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A splendid night for Minnesota Orchestra; Ordway has big plans for Concert Hall opening

Friday’s “Starry Starry Night” gala benefit concert at Orchestra Hall could not have been more splendid or festive.

The Orchestra revealed its Grammy with a champagne toast.
MinnPost photo by John Whiting

Friday’s “Starry Starry Night” gala benefit concert at Orchestra Hall could not have been more splendid or festive. The centerpiece was the concert itself: the return of the Minnesota Orchestra for its first full season since 2011–2012, with Music Director Osmo Vänskä back on the podium and soprano Renée Fleming beside him, first in gold silk and then in blue satin. (Midway through the evening, she changed gowns. But she wasn’t the only one who looked fabulous. The women of the orchestra also wore gowns – black, white, purple, emerald and scarlet – and why not? It was a celebration.)

The concert was 90 minutes, with no intermission but a lot of music that showed off the orchestra’s command of dynamics and togetherness: instrumental opera selections by Carl Nielsen, Mascagni, and Verdi, and Respighi’s cinematic “Pines of Rome,” during which principal trumpet Manny Laureano ran up to a catwalk a hundred feet above the stage, played a solo, and ran back down again. He later explained on Facebook that Vänskä “wanted me to sound as though I were coming from another world.”

Fleming brought a new work, Swedish composer Anders Hillborg’s song cycle “The Strand Settings,” set to a series of poems by Mark Strand; you can read the first one here. This was only her second time singing this complex, ethereal music, and presenting it at Orchestra Hall, when she could have gone with something easier and more familiar, was a compliment to the orchestra and the audience. She returned to sing “O mio babbino caro” from “Gianni Schicchi,” one of the most glorious of all opera arias, a sassy song from Zandonai’s “Conchita,” and two songs everyone knows from Bernstein’s “West Side Story,” the aching, hopeful “Somewhere” and the playful “I Feel Pretty.” And then she gave us an encore, pointed in its message and meaning, from Bernstein’s “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” his musical about the White House. She began by saying “It’s about honoring this wonderful institution and treasuring it in the future and always,” then sang, “Take care of this house, keep it from harm/If bandits break in, sound the alarm … Take care of this house, be always on call/For this house is the home of us all.”

The concert was framed by hoopla in the lobby: music by singers from the Minnesota Opera; a brass fanfare by the orchestra’s trumpet section; a performance by the percussion section; a champagne toast and unveiling of the 2014 Grammy Award; music by the MOJQ, a jazz quartet of Minnesota Orchestra musicians and pianist Tommy Barbarella. The lobby sparkled. The Grammy gleamed. The crowd – patrons, donors, dignitaries and bloggers, people from the citizens’ groups Save Our Symphony Minnesota (SOSMN) and Orchestrate Excellence – mingled. Next up for the orchestra: the Season Sampler concert on Saturday, Sept. 13 (sold out). A free community concert at Lake Harriet at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 14 (just show up). Then it’s off to Bemidji for five days, after which the 2014–15 season officially opens on Sept. 26–28 with music by Barber and Mahler. Tickets remain to the opening concerts.

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Six months ahead of the March 2015 opening of its new Concert Hall, the Arts Partnership – a collaboration among Minnesota Opera, Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Schubert Club – has announced a diverse and ambitious schedule of events for the nearly month-long celebration, starting with a free open house on March 1 and ending with a free concert by the Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphonies on March 22. In between, a colorful parade of national, international, and area artists will perform on the Ordway’s two stages in what’s being called “Rock the Ordway.” Coming to town: Bernadette Peters (March 21), South African musical icons Vusi Malasela and Hugh Masekela (March 7), Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto with Irish accordionist Dermot Dunne (March 8), Grammy winning Latin rock band La Santa Cecilia (March 23), the Irish supergroup Cherish the Ladies (March 17) and the electronic pop collaborative Helado Negro (March 21). Heres a complete schedule with ticketing information

The Concert Hall, the $42 million, 1,100-seat, acoustically intimate venue, designed by architect Tim Carl of HGA and acoustician Paul Scarbrough of  the global consulting firm Akustiks, will replace the underused 306-seat McKnight Theater and greatly expand the Ordway’s possibilities for programming. (Carl’s other recent work in the Twin Cities includes the Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center at Macalester, the new Nelson Cultural Center at the American Swedish Institute and the transformation of Northrop.) Next March, at the same time “The Manchurian Candidate” is having its world premiere in the 1,900-seat Music Theater (the new name for what we used to call the Ordway), the Concert Hall will host Malasela and Masekela, Kuusisto and Dunne (for the Schubert Club), La Santa Cecilia, the SPCO, and Cantus.

The Concert Hall will be the SPCO’s new permanent home. The Schubert Club will be able to present some of its popular International Artist Series artists twice: at a daytime show in the Concert Hall and an evening show in the Music Theater. Helado Negro is one of the SPCO’s Liquid Music events, a series we’re used to seeing at the SPCO Center upstairs in the Hamm Building, or the Amsterdam, or the Walker. A new floor on the stage will make the Concert Hall more inviting to dancers; on March 11, Ananya Dance will perform a new work commissioned for the grand opening.

More programming, more seats, greater availability and fewer scheduling issues among the partners will bring more people to the Ordway – at least, that’s been the hope since the expansion plans were first revealed. It’s estimated that attendance at the Ordway will increase by 130,000 a year, that 30,000 more children will be able to visit, and that the new hall will boost economic activity by $6.1 million annually. All that, and it will look fantastic at night, its many windows glowing, St. Paul’s great house of the performing arts, a shining example of the benefits of getting along.

The SPCO will have at least one more member when it performs in the new Concert Hall next May. Julie Albers has been named the orchestra’s principal cellist. A violin student from age 2 who switched to cello at four, she has performed with orchestras and ensembles around the world, participated in many music festivals and won prestigious prizes. She will officially begin her full-time tenure in the 2015–16 season but will join the SPCO on stage for eight weeks of 2014–15. Her first dates with the orchestra will be during opening weekend, coming up this Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 13 and 14. The SPCO will perform Beethoven’s Seventh and Eighth Symphonies at the Ordway Music Theater and the Ted Mann. Tickets are scarce but still available.

“Julie has played with us many times,” SPCO CEO Bruce Coppock told MinnPost earlier this month. “Most notably, this past spring she soloed with us when Thomas Zehetmair had to cancel. She was going to be here, and we changed the program. She played the Haydn cello concerto and it was breathtaking … Three or four other people came a lot during the year, and Julie was clearly the one we all gravitated to.” Kyu-Young Kim, the SPCO’s principal second violinist and senior director of artistic planning, said in a statement, “In addition to being a fantastic cellist, she has great interpersonal skills and exhibits grace under pressure at every turn.” The SPCO’s principal cello position has been vacant since June 2012, when Ronald Thomas resigned.

The SPCO also announced the appointments of seven guest musicians who will join the orchestra for the 2014–15 season. They include Zachary Cohen, on leave from the Milwaukee Symphony, who will act as principal bass, and Barbara Bishop, on leave from the Kansas City Symphony, who will play second oboe and English horn.

Albers and the seven guests bring the SPCO’s total complement of regular players for 2014–15 to 25. The SPCO also has two new artistic partners this season, pianist Jeremy Denk and Moldovan violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja. Denk will perform with the SPCO in late October; Kopatchinskaja will make her SPCO debut Nov. 20.