The Minneapolis Pops Orchestra has watched storm clouds roll in over the conductor’s head at the Lake Harriet Band Shell.
“No matter the temperature or the weather — people race to their cars during tornado sirens — there is always an audience,” said trumpet player Lynn Erickson.
The orchestra has played at Lake Harriet since 1950, with performances every Saturday and Sunday in late June and July. They’re aiming to break a 3,000-person attendance record on June 28, closing the show with George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” featuring piano man Dan Chouinard.
The musicians are some of the best in the business, with jobs at the Minnesota Opera and Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. A single three-hour rehearsal on Saturday prepares them for performances that night and the following day.
For a familiar piece like “My Fair Lady,” they might play it for the first time during a performance. Conductor Jere Lantz remembers one 50-minute Mother’s Day concert at the Minnesota Zoo they performed cold, before any rehearsals had started for the season.
“I have to be rather sharp with the stick,” Lantz said. “I don’t dare make a mistake.”
A Yale graduate with an economics degree, Lantz is known for his fascination with the stories behind the music. He spends part of each concert telling stories.
“It’s people trying to make a buck writing music,” he said.
One such story: George Gershwin wrote “Rhapsody in Blue” in his 20s, on an assignment that he took rather casually until a month before the performance. The piece was an instant success, Lantz said, and Gershwin enjoyed the success. He would happily perform at any party he attended, he said.
“Nobody ever loved their talent more than George Gershwin,” he said.
He also described the legend behind “On the Beautiful Blue Danube” by Johann Strauss II, a piece the orchestra will perform June 28.
“Even in Strauss’s day, it wasn’t blue,” Lantz said. “It was pretty much a garbage dump.”
Legend has it that if you’re in love, the Danube River appears blue and beautiful.
“For a night, we’re going to make it blue,” Lantz said.
Now in his 29th season with the Pops, Lantz’s daughters grew up watching him conduct the Pops, the eldest attending her first concert at four days old. They called the band shell “Daddy’s Castle.”
“When they were really little they thought I owned it and built it to do concerts,” he said.
Lantz is not making retirement plans. He mentions a book written about conductors’ long lives (one study shows they live longer than the general population), and cites other conductors who are still working at age 82 and into their 90s. Conducting is good exercise, he said. He has five conducting jobs, and conducts 17 concerts in one month for the Pops. He likens his career to a quote from the comic Steven Wright: “I intend to live forever. So far, so good.”
The orchestra has gained a loyal following, rain or shine. They continue to play if the rain is coming straight down and the instruments stay dry. A few audience members are usually willing to stick around through the rain, or return if it clears up. Lantz said “Lake Harriet applause” refers to umbrellas moving up and down in lieu of clapping.
“People sit through the drizzle,” said oboe player Marilyn Ford. “When they have left there is a white spot on the bench that didn’t get wet.”
One of Lantz’s greatest challenges at the podium is preventing his music from blowing away. With up to 50 or 60 pages to turn, he can’t easily use clothespins or clips like the musicians. Instead, he uses his cell phone to pin down the music. Once he glanced down to see a text from his wife — a severe thunderstorm was on the way, and it would hit in less than 10 minutes. He was still in the middle of the piece, but had just enough time to wrap it up and evacuate a couple thousand people before the storm arrived.
“We would have been totally soaked onstage,” he said.
Ford has performed with the Pops since 1971, playing in a temporary band shell before the current one was constructed. She remembers it as pretty beat up, with holes in the floors.
“You had to be careful where you placed your chair,” she said.
The previous band shell was closer to the parking lot, she said. Some sat in cars and honked their horns to applaud.
In one of the early years, she remembers a clarinet player’s dog walking up to sit next to him on stage.
“Dogs sometimes will bark at the most opportune time to fit with the music,” she said.
Birds in the rafters have also provided a distraction, though park staff have worked to prevent them from lingering.
“Torpedoes of droppings were coming down every once in a while,” Ford said.
The People’s Choice concert is nearly always (though not this year) hosted by Tim Russell, the voice of Dusty and other characters on “A Prairie Home Companion.” The People’s Choice started in 1996, inspired by the election year. The orchestra plays songs based on the amount of applause.
“We do our best to influence the audience,” Ford said. “If it’s a long, boring piece we might kind of hiss.”
There are no auditions for the Pops. If there is an opening, personnel manager Cynthia Stokes asks around to find someone experienced and congenial. Lantz said the musician has to fit musically as well as personally.
“There are no divas in our group,” he said.
Pops musicians tend not to leave, unless they’re relocating.
Stokes has played flute with the Pops since 1975. She remembers playing the opening of the band shell, with a ribbon-cutting that stretched around the entire perimeter of the lake. She said the Pops is different from other orchestras.
“It’s more fun, and there is less pressure. It’s always a challenge because we only have one rehearsal for two programs of music,” she said.
When Erickson started playing trumpet with the Pops 25 seasons ago, she questioned the idea of giving up five weekends in the middle of summer. But she discovered musicians do it gladly, for decades.
“People in the orchestra are really fun and great colleagues,” she said. “It’s such a wonderful, positive thing.”
“It’s my favorite job of the year,” Ford said.
Minneapolis Pops Orchestra
When: June 27 thru July 26, Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 5:30 p.m.
Where: Lake Harriet Band Shell
Find additional concert dates at Nicollet Island, Como Pavilion and Elliot Park at mplspops.org
Concert photos by Mike Peiffer