It may not be too extravagant to use the word “rebirth” when considering the 39th annual edition of Sommerfest, the Minnesota Orchestra’s summer festival, which opens Saturday at Orchestra Hall with the world premiere of a new live orchestra version of the Academy Award-winning animated film “Coco.” The festival closes four weeks later with two performances of Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov’s much-admired La Pasión según San Marcos (The Passion According to St. Mark), which mixes Brazilian, Afro-Cuban and European idioms in telling of the final days of Christ’s life on earth.
By any measure, this year’s programs are the liveliest to be offered in at least a decade.
The other instance of rebirth will come when audience members step out onto Peavey Plaza during intermission — or when they arrive. They will see a new and much more accessible plaza: a redesigned fountain and pool, enhanced lighting, reconfigured walkways, expanded spaces for musical performers and booths selling food and beverages.
Lisa Goodman, council member for the city’s Ward 7, which includes Orchestra Hall, described the rehabilitation of the plaza, of which she has been a tireless advocate, as a labor of love.
“It’s taken 10 years and three mayors to finish this project,” she said. “It’s been on my list of things to do for a decade.”
The project cost $10 million — $2 million from the state, $4 million from the city and $4 million in private contributions that were solicited by Green Minneapolis, a park advocacy group.
Unveiled in 1974
Landscape architect M. Paul Friedberg designed the original plaza, which was unveiled in 1974, shortly after Orchestra Hall opened. The hope was that a restaurant would be built on the space. The design’s most eye-filling feature was a series of terraces and steps leading down to a pool fed by stainless steel fountains. A favored description of the plaza at the time was “Frank Lloyd Wright Goes to Venice.”
“Having a sunken fountain was a new and novel idea back then,” Goodman said. “It was what we call the Brutalist style of architecture in which concrete was good.”
The plaza – technically, a park – didn’t age well, however. By the early years of this century, the fountains were barely functioning and were finally shut off, and as a result the pool dried up. In 2010 the city began making plans to renovate the plaza, and in 2011 and 2012 developed a new design for the space, which called for the plaza to be demolished. The plan ignited the ire of the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota which, in conjunction with the Cultural Landscape Foundation, brought a lawsuit against the city in order to halt the demolition. In January 2013, the preservationists managed to get the plaza listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which quashed the city’s design and guaranteed that any future improvements had to be made within the confines of the plaza’s historic status.
The historic preservation status made any redesign much more complicated, Goodman said. “There were many things in the old design you wouldn’t want to build into a new design. For example, there was a real ADA issue,” she said, referring to the Americans with Disabilities Act. The area had always been a challenge for people with walkers, wheelchairs and baby strollers. In the design that all parties eventually agreed upon and that was implemented by the Minneapolis design firm Coen+Partners, handrails and ADA-accessible ramps were installed, the bottom of the plaza was raised up, lighting capability was enhanced and worn-out water pumps were replaced.
“We’re also working on bringing back the ice-skating rink,” Goodman said.
Goodman, city officials, designers and other participants in the project will gather at the site to officially open the new plaza at 11:30 a.m. on July 18.
Plaza always part of Sommerfest
The plaza was always an important adjunct to Sommerfest — Viennese Sommerfest, as it was originally called. Audiences in the hall heard the music of Vienna — Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart along with Strauss waltzes by the dozen — and much more, while out on the plaza they sampled bratwurst and apple strudel in a re-creation of a Viennese market — Marktplatz.
The idea, of course, was absurd. Peavey Plaza looked more like downtown Osseo than a certain corner of Vienna. But people loved it. It was whimsical and fun. As many as 1,000 people sat outside before the concerts listening to free music – jazz, rock, folk — and on Friday nights they watched movies. This little two-week festival that debuted in 1980 soon jumped to four weeks. Mary Ann Feldman, then-program annotator and chief idea generator at Orchestra Hall, came up with the concept of the festival and the Marktplatz, and she handed the idea to Leonard Slatkin, a rising young conductor who ended up serving as the festival’s artistic director for its first decade.
What a team they were, and they seemed never to run out of ideas. They put 10 grand pianos onstage for the premiere of a work by Peter Schickele. They premiered Steven Stucky’s “Dreamwaltzes,” which has become a contemporary classic. They presented concert operas, chamber music and once or twice each summer they put on a Schubertiade in the manner of the soirees that took place at Schubert’s house in Vienna, for which the staff and audience members dressed up in period costumes, portraying actual characters in Schubert’s life. And it wasn’t just music. Slatkin concocted elaborate jokes: loudly sawing an extra wide piano bench backstage to accommodate the three pianists who were about to play.
Slatkin had a quality that was rare among conductors back then: He could talk to audiences. Nowadays public speaking is a standard item in a conductor’s tool kit, though some still aren’t good at it. To Slatkin, who introduced every concert, whether he was performing or not, it came naturally. He was witty and insightful. At the start of the very first Sommerfest concert, having conducted a certain wild and crazy piece, he grabbed the microphone, turned around and said, “I suppose you’re wondering what that was all about.”
Hit festival drew new audiences
By 1987, with 55,000 tickets sold that year, Sommerfest was a hit. And ticket data showed that the festival was drawing a new audience. These weren’t, by and large, the same people who bought tickets for the winter subscription season. Moreover, a pressing question had been answered, at least tentatively, one that every major orchestra with a 52-week season was asking, especially those who didn’t have their own summer facility: How do you draw an audience in the summer to the same concert hall they visit in the winter? And wasn’t the problem worse in Minnesota where the summers are short and people want to be outside? The Feldman/Slatkin answer: put on lively concerts in a fun environment and don’t program the same music that people hear in the winter season.
It worked, at least for a couple of decades. While he was music director, Neville Marriner said Sommerfest was the best thing the orchestra did in any given year.
Slatkin left after the 1989 festival. His successors — David Zinman, Jeffrey Tate, Michael Steinberg, Andrew Litton — shared some of his best qualities and brought their own specialties to the podium.
Even so, by the start of the new century, Sommerfest was in trouble. Attendance dropped, and in 2001 the festival lost $250,000, whereas before, during the 1980s, Sommerfest actually made money most years, according to former orchestra president Richard M. Cisek. Figuring that Sommerfest had run its course, the management changed the festival’s name to the more generic MusicFest and focused on the creation of an outdoor facility in Brooklyn Park. That, too, failed. In 2002, a spokesperson for the orchestra made it clear: “The summer venue in Brooklyn Park is dead.” In an action that looked like desperation, the Sommerfest name was brought out of the closet, dusted off and put back in place.
The festival has been limping along ever since. The past decade, especially, has been rough. Sponsorships have been lost, funding has dried up, attendance has continued its decline. Then-orchestra president Michael Hensen announced a streamlined version of Sommerfest in 2012, right before the 16-month lockout, but left before he could implement it or even say what it was. Bewildered audience members spoke of the Incredible Shrinking Sommerfest: 31 concerts in 1987, 15 in 2003, 10 in 2017. Since May 2018, when the remodeling construction began, there hasn’t even been a plaza to look at.
So we repeat; is it justified to speak of a rebirth of the city’s major – and oldest – music festival?
First of all, the new Peavey Plaza is likely to be an attractive and inviting space, a place to eat and hear music outside before the main concert or just a place to hang out.
Enticing programs for 2019
And the programs this year — 13 concerts in all — are enticing. Musica Juntos (Music Together) is the theme, an exploration of Latin American music culminating, Aug. 2 and 3, in the orchestra’s first performances of Golijov’s genre-bending “La Pasion.” The Venezuelan conductor Maria Guinand, who conducted the 90-minute work’s premiere in Germany in 2000, will conduct these performances. Others long associated with the work — mezzo-soprano Luciana Souza and singer/dancer Reynaldo Gonzalez-Fernandez — will also perform. Two Twin Cities choruses, the Minnesota Chorale and Border CrosSing, an ensemble devoted to Latin American music, will sing the choral parts, and Marcela Lorca, artistic director of Ten Thousand Things Theater, will stage the performances.
Osmo Vänskä will conduct the orchestra and a bevy of soloists in concerts July 12 and 13. In the latter program, the dynamic South African soprano Goitsemang Lehoybe, who performed with the orchestra on its South African tour last August, will sing Golijov’s Three Songs for Soprano and Orchestra. Later in the month, July 27, The Moving Company, the innovative Twin Cities theatrical troupe, will present a new work of its own, with Sarah Hicks conducting, “The Prodigious Life of Clara S.,” a portrait of the composer-pianist Clara Schumann. Nathan Keepers wrote the script, and Dominique Serrand will direct. The festival’s largest event, July 13, will be the free International Day of Music with performances from noon to midnight by 15 ensembles performing simultaneously on four stages in and around Orchestra Hall. The orchestra will kick off the event with a free concert at noon.
The notion of rebirth prompts a question about the future of Sommerfest, which seems to be surviving quite well without an artistic director. (Litton said farewell last summer.) Announcements about the future can be expected in the upcoming months, said Beth Kellar-Long, vice-president of orchestra administration.
“It’s going to be a twist on the way things have been done in the past,” she said. “People talk about the old days of Sommerfest, when the programming was lively and unusual. We want to return to that.”