Think of it as a Fringe Festival for singers.
The inaugural Northern Voice Festival will feature 170 events staged over one month throughout Minnesota. But most of the key performances — featuring 31 groups — will take place on two "festival days" — April 11 in Minneapolis and April 25 in St. Paul.
"This is more than you'd expect from a choir festival," said Randall Davidson, executive director of the playfully dubbed "choir-palooza" that runs April 10 to May 10. "It's not church or school choirs. This is much broader. It's just two or more people singing together. All styles. We have pop, gospel, barbershop, folk/pop, crossover. We wanted Tuvan throat singers but couldn't get them."
The only requirement is that each group must teach the audience a song that everyone will sing together. It doesn't matter if the group has been around for decades or just came together for Northern Voice.
Davidson's charge to the performers is: "Bring it. Do something that takes the audience into a new experience. Let's make this feel exciting."
His excitement was palpable over the phone. He's been plotting this event for more than two years.
The idea was hatched after a few choral groups with offices in the Hennepin Center for the Arts, including the Minnesota Chorale and Twin Cities Gay Men's Choir, got together regularly to compare notes about insurance, risers and other mundane topics.
"We were bored after two meetings," recalled Davidson, who was then administrative director of the National Lutheran Choir.
Discussions soon turned to a conference and then a festival featuring Minnesota singers. The Minnesota State Arts Board provided a $75,000 grant and another $25,000 has been raised via ticket sales, Davidson said. Minnesota Public Radio is providing promotional support but Northern Voice is relying heavily on social media to market the festival.
Following the model of the Minnesota Fringe Festival, each performer pays a fee (between $100 and $500 depending on whether it's a 45- or 60-minute slot and the size of the venue). After that, groups get 65 percent of the ticket revenue while the festival takes 35 percent. Tickets cost $10 for 50-minute shows and $5 for 35-minute performances. A $40 "golden ticket" provides admission to any Festival Day performance.
Given the budget constraints, Northern Voice wasn't able to land such wished-for Minnesota voices as the Steeles or Jeremy Messersmith.
"The Fringe people said the first year is very tribal," Davidson said. "They said it takes persistence and patience."
The April 11 concerts featuring 13 acts will be held at Ted Mann Concert Hall at the University of Minnesota and two venues at nearby Augsburg College. The April 25 St. Paul performances featuring 18 ensembles will be staged at the Ordway, Landmark Center, Central Presbyterian Church and the UBS Forum at Minnesota Public Radio.
Here are four acts that Davidson said are must-see:
Artemis: They are five recent college graduates who just gave their first performance recently at the Guthrie Theater, Davidson said. "It starts with Renaissance music and goes right on through to original pop like the Lumineers but it's a cappella," he said. 3 p.m. April 11, Sateren Auditorium, Augsburg College
Great Northern Union Chorus: "They're not well known in the Twin Cities but they are the third best barbershop group in the world," Davidson said, referring to Barbershop Harmony Society's International Competition in 2013 in Las Vegas. "They're all amateurs. They move. I've seen them three times. They'll blow people away." 3 p.m. April 11, Ted Mann Concert Hall, University of Minnesota
Twin Cities Gay Men's Chorus: "They really perform with great energy," Davidson said. "They are fantastic." 1:45 p.m. April 25, Ordway Concert Hall
I Cantanti Chamber Choirs: Led by Wayne Kivell, this long-standing Northfield ensemble will present Franz Schubert pieces with an electric piano and Paul Simon tunes with a choir. "We urge people to try something out of their sweet spot," Davidson said. 3 p.m. April 25, UBS Forum, Minnesota Public Radio