Innovative VocalEssence season includes Dessa, Don Shelby, MN composers

VocalEssence has announced its 46th season of concerts, and in a word, wow. Along with the favorites fans have come to expect – “Welcome Christmas,” the family Christmas concert “Star of Wonder,” the annual “Witness” and “Cantare!” shows – are some real surprises: a choral premiere by a hip-hop artist, a tour with Mark Twain, and an evening with P.D.Q. Bach.

The season opener at Orchestra Hall on Oct. 26, “Made in Minnesota,” features music by Minnesota composers Dominick Argento, Stephen Paulus and Libby Larson, St. Olaf and U of M grad Jocelyn Hagen, and hip-hop artist/Doomtree rapper Dessa in her choral premiere. From Nov. 13–16, the Ensemble Singers and Don Shelby will travel through Minnesota river towns, pairing American choral masterpieces, folksongs and traditional spirituals of the river with the words of Mark Twain, spoken by Shelby. (The former news anchor is becoming a regular with VocalEssence; last year he played the role of Paul Bunyan in Benjamin Britten’s opera by that name.)

On Feb. 8, 2015, the Grammy-winning ensemble Sounds of Blackness and VocalEssence will salute Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in “WITNESS: Let Freedom Ring.” March 14 and 15 will see the regional premiere of “The Radio Hour,” a theatrical production by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer, co-commissioned by VocalEssence and staged at St. Paul’s Fitzgerald Theater. (A reviewer who saw the world premiere in California earlier this year called it “entertaining and enchanting.”) On April 10, P.D.Q. Bach joins VocalEssence to celebrate his 80th birthday as the “youngest and oddest” twenty-first child of J.S. Bach. Learn more about the season here. Tickets are on sale now.

Three artists have been selected for the Minnesota Historical Society’s 2014–15 Native American Artist-in-Residence Program. Jessica Gokey is a beadwork artist who lives in the Lac Courte Oreilles (LCO) community in Hayward, Wisconsin. Pat Kruse is a birch bark artist who lives in the Mille Lacs community in Minnesota. Gwen Westerman, Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, is a textile artist who lives in Good Thunder, Minnesota. Each will serve a six-month paid residency to study the collections at MNHS and other institutions.

Pulitzer Prize-winning sports writer John Branch, “Morning Edition” host David Greene, and Eric Deggans, NPR’s first full-time TV critic, are the featured speakers in the 20th season of MPR’s Broadcast Journalist series. All events take place at the O’Shaughnessy Educational Center at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul and are recorded for later broadcast. Branch (Oct. 2) is the author of “Boy on Ice: The Life and Death of Derek Boogard,” which began with a New York Times series about hockey’s embrace of potentially brain-damaging violence. Greene’s (Oct. 30) book “Midnight in Siberia,” about his travels in Russia, will be published in October. Deggans (Nov. 13) is the award-winning author of  “Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation.” FMI and tickets ($15 each, $40 all three).

We first saw Stefan Kac (“cats”) play his tuba at the Artists’ Quarter sometime in 2005. It was a jam-session night, and we watched a very serious young man carry the instrumental equivalent of the Queen Mary onto the stage and play jazz. Every since, we’ve seen him whenever we could: with the Pan-Metropolitan Trio (whose CD release was the first event we previewed for a brand-new online publication called MinnPost), the band Ingo Bethke, nights at Homewood Studios with free-jazz multi-instrumentalist Milo Fine, leading his Symphonic Transients Orchestra. On Labor Day weekend 2011, Kac packed his tuba and headed to California Institute of the Arts for a master’s degree. Mission accomplished, he’s back in Minneapolis for a visit and a concert at Jazz Central (see The Weekend below).

“CalArts was worth the trouble,” Kac told MinnPost earlier this week. “The level of playing there is insane. … My master’s is in a program called Performer-Composer. It’s a total post-modern situation. They let you do whatever you want. Basically, I majored in performing my own compositions.” For lack of a better term, he calls what he plays “horn-driven jazz chamber music. Sort of an equal cross between modern classical chamber music and a modern jazz combo.” Soon after his Friday concert, he’ll return to California, where he has a job (working security), a quintet, and a trio. “I’ve heard that California has the least per capita arts funding, with individual artists at the bottom,” he says a bit ruefully. “I’ve taken myself out of one of the top places to move there.”

The Picks

Opens tonight (Thursday, Aug. 21) at the Minnesota Museum of American Art Project Space: “From There to Here.” We have the Blue Line, the Green Line, and we’re one step closer to the Southwest light rail. The new exhibit at MMAA asks us to consider the neighborhoods we move through on trains but never visit. With commissioned work by local artists Xavier Tavera, Wing Young Huie with Ashley Hanson, and Katherine Turczan. Reception from 7 – 8:30 p.m. Free.

Tonight (Thursday, Aug. 21) at SooVAC: Two contemporary dance works by the Chicago-based company Khecari, both performed to live original music. Here are excerpts from “Cresset: Vibrant, Rusting” and “Esther & the Omphali.” Julie Rae Antonick and Jonathan Meyer are the company’s choreographers and co-directors. 7:30 p.m. tonight and Friday; FMI and tickets ($10). Also 8 p.m. Saturday at Bedlam Lowertown; FMI and tickets.

The Weekend

Friday at Jazz Central Studios in Northeast Minneapolis: Stefan Kac: Band of Return. With Geoff Senn on trumpet, Shilad Sen on tenor saxophone and Nick Zielinski on drums. 9:30 p.m. Donation at the door. Come at 7:30 for the exceptional Phil Hey Quartet, with Hey on drums, Dave Hagedorn on vibes, Phil Aaron on piano and Tom Lewis on bass.

Sunday at the Pantages: Jeff Bridges & The Abiders. Tickets are still available to see the Oscar-winning movie star sing. And he really can sing, unlike some movie stars we won’t name. Most people think Bridges caught the singing bug when he starred as Bad Blake in “Crazy Heart.” In fact, he made an album back in 2000 called “Be Here Soon,” with guest vocals by Bryan Ferry and David Crosby. FMI and tickets ($58.50, $68.50). Buy them in person at the State Theatre office and skip the service fees. 

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