What would a Minnesotan orchestra look like?

Originally published in ARTSJOURNAL.

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With the Minnesota Orchestra lockout over and with musicians and audiences re-united in the newly renovated Orchestra Hall, there is a lot conversation in our cities about what sort of orchestra we have and what’s needed for its long-term vitality.

The conversation is taking place more frequently than you might expect, in cafes and at dinner tables, in blogs and newspapers, and certainly within the arts community and its primary donors. And all of this has led to much discussion about the nature of arts organizations both generally and specifically, how they thrive, why they don’t, and who they’re for.  

My question is this.  Does place matter? And if it does, how does it matter?

I am not referring to “creative placemaking” as it is now defined. I am talking about place, about terroir — finding resonant ways to live and thrive in a very specific place, in its geology, climate, and landscapes, in its history, culture and social organization. Terroir means the unique qualities imparted to, for example, wine, that can be evoked only because of the specific place (soil, climate, culture) where it is grown.

And what I’m wondering is whether our orchestra should try less to be like other orchestras and more like an orchestra for this specific place. In putting this question forward I’m also asking how music, people, land, and culture would be served if orchestras everywhere did the same, to work harder to be not just what they are but where they are.

The brilliant winemaker Randall Grahm, who writes prolifically and philosophically about the nature of winemaking, recently posted a wonderful essay titled “Terroir and Meaning: An Interim Re-cap” to readers of his blog.  In it he faces the New World winemaker’s dilemma, how to make great wine (not merely good wine) on this continent. Generations of monks, working over centuries, in the same sites, “were able to accrete subtle and detailed knowledge about practices leading to the creation of the most sublime nectar – all for the greater glory of God, of course. This knowledge led to the identification of the truly great sites for wine growing in Europe – the grand crus, if you will.”

Grahm goes on to explain that the French make a distinction between vins de terroir and vins d’effort. “‘Wines of effort’ bear the strong stylistic imprint of the winemaker, where the winemaker attempts to control as many variables as possible and it is his or her intelligence that largely dominates the wine.” Contrast this with a wine of terroir, “that somehow captures and reflects the great intelligence of nature itself; it opens up a vast breathtaking vista – kind of like the Grand Canyon in a glass – and can awe us with its great depth and complexity. It creates a visceral link to Nature within us and this is a priceless gift. These are wines with life-force.”

The New World winemaker’s predicament: how to create majestic vins de terroir on our continent, where the practice of winemaking is comparatively young and the secrets the land holds are not yet unlocked.  Do you start with the grape you want to grow and then keep perfecting other variables until you find the ‘right’ ones, perfecting a vins d’effort? By controlling inputs like irrigation and cultured (not wild) yeast, Grahm says we’ve reached the point where “California [wines] are consistent and generally absent conspicuous flaws.” Adequate, to be sure, and sometimes even very, very  good.

But to make great wine, Grahm contends, you must start with the place, a place you love and believe to be conducive, and then discover the greatness within it as it relates to making wine. Further, “what I’d like to now suggest is that what is most needed for terroir to emerge in the New World is for wine-growers to learn a kind of deep empathy above and beyond empirical observation.”  

By now you are wondering, what exactly does this have to do with our cultural sector and with orchestras in particular? Yet I see so many of our challenges as resonating within the same set of questions that Grahm asks in his quest for the elusive terroir – how to discover the marriage of place, love, and practice that gives us ‘a priceless gift.’  (Other parallels are obvious; European classical music also developed over centuries and the church has played an important role in music history.)

What if we asked the question, what would a uniquely Minnesotan orchestra look like, and what sorts of things would it do? If we plant ourselves in a place we love and grow from a position of deep empathy, I believe we’ll find we’re at a new starting point, a germination that sprouts differently from the position where what’s asked is “how can we have an orchestra that’s as great as other cities’?” To answer one question, we might try to grow pinot noir despite our rather inhospitable Minnesota conditions. To answer the other we’ll want to discover which grapes will grow in our northern climate, and to learn how they must be tended and vinified so they’ll flourish and give us the nectar we seek. (And people are trying to do this, to discover what great wine may be possible here.)  Again, this is decidedly not creative placemaking or “doing art to change a place” as Jamie Bennett, ArtPlace director, recently describedthat practice. It is about the way that place changes you, and changes the work and the art itself.

My assumption is that the answer to the question of place is different here in Minnesota from what the answer will be in San Francisco, New York, or Atlanta. Our geography, our history, our cultural and social organization are very different from other cities’ and regions’ and a Minnesotan orchestra would reflect that. 

But one thing is clear. The link the Minnesota Orchestra forged to this place was not, or I would argue isnot, strong enough. The Orchestra has suffered from a problem akin to terroir vs. d’effort. To reconnect it will be necessary, vital even, to re-discover this place and what will grow and thrive here.

You are now hoping that I will prescribe the answers; say what needs to be done. But discovering your place is not about prescriptions; it is about empathy and listening. (Grahm tells us of European winemakers whose families have been tending the same land for 500 years and who speak earnestly of “continuing to discover their terroir.”)

I have some hunches of course. I live here. I love music. I go to concerts. I am not an inexperienced observer. But if I were going to push the re-set button at our great orchestra, I would suggest a series of deep listening sessions all around the state, to ask the people themselves what sort of orchestra they envision and what they are able to do to help make that happen. Ask them what it would look like if the orchestra were Minnesotan.  I promise you, their answers will be astonishing and inspiring, and will point the way forward. Then, begin the empathetic process of entering into new relationships with people, so that the orchestra our state has worked so long to build can be truly ours.

During the lockout our community showed how much we yearn for this relationship. Thousands of supporters rallied, argued, picketed, blogged, and cried out in near anguish as an orchestra we love, in a place we love, seemed so uprooted from its place, tumbling like a weed across the prairie. Everyone was hurt, ties all around were unbound. And it all seemed so utterly un-Minnesotan. We didn’t recognize ourselves in the bitterness and duration of the dispute. We know something new about our capacities, and about ourselves, and what we now know is painful. Herein lies the root of our heartbreak.

When I think about what our state does well, I think about a short list of things. (Minnesotans, please add or dispute.) Maybe my list will spur some dialogue in your own organization about what defines the place where you are trying to tend yourselves and grow. And do this: hold your place and its people dear. Embrace the deep connections that nourish vitality and satisfaction, that capture and reflect the great intelligence of nature itself. Be where you are.

On Minnesota:

Our state is very essentially populist.

Our state appreciates and celebrates the homegrown.

Our state is defined by water – rivers, streams, and lakes – and by forests and prairies.

Our state has four seasons that express themselves beautifully and vigorously.

Much more than nearly every other place, we are do-ers, go-ers, readers, joiners. We participate. We are engaged. We sing.

What sort of beautiful orchestra can grow here? The answer lies in the never- ending practice of empathy and discovery.