The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra today announced its fall 2020 concert schedule – for the third time.
In mid-May, the SPCO announced a full season’s worth of concerts in its usual multiple venues across the Twin Cities. Pre-COVID, this would have included appearances by the SPCO’s internationally known artistic partners, plus guest artists and conductors. With travel at a standstill and the future uncertain, the orchestra tightened its belt. The artistic partners were furloughed. There would be no guest artists or conductors.
In early August, with the end of COVID nowhere in sight, the orchestra canceled all concerts through December 2020, wiping out 42 live performances of a dozen programs including Handel’s “Messiah” for the holidays.
Just three weeks later, the SPCO has announced a series of six live concert video streams to be broadcast in October and November from the Ordway Concert Hall. For safety reasons, there won’t be an audience, and the number of musicians on stage will be limited.
The six concerts won’t be repackaged versions of programs originally planned for fall 2020. All of the content will be new. Along with music from the classical canon, most concerts will feature works by living composers. Four will include world premieres of newly created SPCO commissions.
Four encore broadcasts of previous concerts will round out the fall.
“Safety is paramount,” SPCO Artistic Director and Principal Violin Kyu-Young Kim said on Tuesday. “Along with that, the most important thing for us is to share our music with the community.”
The SPCO is better prepared than most orchestras to do this. The Concert Hall is equipped with state-of-the-art, multi-camera HD video and digital recording equipment. The SPCO has filmed several live concerts for its free online concert library, something most orchestras don’t have. MPR does the audio recording, so both video and sound are high-quality.
“We always felt like video and digital media were extremely important,” Kim said. “We were ahead of the curve in thinking this could be part of our mission to share the music more widely. During COVID, everyone’s making things free because we’re in crisis. But for us, it’s not a change. We always wanted to make our music free and accessible.
“We’ve had our best year ever with the concert library. In March and April, we saw an eightfold increase. We’ve seen it jump up dramatically.”
All of the fall concerts will be streamed through the concert library. If you’re an SPCO fan, or curious about the SPCO, or want something special to do as winter tightens its grip, you now have 10 concerts you can add to your calendar. All will be broadcast on Saturday nights at 8 p.m. and again on Sunday afternoons at 2 p.m.
We wanted to know more about how the SPCO came up with a completely different fall 2020 from what it originally planned. This conversation has been edited and condensed.
MinnPost: How did you choose the music for the new concerts?
Kyu-Young Kim: Usually, the programming is done by our artistic vision committee, or AVC. It’s me and [SPCO Managing Director and President] Jon Limbacher and three musicians. It takes about eight or nine months to finalize programming for the season.
Since COVID started, we’ve been using Zoom and Microsoft Teams technology. The musicians are home and have more time for meetings. We decided to form what we call AVC Plus, and we invited any orchestra members to join. The programming we announced in May was a group effort by 14 musicians, more than half the orchestra.
At the end of June, we gathered the group again. So much had happened. George Floyd’s murder, and all the protests about systemic racism, were front of mind, even more than the pandemic. We really wanted to highlight Black composers, composers of color and underrepresented voices in classical music.
Everyone was doing a ton of listening. Between meetings, the musicians were listening to hours and hours of music, researching online and talking to their friends.
I think musicians everywhere have been doing that. Minnesota Orchestra did it for their concerts on Peavey Plaza.
MP: What made you decide to commission new work?
KYK: We set the parameters for safety very carefully. We only wanted one, maybe two wind players per group. How would we include trumpet? What about flute? We decided it was too risky to have flute with any other players. That would have to be a solo piece. Then we had the idea to commission all short solo pieces.
The idea of having someone write something now, at this moment, seemed really important. We came up with a really interesting list of composers that we reached out to. Three are Black composers.
Tyson Davis is a young composer at Juilliard who’s been writing solo pieces for orchestral instruments. He agreed to write a solo piece for our trumpet player, Lynn Erickson. They had a fascinating back-and-forth, talking about what’s possible on the instrument.
Adolphus Hailstork has written lots of great music for flute, and our flutist, Alicia McQuerrey, has been a champion of his music for a long time. When we were able to commission a solo piece specifically for her, she was over the moon.
We worked with Ambrose Akinmusire through Liquid Music [a program curated by Kate Nordstrum that was formerly part of the SPCO]. Zach Cohen, our bass player, was at the Manhattan School with him for a little while. In his research, he was really taken with Ambrose’s recent albums, and Ambrose has a love of string playing. He and Zach have been working together to come up with his piece.
The last commission is by Chinese American composer Chen Yi. She was composer-in-residence with the SPCO in 2009. Chen Yi was born in Guangzhou, China. She’s writing a new piece for our principal oboe, Cassie Pilgrim, whose mother was born in Guangzhou.
MP: The new concerts include works by several more Black composers. After George Floyd’s death, the SPCO issued a statement that said, in part, “We must do better. We can and must change our corner of the world.”
KYK: The sense of urgency we all feel now is different than it ever has been. Which I think is a great thing. It’s not that after doing these concerts we’re going to say “OK, now we can go back to how we used to do it.” We absolutely cannot go back.
It’s hard to have representation on stage when you’re not actually on stage. That’s a factor of when we can get back to playing more concerts with more people. [Black pianist and composer] Stewart Goodyear is our only guest artist this fall. When we start having more guest artists and substitute musicians, we’re definitely looking to have that representation on stage as well.
MP: And members of the orchestra.
KYK: And members of the orchestra, of course. We’re excited to do that work. This has been a moment of really coming together to talk about these things. We’re trying to honor our statement by what we’re doing in the fall.