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The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, off to a good start last weekend with something old (Beethoven) and something new (Nicola Campogrande), brings something rare in four concerts at the neighborhood locations this week.
It’s an unusual voice, belonging to John Holiday, last heard locally in “Messiah” with the SPCO in December. Holiday is a countertenor, a voice that you don’t hear every day. He will sing arias by Handel and Vivaldi, who both wrote in an era that was friendlier to the countertenor. Holiday, a young singer, is considered a fine interpreter of Baroque music.
The countertenor roams the vocal range usually reserved for altos and mezzo-sopranos. Composers found it a popular voice to write for in early music (back in the days when the even-rarer castrati was a phenomenon). The countertenor faded in popularity but Alfred Deller, a British singer, brought it back to prominence in the latter half of the 20th century with his dedication to Baroque and Renaissance music.
Holiday got his masters from the University of Cincinnati Conservatory for Music in 2012 and has rapidly become popular because he sings in such a rare register. Well, not just that he sings in that register. We sings beautifully in that register. He made his Carnegie Hall debut last year with Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms,” joined the Met Opera roster and sang with the Atlanta Symphony.
Conductor Jonathan Cohen is on the podium this weekend for the SPCO in concerts at Stillwater, Eden Prairie, Summit Avenue and Arden Hills. The program will also include Bach’s Concerto in C Minor for Oboe and Violin with Kathryn Greenbank (oboe) and Sunmi Chang. In addition, Kyu-Young Kim and Elsa Nilsson are featured in Vivaldi’s Concerto in B-flat for Two Violins.
Julie Albers has been named Principal Cellist with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. Albers officially takes the position next season (2015-16) but will play eight weeks of the season that starts this weekend. Beethoven’s Seventh and Eighth Symphonies are on the program.
Albers will not be unfamiliar to SPCO audiences. She has performed as guest principal many times recently. She is the sister of Rebecca Albers, a violist with the Minnesota Orchestra. With their sister Laura, they perform as the Albers Trio.
Julie Albers was the unanimous choice of the musician’s audition committee. She replaces Ronald Thomas, who left the SPCO in June 2012.
“She is an extraordinary artist and a seasoned professional who will be able to hit the ground running as one of the key musicial leaders of the SPCO,” said Kyu-Young Kim, the orchestra’s Principal Second Violinist and Senior Director of Artistic Planning.
Albers lives in Atlanta with her husband. In a statement, she called the SPCO “a unique and inspiring ensemble.”
The orchestra also has appointed seven guest musicians who will play the 2014-15 season. The SPCO currently has 18 permanent musicians on the roster (including Albers) and an authorized complement of 28. The guests, who are committed to the full season, may or may not become permanent members of the orchestra.
They are: Zachary Cohen, bass, on leave from Milwaukee Symphony; Barbara Bishop, oboe, on leave from Kansas City; violist Shuangshuang Liu and violinist Luosha Fang, both graduates of Curtis Institute; violinist Kayla Moffett from the New World Symphony; Jonathan Cohen, clarinet, a graduate of Juilliard and Sycil Mathai, trumpet with the Knights Chamber Orchestra (New York).
“I have loved Sommerfest since I led my first festival concert in 1984, early in my career,” Litton said in a statement. “I admire its spirit of playfulness, its urban setting and adventurous audiences—and the great Minnesota Orchestra musicians with whom I have been fortunate to collaborate.”
Litton’s contract had been set to expire after next month’s festival, July 5-26. This year’s session is the first to be held in the newly renovated Orchestra Hall. Litton will conduct Brahms and Bernstein, serve as piano soloist in Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and lead a semi-staged version of Strauss’ comic opera “Die Fledermaus.”
He will also inaugurate the Target Atrium as a performance venue on July 12 when he will play selections from his first solo piano recording, “A Tribute to Oscar Peterson.”
Litton has been a popular and comfortable fixture at Sommerfest and his continued presence provides stability for the orchestra and for audiences. He’s the longest-serving director for the festival, which was founded in 1980 with Leonard Slatkin. Litton serves as music director of Norway’s Bergen Philharmonic—where he will oversee that orchestra’s 250th anniversary celebrations in 2015—and the Colorado Symphony, as well as conductor laureate of Britain’s Bournemouth Symphony.
Conductor Sarah Hicks has agreed to extend her contract with the Minnesota Orchestra through 2016-17. Hired as principal conductor for pops and presentations in 2009, Hicks will lead the orchestra’s “Live at Orchestra Hall” series.
Hicks joined the orchestra as assistant conductor in 2006 as the first woman to hold a titled conducting post with the Minnesota Orchestra. She succeeded Doc Severinsen in the pops role.
Digital projections by Yael Braha animated the rear wall at Orchestra Hall during a latenight concert by the Minnesota Orchestra conducted by Courtney Lewis. Photo by Claude Peck
If Minnesota Orchestra wants to attract younger audience members, it would be smart to plan more concerts like the one held at Orchestra Hall on Saturday night.
The crowd for the free 10 p.m. show -- a tie-in event of Northern Spark's all-night rain-and-art fest -- nearly filled the main level of the hall, and the concertgoers appeared a good three or four decades younger, overall, than the audience for most classical concerts by the orchestra.
Longtime subscribers heard a show at 7 p.m. featuring the Mahler 5 and a Kevin Puts symphony, his number 4. (That show is reviewed here.) The Puts alone was repeated at 10 p.m. in a 30-minute concert that also included a sophisticated ive digital projection on the hall's back wall by artist and filmaker Yael Braha and Bryant Place.
The just-turned-30 conductor was Courtney Lewis, who is leaving Minnesota for posts in New York City and Jacksonville, Fla.
The full orchestra performed the Puts symphony, and they still wore their black outfits and tuxedos from the earlier concert. But the mood was much more relaxed than usual, with people taking cellphone photographs and late arrivers filing in. Neither of these "distractions" was any kind of major distraction.
A few people commented afterward that the music was cinematic enough that they did not need the added projections, but most people said they loved the combination. Braha used the familiar tumbling-dice back wall to good effect, with projections that seemed to spiderweb between them and to outline them and "fill" the cubes with dots and orbs in a state of color and motion. Only occasionally did the rear wall become a flat screen for larger, overall moving images, including one that resembled wind-whipped prairie grasses seen from a great height.
The fact that Braha was doing it "live" was demonstrated when the system crashed briefly and had to be rebooted. Lewis tried to hush the applauding crowd and sought the thumbs up from the back of the hall to restart the music.
Puts is a contemporary composer unafraid of writing lush pages for the string section, or of giving a piece some tutti crescendos. His full-throated, brass-heavy ending brought multiple standing ovations from the young crowd. A nervous looking Braha took several bows alongside Lewis and the musicians.
The night was far from over at 10:30 p.m., as bands were programmed into the off-lobby room until 3 a.m.
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