Stillwater High grad Zach Sobiech's story is as heartbreaking as it is heartwarming, and his tune sounded pretty sweet on the radio. The 18-year-old budding songwriter died in May of a rare form of cancer called osteosarcoma. That same week, his bright, hopeful song "Clouds" — a farewell to family and friends recast as a downloadable charity single — started its ascent of the Billboard and iTunes charts following an earlier reign on YouTube. With widespread radio and media support, it eventually raised $750,000 (and counting) for Zach's Children's Cancer Research Fund via local nonprofit Rock the Cause. "Clouds" not only kept Zach's memory alive, it might actually save lives.
Filling voids with art
Where others see abandoned storefronts, the indefatigable Joan Vorderbruggen spies opportunity. A nurse by profession and an artist by passion, Vorderbruggen has led efforts to install the work of local artists in the empty windows of blighted pockets of commercial real estate from Whittier in south Minneapolis to downtown's Block E. A bubbling brook of creativity and enthusiasm, she embraces what could be seen as thankless tasks and spins them into an uplifting experience for property owners, artists and passersby. Her newest project, in collaboration with curator Jaime Carrera, is Cineteca, a collection of locally made short films that will flicker around the clock on 40-inch screens placed inside Whittier windows.
When in 'Doubt'
This was a year when much of the news out of the classical music world was fractious and grim. In the midst, though, the Minnesota Opera started 2013 with the world premiere of "Doubt," by Douglas Cuomo and John Patrick Shanley, who adapted his Pulitzer-winning play. The company's emphasis on new work continued this year with the announcement that "The Shining" has been commissioned from librettist Mark Campbell and Pulitzer-winning composer Paul Moravec. That was on top of a new opera version of "The Manchurian Candidate," which is in progress toward a 2014-15 debut. The opera has become a national leader in mounting new work.
They had every right to sell out and cash in on their highly revered but never high-paying legacy with the Replacements, but Minneapolis rock heroes Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson played the reunion card in 2013 like a couple of spit-grinning poker sharks. They didn't do interviews, kept fans guessing and waiting for more dates, printed up T-shirts with the middle finger on them and even took to social media to mess with expectations. In the end, their revamped band only played three sets at the punk-rocky RiotFests in Toronto, Chicago and Denver instead of more marquee cities/events (never mind the all-too-obvious hometown gig). When they finally laid their cards down, though, they weren't bluffing.
A museum's best friend
When Walker Art Center needed to replace the 314,000 bricks that wrapped its original 1971 home, designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes, it hired HGA architect John Cook to oversee the $8 million job. No one could have done it better. An ace problem solver, Cook worked on the Weisman Art Museum and its expansion, the Walker's 2005 Herzog & de Meuron addition, and collaborated with his wife, Joan Soranno, on the Lakewood Garden Mausoleum that made her our 2012 Artist of the Year. He fretted every re-bricking detail from the metallic glaze and expansion joints to the corners that had to be redesigned because the building grew by 2⅝ inches on each side when new insulation was added behind the bricks. "It was like putting on an extra sweater; the building got fatter," Cook said.
Setting books in motion
With his "Books in Action" initiative, Coffee House Press publisher Chris Fischbach is leading the charge to think outside the covers, so to speak. Coffee House Press has established residencies that place poets and artists in libraries; they've donated more than 6,000 books to Little Free Libraries; they've commissioned a dozen artists to create works based on Andy Sturdevant's collection of essays; they've established Ring Ring Poetry, which put poems by local writers just a phone call away. Sometimes, these initiatives led to physical books ("The Artist's Library" will be published in the spring), but to Fischbach the ephemeral is just as crucial.
Minnesotans often wonder if Prince lives here anymore. He answered them by having his most visible year in his hometown since 1984 and "Purple Rain." He performed a record 10 advertised shows in the Twin Cities, including a three-night run at the intimate Dakota Jazz Club with a different band every night. He also put together an all-new band, 3rdEyeGirl, for the first time since 1987. He showed off his three sidewomen at the Myth, the Dakota and, of course, Paisley Park, where he even served pancakes to promote his new single, "Breakfast Can Wait." Meanwhile, we are waiting for that new album with 3rdEyeGirl.
One-fifth of a longlist
The books could not have been more different — "The Real Boy" is a fairy tale about a magician's young apprentice, and "Flora & Ulysses" is a humorous story about a girl, her difficult mother, and a squirrel with superpowers. But the two books by Minneapolis writers Anne Ursu and Kate DiCamillo were among the 10 titles long-listed for the National Book Award for young people's literature this year. The honor continued the skyrocketing trajectory of DiCamillo, whose books routinely land on bestseller lists, win awards and are made into movies. (But can any of that really be routine?) And the honor also helped raise the already-high profile of Ursu, whose last book, "Breadcrumbs," was named a Best Book of the Year in 2011 by Amazon, Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal. It's worth noting that both women are connected with Hamline University's MFA program in writing for children — DiCamillo was a founder of the program, and Ursu is a professor.
Pleasing and searing
Actor Traci Allen had a breakout year on Twin Cities stages, including her sterling debut in "Cinderella" as the newest member of the Children's Theatre's acting company. The Howard University-trained actor's versatility was displayed on other stages as well. At Park Square, she played an acid-tongued entomologist in Lydia Diamond's "Stick Fly." And at Pillsbury House, she stood out in Marcus Gardley's "The Road Weeps, the Well Runs Dry," playing a Juliet-style young lover named Sweet Tea — a character who, like the actor herself, blends pleasing qualities with searing heat.
Feet didn't fail them
Percussive dance and music crew Rhythmic Circus has logged many a mile on tour, but in November they hit the big time with a nearly three-week run at the New Victory Theater in Manhattan, just a few shuffle-ball-change steps from Times Square. Dancers Nick Bowman, Galen Higgins, Ricci Milan and Kaleena Miller, along with Aaron "Heatbox" Heaton and the Root City Band, hoped to see how their signature combo of high-speed tap, beat-boxing and funky grooves would go down with the most select audiences in the world. Quite well, actually — their show, "Feet Don't Fail Me Now," earned good ink (including a nod in the New York Times) and full houses including the Raging Bull himself, Robert De Niro, who brought his grandkids. The troupe has been asked back in 2015, and in the coming year plan more national tour dates plus a 14-city run in the Netherlands.
Definitely not drones
In their 20th anniversary year, Duluth indie-rock heroes Low: 1) turned up the heat on their smoldering girl-boy harmonies on a new album, "The Invisible Way"; 2) celebrated the premiere of their "Low Movie" with director Philip Harder at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival; 3) confounded/delighted 10,000 people at Rock the Garden (and thousands more listening on 89.3 the Current) with a 28-minute fusillade of noise; 4) covered Rihanna at Chicago's Pitchfork fest and on a collector's-edition disc, and 5) sang "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" with Wilco on the shore of the big lake they call Gitche-Gumee. How's that to mark a career milestone?
Not on my watch
The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra season was slipping away last spring when Mayor Chris Coleman stepped into the fray between locked-out musicians and management and said: Let's make a deal. With his cultural adviser Joe Spencer doing a lot of the leg work, Coleman brokered a deal on a new contract that saved the remaining six weeks of the season and got the SPCO going on the 2013-14 campaign. The deal was painful for musicians, who took serious pay cuts, but Coleman was instrumental in getting one of St. Paul's signature cultural institutions back on stage. Tough work under tough circumstances.