Sommerfest goes back to its roots; ‘The Red Box’ at Park Square

Photo by Jeff Wheeler
Andrew Litton

Sommerfest is back, and it’s golden. After two unsettling years – 2012, when it moved to the Ted Mann during the renovations, and 2013, when it didn’t happen because of the lockout – the Minnesota Orchestra’s annual summer celebration is home and everyone is happy. Including Artistic Director Andrew Litton, who’s splitting his time between the podium and the piano bench. After leading this morning’s coffee concert and Friday’s evening concert (both sold out), he’ll conduct Saturday’s “A Night in Vienna” liltfest, then debut his first solo piano CD, “A Tribute to Oscar Peterson,” with a late-night performance in the new atrium.

Now in his 12th year as Sommerfest’s artistic director, Litton is the festival’s sunny, smiling face, as familiar to fans as “On the Beautiful Blue Danube.” We spoke with him Wednesday afternoon, between rehearsals.

MinnPost: How does it feel to be back?

Andrew Litton: It’s great. Not only did we have the tragedy of last summer, but the summer before we weren’t at Orchestra Hall. So we had a two-year hiatus from that wonderful facility. Another great thing: I was able to bring back the chamber music element, which is so popular with the audience and musicians. So Sommerfest is really back now.

The original premise of the festival was to celebrate Vienna. I’ve gone back to its roots this summer, to try and encourage people to come back to us after such a lengthy break. That’s why we’re ending with “Die Fledermaus,” the most Viennese, most Straussy of all Strauss.

MP: Let’s talk about Oscar Peterson. You first heard him play when a friend gave you an album for your 16th birthday. In 2004, the year after you became artistic director of Sommerfest, you brought him here. And now he’s the reason for your first solo album.

AL: My first and only solo album. The most amazing part of the whole experience was once I got over the nervousness of trying to play like him, I started appreciating who he was and what he did. It’s one thing when you idolize someone and listen to what they do, but when you try to learn the notes as they played them, you get inside their brains. It gave me a deeper level of understanding and appreciation for the genius he was.

People have asked, “Are you doing a straight crib?” That’s the starting point. Then you play things through enough, mess around with them, try things out and eventually they become your own spin. My intent is to play the same notes, in the same order. And therein lies the challenge.

MP: Did you ever feel intimidated?

AL: At times I thought, “Andrew, this is the most idiotic hobby you’ve ever had.”

MP: Are there plans to bring jazz back to Sommerfest?

AL: I would very much like to, but it depends on the direction the orchestra goes as an entity. We had a pretty nice balance in years past of traditional classical music and one or two jazz concerts. It would be fun to bring that back, but I have to wait until the dust settles.

MP: What are you looking forward to most at this year’s Sommerfest?

AL: “Die Fledermaus” is going to be a riot. It’s always a joy to do these semi-staged operas with Bob Neu. It’s become a Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland thing: “Let’s put on a show!” I’m also looking forward to sharing my Oscar Peterson. I worked darn hard on it. 

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Sommerfest continues through July 26, with music by Mendelssohn, Mozart, Gershwin, and others, a “Bravo Broadway” night conducted by Courtney Lewis, a Friends & Family concert featuring “Peter and the Wolf,” and more. Here’s the complete schedule. Download the program here.

The Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus has announced its 34th season of “entertainment worth coming out for.” The annual holiday concert, “Joyful and Triumphant” (Dec. 12-14) will feature guest artists the Copper Street Quintet. The spring concert, “Here Comes the Sun: The Music of the Beatles” (March 27-28, 2015) anticipates the 50th anniversary of the Fab Four’s first and only concert appearance in Minnesota. “Popular: A Broadway Cabaret” (June 19-20) closes the season one week before the Pride Festival. All concerts are at the Ted Mann. Season tickets are on sale now; single tickets go on sale Oct. 6. Call 612-624-2345.

On Wednesday the U.S. House of Representations Interior Appropriations Subcommittee approved a bill to fund the National Endowment for the Arts with a budget of $138 million, down $8 million from FY 2014. Arts advocates were hoping for a return to the 2011 appropriation of $155 million. At the markup, Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minnesota, objected to the cut. Americans for the Arts has made it easy for you to contact your representative and express your views

The Picks

Tonight (Thursday, July 10) at Subtext Bookstore: Kathryn Kysar “Pretend the World” CD Release. Supported by a Minnesota State Arts Board grant, the St. Paul-based poet invited other poets and musicians to read and interpret her work and made a recording. With guest writers Kris Bigalk, John Minczeski, Hawona Sullivan Janzen, and Sun Yung Shin and clarinetist Sean Egan. 7 p.m. Free.

Tonight through Sunday at Park Square Theater: the final four nights of “The Red Box: A Nero Wolfe Mystery.” Park Square, expert stagers of Sherlock Holmes stories, has a new detective. Audiences are loving this summer hit. E.J. Subkoviak stars as Rex Stout’s eccentric sleuth. 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. FMI and tickets ($38–$58).

Tonight through Sunday at the Southern: “The Glass Menagerie.” Musical theater and acting students Bridget McNiff, Frankie McLeod, Katie Halloran and Will Phelps have spent the past year studying theater around the Midwest and East Coast. They’re ready to tell Tennessee Williams’ story of Amanda Wingfield and her gentleman caller. 7:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($11-$14).

Tonight through Sunday at Illusion Theater: Patrick Scully: “Leaves of Grass – Uncut.” A radical artist of the 2000s celebrating a radical artist of the 1800s, one gay man honoring another, Patrick Scully’s new work combines dance, theater, video, photography, opera and Walt Whitman’s words with “stories you did not hear in your American Literature class.” And 18 male dancers. 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday. FMI and tickets ($14/$19). Note: This performance contains nudity.

Saturday at St. Croix Vineyards in Stillwater: Wine & Jazz Fest 2014. Award-winning Minnesota wine plus live music by the Bryan Nichols Trio, Nancy Harms, Ticket to Brasil, Babatunde Lea, Patty Peterson, and Atlantis Quartet. The music starts at 11:30 a.m. The tasting room is open from 1-4 p.m. Free.

Plan ahead: On sale Friday at 11: Chick Corea and Vigil at the Dakota. The 20-time Grammy winner and NEA Jazz Master reinvents himself for the zillionth time with a new band, new music, and new arrangements of his own classics. Sept. 24, 7 and 9 p.m. $55-$95. Call 612-332-5299.

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