By Tanner Kent
The Free Press
— The Minnesota Orchestra’s foray into the national spotlight during the Grammy Awards on Sunday represented an ironic moment of celebration for Ken Freed.
Freed, who is of course the director of the Mankato Symphony Orchestra, is also a violist with the Minnesota Orchestra. And if you’ve been following fine arts news from the Twin Cities, then you also know that the Minnesota Orchestra is in the midst of a bitter contract dispute that has led to the cancellation of all concerts through April 7.
That, however, didn’t stop members of the Recording Academy from recognizing the Minnesota Orchestra’s recording of Sibelius’ Symphonies Nos. 2 and 5 as one of the year’s most exceptional in the category of best orchestra performance.
Though fate held that the bigger and more well-known San Francisco Symphony would win its 15th Grammy — rather than the Minnesota Orchestra winning its first — Freed said “it was an honor to be in that group” which also included performances from the Budapest Festival Orchestra, Oregon Symphony and London Symphony Orchestra.
I had an opportunity to speak with Freed as he was preparing to lead the San Juan Symphony in Colorado through Haydn’s Symphony No. 104 and Beethoven’s Concerto No. 2. Just a day after the Grammys were announced, Freed was his usual gracious, eloquent self.
As anyone who has listened to Freed talk about music knows, the man has a gift for talking about music. And after hearing Freed speak about the Minnesota Orchestra’s Sibelius performance, I needed no more convincing that it was the year’s best, regardless of what the Grammys say:
“Sometimes you can feel the atmosphere in music, almost like connective tissue. When we were in the middle of recording, there was something special in the air. So special, so visceral. ... As we were playing, the ground was lifting up. It was incredible. You only get those feelings a couple times in a lifetime. It was astounding just to be there.”
Yet, the cause for celebration has been decidedly dampened by the Minnesota Orchestra’s continued silence. Now four months into a dispute that has prompted investigations, accusations and enough ill-will to go around, there still appears no agreement in sight.
For Freed, the Minnesota Orchestra represents a primary source of income. And though his work with the MSO continues — Freed spoke passionately and proudly about his optimism for this and upcoming seasons — he said the protracted contract trouble has taken a personal and emotional toll.
“It’s been hard on my family,” he said. “It feels pretty bleak.”
Even more, Freed is worried the dispute will sour the longstanding support from orchestra patrons. Building such support takes years, even decades, and it can crumble all too quickly.
“It can take a week to wreck all that,” he said. “If the relationship with the public is torn asunder, people will find other things to do. ... This all feels very un-Minnesotan. I would have never guessed it would come to this. It’s beyond anything I could have imagined.”
In response, Freed said he has devoted his time and energy to other pursuits, guest conducting for instance with the San Juan Symphony. He also said he’s enjoyed being able to focus on the MSO, which is preparing for its March concert, “Deconstructing Don Quixote.”
“It’s been liberating to focus on other work,” he said. “I’m very hopeful about some other things.”