The teens in MPR's Minnesota Varsity competition don't get letter jackets, but the finalists get to play the Fitz. The program also helps build the next generation of classical music lovers.
Heather Cornelius looked very serious as she sat with her harp, hands poised to pluck the first notes of Debussy's "Sacred and Profane Dances."
The 15-year-old from Paynesville, Minn., was about to make her first professional recording in the Maud Moon Weyerhaeuser Studio at Minnesota Public Radio, where top classical talent from Midori to Ravi Shankar had played before her.
"I'm adding reverb and ambience to your sound," said technical director Craig Thorson, manning the massive soundboard in a control room equipped with enough electronic consoles and impressive-looking doodads to run a NASA mission. "I'm getting a really nice resonance."
He sure was. Listening to her own performance afterward, Heather's face remained teen-stoic, but her foot began tapping softly. She was pleased.
Minnesota Varsity is not exactly "American Idol," but it offers a regional version of temporary fame for high-schoolers studying classical music and musical theater in Minnesota. It works like this: Any student from anywhere in the state could submit a homemade recording between November and January. Fifteen semifinalists were chosen by MPR staff members from more than 100 submissions, and their recorded performances are being broadcast on KSJN 99.5 FM throughout March. All submitted recordings are also online at www.classicalmpr.org/varsity, where the public can vote among the semifinalists through March 18.
Judges from the local classical scene will narrow the field to four finalists, with a fifth chosen by public vote, also online. The five will play an April 29 concert at St. Paul's Fitzgerald Theater, where attendees will vote on which one gets to play an encore.
In its second year, the program "gives students a taste of what it's like to play in a professional environment," said Daniel Gilliam, program director of Classical MPR. "Their eyes just bulge when they hear themselves."
Cornelius seconded that. "It was cool to listen to how good it sounded," she said. She now takes lessons from Minnesota Orchestra principal harpist Kathy Kienzle and says she may major in harp performance in college.
Tim Roesler, general manager of MPR, got the idea for Minnesota Varsity two years ago while watching "Glee" with his daughters. But it's more about camaraderie than the kind of intense rivalry seen on "Idol" and "Glee."
"There's an element of competition, but everyone who submitted a tape got on the page" on MPR's website, Roesler said.
MPR also has an interest in developing new audiences, for both itself and the art form, Roesler said: "There's a growing awareness that classical-loving kids are being underserved, if not ignored. Minnesota is home to a lot of musically accomplished kids, and a surprising number of them listen to classical alongside other forms. Coming together on the MPR page gives them an instant online community."
Hooked on classical
Senior Ellen Christensen of Edina doesn't need to be wooed.
Christensen, who has taken voice lessons at MacPhail since seventh grade, is a semifinalist who decided to go playful with her choice of recording -- "Vanilla Ice Cream" from the musical "She Loves Me."
Christensen, who counts among her top inspirations musical actress Audra McDonald and composer Stephen Paulus, listens to classical music while doing homework, she said: "It's beautiful, it's historic, it's deep."
Flutist Joshua Weinberg, now a freshman at St. Olaf College in Northfield, was a finalist last year. He played "Kokopelli" by modern composer Katherine Hoover.
"It's about a Native American fertility deity who played the flute and went to the mountains" to encourage a bountiful crop, Weinberg said.
When his finalist status was announced on the air, "my mother was screaming and jumping up and down. It's a really exciting moment to hear your name on the radio."
He remembers having butterflies once he got to the greenroom that night. "I'd never performed for an audience that large -- it was a pretty full house."
Weinberg, who grew up in St. Peter, used to tune in to MPR's classical station in the car on his way to and from school.
"I have friends who appreciate classical music even if they don't understand it," he said. "But I think my generation respects it a little bit more than the one before."
Mo' Mozart, please
The MPR program isn't the only evidence that classical music in Minnesota is landing on a lot of young ears, without those ears being instantly plugged.
On March 26, the Minnesota Orchestra will hold its annual concert performed by finalists from a middle-school orchestra festival. More than 60 school orchestras from around the state try out. Despite ample evidence that classical audiences everywhere are graying, a study of Minnesota Orchestra's ticket sales three years ago revealed that more than half of single tickets were bought during student rush.
While educators and parents have bemoaned drastic cutbacks in school music programs over the past 20 years, several metro-area public schools have strong orchestras, said James Bartsch, the Minnesota Orchestra's education director, including Minneapolis South, West St. Paul, Stillwater and Wayzata. While the national trend has been to shut down arts offerings, Woodbury public schools started an orchestra five years ago, beginning instruction in the fourth grade.
"I was just over at St. Paul Central and there were so many kids playing instruments it felt like a conservatory in there," Bartsch said.
The orchestra also brings in 50,000 kids a year for its Young People's Concert series, and Bartsch says he's heard no complaints.
"We don't play up the angle that this is something you're not going to like," he said. "We don't say it's better or worse than other music, it's just what we do. They come out of here all juiced up."
Metro Transit has been experimenting with playing classical music at light-rail stations, in part to drive away youthful loiterers. On the other hand, it just may attract some.