From musicians to actors, Minnesotans are busting out all over London this summer.
There were just 72 Minnesotans among more than 5,000 music lovers inside Royal Albert Hall here on Friday night, but they shed any trace of Midwestern reserve in celebrating the joyful response Britons gave to the Minnesota Orchestra at the BBC Proms.
"We're not foreigners to them anymore," said Kathy Cunningham, a lifetime director of the orchestra. "They have become much more familiar with Minnesota, and Osmo has a big following here."
The Minnesota is the only U.S. orchestra at this Proms and, along with the Berlin Philharmonic, the only foreign orchestra playing two programs. Saturday night, music director Osmo Vänskä conducts Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 with the BBC Symphony Chorus. The concert can be heard live in the Twin Cities at 1:30 p.m. on Minnesota Public Radio.
"It's regarded as a bit of an honor for a visiting orchestra to do a Beethoven Ninth," said Proms director Roger Wright. "Because of Vänskä being a great Beethoven interpreter and that repertoire being part of his work at Minnesota, it seemed natural to offer."
It's not rare for Minnesotans to sample London's cultural life, but this summer offers an unusual taste of home. The orchestra's Proms appearances are the leading edge of a modest (i.e. typically Midwestern) Gopher-state foray. In the West End, London's Broadway, actor Sally Wingert plays a role eight times a week in "La Bete," a comedy starring David Hyde Pierce and Mark Rylance -- incidentally both Guthrie alumni themselves.
And at Tricycle Theatre, two trains and a bus ride away from the West End, the faces of Minnesota actors Kate Eifrig and Jim Lichtscheidl appear on a poster promoting "Tiny Kushner," the collection of Tony Kushner plays that launched at the Guthrie Theater in 2009. It opens Sept. 1 at the Tricycle, which critic Michael Billington describes as Britain's foremost politica theater.
"We're going to be ambassadors of a place [Minnesota] that people take for granted," Eifrig said Tuesday. "We want to show that you don't have to be from the coasts, from Los Angeles or New York. To be representatives of this place is really a cool thing."
"Tiny Kushner" follows a run at the Tricycle of "Great Game: Afghanistan," which visits the Guthrie in September, part of a limited U.S. tour.
Recognition for Minnesota
The Minnesota Orchestra first played the Proms in 2006. Vänskä debuted here in 1995 with the BBC Scottish Symphony and has returned every summer but one since then.
Touring is expensive (this trip was underwritten by an anonymous donor) but Vänskä feels it is essential to burnishing the band's reputation.
"If we want to be at an international level, we have to do this," he said before turning to a hockey metaphor. "You can't win the Stanley Cup with just home games."
The Proms is the largest classical music festival in the world. Stretching from July to September, 76 Proms concerts will sell about 380,000 tickets this year. Included are more than 1,000 cheap tickets sold daily to "Prommers," sturdy souls willing to stand for two-hour concerts.
"The whole point when the Proms started in 1895 is still the point now -- bringing classical music to the largest possible audience," said Wright.
Both Minnesota performances sold out this year. Vänskä is a draw, but the band itself made a good impression in 2006, and its recordings -- principally the Beethoven symphony cycle -- are well-known.
"Among people who regularly go to concerts and buy recordings, there will be a big, big recognition of the Minnesota," said London Times music critic Richard Morrison.
On Friday, Londoners Izabella and Redmond Ivie had their first listen of the Minnesota sound and applauded what Izabella called "the passion of the players."
Alan Bush, of North Yorkshire, was similarly impressed.
"Lovely orchestra," he murmured to his companions after Friday's show. When introduced to a reporter, he said, "Every part of the orchestra is just fantastic. I haven't had a chance to read the program yet. What is it, the Minnesota Philharmonic?"
Living a dream
Wingert, meanwhile, has welcomed many Minnesota friends who have come to watch her, Hyde Pierce, Rylance and Joanna Lumley in "La Bete" at the Comedy Theatre. Darting past autograph-seekers besieging Lumley at the stage door Wednesday, Wingert protested that she's playing a small role ("I'm like the dormouse who gets to sit at the table") but also admitted that she has been living a "midlife fantasy" since arriving in mid-May to start rehearsals.
"I get asked for directions by people on the street, and I'm able to help them," she said proudly over afternoon coffee.
Minneapolis theater director Peter Rothstein visited this week and went out afterward with Wingert, Hyde Pierce and others in the cast. "Meeting David was a thrill," he said, "because I still remember him onstage at the Guthrie."
The Tricycle Theatre is on the other side of town from the West End, but Lichtscheidl jokingly referred this week to a recent article about a now-famous actor "who was discovered on a London stage when a director saw him."
It could happen. Nick Kent, Tricycle's artistic director, said Thursday that "People here certainly know of the Guthrie."
"Oh yes," he said. "Theater does put places on the map."
Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299