Minnesota Orchestra #5: Kölner Philharmonie, Cologne


Pretend you’re Richard Dreyfuss standing underneath the hovering Close Encounters spaceship and you have a sense of what it is like to sit inside the Kölner Philharmonie in Cologne. The interior space is round, with the open stage set low in the middle. Audience seating slopes steeply down to the stage, circling it. As is the custom in many European concert halls, it is possible to watch the conductor from a musicians’ point of view. All audience members can see all musicians, and it is exciting to sit in the hall, even before the music begins.

The Minnesota Orchestra is a bit crowded down there on the stage, as they rehearse the concert they will play in an hour. Members of the Euro media are here, shooting photos of Vänskä from cameras with extraordinarily long lenses. One or two women are in formal black concert dress, but most of the orchestra are still in street clothes. Tonight’s concert will include a new piece, the Nielsen Symphony #5, and Vänskä is determined to nail down a tricky bit bit of business with an off-stage snare drum. Brian Mount, principal percussionist, plays the snare onstage; Jason Arkis, associate principal timpani, plays the snare standing out in the hallway outside an open door.

“Too loud! Close the door!” says Vänskä.

Now it’s too soft. “Not so much!” says Vänskä, his eye on the door. He gestures from the podium, using his hands like a man talking about the one that got away. “Can you put it at half that much? Closed, not totally closed.” He listens to the snare again. “Half that much.” The snare. “More closed.” The snare. This goes on for a while until Vänskä gets the faraway sound of the snare as softened and distant-sounding as he wants it.

The Nielsen is not a tune you drive home humming. In places, it sounds like random collections of notes and it’s difficult to discern a pattern; it demands tremendous concentration from the musicians and the conductor. In other places, it is lyrical and honeyed, and when the horns begin to rock the conclusion, the sound is strong and swaggering. Vänskä wraps it up with a flourish. After all that sound, it seems odd to not hear an audience burst into cheers and applause, but there are only six of us in the audience: me, tour physician and amateur trombonist Patrick Morris, tour chiropractor Kathy McClure, assistant conductor Sarah Hicks, and tour photographer, Greg Helgeson.


Navigating the backstage areas of unfamiliar halls with their warrens of staircases and hallways and multiple levels can lead to lost and even trapped musicians, inadvertent stage entrances, and embarrassing blunders. To prevent such dramas, the Minnesota Orchestra stage crew sees to it that signs are posted: “This way” and “Women’s Dressing Room” and “To the stage.” The Kölner is confusing enough that tonight, there are even signs reading, “NOT this way!”

The Concert

The Barber violin concerto wielded by Josh Bell gets many curtain calls. On the third, he accepts flowers. On the fourth, he plays that bombastic arrangement of “Yankee Doodle.” The fifth and sixth were mere bows, and then intermission.

Then the Nielsen, which finally gets its just rewards in loud “Bravo!”s and long-lasting applause.

After the Concert

Like Berlin’s hall, Cologne’s features a backstage restaurant and bar, this one with half-round banquettes. Musicians nosh during intermission, and when they trickle in off the stage after the Nielsen, glasses of German beer are raised.

Beth Kellar-Long, orchestra operations manager, tells me a funny story. The orchestra flew from Berlin to Cologne today. Then, buses took the musicians into the city to the hotel. The tour staff have a well-oiled system worked out for monitoring the steady trickle of orchestra folk from jetway through airport to exit and onto the bus. Still, somehow, today violinist Michael Sutton did not make it onto the last bus before it pulled away.

He ran after it, says Beth, yelling in über-polite German: “Halten Sie, bitte!” Didn’t work. Sutton had to find his own way to the hotel.

Filed for the St. Paul Pioneer Press from Cologne on Thursday, February 26, 2009.

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