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Minnesota Bach Ensemble at St. Olaf Church; the Twin Cities Horror Festival

Courtesy of Andrew Altenbach
Andrew Altenbach leads a rehearsal of the Minnesota Bach Ensemble.

On a Thursday night in June, we went to St. Olaf Church in downtown Minneapolis for a concert called “Bach in Bloom” by the Minnesota Bach Ensemble, a new group formed in 2013 around a shared love of J.S. Bach’s music and the desire to play it more often – not just the greatest hits, but also pieces rarely performed and largely unknown.

That night, we heard music by J.S. and two of his sons, C.P.E. and J.C., along with works by Carl Friedrich Abel and Mozart. It was an ideal combination of music we knew and music we didn’t, performed by top musicians including several from the Minnesota Orchestra.

This weekend, MBE launches its third season with “Little Wing,” a program that begins with Bach’s Cantata 32 and Vivaldi’s Concerto in A Major, Op. 3, No. 5, then returns post-intermission with Handel’s “Salve Regina,” a Bach duet from Cantata 63, and a tragicomic, ironic Telemann piece with one of the longest titles in classical music: “Cantata of Funeral Music for an Artistically Trained Canary-Bird Whose Demise Brought the Greatest Sorrow to His Master.” It’s even longer in German.

We asked conductor Andrew Altenbach (no relation, despite the “bach”) for a walk-through. “The Bach begins very plaintively with virtuosic singing by the soprano [Linh Kauffman], then there’s an amazing aria for baritone [Andrew Wilkowske] and solo violin, and then the two have a duet together,” he explained. “This sort of cantata is called a ‘dialogue cantata.’ A person is struggling with their life and their faith and reaches out to Jesus for solace and restoration. At the end, all their pain and troubles have been swept away … So the beginning of the program feels reserved and searching. Then we’ll head in an upward direction with the Vivaldi, an upbeat piece almost throughout. It’s a lot of fun.

“The ‘Salve Regina’ is a prayer. You get the sense of a person who is alone and calling out for solace and renewed hope. The Bach duet that follows is in a minor key, so it feels introspective. We’ll finish with the Canary Cantata because you don’t want to follow with anything after that. There’s a lot of tongue-in-cheek to the text.” (The printed program will include translations of all the texts.)

Altenbach lives in Boston, where he’s music director of opera at the Boston Conservatory. Before then, he spent four years in Minnesota, first as associate conductor and chorus master of the Minnesota Opera and later as artistic director and principal conductor of the St. Cloud Symphony. 

He also served as choirmaster for House of Hope Church in St. Paul, whose strong music program often features musicians from the Minnesota Orchestra and the SPCO. It was there he got to know Minnesota Orchestra musicians David Williams, John Miller, and Basil Reeve and sopranos Kauffman and Madeline Cieslak, all with a passion for Bach. With Altenbach on board as conductor, MBE held its first concerts in June 2013 in Sundin Hall.

Why the fascination with Bach? “Because once you peel back even the smallest layer of his music, you want to know more,” Altenbach said. “Your musical curiosity can go in lots of different directions, and it can be incredibly fulfilling. His music is filled with counterpoint, interesting instrumentations and rhythmic vitality … Almost all of his music is layered on top of dance forms. There’s always a sense of motion.”

And why should we hear this music live? “There’s a profound difference when you’re in the room with the performer. Most of us long for connection, and when you have the chance to do that with really fine art or artistic expression, it becomes even more profound … There are great recordings, but there’s nothing like being part of the chemistry in the room. All of your senses light up.”

Hear “Little Wing” Sunday, Oct. 26, at 7 p.m. at St. Olaf Catholic Church in Minneapolis. The program runs about 100 minutes, with one intermission. Buy tickets online ($10 student/under 18, $30 general admission) or at the door.

The picks

Tonight at Subtext Books: William Swanson presents “Stolen from the Garden: The Kidnapping of Virginia Piper.” One of Minnesota’s most notorious unsolved crimes is the 1972 kidnapping of wealthy Minnesota socialite Virginia Piper. She was rescued after her husband paid a $1 million ransom, but no one was ever convicted and the money was never recovered. 7 p.m. Free. Amy Goetzman spoke with Swanson earlier this month.

Tonight at the movies: “Pompeii from the British Museum.” Couldn’t make it to London last year for the blockbuster exhibit at the British Museum? Introduced by museum director Neil McGregor, this film takes you there and adds music, poetry, and readings from eyewitness accounts. Somehow Pompeii never gets old. 7 p.m. FMI (click on Buy Tickets, enter your ZIP).

Tonight at the Southern: Twin Cities Horror Festival III begins. Eleven nights of scary plays in the suddenly creepy Southern, which has to be haunted after all those years. Nine productions include a new “Frankenstein” by Dangerous Productions that combines classic horror with modern warfare and military life. Here’s a trailer. Horror Fest is not for kids; most plays are for 13+ and some for 16+. Each is about an hour (think Fringe), and you can squeeze in several on weekend days. FMI and tickets ($15, or $14 with a 2014 Fringe button).

The weekend

Friday at the Quarter Gallery in the U’s Regis Center for Art: Opening reception, “For a Limited Time Only.” A show of art in a dialogue with destruction. Everything in it has a temporary existence – like Antony W. Lakey’s drawing on the gallery wall, which will eventually be painted over. And Chris Groth’s “Pliers,” ground into fragments and dust. 6–9 p.m. 405 21st Ave. South, Minneapolis. Free. On display through Nov. 1.

Friday at Northrop: Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal. The Minneapolis debut of the Québecois company known for its physicality and theatricality. Includes Barak Marshall’s “Harry,” set to a score of jazz, Israeli folksongs and traditional music; Benjamin Millipied’s duet “Closer,” set to Philip Glass’ “Mad Rush,” and Wen Wei Wang’s “Night Box,” a blend of contemporary ballet and street dance. 8 p.m. FMI and tickets ($38–$58). Highly recommended: arriving early (6:45) for the free performance preview at the Best Buy Theater.

Friday–Sunday at the Park Square: “33 Variations.” Karen Landry is musicologist Katherine Brandt, Edwin Strout is Beethoven in a play that examines artistic obsession, genius, single-mindedness, relationships, creativity and mortality. Written by Moisés Kaufman, directed by James Rocco, with classical pianist Irina Elkina performing Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations” live. A regional premiere. 7:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($38–$58). Through Nov. 3.

Friday–Sunday: Jeremy Denk and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. A concert pianist, MacArthur fellow, blogger (Think Denk) and writer (New Yorker, New York Review of Books, NPR), Denk has performed before with the SPCO, but these will be his first appearances as its new artistic partner. The program includes two works by Ives, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20, and Beethoven’s “Eroica” symphony. 10:30 a.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Friday, and 8 p.m. Saturday at the Ordway, 2 p.m. Sunday at the Ted Mann. FMI and tickets ($10–$40, kids $5). 

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