Museum of Russian Art’s holiday show is fascinating and touching

MinnPost photo by John Whiting
Cosmonaut ornaments at the Museum of Russian Art

The award for this year’s least-expected, most conversation-worthy Christmas display goes to The Museum of Russian Art. On the lower level of the Spanish Colonial Revival style building at the corner of Diamond Lake Road and Stevens Ave. S. in Minneapolis – former home of Mayflower Congregational Church and Enga Memorial Chapel, acquired by TMORA in 2004 and reimagined by architect Julie Snow – is a thoughtfully curated, fascinating and touching exhibition called “Winter Holidays in the Soviet Era.”

More than 600 ornaments, figurines, party invitations, posters, greeting cards and garlands span 70 years of history and turbulent change, from the late Imperial era to the Soviet space age. Organized chronologically, they give you a taste of Christmas under the Czars, and then the hammer falls.

In the 1920s, the Soviet government banned all religious holidays, including Christmas. Trade was cut off and the production of ornaments halted. In 1935, Stalin had a change of heart, sort of. New Year’s Day was declared a national family holiday. Trees were permitted – topped with red stars. Grandfather Frost (borrowed from Russian folklore) replaced Santa Claus, with his granddaughter, Snow Maiden (a secular legend), at his side. Lavish parties were held at the Kremlin for children – no grownups allowed. The Soviet New Year was an opportunity on a grand scale for education, indoctrination and propaganda, but at least it was a celebration.

Wandering the exhibition, peering into the cases, one sees the resilience of people who crafted ornaments from cardboard, cotton and scraps when that’s all they had. After the production of ornaments resumed, they hung parachutists, workers, political leaders, characters from folk tales, and animals from their New Year’s trees. World War II ornaments included Red Army soldiers, armored vehicles, guns, tiny mailboxes (because the mail was the only way to communicate with loved ones on the front), and little baskets woven from epaulets. The post-war period brought blown-glass cosmonauts and Arctic explorers.

All the ornaments are from the personal collection of Philadelphian Kim Balaschak, who moved to Moscow in 1995 with her husband, Jim, when his job took him there; they lived in Russia for 13 years. One day in 1998, she visited the large market Izmailovsky, where gold-toothed vendors sold wares out of boxes, and found a small Grandfather Frost made of cotton batting and cardboard. Word spread and a collection began; today it numbers thousands of items. This is the first major U.S. exhibition of what Balaschak affectionately calls her “tree toys.” It will tour the country after leaving here.

“Winter Holidays in the Soviet Era” continues through Jan. 25. The exhibition is well-organized and informatively labeled, but you might want to time your visit to a docent-led tour, available Thursdays at 11 a.m., Saturdays at 1 p.m. and Sundays at 2. The exhibition is included with museum admission. TMORA is open daily including Mondays, excepting major holidays. 

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Tuesday was a very good day at Orchestra Hall. At the Minnesota Orchestral Association’s annual meeting – which was open to the public for the first time since 2011 – the news was generally positive and the mood upbeat. Doug Grow reports on that here.

After the meeting came a sold-out concert by the excellent Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra featuring vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant, a fast-rising star in the jazz world. With Wynton Marsalis giving us background on each tune – telling us who wrote it and when, and which of the band members arranged it – this was as fine and swinging a set of holiday music as one could wish for. What Salvant did with the word “yore” in “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (in the phrase “golden days of yore”) should be illegal. Starting with a broad tremolo, she passed through vibrato and ended on a shimmer.

After the concert in the big room came another in the Atrium, the new space with floor-to-ceiling windows that look out on the city and Peavey Plaza, now lit up by the Minneapolis Holiday Market. This was the launch of the MOA’s latest series: Jazz in the Target Atrium, conceived and led by Jeremy Walker. The Atrium Jazz Ensemble – the core group featuring Walker on piano, Anthony Cox on bass and JT Bates on drums – was joined by three members of Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, a powerful horn section of Ted Nash on alto saxophone, Marcus Printup on trumpet and Vincent Gardner on trombone.

Minnesota Orchestra President and CEO Kevin Smith welcomed the crowd, then introduced Marsalis, who told us what a great thing it was to bring jazz to such a place, and why it mattered. He turned the mic over to Walker, who explained that his love of music had been born at Orchestra Hall when he was a boy and now, here he was. Starting with “Age of Amazement,” a new work written for the occasion, the quintet played mostly Walker’s compositions, which are generally tunes that embrace you instead of punching you on the chin. They also played a piece by Billy Strayhorn (“Upper Manhattan Medical Group,” arranged by Walker) and one by Duke Ellington (“New York City Blues”). It was real jazz by real jazz musicians, performing original music, improvising and taking solos, and everyone listened. There were a lot of nodding heads and tapping feet.

The house was nearly full and people stayed until past 11 p.m., when the music ended, on a school night. The Atrium seemed like a perfect place for jazz: not too big, not too small, just right. We moved around some, sampling the sound in front and back and on the sides, and it was good. Afterward, the musicians said they could hear themselves and each other, which is not always the case. So maybe this will be a room for jazz, among other things.

You can’t come out much stronger than Walker and his group did on their first try, and the series still has three promising concerts to come: with pianist David Berkman on Jan. 22; with the world premiere of a new work by Walker and Cox on April 16, featuring vocalists including tenor Tesfa Wondemagegnehu; and with trumpeter Ron Miles on May 8. FMI and tickets ($25).

The Picks

Tonight on the Guthrie’s McGuire Proscenium Stage: “The Cocktail Hour.” It’s the 1970s, and John arrives for dinner at his parents’ home with the script of his soon-to-be-produced play. What’s it about? His uptight, uppercrust WASP family, and it’s not very flattering. As the martinis begin to flow, so do the revelations and recriminations. The Guthrie’s production of A.R. Gurney’s comedy of manners features Peter Thomson, Kandis Chappell, Rod Brogan and Charity Jones. Directed by Maria Aitken. 7:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($40-$58). Through Jan. 4.

Tonight at Subtext Books: Lin Enger reads from “The High Divide.” The award-winning Minnesota author’s latest novel follows a woman who searches for her husband against a backdrop of historical events: the bloody turmoil of expansionism, the near-total demise of the bison herds, and the subjugation of the Plains Indians. Publishers Weekly called it “a masterfully told Western reinvention of Homer’s Odyssey.” 7 p.m. Free.

Tonight at Jazz Central: Riotus N. Bassist Anthony Cox follows Tuesday’s performance at Orchestra Hall with Riotous N, his trio with guitarist John Penne and drummer Davu Seru. 8:30 p.m. Donations encouraged.

Thursday at the Continuing Education and Conference Center on the U’s St. Paul campus: Headliners presents “Paleofantasy: What Evolution Tells Us about Modern Life.” Popular theories about how our ancestors lived – and why we should emulate them – are often based on speculation, not scientific evidence, and they reflect a basic misunderstanding about how evolution works. We can’t promise that biologist Dr. Marlene Zuk will touch on the trendy paleo diet, but we wouldn’t be surprised. 7 p.m. FMI and registration ($15).

Holiday Fare

Starts tonight at the Penumbra: “Black Nativity.” A concert version of Langston Hughes’ Nativity story, filled with holiday music performed by Greta Oglesby, Dennis Spears, Yolande Bruce, and the Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church Choir. Directed by Lou Bellamy, with musical direction by Sanford Moore. Year after year, this is a thrilling, satisfying, inspiring show. 90 minutes, no intermission. 7:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($30/$25/$15). Through Dec. 21.

Opens Friday at the Howard Conn Fine Arts Center in Plymouth Congregational Church: “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” The Twin Cities premiere of a live theater production from Youth Performance Company, based on the TV special that never gets old, with original dialogue and music by Vince Guaraldi. 10 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($15/$12). Through Dec. 21. 

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Please join MinnPost for the second event in our MinnPost Social series. MinnPost Social: The Arts – What’s Hot (and Not) will feature MinnPost Artscape writer Pamela Espeland and managing editor Susan Albright. The free event will take place Wednesday, Dec. 10, from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at the American Swedish Institute. For details and to register, go here.

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