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SPCO’s ‘golden age’: artistic excellence, record-high donations, ‘big-tent approach’

MinnPost photo by John Whiting
SPCO President Jon Limbacher

If you don’t know them, if you’ve never heard them, you might think the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra is doing everything wrong. It has a beautiful new, acoustically sublime $42 million Concert Hall at the Ordway, but the musicians are always running off to play someplace else: a church in Apple Valley, Mahtomedi or Stillwater, the Capri Theater in north Minneapolis, even the Turf Club. Tickets to concerts are free or ridiculously cheap. The artistic director is also a member of the orchestra, something American orchestras don’t do. It doesn’t even have a conductor.

What it does have, according to Tuesday’s annual meeting at the Ordway, is a record-breaking 2015-16 fiscal year under its belt and big plans for the future. The numbers would be music to any orchestra’s ears. An operating surplus of $245,00 on a balanced budget of $10 million. Over $6 million in donations to the Annual Fund, a 5 percent increase over last year and an all-time high. Record high ticket sales. The most-ever unique households served (12,900).

Concert Hall performances averaged 95 percent capacity; many concerts sold out, and three were added to the schedule to meet demand. The Neighborhood Series, Chamber Music Series, and Liquid Music Series venues averaged 89 percent capacity. The free online Listening Library drew nearly 17,000 visits from Minnesotans and 370,000 more from listeners worldwide.

Eric Nilsson, chair of the SPCO’s Governing Members, summed it up: “The SPCO is now, today, here, in its golden age.” Said Director of Development Katie Berg, “The results of the past year show that our strategy of broad accessibility, especially through affordable ticket prices, is working. More individuals are experiencing the SPCO and supporting it more generously than at any time in our history.”

About those ticket prices: 53 percent of tickets to SPCO concerts are $12 or less, 79 percent are $30 or less. For a monthly membership of $5, you can attend as many concerts as you can squeeze into your schedule. Starting this fall, under the SPCO’s New Generation initiative, children 6-17 and students get in free.

This was a transitional year, with Jon Limbacher, who had previously served as SPCO vice president and COO from 2000-2012, returning as managing director and president after Bruce Coppock stepped down. Kyu-Young Kim, who had been the orchestra’s senior director of artistic planning since 2013, was named artistic director. The two share leadership. Working together and with the orchestra, they devised a set of strategic imperatives that will guide the SPCO’s work over the next five years. These include boosting attendance, attracting more young audience members (including, specifically named, young parents; is there a new initiative waiting in the wings for them?), and developing a more racially and ethnically diverse audience and “SPCO family” (staff, board and governing members).

MinnPost photo by John Whiting
SPCO violinist Eunice Kim performs at the annual meeting.

Artistically, the SPCO will continue on its path of being a primarily unconducted orchestra – what Kim described as “seizing the artistic reins of the ensemble and taking it on a wild ride.” It’s all about elevating the artistic quality. Kim explained: “Working consistently without a conductor … has forced and required the members of the ensemble to prepare more diligently, listen more intensely, engage more fully and communicate more directly with each other.”

Limbacher credited the year’s success to the SPCO’s “three bedrock values: artistic excellence, accessibility, and financial discipline. … They are the secret sauce of our success and stability.” He emphasized that “everything we do must be about value for our community, because the community is the ultimate owner of this great orchestra.” And: “An inclusive big-tent approach is not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do.”

The tent will get bigger in 2017, when the SPCO begins capturing and streaming full-length concert videos in the Ordway Concert Hall, something that was always in the plan but needed fundraising to accomplish. The concerts will be available for on-demand streaming, free of charge. In conversation after the meeting, Limbacher said, “Video streaming is a game-changer. Everyone can attend our concerts.”

On Tuesday, we reported on the Minnesota Orchestra’s annual meeting, which was also full of sunny news. Three years ago, when both the Minnesota Orchestra and the SPCO were locked out by their managements over labor disputes, many people wondered if the Twin Cities could support two orchestras – if we needed two orchestras. For now, support is strong for both. And it’s never been more clear that these are two different orchestras that provide audiences with different experiences. Both are in a golden age, and neither is complacent. They know what it’s like to be on the brink and don’t plan to go there again.

The picks

Thursday at Bryant-Lake Bowl Theater: Danger Boat Productions: “The Unscripted Minnesota Holiday.” You and other members of the audience provide the details: the name of a fictional Minnesota town, its unique annual holiday celebration, which cast member gets to be the hero. Then a cast of crack improvisers – Lorna Landvik, Dane Stauffer, Max Beyer, Heather Meyer, Lizzie Gardner and a guest villain (Joy Dolo on Thursday) – improvise a story, with songs. Sound easy? You try it. 7 p.m. FMI and tickets ($15/$12 advance). Also Saturday, Dec. 10 (guest villain Brandon Boat) and Saturday, Dec. 17 (Maggie Sotos).

Courtesy of the artist
Karen Sherman’s “Soft Goods”

Thursday-Saturday at the Walker: Karen Sherman, “Soft Goods.” Minneapolis-based Sherman is an award-winning choreographer and dancer – and a stagehand at the Walker. In this Walker commission and world premiere, Sherman and an ensemble of 10 theater technicians and dancers explore and expose what happens behind the scenes at a dance performance – what the invisible people do, how they feel about it and how it affects them. 8 p.m. FMI and tickets ($22).

Friday at the Mall of America: “Clouds” Choir for a Cause. Written by Stillwater high school student Zach Sobiech, who died of cancer in May 2013, “Clouds” became an iTunes and internet hit; the video has been viewed nearly 13 million times. Zach’s dying wish was to help other kids with cancer, and on Friday, 5,000 people are expected at MOA to sing Zach’s song and raise funds for the annual KS95 for Kids Radiothon benefiting Children’s Cancer Research Fund and Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare. School choirs, church groups and families will gather in the Nordstrom Court for the largest-ever “Clouds” Choir for a Cause. Robots onsite will Skype in patients from Masonic Children’s Hospital who can’t be there in person. The radiothon starts at 6 a.m. Singers start checking in at 4 p.m. in the North Garden. Dollars raised reveal at 6:15. Carols and “Clouds” at 6:30.

Friday and Saturday at the Fitzgerald Theater: “Let It Ring: A Christmas Celebration with the Steeles.” It’s been seven long years since a Steeles Christmas concert. No one sings like J.D., Fred, Jearlyn, Jevetta and Billy, who can claim seven CDs (with an eighth on the way), several gold and platinum records, and recordings and performances with Prince, Morgan Freeman, George Clinton, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, “A Prairie Home Companion” and more. 7:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($22.50-55). Here’s the trailer.

Courtesy of the artist
The Steeles

Saturday at Open Book: 2016 Winter Book Publication Celebration. Each year, the Minnesota Center for Book Arts publishes a handmade, very limited-edition artist’s book of poetry and/or prose by a Minnesota author or editor. These small works of art make their way into private collections, museums and rare book library collections around the world. Past Winter Books have spotlighted Minnesota writers including Robert Bly, Louise Erdrich, Kevin Kling, Bill Holm and Judith Guest. This year it’s Heid Erdrich, whose “every-blest-thing-seeing-eye” explores the conversations between artists and viewers. A reading by the author will be followed by a book signing and reception with light refreshments. More winter books will be on display in the shop. 7 p.m. Free. FMI.

Saturday at the Black Dog: “Twin Cities Jazz Sampler Volume Two” CD release performance. One of the hardest-working jazz musicians in the Twin Cities (we say “one of” because we know several who work very, very hard), Steve Kenny is a man of his word. In 2014, he released “Twin Cities Jazz Sampler: Volume One,” and now he’s back with “Volume Two.” The 14 tracks, all produced locally within the past couple of years, include original music by Atlantis Quartet, JT Bates, Bryan Nichols, Adam Meckler Quintet, and Kenny’s own Illicit Sextet. Three bands from the album will perform at the Dog: The Illicit Sextet at 7 p.m., Cory Healey’s Beautiful Sunshine Band at 8:30 and Mississippi (with guitarist Andres Prado) at 10. Pick up some CDs for Christmas gifts.

Hot tix

This year’s Dec. 16-18 performances of Handel’s “Messiah” by the SPCO and the Minnesota Chorale, led by Paul McCreesh, are nearly sold out. Just added: an open rehearsal at the Basilica on Thursday, Dec. 15 at 7 p.m. For $10, you can see how it all comes together. It might be a full run-through, or it might not. It will definitely be a different way of experiencing this holiday classic. FMI and tickets.

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