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Strike up the band: Schubert Club is 125 years old

You would expect an organization that began its life as “The Ladies Musicale” to go quietly about its business. But these days the folks at the Schubert Club feel entitled to make a little noise.


The Schubert Club

You would expect an organization that began its life as “The Ladies Musicale” to go quietly about its business. But these days the folks at the Schubert Club feel entitled to make a little noise.

The Schubert Club is the state’s oldest performing arts organization, celebrating its 125th anniversary this year. Last Friday one of classical music’s few certifiable superstars, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, came to St. Paul to appear at the club’s anniversary gala. Also marking the milestone are a 230-page book, “The Schubert Club 125th Anniversary: Musings and Memories,” featuring contributions by notable writers such as Patricia Hampl and Michael Steinberg, and a Nov. 4 documentary on the club’s annual scholarship competition, co-produced with Twin Cities Public Television. (TPT has scheduled a repeat telecast on Dec. 16.)

For Sharon Carlson, a 30-year veteran at the Schubert Club, the most-anticipated event was the chance to get together with people she considers “family”: the many longtime Schubert Club friends and supporters who gathered at Friday’s celebration. “It was a wonderful event. It surpassed all of our expectations,” says Carlson, the club’s interim executive director.

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Yo-Yo Ma pays tribute
At this particular family gathering, though, there was an empty chair at the head of the table. Bruce Carlson, who headed the Schubert Club for 38 years, died 16 months ago. Ma dedicated his performance to Carlson’s memory. The organization is still looking for a replacement.

“Bruce was a wonderful leader, but the new director will have his or her own qualities,” says Sharon Carlson (no relation to Bruce).

“The search is ongoing,” she says. “Sometimes these things take longer than you might expect. We have a very able search committee. They’re going about it very efficiently. There may be some news in a couple of months.”

‘Secure niche’
This quiet organization can afford not to hurry. “We are not at a crossroads,” Carlson says. Thanks to its star-studded International Artist Series, the Schubert Club can claim what Carlson describes as “a secure niche.”

“We carved it out and hung on to it,” she says. “We also have a large subscriber base. We practically fill the Ordway with season subscriptions.”

The Schubert has 1,791 subscribers, or 94 percent of the Ordway’s capacity, she says. 

The Friday gala with Yo-Yo Ma was sold out. It’s standing room only for violinist Joshua Bell on Feb. 9. Similar results would be no surprise for the March and April recitals, featuring the fiery fingers of Chinese pianist Lang Lang and the warm Welsh baritone of Bryn Terfel.

The Schubert Club ledger records an endowment of $11 million and shows surpluses in three out of the last four fiscal years.

So perhaps the Schubert Club can afford to remain relatively quiet. Still, while she may feel little financial incentive to trumpet the recital series, Carlson looks at press clippings from the old days and sounds slightly wistful. Before 1970, according to the Schubert Club anniversary book, “it was common for each major newspaper to have multiple articles about each major recital.”

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Beyond stars on the stage
Carlson would also love to draw more attention to the club’s other activities. She points to a wide-ranging educational program, highlighted by a scholarship competition for young musicians, and a museum on the lower level of St. Paul’s Landmark Center where schoolchildren can touch 200-year-old keyboard instruments or the gongs of Minnesota’s first gamelan, a percussion “orchestra” imported from Java in 1995.

“What we see are the stars on stage, but so much more goes into it,” Carlson says.

The Schubert Club’s approach is “wholly Saint Paul,” to borrow a phrase from Patricia Hampl’s essay in the anniversary book. It is “a lyric town,” Hampl writes, but that lyricism must emerge from the town’s “unconscious core” through “fissures of its reticence and rectitude.”

Probing those fissures may become the main challenge for the Schubert Club’s next director. While she touts her organization’s current financial health, Carlson says her new boss will need to solidify the audience and donor base.

The Schubert Club is not the only music organization facing this problem. “It’s a challenge for all of us,” Carlson says. “We’re fiscally well off, but there’s more competition for funding. We have to pound the pavement to reach younger audiences. It’s a different era.”