In a reassuring return to the normalcy, or near-normalcy, that most of us crave, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra has announced a 2021-22 season that has what its audience has come to expect: a mix of classical and contemporary music in a variety of styles, with nearly all concerts led by musicians.
The SPCO is a conductorless ensemble. It hasn’t had a music director since 2003. Just one of the concerts announced (so far) for 2021-22 will be conducted.
“So far” because we don’t yet know the entire season. Along with performing in the Ordway Concert Hall, its downtown St. Paul home, the SPCO takes its music to the people, playing in a dozen neighborhood venues in the metro area. Because of COVID and safety concerns, all concerts through December will be at the Ordway. The neighborhood concerts will be announced later this fall and start in January.
To date, more than 70 concerts are on the 2021-22 calendar, with nearly 80 musical works spread out among 25 programs. When the neighborhood concerts are added, we’ll be looking at about 110 concerts, down from the 135-150 the SPCO usually presents but still a full season’s worth of live music.
The SPCO will even bring back three of its five artistic partners. All were furloughed in May 2020 in an early, doomed version of revising the 2020-21 schedule. Pianist Jeremy Denk, violinist Pekka Kuusisto and baroque music specialist Richard Egarr will return for shorter-than-usual stays.
The new season took shape differently from in previous years. The SPCO has an unusual structure. No conductor, no music director, but an artistic director, Kyu-Young Kim, who is also the orchestra’s principal violin, a rare management/musician crossover. Concert programs are planned by the Artistic Vision Committee (AVC), a small group of musicians who are elected for three-year terms and work collaboratively.
In early March 2020, the SPCO was about to announce its 2020-21 season. Then came COVID. The orchestra expanded the AVC to what it calls AVC Plus, inviting any musician who wanted to participate. Many did and Zoom made room. Ideas flowed.
“We took advantage of this time when musicians weren’t constantly in rehearsals and concerts to engage them in the programming process in a substantive way,” Kim said in conversation. “We would sometimes have as many as 15 musicians on a Zoom call, talking about ‘What are the pieces we want to focus on? What are the themes? What do we want to do to make the opening concert special? What components do we want to feature? Do we have enough representation of women composers and composers of color?’
“It has taken the idea of musician leadership and engagement to a new level. The musicians will have a new kind of ownership on stage because so many of them have been involved in the planning process. It’ll lead to better performances. That’s really what it’s all about, and why we have musicians leading concerts.
“We’re committed to continuing this even when it gets really busy. That’s one of our priorities for the next five years, to embed this into our values as an organization.”
Concerts will be shorter: 60-75 minutes, without intermission. Audiences will be limited to 50% at first, with the hope of returning to full capacity by January or sooner.
New this year: Musicians will introduce pieces from the stage. “Even if it’s very brief, it helps build that connection with the audience,” Kim said. “We want to break down this feeling of such a formal experience, where you have to sit there quietly with your program book.”
Absent this year: Handel’s “Messiah.” Kim said, “We didn’t feel we had the confidence to be able to do that this year. Though we certainly want to get back to it in the following season.” Bach’s “Brandenburg” concertos will be the only holiday programs.
We asked Kim to comment on some highlights of the season. He pointed to two soloists who will make their debuts with the SPCO, bassist Xavier Foley and South African cellist Abel Selaocoe. Kim is also excited about the return of Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear, who kicked off the SPCO’s pandemic-era series of livestreamed concerts in October 2020.
“One big highlight is the new arrangement of the ‘Goldberg Variations’ that our principal horn, James Ferree, has arranged for us,” Kim said. “There are existing string arrangements of the Goldbergs, but there isn’t one for our kind of unusual instrumentation. James created one with our players in mind so we could all be on stage together playing this amazing music. There’s a lot of creativity and whimsy and sometimes real soul.” (April 8-9, 2022.)
“We’re featuring our new principal oboe, Cassie Pilgrim, in some exciting ways. She’ll be playing a Barber Canzonetta, and she’s doing a lot of chamber music. The audience has already gotten to know her a little bit through our concert library, but for those who haven’t seen many of the videos, you’ll get a chance to experience one of the shining new leaders of the orchestra.” (Nov. 26-28.)
“Steve Copes is playing this interesting orchestration of Prokofiev’s First Violin Sonata, which he’s been playing for a long time. It’s Stephen Prutsman’s orchestration, but Steve has also had a lot of input into it.” (April 1-2, 2022.)
“Julie Albers will play Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto, a real tour-de-force for her.” (May 6-7, 2022.)
“Jeremy Denk is coming back to do a Mozart program, which we’re thrilled about. And Pekka [Kuusisto] will be back in May. Pekka has been such a champion of women composers. We’ll do a world premiere of a piece by Cindy Cox, a composer who teaches in Berkeley, California, that was written for the SPCO. And a symphony by Louise Farrenc, a French composer from the mid-19th century. She was head of the Paris Conservatory. Her Third Symphony is a great romantic symphony in the vein of Robert Schumann. It’s our first time playing it and we’re excited to do that with Pekka. He’ll also play [Ralph Vaughan Williams’] ‘The Lark Ascending.’” (May 20-22, 2022.)
“PaviElle is going to do another commission with us. Her music is so beautiful and full of meaning, and it’s rooted in this community. This will be her second piece for orchestra. There’s really great chemistry between her and the SPCO. And this time she’ll have her band playing with her.” (Jan. 21-22, 2022.)
Season ticket packages for Ordway concerts are available now on the web and by phone (651-291-1144). Concerts remain free for children and students, and you can still sign up for that incredible SPCO Concert Membership: Pay $9/month and see as many concerts as you like.
Tune in tomorrow (Thursday, June 17) at 7 p.m. for the rebroadcast of the SPCO’s digital season finale, “Celebrating Four Years of the Concert Library.” Broadcast live last Saturday from the stage of the Ordway Concert Hall, it features two SPCO commissions including a world premiere. Watch and listen online here for free.