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Posts about Classical

Kids in the Hall

Posted by: Claude Peck Updated: June 15, 2014 - 2:26 PM

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.

Composers win McKnight fellowships

Posted by: Claude Peck Updated: May 23, 2014 - 11:32 AM
A California composer was awarded a McKnight grant to work on a song cycle inspired by the annual John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon in northern Minnesota.

Four Minnesota composers will get $25,000 each as winners of this year's McKnight Composition Fellowships. The fellowships are administered by St. Paul-based American Composers Forum. They were selected from 63 applicants. The judges for this year's selections were composers Amir ElSaffar (New York, N.Y.), Stacy Garrop (Chicago, Ill.) and Daniel Trueman (Princeton, N.J.) The 2014 winners are:

Alex Freeman, who teaches at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. and has written and recorded chamber, choral and piano works.

Jocelyn Hagen, of Minneapolis, who was a longtime composer-in-residence for The Singers, and is now composer-in-residence at North Dakota State University in Fargo.

Michelle Kinney, of Golden Valley, a cellist and composer who is Musician in Residence at the University of Minnesota's Dance Program and a member of the quartet Jelloslave.

George Maurer, of Minneapolis, a composer and jazz pianist whose work has been performed by orchestras, ballet troupes, jazz ensembles and musical-theater producers.

Another McKnight program awards $15,000 each to two artists from outside Minnesota to spend two months or more in the state working on projects. Robin Eschner of Forestville, Calif., will produce a song cycle related to the the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon in northern Minnesota, and Pamela Z of San Francisco will compose a work focusing on Minnesota "farm-to-table" movement as it goes from farms to farmer's markets and restaurants.

The McKnight Foundation, founded in 1953, contributes about $1.7 million each year to individual artists via fellowships and other programs. American Composers Forum, founded in 1973 as Minnesota Composers Forum, has a worldwide membership of 1,700 artists, organizations and community members.

SPCO makes changes to Britten Festival

Posted by: Claude Peck Updated: May 16, 2014 - 2:25 PM

Violinist and conductor Thomas Zehetmair, an SPCO Artistic Partner, has withdrawn from three weeks of concerts marking the centenary of composer Benjamin Britten. Photo courtesy of SPCO.

The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra has been scrambling this week after news that conductor Thomas Zehetmair was suffering from "exhaustion and fatigue." Zehetmair is under doctor's orders to withdraw from all travel and performing commitments until he recovers, said Stephen Sokolouski of the SPCO. 

Zehetmair was scheduled to lead concerts over the next three weekends to celebrate the centenary of British composer Benjamin Britten.

The Britten festival begins Thursday at Temple Israel in Minneapolis, and will go on, but with changes to the program and players, as follows:

Britten: String Quartet No. 2 (Steven Copes, Kyu-Young Kim, Maiya Papach, James Wilson)
Britten: Lachrymae (Maiya Papach, viola and director)
Haydn: Symphony No. 101, "Clock" 

The new program, to be played Saturday at the St. Paul UCC and Sunday afternoon in Arden Hills, will be led by SPCO musicians. " Although it’s unfortunate that Thomas can’t be with us, we’re excited that our musicians are once again taking the lead on this weekend’s concerts, as the concerts that they have led this year have been some of the best of the season," said Sokolouski.

 Britten's chamber opera "The Turn of the Screw" remains on the program for weekend two, (May 23-24, at Ordway Center) with Jayce Ogren stepping in to replace Zehetmair as conductor.

The third weekend (May 29-30) has been changed, and includes no music of Britten. Instead, the SPCO will perform Stravinsky (Danses concertantes), Haydn (Cello Concerto No. 2, with Julie Albers, cellist) and Brahms (String Quintet No. 2), with SPCO musicians leading the orchestra.

Minnesota Opera co-commissions 'Cold Mountain'

Posted by: Kristin Tillotson Updated: May 6, 2014 - 4:46 PM

The 2003 movie version of "Cold Mountain" starred Jude Law, above, as a Confederate soldier turned deserter making his way home. The Minnesota Opera has co-commissioned an opera version of the best-selling Civil War saga.

The Minnesota Opera has co-commissioned an adaptation of the best-selling Civil War novel "Cold Mountain," with music by Pulitzer-winning composer Jennifer Higdon. The commission is the latest in a string of new operas with modern cultural roots that Minnesota Opera has been involved with over the last several years -- including "Doubt, "The Manchurian Candidate" and "The Shining" -- through its  $7-million New Works Initiative program.

The novel "Cold Mountain" by Charles Frazier won the 1997 National Book Award. It tells the story of a Confederate Army deserter making his way home through ravaged terrain toward the end of the war. It was made into a 2003 movie that was nominated for seven Academy awards.

Partners in the commission are The Santa Fe Opera and Opera Philadelphia. The opera will get its premiere in Santa Fe in the summer of 2015, marking the150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. It will be presented by the Minnesota Opera sometime in 2018.

Higdon, who won a Pulitzer and a Grammy for two separate concertos in 2010, will be joined by librettist Gene Scheer, who wrote the book for an opera version of "Moby Dick."

Jennifer Higdon. Photo by J. Henry Fair.

It's back to work for Vänskä

Posted by: Kristin Tillotson Updated: April 29, 2014 - 3:43 PM

Vanska conducts the Minnesota Orchestra at Orchestra Hall in March. Photo by Tim Gruber/New York Times

Osmo Vänskä is back in town and rolling up his sleeves.

On Tuesday, just before attending his first artistic planning meeting since returning as the orchestra’s artistic director, Vänskä spoke of his affection for this particular orchestra and his hopes for its immediate future.

Vänskä’s two-year contract calls for at least 10 subscription concerts to be conducted by him each season, so the committee, which consists mostly of orchestra musicians, must scramble to recast the 2014-15 schedule, which under normal circumstances would have been announced well before now.

“We are terribly behind and must do our job as quickly as possible to try to get a very good season,” he said, adding that it was premature to speculate about any programming. "This is like a thousand-piece puzzle we all must put together."

He said that he hopes to complete the Sibelius recordings that were put on hold by the 16-month labor lockout, but that it will wait until the orchestra has more time playing together again. The orchestra won its first Grammy, for Orchestral Performance, in February for its recording on the BIS label of the second disc in the planned set, of Symphonies nos.1 and 4.

Though some orchestra supporters have called the acoustic alterations made during Orchestra Hall’s renovation into question, Vänskä said that for the most part, he approves.

“I’ve been sitting in different places and the sound is great,” he said. “There is a chance to fine tune some small things which could be even better. The main goal was a symphony that can play like a chamber orchestra, with everyone able to hear each other, to be able to play more with the ear than the eye, and I think we got what we asked for.”

Vänskä remains in such high demand as a guest conductor around the world that he could easily do just that. He acknowledged in a recent interview that a music director has to deal with “headaches” a guest conductor does not.  But he decided to return to Minnesota full time because, he said, “I love this orchestra. I think it’s not too much to say it’s like my child. It was definitely the wrong way to go out, to go away. So yes, there is unfinished business.”

Asked about the musicians’ current morale, he said, “I’ve never seen better attitudes in any corner of the world. We might have had almost 30 substitute players in the concerts earlier  this spring, but they are really great and ready to give all they have.”

The key to getting the players back in top form, he said, is what he has always prescribed – practice, practice, practice.

“These musicians don’t need anything else," he said. "They will play better and better. That’s our job to do.”

Vänskä had nothing to say about revelations, which surfaced last weekend, of his personal relationship with orchestra concertmaster Erin Keefe, other than "it has not made any problems."

On Sunday, Minnesota Orchestra trombonist Doug Wright, who also was a member of the musicians’ negotiating committee during the lockout, said he thinks the recent re-hiring of Vänskä  as music director is “the best road to success for this organization, for us to go forward.”

The orchestra, led by Vänskä, performs May 2 and 4 at Northrop Auditorium in a program that recreates the first concert ever played there, in 1929. 

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