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Guest column: Coffee break with Dakota Symphony and Chorus director

  • Article by: Jerry Goodrich
  • February 5, 2013 - 6:19 PM

I have attended several concerts by the Dakota Valley Symphony and Chorus (DVSC) and have been as satisfied as when I attended concerts by the National Symphony Orchestra in the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. It seems that Music Director Stephen Ramsey has bestowed symphonic excellence on the south metro.

I chatted with this man with the easy smile over coffee at Jo Jo's in Burnsville recently.

His birthplace was established by a crime. His dad was in the Signal Corps for a two-year stint when his camera was stolen while he was attending radio school in Japan before going to Korea. He was required to remain in Japan for the court martial and then, because he had graduated at the top of his class, was assigned as an instructor in the school. Unlike Korea, dependents were allowed in Japan, so Stephen's mom flew over from Minnesota to be with her husband for the birth of their first child. Stephen J. Ramsey greeted the world in Sendai, Japan, in 1955.

Along with two sisters and a brother, Stephen grew up in south Minneapolis, where he still lives. Among his siblings, he was the only one who pursued music as a profession. He has a master's degree in orchestral conducting from the University of Missouri's Conservatory of Music and Dance.

"As a college student, I was encouraged to pursue singing as a career, but I couldn't figure out how I could make a living and raise a family as a singer," said Ramsey.

Stephen and Liz Ramsey have a son who plays the cello and a daughter who has taken dual piano lessons with her dad. At 80 years young, Stephen's father plays a mean trombone and performs with community bands in the Twin Cities area. "My mom is a 'closet' pianist," Stephen told me. "She plays the piano only when no one else is around. If we want to hear mom play, we have to sneak up on her."

Ramsey founded the Dakota Valley Symphony in 1986. He added a mixed chorus in 1992, and a summer pops orchestra and chorus in 1994.

For its first 15 years, the symphony was grateful to be hosted by Prince of Peace Lutheran Church. It moved to the Lakeville Area Arts Center when the church no longer had room. Now, Ramsey directs seven concerts yearly from September through May, all in the Burnsville Performing Arts Center. His repertoire includes classical orchestral music, concerti, oratorios, premiere works and musical theater.

In addition, the DVSC typically performs Handel's "Messiah" at the Performing Arts Center on the Sunday after Thanksgiving weekend every other year. However, for the first time in many years it will be performed on consecutive years (2012 and 2013). "It's a magnificent piece and audiences love it, which translates to great attendance," commented Ramsey. "The Messiah is a wonderful way to begin the Christmas season."

Do you want a venue where you and your entire family, whatever their ages, can relax and enjoy a 90-member orchestra and chorus and fine vocalists performing Broadway hits, familiar movie tunes and other light, entertaining fare? If so, the DVSC's summer pops series directed by Ramsey is for you. Three to four concerts are presented each June and July in beautiful area parks, and they have attract upwards of 20,000 people per event.

Ramsey's plate is nearly overflowing, but he does it all without missing a beat -- literally. He must be a time management expert, because he also directs the Austin, Minn., Symphony Orchestra as well as an orchestra sponsored by the University of Minnesota Academic Health Center. It performs for graduations and protocol events at the U. "We do 'Pomp and Circumstance' really well," said Ramsey.

The DVSC's next concert is one you must not miss. Ramsey gives you the details:

"The concert will be at 2 p.m. on Feb. 10 in the concert hall of Burnsville Performing Arts Center. It includes Italian pianist Roberto Plano performing Edvard Grieg's 'Piano Concerto in A Minor,' which captures the romantic spirit of Norway. Roberto is an ingratiating young man and an amazing talent. He gives real meaning to 'back by popular demand.' Roberto has performed with us before, and with the Austin Symphony five times.

"He will be followed by the symphony orchestra and three choruses performing a conductor's dream come true: Verdi's 'Requiem.' It is sometimes called an opera in disguise, because it has all of the drama and passion of opera, with trumpet fanfares, hammers pounding on bass drums, thrilling vocal solos to include soaring high C's, and much more. We have four fantastic opera singers doing the solos, including Metropolitan Opera tenor Dennis Petersen. The audience will be moved as never before by this piece."

Before we left the coffee shop, I felt compelled to ask Ramsey if his passion for music was all-consuming, or if he had time for other activities. "It's important in life to be a well-centered person and find a balance," he said. "I love to read, especially excellent mysteries. Also, I have a great interest in aviation, and enjoy bicycling immensely. I have a road bike and a cross-over. Living near the Minnehaha Parkway, I can be on the trails in seconds."

I felt privileged to have spent the time with Ramsey, and look forward to the concert on Feb. 10. Tickets are $5 for students, $13 for adults 55 and older, and $16 for other adults, plus fees. They can be purchased in person from the Burnsville Performing Arts Center ticket office or through Ticketmaster.com.

Jerry Goodrich is a Prior Lake resident.

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