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Music in the Park Series saying goodbye to founder after 39 years

Julie Himmelstrup is a beloved figure in local musical circles. Her stepping down at the age of 81, while it cannot be called unexpected, is a sea change nonetheless.

Pianist Lydia Artymiw: "[Julie Himmelstrup] is one of the most caring, supportive and dedicated concert managers in the world."
Park Bugle photo by Mike Krivit

Something special happened at the end of the March installment of the Music in the Park Series, the area’s — and, as it happens, one of the nation’s — premiere arenas for chamber music.

Wu Han, the much admired pianist and co-artistic director of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, had just played an engaging program of music new and old with her husband, cellist David Finckel, performing to a packed house at St. Anthony Park United Church of Christ  in St. Paul, the series’ home. When the main part of the program was over, Wu Han returned to the stage and played a solo encore, the slow movement of Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat. “I never play this piece in public,” she told the audience, “because it makes me cry. But I’m going to do it now in honor of Julie.”

When she finished playing, as applause filled the room, she jumped off the stage and ran 20 or 30 feet to the closed door of the sanctuary and threw her arms around a woman in a pink and red dress and shawls of different colors. This was the “Julie” of whom Wu Han spoke – Julie Himmelstrup, pianist, concert manager and, some would say, den mother to hundreds of musicians, the woman who founded Music in the Park 39 years ago and who after the season finale on Sunday, will retire.

Schubert Club to keep the series going

Himmelstrup, whom Wu Han calls a “visionary,” is a beloved figure in local musical circles. Her stepping down at the age of 81, while it cannot be called unexpected, is a sea change nonetheless. Her departure prompts concerns about the future of the series, which has been drawing an eager, loyal audience – with nearly every concert sold out – since 1979. Barry Kempton, executive director of the Schubert Club, which has been partnered with Music in the Park since 2010 and will now basically run the series, says he has no intention of making changes, at least not in the foreseeable future.

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“Music in the Park is an international chamber-music series with a local community feel to it,” Kempton said. “Within the national chamber-music scene, the series is recognized as something special And Julie really takes care of the musicians. It would be foolish to make changes.”

Despite the series’ solid accomplishments in programming and attendance – Chamber Music America awarded the series its annual Acclaim award in 2006 for its “significant accomplishments” – Music in the Park, even though it has a board of directors, retains a homespun Mom & Pop quality that it had at the very beginning.

Mom was, of course, Julie. Pop was her husband of 57 years, Anders. Anders, a lithographic artist, now retired, designed the original programs and acted as chief stagehand, setting up the chairs and music stands before the concerts and clearing the stage afterward. Julie engaged the artists, kept the books and greeted the audience midway through each concert, making impromptu speeches from the lectern on the music, the performers and the news of the day.

Concerts in churches aren’t unusual. Many small churches serve as attractive spaces for chamber music and, like St. Anthony Park, have excellent acoustics. What’s not so common in this case is that the stage looks like someone’s living room. There’s that eccentric floor lamp with the red shade and the occasional domestic table and chair. “We used to bring lamps from our house, which is right across the street, and even our piano,” Julie said over lunch recently. “They had a horrible piano at first. Eventually I found a piano for the church.”

A pianist and a baritone

Julie and Anders met 58 years ago at the Toronto Conservatory. Julie, a pianist from Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, had gone to Canada to assist and study with Danish baritone Aksel Schiotz. Anders, then 23, had come from Denmark with his cello, a suitcase and $16. While working for an engraver, he studied cello at the conservatory. They played chamber music on their first date and courted long distance for a year after Julie took a teaching job in Detroit. They were married in 1960 and moved to St. Paul three years later. Anders eventually started his own business, Graphic Systems, which employed 50 people at its peak.

In the late 1970s, noting a lack of chamber music in the area, they founded Music in the Park under the aegis of Community Programs in the Arts and Sciences (COMPASS) and the St. Anthony Arts Forum. They set a budget of $5,000, booked the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra for their first concert and began selling season tickets ($15) and putting up posters on trees in the neighborhood and making a lot of phone calls.

The SPCO turned out to be a strong, attention-getting opening act, but its fee, $3,500, made the board nervous. Finally, Anders told Julie and the board that if there was a deficit, he would make up the difference. Fortunately, he didn’t have to.

Julie Himmelstrup
Courtesy of the Schubert Club
Julie Himmelstrup: “Some people don’t want to hear any music beyond the 18th century… Mostly, though, I think our audience trusts us.”

Later that season, they booked guitarist Sharon Isbin and three SPCO musicians: oboist Richard Killmer, his wife, Sydney, a violist, and flutist Julia Bogorad. Both Himmelstrups also performed. In 1987, they separated from the Arts Forum and formed their own board.

“And that’s when things really began to roll, “ said Julie, who moved her office from the laundry room of her home up to the bedroom and eventually to a separate office in the neighborhood. And with the help of the composer Randall Davidson, she added another part-time job, writing grants. The series’ budget grew from $5,000 to, at present, $150,000, and Julie continued booking the best local and, increasingly, national, artists and ensembles – classical, jazz, folk and unclassifiable.

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Supporter of contemporary music

Contemporary music was a feature of the programs right from the start, and there were complaints about that. “Some people don’t want to hear any music beyond the 18th century,” Julie said. “I still have a couple of people like that. At least nobody stormed out or threw tomatoes, though they might leave at intermission. Mostly, though, I think our audience trusts us.”

And rather early in the game, Julie started commissioning new works. The first was “The Land Where One Never Dies,” a piece for piano, violin, cello and narrator. For the premiere, tenor Vern Sutton served as narrator, and his son, Michael, currently a member of the Minnesota Orchestra, played violin. Julie played the piano part. (Sunday’s concert, featuring two versions of the Lark Quartet – the original lineup of players, assembled 30 years ago, and the current personnel — will include new works by John Harbison and Andrew Waggoner.)

The Himmelstrups have had their mishaps over the years. On one occasion a pianist forgot his pants at his hotel — that is, his formal pants. He was scheduled to play a new work by the Twin Cities composer Libby Larsen. The composer herself drove him to his hotel in Minneapolis at 90 miles an hour. Meanwhile, back at the church, to kill time, standing at the lectern, Julie gave an extra-long welcome to the audience – about 30 minutes long – and Anders did magic tricks.

In 1994, for a program honoring the series’ 15th anniversary, the violinist from the Grieg Festival Quartet, having come all the way from Norway, said that he wasn’t planning on arriving until after intermission because he wasn’t scheduled to play until the second half. “He got the wrong address,” Julie recalled. “He went in a cab to Chelmsford in Minneapolis rather than St. Paul. I called three taxi companies and finally found out where he was. We sent a cab to get him, and when he got here, we paid the fare – 40 bucks – but it was too late for him to play his piece. In his place the violinist got up and played some tunes by Ole Bull.”

On another occasion, due to a storm, the electricity went out right before a concert. Audience members, eager to help, went outside to their cars – or to their houses, in the case of people who lived nearby – to get flashlights and candles. “We sat there with candles for a while,” Julie said. But we had electricity in our house across the street, so Anders and a bunch of guys got cords – quite dangerous – and stretched them across the street, which gave us enough power for the lamps so the musicians could see. The rest of us sat in the dark.”

Here’s the punch line. Mikhail Baryshnikov, the Russian dancer and choreographer, was in the audience. He was performing at Northrop Auditorium that week. His friend, Pavel Moisevitch, was the pianist in the Music in the Park concert, and so Baryshnikov had come to hear his friend. “But nobody knew he was there because it was completely dark,” said Julie.

A Marvelous Minnesota Woman and other honors

Julie has been much honored in recent years. In 1997 she was named a Champion of New Music by the American Composers Forum, and in 2011 the St. Anthony Park Community Foundation gave her its Spirit Award. Back in 1994 she was named a Marvelous Minnesota Woman.

And musicians seem unanimous in their praise. “Julie is one of the most caring, supportive and dedicated concert managers in the world,” said Lydia Artymiw, the renowned pianist who has been a frequent performer at Music in the Park.

Julie admits to ambivalence about walking away from the work that has engaged her for four decades. (She will retain the title artistic director emerita.) “It’s time, though,” she sad with a sigh. “The future is good. The Schubert Club has a terrific endowment. I can’t think of any other way that the series could survive. I’d like to think that Music in the Park has had some influence on local chamber music. Beyond that, there’s a renaissance in chamber music in this country right now.”

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What are the Himmelstrups’ plans for the future? Anders says he’s going to sell or give away his cello, which has been sitting in a closet gathering dust. For Julie, the immediate future is certain. “I’m going to clean my house,” she said.

“Lark Quartet – Then and Now.” Sunday, April 15, 4 p.m. Music in the Park series’ final  concert of the season. St. Anthony Park United Church of Christ, 2129 Commonwealth Ave., St. Paul. $21 and $31. 651-292-3268.