Maybe what classical music needs is something like an old-fashioned Irish seisiun, where the formality of the form drops away and musicians throw themselves enthusiastically into the give-and-take of collaboration, bridging tunes with an engaging story or joke.
Outpost is the closest thing I've seen to a contemporary classical seisiun. The brainchild of soprano Carrie Henneman Shaw and Minnesota Orchestra violist Sam Bergman, Outpost is an occasional new-music and spoken-word showcase that Bergman calls "a 21st-century variety show." It started in 2018, but has been on a pandemic-caused hiatus until Monday, when Outpost rose again as part of the Great Northern Festival.
Emerging online from Minneapolis' Parkway Theater, Shaw and Bergman hosted an extraordinary evening of music, stand-up comedy, a spoken essay and even a mini-TED talk on the science of space.
While many organizations are easing their way back into the public ear via livestreaming, this felt like a bold, brash bursting forth from the confines of sequestration, a liberation from convention and tame programming.
There was nothing remotely staid or predictable about Monday's episode of Outpost. All of the musical offerings were 21st-century works, and half were world premieres. The spoken-word interludes were by turns insightful and funny. But the strongest impression was made by the oldest piece on the program, among the most arresting emotional outbursts I've experienced since we became cloistered last spring.
Du Yun's 2015 piece for string quartet, "Tattooed in Snow," exploded from the center of the concert like a musical Mount St. Helens. Expertly and exhaustingly played by four Minnesota Orchestra musicians — violist Bergman, violinists Hanna Landrum and Emily Switzer, and cellist Silver Ainomäe — the piece began in a meditative chorale before transforming into something full of tension and turmoil.
The musicians exchanged rapidly bowed outbursts, their instruments screeching and growling, the chorale returning to hostile harangues from the cello before dissolving into whispers. It seemed like the scream of rage so many of us have been suppressing.
Considerably more comforting were the moments when Shaw lent her powerful yet subtle voice to new songs by Daijana Wallace and Aida Shirazi. All were given haunting, hypnotic performances, the Shirazi song accompanied by absorbing animation, Shaw manipulating a modular synthesizer as she sang.
Another premiere was Twin Cities-based composer Dameun Strange's "Silver From the Sky," which featured a film accompaniment and spoken text that distracted a bit too much from Strange's music.
Speaking of text, Maggie Koerth demonstrated why she's such a celebrated science journalist. While many a poet has reflected upon the moon, Koerth eloquently swept aside romanticism with an essay on the harshness of life on its surface and the absurdity of the idea that it could be habitable.
Not as seasoned a speaker but an intriguing writer, journalist Safy Hallan Farah ruminated about image in the age of masking, while comedian Brandi Brown's wry observations proved the ideal palate cleanser for the considerably more serious music around her.
A concluding dance suite for violin and piano by Marcus Norris felt like something of an anticlimax after all the mid-evening fireworks. While ably played by violinist Sarah Grimes and pianist Susan Billmeyer, it sounded like it should have bounced and bounded a bit more than it did. But sometimes even the best seisiuns wind down with a mellow nightcap.
Rob Hubbard is a freelance classical music critic. • firstname.lastname@example.org
Where: Available on demand at thegreatnorthernfestival.org through Feb. 6; $15