Minnesota Orchestra’s 2015-16 season includes Sibelius, Mahler, a ‘Beethoven Marathon’ and chefs

Photo by Autumn de Wilde
Grammy and Tony winner Audra McDonald will sing with the orchestra to open the season.

If you think your calendar is complicated, try scheduling 92 performances over 10 months around a symphony orchestra, 13 conductors, a parade of guest artists and soloists, the Minnesota Chorale, 70 works of classical music, dead composers, emerging composers, jazz musicians, the Peking Acrobats and local chefs.

Announced Friday, the Minnesota Orchestra’s 2015-16 season is colorful and ambitious, with a strong classical core. With 22 weeks of classical subscription concerts, 12 led by music director Osmo Vänskä, people who come to Orchestra Hall for Brahms, Schumann, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Mahler should be happy. The lion’s share of the season is classical music.

In among the classical offerings are several “Live at Orchestra Hall” concerts led by Sarah Hicks that include popular music, movie scores, world music and four performances of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific.” The “Jazz in the Atrium” series, curated by Jeremy Walker, returns for a second season with a provocative theme, “The New Regionalism.” Three weekend family concerts feature the full Minnesota Orchestra and dancers from Minnesota Dance Theatre. The holidays bring Messiahs and Nutcrackers, our annual visit from Doc Severinsen (we can’t imagine Christmas without him) and other festive events, ending with Vänskä conducting Beethoven’s first and final symphonies on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.

Photo by Clive Barda
Yevgeny Sudbin

The New Year’s concerts launch a demanding and aptly named “Beethoven Marathon” that heats up January. In five programs over eight nights in two weeks, with Vänskä on the podium, the orchestra will perform all nine symphonies and all five piano concertos, with Russian pianist Yevgeny Sudbin as soloist. This is music everyone involved knows well. Vänskä and the orchestra have recorded the complete symphonies for the BIS label. With Sudbin, they have also recorded three of the piano concertos for BIS. If you’ve ever wanted to bathe in Beethoven live, here’s your chance.

Other highlights of 2015-16 include the season opener (Sept. 11-12), with Grammy and Tony winner Audra McDonald singing with the Orchestra and Vänskä. Former music director Stanislaw Skrowaczewski returns in October for three concerts featuring principal cello Anthony Ross playing Schumann’s Cello Concerto in his first-ever concerto solos with the orchestra under Skrowaczewski’s direction. Concertmaster Erin Keefe is the soloist for the season’s first Symphony in 60 concert (April 14), with Vänskä conducting Brahms’ violin concerto. The “Inside the Classics” series with Hicks and Sam Bergman explores Mozart and Haydn, Bach, and opera.

Jazz won’t be the only music in the glass-enclosed Atrium. On four Sunday afternoons starting Oct. 8, members of the Minnesota Orchestra will play a new series of chamber music concerts. The programs will be announced in June.

Sibelius’ 150th birthday will be celebrated Nov. 5-6 with a program of miniatures including his Six Humoresques for Violin and Orchestra. On Feb. 4-6, the party continues with performances of his choral symphony “Kullervo” (which the orchestra played at Carnegie Hall in 2010 to raves) and “Finlandia,” plus a world premiere of a new work by Finnish composer Olli Kortekangas; these concerts will be recorded live for a future BIS release. The orchestra will headline Carnegie Hall again in March 2016, playing Sibelius’ first and third symphonies and his violin concerto, with Hilary Hahn as soloist. Three Carnegie Hall preview concerts with Hahn are scheduled for Feb. 18-20 at Orchestra Hall, so we’ll hear the music before the New Yorkers.

Photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco
Erin Keefe

Several themes are woven throughout the season: the links between Brahms and the Schumanns, composers associated with Vienna, music from Nordic countries, nationalism in music, spiritual music. The focus on Mahler that began last September with the “Resurrection” symphony continues with performances of his fourth and fifth symphonies as bookends for the new classical season; more Mahlers are planned for 2016-17. Three of Bach’s “Brandenburg” concertos will be featured in October, February and April, with the remaining three saved for next season. 

Did we mention chefs? Except for the Peking Acrobats (Feb. 21) — and, while we’re at it, a concert with the orchestra and Cirque de la Symphonie (May 21-22) in which aerialists, acrobats, contortionists, jugglers and strongmen will share the stage (and the air above) with the musicians — the season’s most unconventional offering may be “A Musical Feast” (Nov. 7), when celebrity Twin Cities chefs will prepare a menu while Sarah Hicks leads the orchestra in a concert celebrating food and music. Prokofiev’s “The Love for Three Oranges,” anyone?

Planning for 2015-16 was considerably less stressful than planning for 2014-15. Then the orchestra, battered and bruised by a 16-month lockout, had to map out a season’s worth of concerts in a shorter-than-usual time when many potential guest artists and conductors had already been booked. Once the season was announced in mid-June, the focus turned to quickly selling tickets for concerts that began Sept. 5. In contrast, meetings about 2015-16 began last September. According to Kari Marshall, the orchestra’s director of artistic planning, this was a collaborative process among Vänskä, musicians, staff, board members and Asadour Santourian, vice president of the Aspen Music Festival, who served in a consulting role as artistic adviser.

“We had a long session in which [everyone] brought ideas about things they wanted the orchestra to be doing,” Marshall said. The “Beethoven Marathon” was born there. “The idea for that started with ‘What if we try to do all five of the piano concertos with Yevgeny Sudbin, with whom we have this wonderful relationship?’ That morphed into ‘What if we try to do all of the symphonies and all of the piano concertos?’ It’s quite a feat to do all that in such a short time period.”

Bach’s “Brandenburgs” were proposed, and more Mahler. Spreading their musical wealth over two seasons became a purposeful strategy. “We’re starting to think in broader terms and multiple seasons,” Marshall said. And multiple recordings. Along with the Sibelius noted earlier, Vänskä and the orchestra will record Mahler’s Fifth with BIS in June 2016. “Osmo is really interested in making sure that the orchestra is doing Mahler with him,” Marshall said. Before long, it seems, we can start adding Mahler recordings to our Minnesota Orchestra music collections, between Beethoven and Sibelius. 

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View the complete 2015-16 calendar on the orchestra’s website. Check there for information on subscription packages, flexible packages and individual ticket sales. Meanwhile, the 2014-15 season is still in full swing from now through the big finale (Sibelius and Mahler) in early June. Starting next Thursday, “Spirit & Spring” concerts spotlight music of faith and contemplation. A Symphony in 60 event on April 9 features Mahler’s “Song of the Earth.” Later in April, Ann Hampton Callaway sings the Streisand Songbook (BTW, Callaway wrote the song Streisand sang to James Brolin at their wedding), Michael Stern conducts Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” and Burt Hara returns to play Copland’s Clarinet Concerto. May brings popular composer/conductor Eric Whitacre and pianist André Watts. And those are just a few. 

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