A year in the arts: 25 of our favorite things

MinnPost photo by John Whiting
José James

A theater critic writes about theater, a music critic covers music. Artscape, for better or worse, knows no such bounds. Of the many things we saw, heard and experienced in 2015, these rose to the top. They’re listed here in chronological order from January through Tuesday night, with no ranking implied or intended.

  1. Jose James at the Dakota. Touring behind his latest album, “Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday,” James returned to jazz on his own terms: with songs made famous by the woman he calls his “musical mother.”
  2. “The Color Purple” at the Park Square. The sprawling, ambitious musical based on Alice Walker’s book and Stephen Spielberg’s film, performed by the largest all-African-American cast in the theater’s history.
  3. “75 Gifts for 75 Years” at the Walker. A bounty of significant additions to the collection, from Robert Indiana’s “LOVE” to Erwin Wurm’s “Truck (Baltic)” backing up a gallery wall.
  4. “Modern Spirit: The Art of George Morrison” at the History Center. Bold colors, horizons and wood collages by a Minnesota-born Native American modernist.
  5. “SPACE: An Out-of-Gravity Experience” at the Science Museum. At the opening, we met a real live astronaut and were tongue-tied.
  6. “New Ordway Concert Hall Opening Celebration.” On March 5, as the musicians of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra tried out the new hall built especially for them, we heard strings whisper and sigh.
  7. “The Manchurian Candidate” at the Ordway. The debut of a dark Minnesota Opera commission.
  8. “The Crucible” at the Guthrie. Joe Dowling’s penultimate play as the Guthrie’s artistic director was fierce and terrifying.
    Photo by Petronella J. Ytsma
    Regina Marie Williams as Shug Avery in Park Square’s “The Color Purple.”
  9.  Jason Moran and Robert Glasper at the Walker. Two young titans of 21st-century jazz faced off on the McGuire’s stage – in deep conversation, not competition.
  10. Tim Berne’s Snakeoil at Icehouse. A high-intensity night of jazz from the New York-based saxophonist, brought to us by JT’s Jazz Implosion, the late-night series that continues the Clown Lounge tradition of avant-garde and improvised music.
  11. “Wise Blood” at the Soap Factory. Flannery O’Connor’s Southern Gothic novel, performed by singers and a live band in a vertiginous installation by visual artist Chris Larson. We followed it around the Soap, totally fascinated, as it moved from set to set, room to room.
  12. Minnesota Orchestra Season Finale: Sibelius and Mahler. Osmo Vänskä and the orchestra went out with a bang in a concert that included the Sibelius Sixth and Seventh and Mahler’s First.
  13. Kurt Elling at the Dakota. Two fine sets by the best male jazz singer in the business. As often as we’ve seen him – and we’ve seen him a lot – he always surpasses our expectations.
  14. “Lost Voices in Jazz” at the O’Shaughnessy. Thanks to Karla Grotting’s commitment, body memory and willingness to do the work and research, dances by choreographers lost to AIDS lived again. This was a labor of love that brought many people together.
  15. “Kinky Boots” at the Orpheum. Touching, funny, and fabulous.
    Photo by Michal Daniel
    “The Manchurian Candidate” at the Ordway
  16. William Mastrosimone’s “Extremities” at the Grain Belt Warehouse. A riveting play about sexual violence, staged in an unconventional space by the daring Dark & Stormy.
  17. “Sweeney Todd” at the Ritz Theater. Energy poured off the stage in Theater Latté Da’s spectacular production, and we learned that Mark Benninghofen can really sing.
  18. “Rodney King” at the Penumbra. Roger Guenveur Smith’s one-man show was poetry, dance, history and jazz improvisation.
  19. “Delacroix’s Influence” at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. A once-in-a-lifetime exhibition of important paintings by many artists, and an art history class that redefined Delacroix and the art that came after. 
  20. Pen Pals with Marlon James at Hopkins Center for the Arts. We got a taste of what it would be like to take a class from the 2016 Man Booker Prize winner, and we wanted to go back to school.
  21. Tanya Tagac in Concert with “Nanook of the North” at the Walker. We’re still reeling from this primal and fearless performance by the Inuit throat singer and her sympatico band, percussionist Jean Martin and violinist Jesse Zubot.
  22. Maureen Fleming: “B. Madonna” at the O’Shaughnessy. Fleming appeared to float and fly in a night of s-u-p-e-r-s-l-o-w butoh set to music by Philip Glass performed live by pianist Bruce Brubaker. Unforgettable moves and indelible images.
  23. Patricia Kopatchinskaja Plays Beethoven at the Ordway Concert Hall. With the musicians of the SPCO, the barefoot Moldavan violinist played Beethoven, all right – in her own way – but before then she played a thorny, challenging world premiere by contemporary composer Michael Hersch.
  24. David Greilsammer at the Hill Center. Seated on a revolving stool between two grand pianos, one prepared in John Cage fashion, Greilsammer alternated between Scarlatti and Cage sonatas in a program that made each stand out more clearly. The Hill was the perfect venue for this Schubert Club Mix event.
  25. The Dave King Trio in the Dunsmore Room at Crooners, just two nights ago (Dec. 22). Bill Carrothers on the Bösendorfer, Billy Peterson on bass and Dave King on drums made wild, beautiful, brand-new music in a mid-mod setting where everyone listened.

The picks

Things to do between now and Jan. 5, when Artscape returns to its regular programming.

Friday through Monday, Dec. 25-28 at the Dakota: The Bad Plus. Bassist Reid Anderson, pianist Ethan Iverson and drummer Dave King return for their annual Christmas residency. Four days, eight sets, no two even remotely alike. 7 and 9 p.m. FMI and tickets ($40).

Photo by Jay Fram
The Bad Plus

Saturday, Dec. 26 at the History Center: Kwanzaa Family Day. Beginning with an opening ceremony and blessing by modern-day griot Beverly Cottman, this all-afternoon event includes workshops, activities, games, storytelling, music, treats and dance. The center’s café will serve Spicy Chicken Gumbo with Black-Eyed Peas and Collard Greens. 12:15 – 4 p.m. Museum admission $12-$6. FMI.

Monday, Dec. 28 at the St. Anthony Main Theatre: “NT Live: Jane Eyre.” From the Royal National Theatre in London, an acclaimed re-imagining of Charlotte Brontë’s classic story, directed by Sally Cookson. FMI, trailer and tickets ($20 – $10).

Wednesday, Dec. 30 at the Bryant-Lake Bowl Theater: 2015 Minnesota Year-in-Review Quiz Show. Whip-smart hosts Tane Danger and Dennis Curley of The Theater of Public Policy (T2P2) put an eclectic panel to the test. How much will author Lorna Landvik, actress Joy Dolo, “Die Hard” enthusiast Josh Carson, comedian Jenn Schaal, mother-of-the-year Ellie Hino and improviser Andy Hibrands know about last year’s news? Doors at 6 p.m, show at 7. FMI and tickets ($12/$10).

Thursday and Friday, Dec. 31 and Jan. 1 at Orchestra Hall: A Joyous New Year: Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Osmo Vänskä leads the orchestra in the “Choral” and the First in two concerts you probably can’t get into if you don’t already have tickets. Sorry about that. But you can still get your Beethoven on, because the orchestra is performing all nine symphonies and all five piano concertos in a Beethoven Marathon that continues through Jan. 16, with Vänskä conducting and the brilliant Yevgeny Sudbin at the piano. Tickets to Beethoven’s Fifth are tight but other concerts still have availability. FMI and tickets on all concerts; prices vary.

Sunday, Jan. 3 at TPT: “Downton Abbey: The Final Season” Viewing Party. Watch the first episode of the final season with like-minded fans in TPT’s newly renovated digs. Wear a costume if you want. Reservations are required and a $5 donation is requested. FMI and link to reservations.

Sunday and Monday, Jan. 3 and 4 at the Dakota: Tribute to James Brown: Sonny Knight and the Lakers with Fred Wesley and Jabo Starks. Trombonist Fred Wesley was music director for James Brown and the JBs and one-third of the JB Horns; John “Jabo” Starks played drums in James Brown’s band. 7 and 9 p.m. both nights. FMI and tickets ($20-$35).

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