Some of the artists in this week's String Theory Music Festival occasionally refer to the more distinguished acts as "rock stars." While an orchestral and chamber-music composer like Missy Mazzoli may never sell out Target Center, the term isn't necessarily off the mark, since she and her cohorts have dipped more than a toe in the rock 'n' roll waters.

"It can be horrifying and stressful to approach any genre you have no entryway to, but there's nothing wrong with liking something because you like it," said Brooklyn-based violist Nadia Sirota, who performs on opening night Thursday.

It is this line between accessibility and classical discipline that the Southern Theater is trying to blur with its four-day celebration of string players and composers. The lineup includes Canadian violinist and indie-rock darling Owen Pallett, and a new piece by Nico Muhly, who offered up string and choral arrangements on Grizzly Bear's hit 2009 album, "Veckatimest."

"A festival that celebrates strings in classical terms and how they're used in modern music styles was really appealing to us," says Kate Nordstrum. As curator of music at the Southern, she has steered her venue boldly down a new-music path in the past two years.

Conversations about such a festival started back in 2009 between Nordstrum and Christopher Cunningham, head of the songwriting and composition department at McNally Smith College of Music. It is all part of their greater interest in education and attracting those unfamiliar, or possibly intimidated, by classical theory.

"I hope it seems really accessible," Nordstrum said. "It's all new work that needs to be listened to regardless of what stamp you're putting on it."

That thread of accessibility is not to imply a brand of dumbed-down fare. The weekend boasts substantial premieres and unique collaborations. Pallett, who normally plays solo, will perform new interpretations of his work with Brooklyn's multi-instrumental collective yMusic during a Friday show at the History Theatre in St. Paul. Critically hailed New York City string ensemble JACK Quartet will make its first visit to the Twin Cities as Sunday's closer.

The sheer quantity of concerts could be dizzying, considering all the interwoven and cooperative performances. However, Nordstrum views her coordination role as relatively easy.

"There was so much available," she said. "That's the response I got from all these artists -- all of this energy of coming together."

The human touch of strings

While most of the concerts take place in downtown St. Paul, one of Thursday's opening shows will be at home at the Southern, for the season's final installment of "Southern Songbook."

Adam Levy, frontman for the Honeydogs, returns as host with singer/songwriter Chris Koza for an evening of Twin Cities string artistry. Doomtree empress Dessa will be backed by a string ensemble while composer and ex-punk-rocker Chan Poling and rootsy rocker Martin Devaney will offer personally orchestrated pieces.

The show's guitars mark a digression from the weekend at large, but Levy and "Southern Songbook" music director Devon Grey (dVRG of Heiruspecs fame) have incorporated their affinity for bowed instruments, be it bass or fiddle.

"There's something very human-sounding about bowed string instruments," Levy said. "Even in an ensemble it brings a mood to it all that an organ or other instruments can't."

Homegrown stylings are not the only option Thursday. Sirota will meld concert and installation in the Walker Art Center's Gallery 2, performing with Brooklyn composer/keyboardist Missy Mazzoli. They will play two Mazzoli pieces, one of which, "Tooth and Nail," the duo premiered in New York last month.

Mazzoli's work often includes electronic atmospherics that further blur the line between pop and classical. This goes even further with her chamber band Victoire, which performs Sunday at the History Theatre. "When you use weird keyboards, it shifts towards that 'pop' sound, but it's kind of the same for me," Mazzoli said. "My hope is that people are drawn in by something they're familiar with, but then take away something new."

This genre guessing game can be a bit of a distraction. "If you hear Missy's music on [radio's] The Current, it's read as one thing, and if you hear it on a classical station it's another," said Sirota, who has worked with other pop-oriented acts, such as the Swell Season.

The two share an interest in seeing music as music. There is an inherently expressive quality to strings, an emotive force that does not demand a scholastic approach.

"I feel like this festival is amazing in that it really takes the best of all possible worlds," Mazzoli said.

  • Andrew Penkalski is a U of M student on assignment for the Star Tribune.