The evening started like many others before it: exiting the parking garage on foot (as opposed to Lime scooters) and hiking into the Honky Tonk haven by way of 3rd Ave.
The usual bustling Broadway scene unfolded, though a touch more tame being Sunday night, and the town’s barstool maestros wailed into the evening from all corners amidst the bright neon lights. I noticed the new Losers bar where I believe Swingin’ Doors used to be. “Life is a Highway” poured out onto the streets from inside courtesy of Generic Cover Band A.
And then I entered a whole new world.
Stepping foot into the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, I was met with the immediate elegance I envisioned, this having been my first time. Pristine marble stretched to all corners, pillars soared, staff wore inviting smiles and perfectly ironed uniforms, and grandiose staircases led the way. Moods shifted swiftly, and the sophistication and allure took hold. The juxtaposition and contrast to everything else outside of this building was sharp and definitive.
The night’s feature presentation was, “The Times They Are A-Changin’: The Words and Music of Bob Dylan.”
As someone not terribly in tune with the symphony world (in fact, almost entirely out of tune), intrigue was an understatement when I found out they’d be reimagining the songs of the finest corkscrew-haired songwriter to come out of the great state of Minnesota.
The conductor of the show would be Steve Hackman, and the Chorus Director Tucker Biddlecombe. Hackman would go on to create not only an awe-inspiring labyrinth of sound, but offered tremendous insight behind his process of weaving classical arrangements with the iconic songwriter’s songs. To the untrained eye, he led with vision and perspective. He also delivered a great bit of knowledge behind each of the fifteen songs selected.
The gamut in which Hackman’s musical prowess extends is something to behold. Aside from his sorcery as a conductor, he’s also a well-versed producer, pianist, singer, songwriter, DJ, and (you guessed it) rapper. His ability to fuse and coalesce various modern styles of music with classical is something very few people can do, or would even think to do.
But there would be no Hackman or Dylan performance without the 100 choir singers and instrumentalists behind him (depending on which way he faces) working perfectly in unison. Their skill and execution of their craft made the whole thing a reality. Their masterful synthesis of Soprano, Alto, Tenor, and Bass recreating these songs was nothing short of astounding.
Shortly after the usherette led us to our seats and we indulged in the elegance and architectural beauty of the room, I thought it best to enjoy with a cup of wine. After a less than ideal pour of Pinot Noir into a clear plastic up, I headed back to the big wooden doors to plant myself for the night. I was immediately denied entrance at that moment, as apparently the show was soon to start. I could’ve kicked myself- but they did have television screens with it streaming. I audibly sighed and groaned about my decision, and since Hackman was still talking, I was swiftly shuffled back in. Success.
Hackman would inform the crowd that verses of “Times They Are A-Changin’” would be heard four different times within the sets, and would act as the flagship theme of the night, naturally.
I watched in wonder and astonishment at the magnum opus of sound emulating throughout. I gazed in admiration at the expansive three-tier white balconies that flanked the sloping center seating, the high ceiling with hulking chandeliers, the charm of the faded magenta velvet flip seats, and how the overall smell reminded me of my grandparents’ house. And to think: just a block over, somebody named Chad is heaving back a tequila shot with his buddies while a cover band plays “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy).” And so it goes.
Hackman prefaced each block with intellectual fanfare regarding both Dylan and the classical elements involved, before delivering the night’s first verse and version of “The Time’s They Are A-Changin’.” That would be followed with a powerful rendition of the all-time classic, “Like A Rolling Stone.” That would be followed by a very dark and villainous version of “All Along The Watchtower.” Digitized lyrics streamed on a big horizontal screen just above the massive wall of black cloak- wearing choir singers. Momentous build-ups repeatedly struck with satisfaction, and the maze of time changes, volumes, and tones were mesmerizing.
The second set would bring about classics such as “Tangled Up in Blue,” “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” The powerful crescendos, peaks, and zeniths of harmony followed with gentle, lullaby-like twinklings of sound were something to behold. Hackman mentioned a quote from Dylan I found interesting, stating that “Tangled Up In Blue took ten years to live, and two years to write.” The arrangement was beautiful, and shed the song in a whole new light.
But I was most curious about how they’d attack “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” and Hackman spoke of the challenge. Nonetheless, they ripped through it, again with a bit of a darker more ominous and booming sound. The translator certainly had his work cut out for him. The choir whispered the final verse, and it instilled a sense of urgency, anxiety, and caution. And unfortunately for us, incessant whispers could also be heard throughout the night from the oblivious kooks in the seats behind us.
Set three kicked into gear with “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding,” which yet again, produced eerie and dark feelings, given the nature of the tune. Hackman spoke of the song leading into it with all kinds of dreadful philosophical and existential things to say, as well as political and civic climate matters, and soon followed up with, “Sorry that this is all so uplifting,” which led to prompted crowd laughter.
“I Shall Be Released” was delivered just as beautifully and vulnerably as one who knows the song would imagine, followed with yet another stone-cold classic, “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” to close the set out. Lots of dark doom and gloom, but it was only fitting for a sad day which saw Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and seven others lose their lives in a horrendous tragedy. A day the world would remember and reflect on for years to come.
And that’s the thing about Dylan’s songs, and good music in general: it provides emotional meaning and support in times of need and uncertainty, and it’s always there for you, unflinchingly. Dylan’s music in particular is just as fitting and relevant for the most part today as it was fifty years ago. Problems change, but Dylan’s songs remain.
The final block would include a personal favorite, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” which always tugs on the philosophical heartstrings. (but don’t all of his songs?!) This would be followed up with “Make You Feel My Love,” and closed with “Blowin’ in the Wind,” which Dylan allegedly wrote in a coffee shop in ten minutes. I would absolutely believe that.
Without question there was a very gospel, cathedral type feel to the whole event: an aesthetic serenity and grace that really can’t be found anywhere else in town, and we left musically fulfilled in a different kind of way. The euphoric sonic dream that was “The Times They Are A-Changin’” could not be overstated enough as a must see.
Soloists for “The Times They Are A-Changin'” include: Mitchell Lane and Rob Mahurin on “Tangled Up in Blue”, Dustin Derryberry on “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” Colby White and Angie Thomas on “I Shall Be Released,” Mark Filosa and Valerie Kamen on “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” Liza Marie Johnston and Madalynne Skelton on “The Times They Are A-Changin,'” and Paige Stinnett on “Blowin’ in the Wind.”