Innovation is everywhere in the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra’s 2018-19 season, just announced.

The most obvious example is the introduction of Tapestry19, a biennial festival exploring “a culturally resonant theme within our community through the musical perspectives of a diverse set of composers and artists.” The inaugural Tapestry19 asks “How do I recognize my home?” The question is answered by concerts mixing Dvorak, Ives and Mendelssohn with world premieres by Twin Cities soul singer PaviElle French and SPCO composer-in-residence Lembit Beecher (Feb. 15-24, 2019).

That spirit of experimentation is similarly evident in a program titled “Improvisations,” with the genre-hopping violinist and SPCO artistic partner Pekka Kuusisto building bridges from classical to jazz. Alongside works by Beethoven and Ravel, the concert will include the Midwest premiere of Grammy-nominated jazz pianist Vijay Iyer’s “Asunder” (an SPCO co-commission). Also featured is “Conduction” by composer and multi-instrumentalist Tyshawn Sorey, a piece largely improvised by Kuusisto and the SPCO with gestural cues from Sorey (Jan. 11-12, 2019).

The 2018-19 season brings the fourth installment of Beethoven/5, a project launched in 2015 pairing each of Beethoven’s five piano concertos with a new SPCO-­commissioned concerto. Pulitzer Prize winner Caroline Shaw is this year’s Beethoven/5 composer. Pianist Jonathan Biss returns to the project for a concert coupling Shaw’s piece with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (March 15-17, 2019).

Sixteen living composers feature into the new season. That’s an impressive confirmation of the SPCO’s commitment to keeping classical music a living, breathing art form for the 21st century.

New heights with Haydn

Equally interesting is the SPCO’s determination to reclaim baroque repertoire from specialist period instrument orchestras.

The appointment of SPCO artistic partner Jonathan Cohen is proving crucial to fostering the historically informed techniques needed to make baroque music convincing on modern instruments. A baroque specialist, Cohen will undoubtedly lend authenticity to Bach’s riveting “St. John Passion,” a collaboration with Twin Cities choir the Singers (Nov. 2-4).

Cohen’s historical know-how is bolstered by guest appearances by early music experts Richard Egarr and Jeannette Sorrell, music director of Apollo’s Fire, the Cleveland Baroque Orchestra. Egarr’s program of works by Handel, Locke, Purcell and Avison is an obvious season highlight (Nov. 29-Dec. 2), while Sorrell directs the holiday performances of Handel’s “Messiah” (Dec. 20-23).

And what of Haydn? The SPCO’s outstanding (and often unconducted) performances of the Austrian composer’s symphonies have been hugely enjoyable in recent years. No fewer than 10 Haydn symphonies are sprinkled across the 2018-19 season, including masterpieces such as No. 45 (“Farewell”) and No. 102. There’s hardly a better Haydn orchestra in the world at present.

Another standout concert features violinist and SPCO artistic partner Patricia Kopatchinskaja, whose recent recording with the orchestra won a 2018 Grammy Award. She will be joined by her regular recital pianist Polina Leschenko for a program mixing chamber and orchestral pieces by Schumann, Haydn and Mendelssohn (Dec. 7-8).

Thanksgiving weekend brings an all-American program curated by Kuusisto. John Adams’ now iconic “Shaker Loops” pairs with works by Steve Reich, Pauline Oliveros and Missy Mazzoli. It’s sure to be an unmissable experience for lovers of modern American music.

Classical overachiever

The SPCO keeps pushing the envelope in ticket pricing and audience development in the new season. The New Generation Initiative offering free tickets to students ages 6-17 has been extended to most concerts. The popular series of laid-back performances at the Icehouse and Turf Club rock clubs returns. And the orchestra’s 60-minute Ordway happy hour concerts will continue welcoming food trucks and Minnesota craft beers.

Add to all that a Mozart program with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre at Northrop (Nov. 8), an expansion of the free online concert video library, plus a continuation of free family concerts. Is there another chamber orchestra performing such a wide variety of repertoire, with such a broad range of collaborative projects? Probably not.

The 2018-19 season, the SPCO’s 60th, confirms the orchestra’s position at the forefront of efforts to recast classical music for a new, interconnected century — and to guarantee its relevance in the future.


Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic. Reach him at