Music in the Park: Since ’79, intrepid founder has found top-notch performers

The Rose Ensemble, a local chamber group, specializes in early music.
Photo courtesy of Music in the Park Series
The Rose Ensemble, a local chamber group, specializes in early music.

Somebody dropped by Julie Himmelstrup’s St. Anthony Park home the other day to buy tickets to Sunday’s concert by the Rose Ensemble, a locally based chamber group that specializes in early music. The lady didn’t want to pay 42 cents for mail-order postage, Himmelstrup explained after answering the door and dealing with her.

It wasn’t all that unusual. For decades after founding the Music in the Park Series in 1979, Himmelstrup ran the organization out of her house – even though she routinely booked some of the biggest international names in chamber music.

The organization now has a real office headquarters and Himmelstrup, 72, talks about grooming replacements “to take over before I become a total loony.”

But it all started out as a kind of loony adventure. In 1979, Himmelstrup was part of a group that landed a grant for creating “community art,” including poetry, visual arts and music, in the St. Anthony Park neighborhood. Himmelstrup’s share was $5,000 and was intended to underwrite a variety of activities, including a series of recitals.

Made a splash with SPCO
Instead, Himmelstrup spent $3,500 (which went a long way in those days) to book a single performance by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. “I wanted to make a splash,” Himmelstrup said, adding that she managed to fill out the rest of the season by improvising concerts for about $150 per performance.

Julie Himmelstrup
Julie Himmelstrup

It was clever improvising. When the SPCO held a fund-raising auction, for example, Himmelstrup put in the winning bid for the services of flutist Julia Bogorad-Kogan and the two of them – Himmelstrup is an accomplished pianist – performed as an additional concert in the series. She then enlisted the services of her husband, Anders, an amateur cellist, and the two of them performed a quartet concert with SPCO oboist Richard Kilmer and his wife, Sydney, a violist.

Himmelstrup also demonstrated her eye for talent when she booked Minnesota-born guitarist Sharon Isbin, who was just launching her career.

As the series went on, Himmelstrup mined connections. She had been a founding member of the Dale Warland Singers – she was a second soprano – and she was on the advisory board of the Schubert Club. Early on, she established a partnership with the Schubert Club, which paid the artist fees for performances at Music in the Park as part of the Schubert Club’s “Debut Series.”

Despite lacking piles of money, the Music in the Park Series quickly became recognized as a venue for top names – which means top names, such as the Guerneri String Quartet, have been happy to perform there.

And “there” has always been the sanctuary of St. Anthony Park United Church of Christ, the epitome of a little “neighborhood church,” where the music stands are placed between the pulpit and the lectern and lighting for the musicians is sometimes a living-room floor lamp raised by being propped atop a box.

Audience members sit in pews – the seats are padded, thankfully – and the only bad seats are a few where sightlines are blocked by the pulpit. Many audience members are so close to the performers that they can almost identify the color of their eyes.

A spotter of emerging talent
Over the years, Himmelstrup has managed to spot emerging talent. The Pacifica String Quartet, now widely seen as a successor to the soon-to-disband Guerneri Quartet, has appeared three times with Himmelstrup’s series – most recently in two all-Beethoven concerts in November. In 1998, as another example, Himmestrup booked the Lark Quartet to perform Aaron Jay Kernis‘ Second String Quartet, which won the Pulitzer Prize a week before the concert.

The Music in the Park Series season routinely sells out and clearly has grown too big for the 350-seat church sanctuary. But Himmestrup loves the venue and its acoustics, and it’s within walking distance of her house. “I’ve no interest in moving,” she said.

The season includes seven concerts at St. Anthony Park UCC and three family concerts at nearby St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church. The highest-priced tickets for the regular concerts are $20 (compare that to more than $80 for a top-priced ticket for the Minnesota Orchestra) and Himmestrup says she resists the idea of raising them significantly.

A community concert feeling
“We haven’t raised our prices in years,” she explained. “I want to maintain the feeling of a community concert, which needs to be affordable.”

And it’s not all string ensembles. Sunday’s concert by the Rose Ensemble, for instance, is mostly vocal music of a kind not usually heard. Titled “Celebremos el Nino,” it’s a concert of baroque-era Christmas music from Mexico.

In January, the series will continue with a concert by the Dorian Wind Quintet, and in February the attraction will be three well-known local singers – Maria Jette, Janis Hardy and Molly Sue McDonald – performing their “Sopranorama” show with pianist Dan Chouivard. Shades of Prairie Home Companion.

“It’s been fun – a little hectic, but fun,” Himmelstrup said. “Who knew that it would get this far – certainly not me.”

What: Rose Ensemble
When: Sunday, Nov. 30, 4 p.m.
Where: St. Anthony Park United Church of Christ, 2129 Commonwealth Avenue, St. Paul
Tickets: Available at the door or online; $20 advance purchase ($22 at the door, $15 student rush)

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