I saw “Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage” with my mom

Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story On Stage isn’t particularly dirty. There is a lot of dancing, but really, it’s nothing to write home from the Catskills about. So what are we left with? Some Classic Movie Lines: On Stage! The show works, though, because it takes that limited ambition and sweetly sashays with it.

The 1987 movie came out the week I turned 12, so I was part of the generation of kids who were too young to see it in the theater (maybe those with more liberal parents got to go) but bought the soundtrack in droves (or, in my family’s case, dubbed it on cassette) and made it the first movie to sell over a million copies on home video (actually, we taped it off cable). It’s been a long time since I’ve seen it, but it all came back to me as the spunky musical went through its paces: Baby’s jean shorts. The forbidden staff party. The lifts in the water. The botched surgery. The blouse whip-off. The class tensions. “Nobody puts Baby in a corner!”

Actually, I didn’t forget that last line—it’s the one line you remember if you remember any line from Dirty Dancing. It’s become so iconic that I was impressed with how simply it was delivered in the stage production: Johnny Castle just walks onstage and says it, and it works, and the music begins. If that doesn’t sound particularly like a compliment, think about what the producers of stage shows like this are tempted to do with lines like that: “I’m not dead yet” was a funny line in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but Spamalot drives it into the ground (so to speak) with an entire song and production number written around it. Dirty Dancing knows: all you need to do is get Baby out of that damn corner.

The Classic Story On Stage I saw last night was a touring version of the musical that premiered ten years ago in—aptly—Australia, the nation that brought us Strictly Ballroom. It’s adapted by the film’s screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein, who was inspired by her own experiences dancing (sometimes dirtily) as a girl at summer resorts in the Catskills. The story’s heartfelt sincerity—the quality that’s key to the effectiveness of the movie—still shines through, meaning this Dirty Dancing remains a guilty pleasure that doesn’t think you have anything to feel guilty about. (The stage show presses its luck in this department with an awkward and heavy-handed detour into the Civil Rights Movement.)

Another smart choice was not to write any new songs for the stage adaptation (I’m looking at you, Flashdance: The Musical), instead relying on the jam-packed film soundtrack to provide a parade of hits (not omitting the 80s chestnuts—anyone remember Zappacosta?) for the characters to grind (and grind, and grind) to. Bergstein also doesn’t have her actors sing, handing the vocal responsibilities to a couple of dedicated supporting cast members. That allows director James Powell to cast his leads for acting and dancing—and looks. My mom was left fanning herself with her program over chiseled male lead Samuel Pergande, and Jillian Mueller—the show’s Baby—pulls off the difficult trick of holding our attention while acting like a wallflower.

Pergande and Mueller are both cleaner-cut than their film counterparts—the roguish Patrick Swayze and the bratty Jennifer Grey, both of whom were about ten years older than their characters—and certainly don’t have their chemistry, but that’s fine. A glimpse of what might have been comes at the end of the first act, when the two consummate their flirtation. The show slows down and lets the two just stand there, shirtless, while “Cry to Me” plays in its original recording by Solomon Burke, dripping with such pure sex that you can almost imagine something is going to happen up there on Johnny’s bed as it slides backwards through the scrim. Sometimes it’s best to just hand things over to a pro.

Jay Gabler

Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story On Stage iat the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis through Oct. 19 and has American tour dates scheduled through July 2015.

And all those like her: “The Heidi Chronicles,” 25 years later


My paternal grandmother Mary Anne Nuessle Gabler would have celebrated her 95th birthday this month. My father posted a memorial essay Abigail McCarthy wrote for Commonweal when my grandmother died in 1974, a year before I was born. Most of the essay is the kind of affectionate tribute one would expect in such circumstances, but at the end, McCarthy considers my grandmother’s life in the context of women’s changing roles.

“She was by very nature a helper, a nurturer. And, of course, that is what we are afraid of—that we will lose the Mary Annes, and with them the retreats from the struggle, the places of repose, the affirmation of our lives, the nurturing warm nests from which to go forth. We are afraid of a world of strident, contesting women with no time for the little comforting things.”

Abigail McCarthy’s then-husband looms large—literally—in the Guthrie Theater’s new production of Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles. A huge poster depicting Eugene McCarthy hangs over an office of volunteers canvassing in support of the Minnesota senator’s upstart presidential candidacy, which demonstrated the depth of voters’ anti-war sentiment.

Among those volunteers is Heidi herself (Kate Wetherhead), an idealistic college student. At the campaign office, she’s seduced by an outrageously confident young journalist named Scoop (Ben Graney) who will become one of the most important people in her life—for better and for worse. Their relationship is one of two at the heart of the play, the other being Heidi’s friendship with high school pal Peter (Zach Shaffer) who at first seems to be a romantic rival, then comes out as gay.

The play is a kind of intimate historical pageant, following Heidi from a 1965 mixer—she was born in about 1950, the same year as the playwright—through the late 80s, when the play premiered. Almost as academic as its art-historian title character, The Heidi Chronicles makes a clear argument: that the women of Heidi’s—and Wasserstein’s—generation spent their young adulthoods frustratingly trapped by gender roles they were supposed to be in the process of transcending. They had their eyes on the prize, to borrow a phrase from the Civil Rights Movement that generation also witnessed, but it was never actually handed to them.

Baby Boomers are now becoming eligible for Medicare, and their daughters have reached the age span Heidi traverses onstage, struggling with many of the same questions. Staging The Heidi Chronicles in 2014 is an opportunity to ask what’s changed. The answer, of course, is both everything and nothing—and the play holds up because it sees its characters clearly enough to situate their choices in a historical context while not presenting them as determined by it.

That’s not, however, to say that the characters are the reasons to see this play. These characters are built to do what they need to do, and it’s hard to imagine them existing outside the world of Wasserstein’s sturdy scenes that pivot on pithy zingers. It’s appropriate that the play’s framing device is an illustrated lecture, because that’s essentially what the whole show is: a walk through three decades of social history with a cast of characters who certainly seem archetypal today, even if they didn’t at the twilight of the Reagan era.

Director Leigh Silverman, a recent Tony nominee (Violet) making her Guthrie debut, delivers a production that’s lucid but emotionally cool. In a sense that’s fitting for a script that reaches its peak of passion during a lecture to an alumni association, but despite potent subject matter, Silverman never really steers this show into the red zone. The three lead characters are meant to be wearing emotional masks, but the actors who play those characters wear their masks all too well in polished performances that slide by as easily as the elements of Clint Ramos’s dynamic set.

Where this creative team really excel is at seizing the opportunity to make the production a time-travel showpiece. Ramos’s set—a towering wall of books and cabinets that open to reveal different surprises with every scene—is a wonder, notable not only for its inventiveness but for its close attention to detail. (Notice the mirrored panels that open to reveal a wreath, or the fact that a Christmas tree exists only to be glimpsed by way of scene-setting as a door briefly opens.) The set’s so impressive that it threatens to upstage the actors, and sometimes does, as in a scene set in a sushi restaurant with a decorative dragon that would put Smaug to shame.

Ramos also designed the costumes, and it’s worth the ticket price just to see the several distinct looks he creates for the show’s many scenes. Consider the sophistication required here: it’s one thing to jump from 1965 to 1989, but it’s quite another to jump from 1980 to 1982, then to 1984 and then to 1986. Ramos shows impressive restraint in avoiding lazy, jokey cues and creating outfits that will make people who lived through this history remember that people actually did dress like they do onstage: it wasn’t all leisure suits and legwarmers.

The supporting cast revel in their juicy roles, most spectacularly during a scene set at a women’s “rap session” in the early 70s where Mo Perry’s tough-talking close-talker has a wonderfully absurd friendship with the prim character played by Stacia Rice. Perry also pulls off the incredible feat of turning the script’s broadest caricature—an indiscriminate Southern belle—into one of the show’s most nuanced characters.

While the themes of The Heidi Chronicles still resonate today—choices regarding career and family are still highly charged, and highly gendered—the play remains very much of its time and of Wasserstein’s generation. Heidi’s sense that things were different for women born even just a few years after her was validated by my aunt Betsy, who came to the show with me: she had the sense that her sisters ten years older than her, she told me, grew up in a very different world. Betsy went to high school in the era of Ms. magazine, whereas my aunt Edie, Betsy’s sister who was born a decade earlier, was already at the cusp of her teen years when The Feminine Mystique was published.

Abigail McCarthy’s essay speaks to the experience of the earlier generation—Betty Friedan’s generation. They were the daughters of the suffragettes who earned the right for American women to vote, and they saw a better, freer world for their own daughters—and their daughters’ daughters.

“Of course,” concludes McCarthy, “we who subscribe to the need for the movement, will hasten to say that the intent is to free us all to be wholly humane and affirming of each other. And we must remember that many a woman is driven to such desperation by her experience that she is unable to be either. We will have to work very hard to make the freedom to be wholly humane a reality. We owe it to Mary Anne…and all those like her.”

- Jay Gabler

photo by Joan Marcus, courtesy Guthrie Theater

Thanks to everyone who came out to our Bright Lights, Twin Cities launch party last night in Minneapolis! After midnight, Katie celebrated both the book and her birthday with a late-night nosh. The book is now available for pre-order via our awesome publisher Thought Catalog!

More Details About The (Still Mysterious) Minneapolis Taco Delivery Service Taco Cat

This week in Minneapolis-is-kinda-Portlandia-ish news, word started spreading about a new bike delivery taco company called Taco Cat (get it? It’s a palindrome.). Because they are basically shrouded in mystery, I reached out to one of their leaders, who prefers to go by “Church,” for more details. (Note: he preferred his name not be shared. Other note: I don’t think I know who he is IRL so hey it’s a bigger city than we thought.)

Who is behind Taco Cat? Are you guys connected to any other local stuff?

There are a lot of people behind Taco Cat. The entire thing would have fallen apart without the hard work and help from the amazing bike community in this city. Especially The Alt bike shop. Show those guys some love.

Taco Cat has three rules. Safety first. Then teamwork. Then some fucking discretion. Up until now this was a side project for all of us. And it wasn’t always exactly legal. We just give everyone a nickname and we usually go by that. I’m Church and my business partner is Sandlot. I suppose we’re in charge.

What are your guys’ taco-making chops? Connections to any restaurants?

I’ve spent a lot of time working at Sea Salt Eatery, which, in my opinion, is the best place to get tacos (at least of the sea food variety) in the cities. At least up until they close at 8 p.m. Then you’re all stuck with us.

We’ve both worked in delivery for years. Jimmy John’s mainly. As much as I don’t personally agree with that company’s business practices, it offered us steady jobs with a decent income. That’s nothing to scoff at.

Where are the Taco Cat tacos made?

Deep in the heart of a volcano. Actually, we rent commercial kitchen space at Midtown Global Market. It fits our needs and budget well.

What are the top 3 misconceptions about Taco Cat?

I don’t really know. Up until a few days ago we weren’t really known at all. We kept the entire thing small for a reason. I just hope we can live up to expectations.

If someone were to order from one block outside your radius, should they walk one block and stand on the line to receive their tacos?

That’s up to Sandlot and the other bikers. I just cook.

Are you guys going to have bike delivery costumes like the Galactic Pizza costumes down the line? Cat masks?

Have you ever worked a job with a required amount of “flair”? Perhaps a movie theater where you’re forced to wear a bow tie? We have, and we sure as hell aren’t going to force anyone to wear anything they don’t want to.

Happy taco-eating MPLS.

-Becky Lang

11 Things You Learn at “Hopper Drawing: A Painter’s Process”

Nighthawks doesn’t depict an actual diner, but there was a New York diner that inspired it. The diner is gone now, which is probably just as well since walking into it would feel like walking into the actual Cheers in Boston: “This doesn’t look anything like it does on TV!”

Edward Hopper didn’t like abstract painting, but abstract painters dug him anyway.

Hopper liked open-ended narratives, tableaus that suggested a moment or encounter but left the circumstances ambiguous. In association with Hopper Drawing‘s tenure at the Walker Art Center, Kate Bernheimer and Laird Hunt have written a novella about Hopper’s painting Office at Nightit’s being published in serial installments.


Hopper painted multiple offices at night, which is even eerier than diners at night because…what are people doing there?

Every detail of Hopper’s paintings was carefully chosen. In the drawings on display, you can see Hopper experimenting with different configurations of windows, figures, and furniture.

Hopper was way ahead of Minneapolis ad agencies in turning urban water towers into art.

The inn depicted in this Hopper painting does actually exist, in Massachusetts—and you can stay there for 85 bucks.


Hopper’s work has been a major influence on filmmakers. Wim Wenders has said that with Hopper, “you can always tell where the camera is.”

Hopper was a late bloomer; his breakthrough as an artist happened in his 40s. Fortunately, more than half of his life was still ahead of him, and he continued to create major works until his death.

Hopper painted women gazing out windows in multiple settings, and it’s surprising how much the narrative seems to change based on whether the woman is looking out on a cityscape or a countryside.


Almost all the naked ladies in Hopper’s work are his wife, with different faces.

Jay Gabler

Hopper Drawing: A Painter’s Process is on display at the Walker Art Center through June 20.

Cars and Bikers: How “Safe” is Safe Enough?


When a bicyclist was tragically killed by a drunk driver last week in Minneapolis, much of the media attention focused on how the victim had been a “good” biker, a “safe” biker. Blogger Melody Hoffmann noted that the biker’s safety precautions even made it into headlines like “Bicyclist killed on Franklin Ave. Wore Helmet, Lights, Just Moved to Mpls.” and “Bicyclist fatally run over was new to Minneapolis, careful about bike safety.”

To Hoffmann, this kind of coverage illustrates an unspoken but pervasive cultural trope: “the lawless cyclist and victimized driver.” Hoffmann cites the research of Zack Furness, who found that media reports about bicyclists persistently frame bicyclists as maverick daredevils who thoughtlessly force motorists to go out of their way to avoid hitting the bikers.

My immediate thought upon reading Hoffmann’s post was that, well, actually, bikers are often pretty unsafe. Here I include myself, a frequent biker who’s no stranger to running a stoplight when I think I can get away with it, and who’s not always the best about using lights when I’m riding at night. (I know, I know.) I don’t know how other bikers justify this kind of behavior, but I think we sometimes feel a little entitled: we put up with boorish motorists all the time—every regular biker, including me, has harrowing tales of dangerous driving and open verbal abuse—so if we dodge a rule of the road here or there, well, we’ve earned it. It certainly seems disingenuous to deny that bikers aren’t always little angels out there.

Then, though, I thought more about the behavior of drivers—not just with respect to bikers, but with respect to one another. Since taking a new job a few months ago, I’ve been commuting daily on I-94, and I’ve been amazed at how reckless drivers can be out there. Common-sense precautions like not tailgating, using signals, and actually looking before changing lanes are routinely flouted. (Not to mention the incredibly dangerous practice of drunk driving, which one in ten drivers freely admit to having done in any given month; the actual incidence is unquestionably higher.) This is rude, dangerous, and sometimes borderline suicidal—but it happens all the time, on every freeway, every day. Bikers can be reckless, yeah—but as a group, car drivers aren’t really in a position to cast the first stone.

In a public context like the open road, safety is a complex issue. It’s up to each individual to take responsibility for himself or herself, but safety isn’t just about you: it’s about people who might be endangered by your behavior, and it’s about the costs we all bear when accidents happen. An accident is most directly harmful to the people involved, but it also sets off a cascade of consequences that can range from traffic jams to bankruptcies to lifelong grief. Your safety—everywhere, but especially on the road—is everyone’s business.

Yet “safety” can be a very slippery thing to define. The legal blood-alcohol limit for driving in Minnesota is 0.08%…should it be lower? Could it be higher? Even a single drink begins to compromise your reaction time, but we’ve decided as a society that having one strong beer before getting in the car is “safe” enough to be legally permissible. How “safe” is safe enough?

There are parallels in other debates about public safety. Should smoking be banned in public places—or even private ones? Should marijuana be legal? How many cops should be on the beat at any given time? Important safety issues are at stake in each case, but so are issues of personal freedom. Drunk walking is perfectly legal—in some places, you can even walk down the street drinking from an open container of alcohol—despite the fact that a third of pedestrian fatalities involve walkers who have been drinking. Drunk biking? In Minnesota, at least, that’s legal too.

It’s also legal to bike without a helmet, though Americans generally regard that as “unsafe” behavior, and many parents forbid their children to ride bareheaded. Shaun Murphy, bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for the City of Minneapolis, got in hot water a couple of years ago for telling a local newspaper that he didn’t think a helmet was mandatory. He wanted biking “to be seen as something a normal person can do,” he said; he compared Minneapolis to European cities where helmet-wearing is rare, because biking is more common, safer, and slower. People in those cities don’t see helmets as a necessary safety measure, in large part because it’s less common for bikers there to ride on streets like Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis, where bikers share a lane with cars flying past at 30-plus miles an hour.

What angers bikers like Hoffman about the “bike safety” discourse in America is that it puts so much of the responsibility for safety on the biker. The implication is that bikers have to look out for themselves if they’re going to choose such a hazardous pursuit. It’s a refrain I’ve heard a million times from people when they learn I’m a frequent biker: “That’s just so dangerous! I could never bike, especially at night.”

Of course it is incumbent on bikers to look for themselves, but putting all the responsibility for safety on bikers’ shoulders is a dodge. Individual motorists and pedestrians also have a responsibility to conduct themselves safely around bikes, and—here’s a controversial idea—all of us as a society have a responsibility for transportation safety, a responsibility to keep each other safe as we get from one place to another. That includes maintaining bridges and inspecting planes—why shouldn’t it include protected bike lanes? A helmet and lights couldn’t save a Minneapolis biker from an out-of-control drunk driver—but if his bike lane had been on the other side of the parked cars, chances are good that a senseless loss of life could have been prevented.

As with discussion of health care, discussion of public safety has to be honest about constraints. We don’t have infinite money to spend on health care, and we don’t have infinite resources to build and maintain bike trails. The health care comparison is apt in another way, though: it’s about individual responsibility, but it’s not only about individual responsibility. It’s about social responsibility. When discussions of transportation safety imagine our roads to be Mad-Max-like free-for-alls where every person is solely responsible for covering his or her own ass, we forsake our common humanity. We need to work together to keep ourselves safe, and that work begins with safe, responsible urban planning.

Jay Gabler

Six Things You Learn About Advertising From the 2013 British Arrows Awards


Douchey stereotypes still sell. Multiple spots for AXE and related products rank, and rankle. AXE, we learn, will help you screw “your brainy girl” (you can stay awake through obscure plays), “your party girl” (you can dance all night), and “your flirty girl” (eventually she’ll flirt with a woman and you’ll end up with a threesome). The spots are technically well-done, but if this is the post-ironic media landscape, I’ll have irony back, please.

Social media are becoming high-stakes. One honored spot informs viewers that a homeless shelter is about to close, and shows a woman being assaulted by two men on the street. She breaks away and runs to a shelter, at which point original viewers were invited to share a petition via social media. If they shared, the shelter door opened and the woman escaped to safety. If they didn’t share, she was dragged away screaming. Tasteless? Maybe, but also a powerful reminder that contrary to some skeptics’ claims, likes and shares are real currency with real power.

CGI isn’t interesting in and of itself any more. In recent years, the Arrows were filled with showily computer-animated spots. Some of those were cool, but this year’s winning CGI calls much less attention to itself. The exceptions, including a Barclays ad that’s derivative of Toy Story, were made by agencies that knew they couldn’t simply count on cool graphics to carry the spots.

Editing is the new ninja skill of media. Skilled editing has always been the bottom line of TV advertising, but in the world of Vine and Instavideo, you really appreciate the importance of precisely-timed edits. Anyone can make a video, but not everyone knows which parts (almost all of them) to leave out.

It’s still possible to shock. This year’s most graphically mortifying spot is a 45-second video, banned from television in the UK, that depicts the horrifying practice of “finning” live sharks, who are then dumped back to endure slow, immobile deaths on the sea floor. My friends and I were frozen with our pitas halfway to our mouths, and any inclinations we might have had to ever order shark-fin soup were permanently quashed.

Kevin Bacon looks absolutely terrifying. Speaking of horrifying, from the looks of this spot “the Footloose killer” could totally be a thing.

Jay Gabler

Advertisements honored in the 2013 British Arrows Awards will be screened at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis from December 6 through January 5.


Rose Totino’s Pizza and the Patent that Made it Possible, 1979
Frozen pizza had always suffered from “cardboard” crust syndrome. Then Minneapolis’s Rose Totino came to the rescue. On October 9, 1979, Totino patented her new invention—the “Crisp Crust” pizza crust, which revolutionized the frozen pizza industry. She and her husband, Jim, had been selling frozen pizzas since 1962 and had sold their company, Totino’s Finer Foods, to Pillsbury in 1975. (In the process she became Pillsbury’s first female vice president.) Rose Totino kept tinkering with her recipe even after the sale to Pillsbury. The result was the “Crisp Crust,” a “delamination resistant fried dough product” that was granted U.S. Patent Number 4,170,659. The new crust helped make Totino’s “Party Pizza” the best-selling frozen pizza in the United States.

Learn from Katie Sisneros how to make a delicious Totino’s taco using a party pizza and pizza rolls. mn70s:

Rose Totino’s Pizza and the Patent that Made it Possible, 1979
Frozen pizza had always suffered from “cardboard” crust syndrome. Then Minneapolis’s Rose Totino came to the rescue. On October 9, 1979, Totino patented her new invention—the “Crisp Crust” pizza crust, which revolutionized the frozen pizza industry. She and her husband, Jim, had been selling frozen pizzas since 1962 and had sold their company, Totino’s Finer Foods, to Pillsbury in 1975. (In the process she became Pillsbury’s first female vice president.) Rose Totino kept tinkering with her recipe even after the sale to Pillsbury. The result was the “Crisp Crust,” a “delamination resistant fried dough product” that was granted U.S. Patent Number 4,170,659. The new crust helped make Totino’s “Party Pizza” the best-selling frozen pizza in the United States.

Learn from Katie Sisneros how to make a delicious Totino’s taco using a party pizza and pizza rolls. mn70s:

Rose Totino’s Pizza and the Patent that Made it Possible, 1979
Frozen pizza had always suffered from “cardboard” crust syndrome. Then Minneapolis’s Rose Totino came to the rescue. On October 9, 1979, Totino patented her new invention—the “Crisp Crust” pizza crust, which revolutionized the frozen pizza industry. She and her husband, Jim, had been selling frozen pizzas since 1962 and had sold their company, Totino’s Finer Foods, to Pillsbury in 1975. (In the process she became Pillsbury’s first female vice president.) Rose Totino kept tinkering with her recipe even after the sale to Pillsbury. The result was the “Crisp Crust,” a “delamination resistant fried dough product” that was granted U.S. Patent Number 4,170,659. The new crust helped make Totino’s “Party Pizza” the best-selling frozen pizza in the United States.

Learn from Katie Sisneros how to make a delicious Totino’s taco using a party pizza and pizza rolls.


Rose Totino’s Pizza and the Patent that Made it Possible, 1979

Frozen pizza had always suffered from “cardboard” crust syndrome. Then Minneapolis’s Rose Totino came to the rescue. On October 9, 1979, Totino patented her new invention—the “Crisp Crust” pizza crust, which revolutionized the frozen pizza industry. She and her husband, Jim, had been selling frozen pizzas since 1962 and had sold their company, Totino’s Finer Foods, to Pillsbury in 1975. (In the process she became Pillsbury’s first female vice president.) Rose Totino kept tinkering with her recipe even after the sale to Pillsbury. The result was the “Crisp Crust,” a “delamination resistant fried dough product” that was granted U.S. Patent Number 4,170,659. The new crust helped make Totino’s “Party Pizza” the best-selling frozen pizza in the United States.

Learn from Katie Sisneros how to make a delicious Totino’s taco using a party pizza and pizza rolls.

What It Means To Be a Teenager Who Loves Classical Music


As young musicians, most of us have already aged. One violinist I know, who is 16, wears a top hat and breeches to each orchestra rehearsal. Another girl is never seen without her small heels. Nails are short and clean, and all the young women tie their hair back before picking up their instruments.

As children, we practiced every day, whether it was beautiful outside or not. In middle school, we went to school dances and played on sports teams, but we also learned how to use vibrato and memorized our scales. By high school we were enmeshed in youth orchestras and master classes, and we began to do competitions each spring—not to win, but because we craved every performance. By the time junior year arrived, we had created double lives, balancing our school life, the domain of prom and homework and sports—and our music life, the domain of Rite of Spring and sight-singing and unparalleled bliss.

Every spy has a hard time keeping up a double life, especially when both sides are so polarizing. As a teenager—and, in fact, in American culture generally—one must either eschew classical music entirely, or eschew everything but. Sometimes, I want to listen to classical radio in the car with my school friends, but they’re unable to sit through a single sonata. “Oh God, Fiona, I know you like it, but spare us.” Meanwhile, with my classical-playing friends, it’s the opposite; any mention of a group outside the genre is a no-no. It’s all-or-nothing. Bring up James Blake in conversation, blank stares arise.  The Black Keys? Nothing. Justin Bieber? Laughs, after a pause to remember who I’m talking about.

As a fierce advocate of both sides of the spectrum, I am disturbed. I’m 17 years old, and I have hundreds of friends from orchestra, quintets, summer festivals, competitions, et cetera, who are thoroughly and completely invested in classical music. I also have hundreds of friends who could care less. Whether these friends will go on to Juilliard or Morris, music or sales, is irrelevant. What matters is the joy that our respective musical upbringings—whether raised on Joni Mitchell or Wagner—have given us, the way music has shaped us and allowed us to speak.

What disturbs me is to hear people asking, as Jay Gabler recently didwho gives a shit about classical music. I give a shit. My quintet gives a shit. My teacher gives a shit. We give as much of a shit as you give about the music that changed your life. But because of the deep divide between the communities, classical and everything else, so to speak, I cannot blame Mr. Gabler for asking the question.

Remember when you started to love the Beatles? Was it when you heard “Blackbird,” or perhaps “Here Comes the Sun?” You didn’t try to, you didn’t need to, per se, but this love just happened, it just appeared. Passion is not snobbish—this passion arises. That is the essential truth, and that is what we forget, when we spend all our time denouncing each other’s tastes as simpleminded (as classical listeners might say about pop) or pretentious and boring, mere “sawing away” at old compositions (as Jay Gabler said about classical).

This passion arises, as it did when you heard that Beatles song. It arose in a young plastics factory worker 38 years ago, when he heard a violin concerto for the first time (my father). It arose in a poor first-grader six months ago, when she learned “I’ll Tell Me Ma,” at school (my student). It arose in a shy and anxious girl almost 11 years ago, when she heard a silvery flute played like water (me). We are not born loving classical music, but anyone can love classical music. That is the essential truth.

I have no idea how to save the Minnesota Orchestra—like I said, I’m 17. But it scares me that kids after me, kids like me, won’t get to experience what I’ve experienced. They won’t have Manny Laureano, principal trumpeter, conducting them in a youth symphony. They won’t have Wendy Williams, second flutist, teaching them every week. They won’t have Friday nights with Debussy and Mozart.

These people, this music, will be in other cities, but not this one. The community of classical-lovers, people like me and my friends, will get smaller and further removed from the rest of the population, who, as a result, will never get the chance for passion to arise. They’ll never hear the concerto that could change their life, or see the silvery flute, or learn the choir song.  They’ll see an ever-diminishing group of aficionados, far away from them, and never know if classical could give them joy. That, to me, is a tragedy, and that’s why some of us give a shit about classical music, and that’s why everyone should give a shit. Because passion arises, and it could be yours.

- Fiona Kelliher

Does It Matter That No One Gives a Shit About Classical Music Any More?


Minneapolis likes to compare itself defensively to New York, which makes it all the more poignant that James Oestreich of the New York Times has just published a pained essay calling Minneapolis a “great cultural mecca” and lamenting the fact that one of our indisputably world-class cultural resources—the Minnesota Orchestra—has just lost its entire 2012-13 season to an “agonizing and seemingly inexplicable” labor dispute.

“Inexplicable” might be a little strong—the basic explanation seems to be the possibly insurmountable challenge of funding a world-class orchestra in a city that can’t match the audience size and philanthropic resources of a global metropolis, which is a challenge being faced by cities of comparable size around the world. If the Minnesota Orchestra goes completely out of business, it won’t be the first and it certainly won’t be the last.

But why, after decades of happily sawing away at Beethoven and Sibelius, are orchestras in crisis now? That question gets to the “agonizing” part of Oestreich’s comment.

The floundering of the Minnesota Orchestra is agonizing for Oestreich and other classical music lovers like The New Yorker‘s Alex Ross, who wrote that in on one night in 2010, that “the Minnesota Orchestra sounded, to my ears, like the greatest orchestra in the world.” It’s even more agonizing for the orchestra’s musicians and management, and it’s surely agonizing for some other people in Minnesota. But who? Truth be told, I don’t know any of them.

That may peg me as a rube, but if I’m a rube, the world’s orchestras are going to have tough luck paying their expenses with the contributions of non-rubes. I’m a 37-year-old arts journalist with a Ph.D., living less than two miles from Orchestra Hall. I attend multiple ticketed arts events every week, and I do not know a single Minnesota Orchestra season ticket holder. In fact, I couldn’t even name one single person in my acquaintance whom I know to have purchased a ticket—even a rush ticket, much less a full-price ticket—to a Minnesota Orchestra performance in recent memory. That fact is evidence of what a wide swath of the population—especially the younger end of the population—has largely become indifferent to traditional, professional performances of classical music.

To be fair, classical music has never in recent history paid for itself; American ensembles have always been heavily subsidized by corporations, foundations, wealthy donors, and occasional government support. Even so, the evidence is clear: each succeeding generation over the past century has been less likely than the previous generation to attend classical music performances. That not only means a declining number of ticket-buyers, it means a declining proportion of the wealthy who feel deeply invested in classical music and a declining incentive on the part of corporations and foundations to fund classical music.

In 2010 I wrote a post called “Why we shouldn’t do a damn thing about the decline of classical music,” provoking various outraged responses. I wouldn’t be surprised to get some testy comments on this post, but from who? Who would miss the Minnesota Orchestra, and where are they on the Internet? They’ve been keeping pretty quiet over the past year. I’ve seen indignant posts defending the musicians on labor-rights and artistic grounds, but the New York Times post is a more impassioned cry for the defense of Minneapolis’s artistic excellence than anything I’ve seen coming from Minneapolis itself. There seems to be very little popular perception that the artistic excellence of Minneapolis specifically or Minnesota generally is closely tied to the rise and fall of the Minnesota Orchestra.

It’s not that classical music doesn’t matter any more—it’s not even that it doesn’t matter to young people. School orchestras (where they haven’t been ravaged by budget cuts and No Child Left Behind) continue to engage students of all ages. Community choirs are booming. Put a piano out at a party, and just wait to see how long it takes someone to sit down and start plinking out an étude. (Answer: not long.) We—and by we I mean Americans generally, but especially pre-AARP Americans—simply no longer believe it’s necessary for a respectable city to have a respectable professional orchestra.

In my 2010 post, I wrote that it’s not necessary to take extraordinary efforts to preserve classical music, because “great art takes care of itself.” That provoked a few grumbling responses along the lines of “tell that to the Buddhas of Bamiyan,” but music isn’t a delicate sculpture, it’s a living art, and all life must evolve in response to a changing environment.

If “classical music” must be defined as “dozens of highly-trained and highly-paid professionals sitting in tuxedos in a silent concert hall playing music composed 200 years ago,” then sayonara, Schubert. A few Minnesotans will miss you on the stage of Orchestra Hall, but I’ll look forward to seeing how your music continues to inspire and inform through recordings (the horror!), performances by visiting ensembles (what, imported?!), performances by amateur musicians (how gauche!), and in other ways that—unlike, say, a night at the symphony—are wonderfully impossible to predict.

Jay Gabler