Detroit Lakes, Minn. – Their trip to Cuba took less time than this.
Even in good traffic on Hwy. 10, the drive from Minneapolis to Detroit Lakes lasts 3½ hours — a half-hour longer than the Minnesota Orchestra’s historic flight to Havana last May.
That Cuba trip is in the rear view mirror now as the orchestra prepares Saturday to play its second sold-out concert this week at the Holmes Theatre in Detroit Lakes.
“It was great to bring this abroad, to Cuba, but we need to be bringing this to our community too,” said principal tuba Steve Campbell, finishing a long day by sitting in on a rehearsal by the Lakes Area Community Band.
A program called Common Chords turns the orchestra musicians into ambassadors reaching out to audiences who likely can’t make the trip to “the cities” for a concert. Smaller ensembles spent the week in northwestern Minnesota playing at schools, business clubs, churches, a memory care home, a coffeehouse and a jailhouse. By the time they head home Sunday, the musicians will have performed for more than 5,000 people.
“We’re a little bushed,” admitted principal horn Mike Gast, one of Campbell’s mates in a brass quintet. “But each group we saw today brought this new energy.”
Common Chords, started in 2011, puts the orchestra at the intersection of music, arts funding and the reinvention of outstate Minnesota through cultural activities. Previous visits were to Bemidji, Grand Rapids, Hibbing and Willmar. Detroit Lakes was on the agenda for 2013 but fell victim to the orchestra’s 16-month lockout that ended in February 2014.
Reviving the program was a key part of the orchestra’s recovery from the staggering labor dispute. It uses targeted grants that pay the salaries of players and staff for a week. And it provides programming for places such as the Holmes, which is an example of how small towns are using the arts as gathering places.
“This is not about ticket sales,” said Kevin Smith, who inherited the program when he became president of the orchestra last November. “It’s really about our mandate to get out of our home venue and play for these communities.”
The power of music
At the Becker County Municipal Jail on Wednesday night, the audience for the brass quintet was captive but initially a little reserved.
“I was a little worried at first because they seemed kind of serious,” said Gast. “But the music really relaxed them. We could feel it after a couple songs.”
Indeed, the short concert rocked off the jail’s cinder block walls (“It was the best acoustic we’ve played in up here,” said trumpet player Chuck Lazarus) as each musician took a spotlight, answered questions and warmed up a bunch of guys who had skipped another night of TV for this event. More than a dozen inmates walked up afterward to warmly chat with the musicians and check out their instruments. The transformation in mood was genuine and kind of amazing.
Meanwhile, members of a string quartet had traveled 30 miles north of Detroit Lakes to play for 250 students at Ogema Elementary School on the White Earth Reservation.
First they performed for 4- to 7-year-olds — a tough crowd. When the musicians asked for questions, they got comments.
“You have a nice shirt!”
“I have another car at home.”
One little guy in a pullover sweatshirt kept his hand up for five minutes before a microphone was brought to him. He froze for a second, then muscled up his courage to say softly what was on his mind: “I liked the song.”
The second- to fourth-graders were a little more savvy. Most shot their hands up when violinist Cecilia Belcher asked, “Who knows who Mozart is?”
They wanted to know how hard it was to play the stringed instruments, and one girl volunteered that “my grandma has a piano and I’ve been practicing for six years.”
The quartet on Thursday played in a lakeside gazebo at the city park. Hailey Hadley, a sixth-grade alto sax player, had seen the brass quintet earlier in the day at Detroit Lakes Middle School and she considered herself lucky to catch the string group.
Cindy Swenson, a nursing supervisor at one of Detroit Lakes’ medical establishments, didn’t know she’d find music when she stopped for lunch at La Barista cafe.
“This is an incredible gift for me,” said Swenson, listening to the brass group. “It was an incredibly stressful morning. This is very relaxing.”
Art in the countryside
One needs to get into the north and west of Minnesota to truly appreciate how vast this state is. Detroit Lakes, home of the annual We Fest, is blessed with an abundance of lakes and fertile farm fields that stretch into North Dakota.
Amy Stoller Stearns, executive director of the Holmes Theatre, led a committee that had planned the orchestra’s visit for 5½ years. Stearns is president of the Minnesota Presenters Network, a consortium that provides muscle for dozens of arts centers from Worthington to Bigfork.
Small towns — buffeted by the economy, changes in agriculture and the loss of community institutions — have found a rallying point in the arts. Tiny Dawson, for example, was able to bring the violinist Midori to town several years ago. Twin Cities actress Sha Cage, whose solo show “U/G/L/Y” is playing the Guthrie this weekend, will bring it to the Holmes in November. The theater is typically busy three nights at week, Stearns said. Nearly half the audience comes from more than 20 miles away.
“The Legacy Act has been such a gift to outstate Minnesota,” Stearns said, referring to the program that dedicates sales tax revenue to arts activities. “It really taps into this hotbed of interest in the arts.”
She introduced her guests from the orchestra at Thursday’s Rotary meeting. After Rotarians finished their lunch of meatballs and mashed potatoes, Sarah Hicks did a short tutorial on conducting. Hicks, the orchestra’s principal conductor of pops and presentations, is directing the concerts this weekend. She concluded by leading the string quartet through Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.”
At the rehearsal for the Lakes Area Community Band, one man in the saxophone section wanted to know what the orchestra musicians did during the 16-month lockout. Doug Wright, a key member of the group that negotiated the labor dispute, talked about how players subbed with orchestras around the country.
“It was great to get the work, but we really discovered how fortunate we are to be here,” Wright said. “There’s truly something special about what we call home.”
Wright was referring to the orchestra’s base in Minneapolis, although by making the statement in this high school band room, he might have noted that “home” now includes Detroit Lakes.