The lives of Jim O'Neill, Michael Sutton and Michael's father, Vern Sutton, have intersected throughout the years. But it wasn't until recently, when Vern was packing up for a move from Minnesota to California, that their paths began to run more in parallel lines. It's all thanks to a treasured collection of classical albums on vinyl.
O'Neill and the younger Sutton gather in an art studio of a mutual friend in the North Loop in Minneapolis. The room is in organized disarray, with a half-finished painting and supplies on multiple surfaces and drop cloths covering furniture and installations. In contrast to usual studios, the space is well-lit and in the far corner, the two friends sit on modern furniture that would not look out of place on the set of "Mad Men."
Along with a portable record player, O'Neill has brought a handful of vinyl records from a collection that he inherited from Michael, who in turn got it from his father. O'Neill pulls out one of the records and plays it on a portable player as he and Michael converse.
O'Neill recalls his early life and how he found himself playing piano at 3, beginning when his older sister started taking lessons. He would imitate what she was doing, so the next year, his mother started him in pedagogy, a method of learning/teaching that involves a lot of training by ear, where you hear a part and then repeat it back.
O'Neill would go on to be somewhat of a prodigy on the piano, which allowed him to appreciate the methods that go into a performance.
"I met Michael through Patrick Pryor, who owns this studio," he says. "I was at an opening for Patrick's art show, and Michael was looking for a piece. We hung out socially, and when I found out he was a violinist in the Minnesota Orchestra, I was blown away."
An appreciation for music
A few songs into a record by Ravi Shankar, Sutton asks O'Neill to switch to something else.
"This is too heavy for me during a conversation," Sutton says. "There's no such thing as background music. I'm always analyzing everything. … It's an occupational hazard. I'm mentally practicing in my head even if I'm not playing."
The conversation shifts to the Minnesota Orchestra's visit to Cuba in 2015.
"I listened to their performance with my in-ear, sound-canceling monitors, because I was mowing the lawn," O'Neill says. "As I was sitting there mowing the lawn, I thought, 'This is ridiculous. I'm mowing my lawn, listening to the radio on my cellphone, and our orchestra is in Cuba.' It's the first time anyone's done a concert there in 60 or 70 years.
"The orchestra was one of the few places I could go as a kid and be calm," O'Neill continues. "I took a lot of enjoyment in the ceremony of it to make sure I didn't cough or fidget. When the walkout happened in 2013, it was hard to watch. There wasn't a lot of public awareness, so there was a lot of misconceptions, because people thought it was a strike."
Sutton, an accomplished violinist, joined the Minnesota Orchestra in 1997, and takes on the role as concertmaster for the Bloomington Symphony Orchestra while also teaching violin at MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis.
The younger Sutton grew up in a household that was filled with music.
"My dad [Vern] is 78-years-old, and he's from Oklahoma, but he lived in the Midwest longer than he ever did in the South," Sutton says. "He ran the opera department at the University of Minnesota for 35 years. For two years, he was the assistant director of the music school, and for eight years, he was the director of the school of music at the U of M. He was instrumental in getting the Ted Mann Concert Hall built. He was a founding member of the Minnesota Opera and sang with them. He was on the very first 'Prairie Home Companion,' a regular once a month for the first 15 years. …
"He also taught at the University of Minnesota for 36 years, and he was a musicologist with a PhD," Sutton continues. "One of the things he taught was Intro to Music 101, a music appreciation course. Part of that class included drop-the-needle tests. All of these records were a part of those tests. He was tired of winter. It makes his bones hurt, so we got him a condo in California. Part of moving was downsizing his life, and that included getting rid of his record collection of over 250 pieces of vinyl."
Building a 'collection'
Sutton had spoken with his father to get details about the records.
"I was asking him about the collection," Sutton recounts, "and my dad said, 'I don't have a collection. I just bought records for forty years.' He started packing up in the fall of 2015, and he had this entire closet that has a bookshelf row after row after row of LPs."
A lot of the collection was from research that Vern Sutton had to do, research that documented a favorite singer or a certain opera part he had to learn.
Around the time Vern was packing up for Palm Springs, Michael and his wife decided to remodel their home, making them realize they wouldn't have room for the collection, either. Michael Sutton kept a few sentimental ones for himself but offered a reluctant O'Neill who is known to be a pack rat the remaining records and a player.
"When Michael offered me the record player, a solid-state, hi-fi player, I was even more reluctant, but I realized it was everything in one," O'Neill says. "This was the one Michael was listening to when he decided to play the violin at 2. I didn't have anything of that caliber. Since I perform, I have all of these instruments. My wife was going to strangle me, and she was not super excited at first."
O'Neill justified taking the collection and record player by knowing that the records would go to a thrift store and sit on a shelf if he didn't take them, making him recall his time in college when music wasn't a big part of his life.
During his days at North Dakota State, O'Neill took architecture classes and would suffer through music withdrawals. He would sneak into the theater when classes were not in session and secretly play on the beautiful Steinway piano that sat on the stage. Sometimes the janitors would come in and listen, making O'Neill concerned he would get in trouble, but they would merely ask if he wanted the lights on.
"I'd be playing in the dark," he recalls. "I'd see listings for classes, and I saw the music appreciation class. It was almost the same class that Vern taught at the U of M. It was one of my favorite classes. The theater was filled with students. My teacher covered Baroque through the Romantic era. I had never even realized there were different eras of music. It was eye opening to know there were time periods in music history, but there were also composers I've never heard of.
"When I think about the collection, it takes me back to this college class, and I knew I could have an instant history of classical music. I took them on and I didn't listen to them for quite a bit. They sat in the boxes, because I was diagnosed with lymphoma in January of 2016, so from January to August, that was my focus. After everything was done with treatment, I started digging in, and I still haven't gotten through 95 percent of it. Where do you start? I looked through most of it. Most of it is classical, and there's tons of opera. It's random what I decide on. There's stuff I recognize, but for the most part, I don't know any of it.
"I hope I can find time each day to listen. One of the things I love about vinyl just like going to the orchestra is that there's a ceremony. There's rules. There's so little of that these days. … The nature of the thing is you have to carve time out. You have to purposefully listen to the music."