next to me waved goodbye. It was past 10:00, she explained, and she had to get home. Her sudden arrival felt like the proper ending to the entire evening. The works of unfamiliar composers paired with my chance meeting of a friendly stranger, the eclectic peculiarity of the repertoire of the concert paired with the peculiarity of my experience and the odd familiarity of the music paired with the friendly nature of this charming woman all reminded me to constantly be open to new experiences. Though I knew nothing before that concert of Estonian composers or Estonian classical music, I have two new pieces to listen to and become familiar with. And though I knew little about the history of Haven Hall and Hill Auditorium before that concert, I have an interesting story to tell now of a first-hand account of the University’s history.