Minnesota Bach Ensemble rolls with the punches; MIA off to big 2015 start

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

What happens when you’ve planned a performance months in advance, set the program, booked the venue, publicized the event, sold tickets and suddenly you lose your star performer? “You stay calm, and you try to roll with the punches,” says Andrew Altenbach. “Because the show must go on.”

The conductor and artistic director of the Minnesota Bach Ensemble, Altenbach speaks from very fresh experience. He and the ensemble were preparing for two concerts this weekend featuring violinist Jorja Fleezanis, the former concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra, when Fleezanis came down with the flu.

“I talked with Jorja about some details in the score on Saturday and knew that she was running a fever,” Altenbach said. “On Sunday she felt a little better, then worse again, but she was hopeful the fever would break.”

Bach’s Violin Concerto in E major, featuring Fleezanis, was supposed to anchor the first half of the concert. Now that was iffy. “As an artistic director, it’s my responsibility to keep some alternative plans in my back pocket, in case of the worst,” Altenbach said.

He called Basil Reeve, a Bach Ensemble co-founder and former Minnesota Orchestra principal oboe. “If for some reason Jorja is indisposed,” Altenbach asked Reeve, “what would you think about playing the double concerto [for oboe and violin] with Jon?” Jon is Jonathan Magness, an ensemble member and the orchestra’s acting principal second violin. “I have it in my fingers,” Reeve replied. “It wouldn’t be an issue.”

Altenbach already knew that Magness could play the concerto. He had performed it with Minnesota Orchestra oboist John Snow in 2012, when Reeve was out of town.

The centerpiece of the second half was J.D. Zelenka’s Symphony à 8 Concertante in A minor. Was that also at risk? “Here’s a little bit of irony,” Altenbach said. “Jon knew that Jorja was coming and would play the concerto, but I hadn’t clarified to him that she would also be playing the solo for the Zelenka. It wasn’t until last weekend that I told him, ‘Just to make sure, you’re not playing the solo on the Zelenka.’ Jon said, ‘That’s too bad, because I’ve been practicing it. It’s tricky but really interesting.’

“I told him to relax and spend time with his family. The next day I had to call him back and say, ‘Actually, how would you feel about playing it?’

On Monday at noon, it was decided that Fleezanis would not perform. By then, Plan B was under way. “What’s good about being a small operation is we have the strength of being nimble,” Altenbach said. “It comes to our advantage in times of quasi-crisis. It helps to keep us on our toes.”

We asked Altenbach to tell us about the weekend’s program.

“Bach’s Concerto for Violin and Oboe in C minor was adopted from a harpsichord concerto. There’s a lot of that in Baroque music. Pieces are written for one instrument and rewritten for another. The pinnacle part is the second movement. Somehow Bach is able to make time stand still.

“The concert begins with the Sinfonia from Bach’s Cantata 42, which juxtaposes some rollicking woodwind writing against the strings. The Handel concerto grosso, which starts the second half, is from op. 6, which has some of the best concerto grosso writing of the Baroque period.

“Last and most exotic is the Zelenka. He was a contemporary of Bach and the two were friends. Zelenka was a Czech composer, and there are rhythmic and harmonic twists and turns that move a bit differently than many of the Central Europeans. Honestly, I think that’s why Bach liked him, for Bach himself could sound conventional in one moment, then bend your ear over just two slick little beats.”

The Minnesota Bach Ensemble performs Saturday, Jan. 10, 7:30 p.m. at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Minneapolis and Sunday, Jan. 11, 3 p.m. at Wayzata Community Church. FMI and tickets ($25/$10). 

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We had an excellent New Year’s Day at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Turns out it was a good day for the MIA, too. More than 3,200 people visited the museum on the first day of 2015 and the launch of the MIA’s 100th birthday year, 1,145 saw the “Italian Style” exhibit (now closed) and nearly 200 signed up or renewed their memberships. Today is the MIA’s actual birthday.

Not that long ago, we’d talk about our favorite TV shows around the water cooler, because everyone watched the same episode of the same show on the same night. Those days are gone, yet we yearn to dish and rehash. Well, don’t we? TPT’s Rewire has picked up the slack and moved it to the Republic bar at 7 Corners. Starting Thursday, Jan. 22, continuing monthly on Thursdays, Books & Bars host Jeff Kamin will moderate “Must Talk TV,” which is kind of a book club but “without all that pesky reading.” For the first go, watch and be ready to discuss “Downton Abbey” seasons 1-4 and the first few episodes of Season 5. Programs under consideration for the future include “The Americans,” “Fargo,” “Game of Thrones,” “House of Cards,” “Sherlock” and “The Walking Dead.” FMI. Free, but registration is the right thing to do. Social time starts at 6 p.m., discussion at 7.

The picks

Tonight at the new Prom Center in Oakdale: Klondike Kate Contest. A Winter Carnival tradition since 1971. What, you’ve never gone? 484 Inwood Ave. Doors at 6 p.m., show at 6:30. FMI. Tickets ($15 advance/$22 door/$18 with Winter Carnival button).

Tomorrow at the Walker in Minneapolis: Richard Maxwell/New York City Players: “The Evening.” A fighter, his manager, and a bartender walk into a bar. The Walker’s annual, wildly unpredictable “Out There” festival of brand-new things begins with the world premiere of a Walker commission from award-winning playwright/director Richard Maxwell, winner of the 2014 Spalding Gray Award. Monologue meets fiction meets live music. 8 p.m. tonight, Friday, and Saturday. FMI and tickets ($25/$22).

The weekend

Saturday at Studio Z in St. Paul: Bill Carrothers Trio. The singular and uncompromising pianist Bill Carrothers has long been a favorite of jazz fans here and in Europe. The Artists’ Quarter in St. Paul was his home in the Twin Cities until that venue closed its doors on New Year’s Day 2014. Studio Z is not a jazz club, but it’s an exceptional listening room, built and tuned by the expert musicians of the new chamber music ensemble Zeitgeist. Carrothers will perform with Irish bassist Dave Redmond and Dublin-based drummer Kevin Brady, the trio he tours with in Ireland and the UK. 7 p.m. FMI and tickets ($10/advance, $15/door). Come early for a brief master class at 6.

Sunday at the movies: “The Wizard of Oz.” We’ve watched it a zillion times on TV, but we hear that seeing it on the big screen is a revelation. Go here, click “Buy Tickets,” and enter your ZIP to find the theater nearest you. 2 p.m. Sunday, also 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 14.

Save the date

Sunday, Jan. 25 at the Saint Paul Hotel: Leigh Kamman Celebration. The legendary jazz broadcaster “walked on” last Oct. 17 at age 92. Presented by his family and numerous Twin Cities jazz nonprofits, presenters, musicians, and supporters, this will be an afternoon and evening of live music and memories. 4-8 p.m. in the Grand Ballroom. Suggested donation: $20.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Richard O'Neil on 01/07/2015 - 12:25 pm.

    Leigh Kamman

    I remember his very soft, deep voice late at night on his show “Jazz Image” on public radio which is still a venue for quality.
    I missed Mr. Kammon when his show closed and I am sorry to hear that he has passed. My deepest regrets to his family.

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