Gathering: It's a need many of us feel between Thanksgiving and New Year's, to reunite with family and old friends, share laughs and stories, and catch up on changes in our lives.
The past three Decembers, Twin Cities storyteller Kevin Kling mined memories of childhood gatherings for the Minnesota Orchestra's holiday show — a nostalgic amalgam of stories, scenes, songs and orchestral interludes created under the guidance of Peter Rothstein, artistic director of Theater Latté Da and mastermind of the haunting holiday musical "All Is Calm."
But while COVID has clamped a lid on in-person exchanges of energy and affection, Rothstein, Kling and the orchestra are forging on with a more diverse "Midwinter Gathering" being broadcast live Friday evening from an otherwise empty Orchestra Hall.
Four other writers are lending their reminiscences to the program, which Kling will launch with his poem "To Gather," which concludes:
I bring who I am to who we are.
Our herd, flock, pack,
A constellation, each star contributing a bit of light to the vast darkness.
It establishes a thread for the evening: traditions that, while unique, also express a commonality.
"Minnesota's different from the Minnesota I grew up in," said Rothstein, a native of Grand Rapids. "And there's so much to celebrate about who we are now."
While the orchestra's past holiday shows orbited around a single story — "Christmas Day in the childhood of Kevin Kling," as Rothstein put it — the director wanted to develop "a pluralistic narrative, but acknowledge the fact that we're living in a time when we can't gather, and that the power of this moment is to see so many things we can't take for granted that we have in the past.
"That became the theme — gathering, and how do we gather. So we said: Who are some of our favorite Minnesota writers and storytellers? We invited a handful of them to address that question of gathering."
Among them is award-winning author Kao Kalia Yang, whose memoirs "The Latehomecomer" and "The Song Poet" tell of her Hmong family's experiences settling in Minnesota. Somali American artist and performer Ifrah Mansour also will share stories.
"Ifrah Mansour is an amazing writer," Rothstein said. "But she's also, as a performer, incredibly charismatic. And Kao Kalia Yang is a beautiful writer who doesn't perform her work nearly as much as the others do, but I've been a fan of hers for a long time."
JuCoby Johnson may be best known to Twin Cities theatergoers as an actor, but he's establishing himself as a playwright, as well.
"I think that he's going to be a really powerful voice in the American theater," Rothstein said. "I said to Elissa Adams, our director of new work [at Latté Da], 'We have to commission JuCoby now, because we're not going to be able to get him in a number of years.' He's really gifted."
The words of one of Minnesota's brightest literary stars also will be heard.
"We really wanted Louise Erdrich to be a part of the evening and she wasn't available," Rothstein said. "So I thought: I wonder if Louise would give permission for Isabella Star LaBlanc, another Indigenous artist, to deliver her words. Louise is a fan of Isabella's, so that's a match we ended up making. That will be the only one in which the artist isn't speaking their own words."
The music will be provided by various ensembles full of Minnesota Orchestra musicians: a woodwind quintet, brass quintet and a string ensemble with flutes and harp. Their repertoire will be mostly carols and Christmas songs, with a holdover from past years, Peter Ostroushko's "Heart of the Heartland," weaving its way through the program. "It's become such an iconic Minnesota pastoral anthem," Rothstein said.
And bilingual Twin Cities choir Border CrosSing will perform a movement from George Frideric Handel's "Messiah" in Spanish.
Friday's program will air live at 8 p.m. Friday on Twin Cities Public Television's Minnesota channel and Classical Minnesota Public Radio and on the Minnesota Orchestra's Facebook and YouTube pages. (If you want to catch up with the show later, it can be viewed on Facebook through Sunday, then at mnorch.vhx.tv/browse starting Monday.)
While "All Is Calm" recently aired on PBS, that was taped last year. This "Midwinter Gathering" will be broadcast as it happens. It was suggested to Rothstein that creating something for live broadcast might be an adrenaline rush all its own.
"Sure is," he said with a laugh. "For years people have said, 'Your work is so visual; why don't you do film?' And I've said, 'Oh, I know nothing about film.' And now my life seems to be entirely film and radio."
Such are the confines of COVID. But a shift in how this "Midwinter Gathering" will be presented happened during the creative process.
"The plan was to build mini-stages throughout Orchestra Hall," Rothstein said. "At one point we thought: We could use the lobby. We could use the skyway. We could be all over the building. … And, all of a sudden, I thought: 20, 50, 100 years from now, what are going to be the iconic images that capture this point in history? And I think our empty concert halls could be one.
"So we just decided to embrace the power of the empty hall. So many of us are feeling isolation in a profound way. Having an individual in a space that is clearly meant for community — talking about community and coming together — will have a poignancy that is truly specific to this moment."
Rob Hubbard is a freelance classical music critic. • firstname.lastname@example.org
A Midwinter Gathering
When: 8 p.m. Dec. 18.
With: Minnesota Orchestra, storytellers Kevin Kling, JuCoby Johnson, Ifrah Mansour and Kao Kalia Yang, and the Border CrosSing chorus.
Where: TPT-MN, Ch. 2.2; MPR Classical 99.5 FM, and minnesotaorchestra.org