More talked about than listened to, Virgil Thomson's "Four Saints in Three Acts" remains one of the great American operas. Reading Gertrude Stein's borderline nonsensical libretto — part "Finnegans Wake," part "Tristram Shandy" — you'd think the words impossible to set meaningfully to music. Thomson's response was to cloak the text in simple harmonies and down-home orchestrations, creating what one critic describes as "music that glitters, chortles, and pokes boisterous jokes at itself."
The results are both surreal and boisterously liberated, and VocalEssence's pair of fully staged performances, helmed by Philip Brunelle in collaboration with dance troupe Black Label Movement, should be eagerly snapped up by all opera lovers. Look for a review online Sunday and in print Monday. (8 p.m. Sat., 4 p.m. Sun., Cowles Center, 528 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls. $20-$30. 612-206-3600 or thecowlescenter.org)
Crossover king Benny Goodman excepted, surprisingly few clarinetists have made an enduring name for themselves in classical circles. Londoner Michael Collins is one of them. His partnership with the young Irish pianist Michael McHale has already yielded a clutch of highly acclaimed recordings, and the duo bring works by Brahms, Debussy, Saint-Saëns and Poulenc to their Ordway recitals, plus a new commission by Saint Olaf College alumna Abbie Betinis. (10:30 a.m. Fri., 7:30 p.m. Sat., Ordway Concert Hall, St. Paul. $16-$56. 651-292-3268. schubert.org)
In a season chock-a-block with Germanic and Nordic repertoire, it's refreshing to see a French and Hispanic element in this weekend's Minnesota Orchestra program. Ravel features, and will give the orchestra's rhythmic reflexes a thorough working over. But the real treat is the suites from Manuel de Falla's ballet "The Three Cornered Hat," a masterpiece of coloristic portraiture that too rarely gets an airing. (8 p.m. Fri.-Sat., Orchestra Hall, Mpls. $29-$79. 612-371-5656. mnorch.org)
Outside the metro area two concerts particularly capture the attention. In Rochester, soprano Maria Jette, a sparkling performer, joins the Choral Arts Ensemble for Mozart's Vespers and songs by Eric Whitacre and Stephen Foster. (7:30 p.m. Sat., 4 p.m. Sun., Christ United Methodist Church, Rochester. $5-$28. choralartsensemble.org) And in Stillwater, Music Saint Croix presents "Encore, Encore!," an entertaining batch of shorter works by Gershwin, Bolcom, Clarke and others, for a variety of instrumental combinations. (7 p.m. Fri.-Sat., Washington County Historic Courthouse, Stillwater. $10-$16. 651-430-9198. musicsaintcroix.com)