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Minnesota Orchestra’s 2019-20 season: From André Watts to holiday jazz to lobby yoga with live music

André Watts
Courtesy of the Minnesota Orchestra
André Watts will perform at the 2019-20 season opener in September.

Just after announcing its Latin-themed Sommerfest, the Minnesota Orchestra has rolled out its 2019-20 season: nine months of classical concerts, guest soloists, guest conductors, movies with scores played live by the orchestra, family concerts, holiday concerts, chamber music concerts, Sam and Sarah concerts (a reboot of Inside the Classics), sensory-friendly concerts and more. The yoga classes with live music will return to the lobby, and a new program will start in the hall: Music and Mindfulness, with guided meditations. Common Chords, the orchestra’s annual residency, will go to Austin, Minnesota.

There will be music at Orchestra Hall virtually every week – sometimes several times a week – from the season opener on Sept. 19 with the always elegant André Watts through the season finale on June 13, 2020, the warm-up for the orchestra’s next recording.

Classical music fans can look forward to 23 weeks of classical programming, including more than 20 works new to the orchestra’s repertoire, most written by 21st-century composers. Of special note: the U.S. premiere of Australian composer Brett Dean’s new Cello Concerto, a Minnesota Orchestra co-commission, performed by cellist Alban Gerhardt; two recently composed works by Composer Institute alums Anna Clyne and Polina Nazaykinskaya; and Michael Daugherty’s “Tales of Hemingway,” featuring principal cello Anthony Ross.

Gilmore Award-winning, Russian-born pianist Kirill Gerstein will begin a Rachmaninoff project that will span two seasons, appearing in March and again in May. The orchestra will take a break from recording for the Doomtree label to continue its Mahler series on BIS, performing the Third Symphony with the Minnesota Chorale and the Minnesota Boychoir in June. Classical masterworks, many by Russian and British composers, will go cheek-to-cheek with contemporary works, many by women.


The holidays will bring the joyful sounds of jazz, with the return of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis (last heard here in 2017) and Minnesota Orchestra trumpeter Charles Lazarus’ popular “Merry and Bright” concert. Earlier, in November, associate conductor Akiko Fujimoto will lead the orchestra and a rhythm section in a Sunday afternoon of jazz standards by Fats Waller, Hoagy Carmichael, George Gershwin and other composers. Later, in February, Sarah Hicks will conduct the orchestra, Broadway vocalist Capathia Jenkins and jazz vocalist-pianist Tony DeSare in a night of music re-creating the friendship between Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald.

After five years, the Jazz in the Target Atrium series will not return. The final concert in the 2018-19 season will take place Friday, April 12, with a solo performance by the brilliant pianist Myra Melford. Hats off to artistic director and curator Jeremy Walker for a worthy run.

This season’s movies will be “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back” (aka “Star Wars: Episode 5”), “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” Disney’s “Up” and, in December, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” (“Star Wars: A New Hope” in January was a blast.) In a follow-up to their sold-out concert in April 2018, Cloud Cult will return for two nights with the orchestra. Two Sam and Sarah concerts, hosted by violist Sam Bergman and conductor Sarah Hicks, will include “Music in the Mind,” an exploration of how music engages our brains. Two “Symphony in 60” concerts will feature classical favorites, happy hour specials and post-concert receptions with Minnesota Orchestra musicians.

Along with Watts, Gerhardt and Gerstein, this season’s 21 guest soloists will include organist Cameron Carpenter (playing Northrop’s restored Aeolian-Skinner), violinists Leila Josefowicz and Christian Tetzlaff, alto saxophonist and BBC Young Artist Jess Gillam, trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth, and percussionist Martin Grubinger, who will move from instrument to instrument across the stage during Finnish composer Kalevi Aho’s Percussion Concerto. Orchestra musicians in the spotlight will include Ross, concertmaster Erin Keefe, Susie Park, Silver Ainomäe and principal bassoon Fei Xie.

Karina Canellakis will conduct the Minnesota Orchestra in February 2020.
Photo by Mathias Bothor
Karina Canellakis will conduct the Minnesota Orchestra in February 2020.
There’s something for everyone, from casual listeners to yogis to hard-core orchestra fans. Those of you in the latter category will want to pay close attention to the oncoming parade of guest conductors. The 2019-20 season will feature 14 – seven returning, seven making their debuts. (Fujimoto is among the debuts; she’ll conduct her first subscription concert.) These are essentially the same numbers as last season, and the season before, but with a different sort of urgency. In December, the orchestra announced that longtime music director Osmo Vänskä will step down at the close of the 2021-22 season. So some of those conductor appearances will likely be tryouts for Vänskä’s job.

We’re cheered to see three women on the list (along with Fujimoto): Nathalie Stutzmann, chief conductor of Norway’s Kristiansand Symphony; Karina Canellakis, chief conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra; and Simone Young, a Sydney-born Wagner and Strauss specialist whose last posts were as artistic director of the Hamburg State Opera and music director of the Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra.

Find the complete 2019-20 schedule on the orchestra’s website. Packages are available to renewing subscribers now and new subscribers on April 15. Individual tickets go on sale to the general public on Aug. 2.

Meanwhile, there’s lots still ahead in 2018-19, including concerts tomorrow evening (Wednesday, April 3) and Thursday morning with the singular pianist Stephen Hough as soloist. FMI and tickets ($31-102).

Minnesota Opera’s new commission connects with Hmong-American community

The Minnesota Opera on Monday announced the next new opera in its New Works Initiative, and the whole thing feels like a group hug. Commissioned for Project Opera, its training program for students in grades 4-12 (their most recent productions were “Brundibar” and “The Gondoliers” in February), “The Song Poet” will be based on the award-winning book by Kao Kalia Yang, with music by Nkeiru Okoye and a libretto by Okoye and Katie Ka Vang. Rick Shiomi will be the stage director.


Yang is a St. Paul-based Hmong-American writer; “The Song Poet” is her second book, after “Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir.” Both won Minnesota Book Awards; both were finalists for PEN USA awards and other prizes. “The Song Poet” is the author’s father, Bee Yang, a Hmong refugee in Minnesota who sings the life of his people through his poetry. The opera will focus on a daughter learning who her father is and their experiences in Minnesota. Yang said in a statement, “To see ‘The Song Poet’ as a youth opera is something I didn’t know how to dream of – the Hmong story had never been translated onto the opera stage.”

Okoye is a native New Yorker of African-American and Nigerian descent who writes operas, theatrical works and symphonic works. Her first opera was “Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed That Line to Freedom.” Her influences include Gilbert & Sullivan, the Gershwins, Sondheim, Copland, gospel, jazz and Schoenberg. Vang is a St. Paul-based Hmong-American performance artist, playwright, poet and mover. She has performed for Pangea World Theater, Theatre Mu, Pillsbury House Theatre, the Ordway, the Walker and the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent, among others.

Shiomi is an award-winning Japanese Canadian playwright, stage director, and taiko artist, co-founder and former artistic director of Theater Mu and current co-artistic director of Full Circle Theater Company (whose production of Christopher Chen’s “Caught” opens at the Dowling on May 17, directed by Shiomi).

Katie Ka Vang is co-librettist of ’”The Song Poet.”
Courtesy of the Minnesota Opera
Katie Ka Vang is co-librettist of ’”The Song Poet.”
“The Song Poet” will have its world premiere in May 2021 at the Lab Theater, which the Minnesota Opera recently bought.

While producing the new commission, Minnesota Opera will use a Civic Practice Grant from OPERA America’s Opera Fund to develop a civic practice with the local Hmong-American community. The grant will support a series of conversations.

We’re thinking back to 2016, when Ryan Taylor arrived in Minnesota as the opera’s new president and general director. He came from the Arizona Opera, where he launched an initiative called Arizona Bold to present work outside the canon but relevant to local communities. The company mounted two Spanish-language works. It commissioned an adaptation of Zane Grey’s “Riders of the Purple Sage” and micro-operas by American Indian composers.

This feels like that.

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