As the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra prepares for its season opener this weekend, the mood is electric and the news is good. A five-city European concert tour was announced today. In October, the SPCO will perform in New York City. New recordings are on the way. This will be the orchestra’s second full year in the concert hall designed and built for them, a hall that is changing their sound and how they play. Two new musician hires are TBA. New pricing strategies are already paying off in more diverse (age-wise) expected audiences. All five artistic partners are in place and ready to go, including Swedish clarinetist Martin Fröst, who canceled last season’s appearances because of illness.
First, the tour. The SPCO hasn’t been to Europe since 2008, and never before as a conductorless ensemble. In late November, SPCO musicians and artistic partner Patricia Kopatchinskaja will lead the band as they travel from Rome to Siena, Bologna, Berlin and Vienna for a program featuring two powerful works: Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” quartet in a unique arrangement by the SPCO and Kopatchinskaja, and Gideon Klein’s Partita for String Orchestra, written during the Holocaust shortly before Klein was killed at Auschwitz.
“This program packs an incredible emotional punch,” artistic director and principal violin Kyu-Young Kim said in a statement. Kopatchinskaya added, “Together we approach the music as a soloist would, individually, but all souls mystically linked to an intuitive whole that does not need a conductor.” Get ready, Europe. If you want to hear this program before they go, there’s a series of concerts next weekend (Sept. 16-18).
Kopatchinskaya adds element of theatricality
Moldavan violinist Kopatchinskaya has added elements of theatricality and unpredictability to SPCO concerts. She usually performs shoeless and sometimes wears costumes. Her “Death and the Maiden” brings in a Byzantine chant, a Renaissance pavan and late 20th-century works by Hungarian composer György Kurtág.
“We never know what she’s going to come up with until she’s here and starts,” spokesperson Lindsay Hansen said in conversation at the SPCO offices last week. “Sometimes it’s the rehearsal on the day of the concert and she says, ‘Let’s put this piece in here, too.’ It’s exciting. To her, it’s about making the music more relatable and engaging. I think it does that.” The orchestra crackles on stage with her, something European artists are certain to notice.
The SPCO wants us to know that the European tour is not about building (or rebuilding) a reputation in Europe. “The real goals are to elevate the artistic quality even more,” Hansen said. “There’s nothing better than a tour [for that] – a week of intensive working together. The only reason we tour is to benefit this community. The community supports us philanthropically, and we exist to serve the community. Touring helps us put on the best possible concerts when we come back here.”
To perform with Denk in New York
In October, the SPCO will perform twice in New York with pianist and artistic partner Jeremy Denk, its first concerts there since playing Carnegie Hall in 2011. That program will include the world premiere of a newly commissioned work by American composer George Tsontakis.
The SPCO and Kopatchinskaja recorded “Death and the Maiden” in the Concert Hall last spring. The CD – its first new recording since 2013’s triple-Grammy-winning “Carlos Drummond de Andrade Stories”– will be released Oct. 28 on the Paris-based Alpha Classics label, with a limited number of copies available at next weekend’s concerts. Going forward, the orchestra plans to make a new recording every year. This year’s recording, set for May, will feature music born from the horrors of war: Klein’s Partita, Bartók’s Divertimento for Strings and Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony. “Our philosophy about recording is the same as with touring,” Kim said in conversation. “The reason to do it is the artistic development of the orchestra.”
Asked to comment on the Concert Hall, which opened in March 2015, Kim said, “The orchestra feels really at home there. It feels like second nature now. It’s a hall where you can hear a pin drop, and we love that, because we can play softer and really intimately. We played for 30 years in a hall where you had to really project, so that’s a very big change. It doesn’t happen in one season. It takes time.
“We talk about that continuously, and it’s nice because we talk about it directly to each other, as opposed to have a conductor come in who doesn’t know the space, or a music director who’s telling you how you should play. … The main thing is we have a chance to really hone the sound now, an ideal kind of sound that we can take wherever we go, to all the other venues we play.”
Theme ‘In Times of War’
In programming the music for the 2016-17 season – a collaborative process among Kim, a group of musicians and SPCO President Jon Limbacher – themes emerged, something else new for the SPCO. The musicians’ interest in music by Klein and Erwin Schulhoff, who also died in a concentration camp during the Holocaust, led to the theme “In Times of War.” In May, a three-week festival called “Where Words End,” featuring artistic partner Pekka Kuusisto, will explore immigration, cultural identity and exile.
The SPCO’s contractual size is 28 full-time musicians. Currently there are 21. Two more will be hired “in the next month or so,” according to Hansen. “The audition process here involves a long period of playing with the orchestra on a trial basis.” But “we’re getting there.”
The orchestra’s New Generation Initiative, announced in August, is already getting results. Kids ages 6-17 can now attend an unlimited number of concerts for free; so can college students with a valid ID.
“We have over twice as many child subscribers as we did for the entire season last year,” Hansen said, “so kids will be coming multiple times throughout the year. Child subscriptions used to be $5 per concert, so it’s not like there’s a drastic difference between $5 and free, but it definitely sends a message that we truly want kids here. We do. We want them in the audience. We’ll be altering our preconcert talks and keeping kids in mind.”
Reaching out to students
“We’re getting students, too,” she said, “especially for the first couple of weeks of concerts. We’re expecting students to reserve tickets closer to the concert dates. We have venues on lots of different college campuses, or right next to college campuses, so I think we’ll be able to reach a lot of students and make it easy for them to come and come often.”
The SPCO wants us all to come and come often, and they’re making it easy with $5 monthly see-as-many-concerts-as-you-want memberships, adult ticket prices starting at $10 and the addition of free tickets for children and students. Even with the availability of the acoustically sublime Concert Hall, they’re continuing to perform in neighborhoods and last year added another venue at St. Paul Academy and Summit School.
“Our audience is a very special audience that comes to so many events,” Kim said. “That’s what has made things successful. They don’t just come once, or save up for a special event when they can afford it. They come repeatedly, and they experience our orchestra and our programing. [This year], they’ll hear things they haven’t heard before in combinations they haven’t heard. They’ll think about music in a different way, or think about events in the world, or about their own lives.”
Tonight (Thursday, Sept. 8) at the Hennepin History Museum: Opening reception for “Ice Water and Opera Glasses.” Just in time for the annual Ivey Awards, the history museum up Third Ave. from Mia opens an exhibition about 150 years of theater in Hennepin County. 5-8 p.m. Free. Closes Jan. 15.
Tonight on Hennepin Ave. from 9th to 10th Streets: 5 to 10 on Hennepin. Live music, entertainment, an artist market – and the official “unveiling” of a new public mural, a 25-foot vertical mosaic garden on the Solera building, which Hennepin Theatre Trust bought in late July. Event from 5-10 p.m., public celebration at the mural (9th and Hennepin) at 6 p.m. Free.
Friday at the U’s Katherine E. Nash Gallery: Reception for “The Women and Money Project.” This group exhibition investigates the relationship between women and money through a contemporary lens. Talk about a hot fraught topic. 6-9 p.m. Free and open to the public. FMI. Ends Dec. 10.
Opens Friday at the U’s Rarig Center: “Two Kids that Blow S*** Up.” Mu Performing Arts’ 25th season starts with a play by Carla Ching that was featured in the 2016 New Eyes Festival at the Playwrights’ Center. Sun Mee Chomet and Sherwin Resurreccion are Diana and Max, two kids who meet at 9 years old, the day their parents start having an affair. Directed by Randy Reyes. In the Kilburn Theatre. 7:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($10/$20). Ends Sept. 18.
Friday-Sunday at Studio Z in Lowertown: “For the Birds” CD release concert. Co-written by Victor Zupanc and Kevin Kling, “For the Birds” has toured Minnesota since 2010. What seems at first to be music about birds turns out to be about human nature. Add stories by Kling and you can see where this is going: everywhere. With the new chamber music ensemble Zeitgeist. 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 1 p.m. Sunday. FMI and tickets ($15/$10 students and seniors).
Saturday at St. Barnabas Center for the Arts in Plymouth: Mary Louise Knutson Trio. Jazz@StBarneys launches its 10th season with the always classy Knutson, a pianist and composer who tours regularly with Doc Severinsen, who knows a good thing when he sees it and hears it. She has put together a stellar trio, with Gordon Johnson on bass and Phil Hey on drums. 7 p.m. $10 adults, $5 students at the door.